Jezabels are not afraid of pop

FAMOUS IN AUSTRALIA: The Jezabels, from left, Sam Lockwood, Hayley Mary, Nik Kaloper and Heather Shannon.
FAMOUS IN AUSTRALIA: The Jezabels, from left, Sam Lockwood, Hayley Mary, Nik Kaloper and Heather Shannon.

Some people say that when they were very young they wanted to become a pop star. Hayley Mary, 27, lead singer of hit Australian band The Jezabels, can back it up.

"My mum told me the other day, which is quite funny, that she found a business card that I had drawn when I was just 6. It was one business card and it had a picture of a girl on it – that was meant to be me – and it said "Hayley, singer" and my home phone number. So, yes, I always wanted to be a singer."

The Jezabels are one of the most popular indie pop bands in Australia since the release of their self-financed debut album, Prisoner, in 2011. That album got as high as No 2 in their homeland. Their second, The Brink, released in January, also got to No 2.

Prisoner won the Australian Music Prize, beating out contenders including chart topper Gotye. Mary and band mates Heather Shannon, Sam Lockwood and Nik Kaloper went from playing to 150 people on the back of three EPs in 2009 and 2010, to selling out the 1200-capacity The Forum in Sydney four nights in a row, to playing 5500-seat venues and, as recently as last month, the Sydney Opera House.

Mary, whose non-pun real surname is McGlone, appreciates the irony of playing the small Bodega venue in Wellington tonight. But the band, who played Auckland's St Jerome's Laneway Festival in February, still have a low profile here.

"We have had time to come to New Zealand quite a few times, but somehow things just got in the way. It was quite annoying," says Mary.

Starting outside Auckland with a small venue is also not that unusual. "It depends on where we are. Say, like Europe or the States, you might have somewhere where you are playing a big show and then the next day you are playing a tiny show.

"It's part of the skill [of being a band] – going from big stage to little stage pretty quickly. I found it difficult at first, but now I find it more difficult to go from a little stage to a big stage. I like intimate shows."

Mary and Shannon, a classically trained keyboardist, grew up in Byron Bay, north of Sydney, and have known each other since childhood. They even faced off against each in a primary school talent contest. Shannon's performance of Beethoven's Fur Elise won over Mary's interpretative dance set to The Sweet's Fox on the Run.

They later formed an acoustic duo and while studying at Sydney University met guitarist Lockwood and drummer and heavy metal fan Kaloper.

As a singer, Mary's influences are largely pop. Kate Bush is the obvious one. So is a nod to Chrissie Hynde. But "Roy Orbison is the main one for me, not that you'd ever notice that. We have a different of timbre of voice. I really love 50s males [singing] epic ballads, and Queen and Abba."

That pop passion was married to the indie leanings of her bandmates, meaning their EPs and debut appealed not only to indie fans and hipsters, but to a broader audience.

The success of Prisoner meant record company support for The Brink, recorded in London. The producer was Dan Grech, who had worked with Lana Del Rey, Moby, Keane and The Scissors Sisters.

The album has a lusher sound and in places is unashamedly poppy, including the song Look of Love. It has been as popular as Prisoner, but with predictable grumpiness from some who bought their debut saying the band's gone for wide appeal over creativity.

"Someone once said to me that indie bands are just bands that are afraid to be what they are," says Mary. "Now we are a pop band who used to be afraid of being a pop band."

Mary says the sound of The Brink is The Jezabels still taking risks, only this time with a bigger, pop-leaning sound. But some people have been reactionary, she says. "Suddenly they're saying 'it's not as good as Prisoner'.

"I may be wrong but I think The Brink is a bit of a grower. People, once they are over the shock value of it being polished and poppy, might approach it [differently]."

Besides, The Jezabels have other things on their mind. There are dates in the United States and Europe to plan. The band is also still basking in the glow of performing at the Sydney Opera House.

The venue gave permission for Shannon to perform on its organ before the band's own set. Mary says the Opera House rarely lets anyone touch the organ. "The thing was, we asked in advance." Shannon had to meet the organ master and was inducted into the organ process. "Other bands two days before they play just ask 'can we play the organ?' So we're lucky enough to think ahead."


The Jezabels play Wellington's Bodega tonight.

The Dominion Post