It’s only been a few short years since The Jezabels broke out of Sydney University and onto the biggest stages in the country, but plenty has changed along the way.
Up first was their debut EP, The Man Is Dead, in 2009; after it came two more short collections and a full-length album, 2011’s Prisoner. By then, the four-piece was already accelerating to the top of the Australian music pile: not only had they sold out an enormous hometown show at the Hordern Pavilion (weeks before it, guitarist Sam Lockwood confessed to me it was too big, too intimidating to allow himself to think about), they were also receiving considerable industry attention in the fickle UK market.
Even at that point, though, there was something slightly off-kilter about The Jezabels. Hayley Mary’s tomboy-cut hair and dark, tortured demeanour was a little too challenging to be considered ‘pop’. The rhythm-and-melody storm concocted by Lockwood, keyboardist Heather Shannon and drummer Nik Kaloper was a little too aggressive for the singles charts. After a year abroad, The Jezabels have now returned with a second LP, The Brink, and this time it feels like the pop music marketplace might be ready for them. Or perhaps it’s just that bands like The Jezabels are – at last – comfortable making pop music again.
“[Pop] is not a dirty word anymore,” says Lockwood, speaking back home in Sydney. “I think it’s a very popular thing. In the way that hip hop’s pop now, [or] electro – it’s also frustrating, but I don’t think you can get away with being a rock star-ish rock band anymore, like Jet or something like that”.
“It’s confusing for us because we’ve always been a band with two sides to us – there is that more alternate, introspective album content on our albums, and there’s also the big pop songs as well. It’s actually quite hard for us, because bands maybe misunderstand who we are because we are quite diverse with what we do, but I have no problem [with it]. Just being a songwriter, I think pop music is the most challenging kind of music to write, really, because you’re working with small tools and you have to build something really big … not small tools, but well-used tools, and do something unique and interesting. We really love the challenge.”
The evidence is all over the foursome’s new album, recorded during eight months in London with producer Dan Grech-Marguerat. There’s lead single ‘The End’, characterised by a typically moody Hayley Mary lyric, yet introduced with the most uplifting eight bars of guitar, drums and keys in The Jezabels’ entire catalogue. Or ‘Look Of Love’, driven by disco-worthy synth loops and strings. In many parts, it’s the influence of Grech-Marguerat, who’s worked in the past with Moby, Scissor Sisters and Lana Del Rey. Here comes that pop again.
“There’s a conceptual arc to the album where it starts really dark and ends up really nice,” explains Lockwood. “Musically, I think it’s not as dark as Prisoner, but lyrically, I think Hayley – she went some dark places. [There is] some tension at the start but then it resolves at the end. It makes you walk away happier than you started.”
Living and working in the south of England exposed the band to a range of new music, in and out of the pop sphere – not that they ever planned to uproot completely. “It was sort of always temporary in London,” says the Byron Bay-raised Lockwood. “I could never really see myself living there because it’s quite a tough place to live, being a country boy, but it was a really good year … I think the biggest thing about London that makes it different is it has such a great Caribbean influence, which is I think the biggest discernible difference between, say, a Sydney scene and London. It started with ska and now it’s turned into grime and dubstep and dancehall – it’s a very particular sound to London.”
“It’s just nice to be immersed in a different sort of culture, to feel like there’s a bigger world out there. It gives you that impetus to really challenge yourself and to try different things … it’s not like we’re suddenly making dancehall; it’s more that when you’re in an area that’s not your normal environment, it makes you really value-add a little bit. So we certainly had a bit of that with this [album] and it was cool. You can hear we’ve grown a bit.”
Much of that growth, says Lockwood, is down to the fact The Jezabels entered the studio having prepared their songs in advance. “With Prisoner, we’re so proud and happy with that album, it sounds so beautiful and everything, but it was really difficult to play those songs live. We struggled so much. And with this album, we intentionally wanted to already be able to play them, so we had to work a lot harder before we went into the studio. It also meant being in the studio was a lot easier because we knew what we were doing.”
So the ‘difficult second album’ clichО doesn’t quite apply? “Well, it kind of does, but when we were starting out we didn’t jump into an album straight away. I think Prisoner was our difficult second album, in a way. If you look at our songs, we did 15 songs on the EPs and then another 13 on the first album, and then this is sort of our third album. So we didn’t have those second album blues, I don’t think.”
Having recently supported the likes of Depeche Mode and Pixies to audiences 15,000- and 20,000-strong, The Jezabels’ homecoming tour on the Laneway Festival bill isn’t quite so intimidating to Lockwood as the Hordern date that followed Prisoner. “The Hordern show for us was massive because it was the sharp point of a big year of building to that, so it was kind of a pressurised context. I think Laneway will be similar to that, but we’ve also had such good experience now, especially with the Depeche Mode and Pixies tours – it’s different. You can be more nervous; like, before we played on the Depeche Mode tour we played to eight of our friends in a rehearsal studio and I was way more nervous for that than I was before we played in front of 10 or 15,000 people in Belfast the next night. It just shows you that it’s not necessarily the numbers, it’s something else entirely.”
The Jezabels play at Laneway Festival 2014 with Haim, Savages, Frightened Rabbit, Lorde and more at Sydney College of the Arts, Rozelle on Sunday February 2. The Brink out Friday January 31 through MGM