Monday, May 29, 2017

Interview: Hayley Marsten

In Australian country music, artists can emerge at any age, from sixteen to sixty and beyond. Queensland artist Hayley Marsten happens to be young, but one spin of her second EP, Lonestar, will prove that she has a voice of great depth and wisdom, and songwriting skill that suggests she has been at this gig a while. Ahead of Lonestar's release on 9 June, I had the pleasure of talking to Hayley, who will launch the EP in Gladstone, Queensland on 10 June and Brisbane on 14 June. Details on her website.

What – or who – did you grow up listening to?
I had a really eclectic musical upbringing. My parents listened to a lot of really weird stuff. My dad played Johnny Cash on and off but he would play '80s music – we would listen to Ace of Base – and Mum liked Robbie Williams, so we would play Robbie Williams all the time. I love Robbie as well. So it was really from one extreme to the next. Then when I was in high school I was into emo pop sort of stuff and it wasn’t until I was fifteen that I actually found Taylor Swift and got into country music. So it’s a very large musical upbringing, I think.

Pop is a great grounding, because it’s so much about entertaining your audience, as is country music, and solid song structure is also important in pop. But I’m interested that you came to country via Taylor Swift, because while Taylor comes from Nashville and is obviously knowledgeable about country music, your sound has some more traditional elements than hers. Once you started exploring country music, which artists started to appeal to you?
After I got into it I found Loretta Lynn and I was, like, ‘This is the one.’ So I listened to Loretta a lot. I just like a lot of strong women in country. I really liked Miranda Lambert when I first started listening to country, and I still do. And now I’ve gravitated more into the singer-songwriters like Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves. I’ve always thought that lyrics are very important. I really care about the lyrics, so I think that songs that have real meaning and you can really tell that those people have lived that story, or they’re really good at making you think they have – any song like that is something I love to hear.

That point you make about those artists making you think they’ve lived that story – that requires a lot of energy and effort as well. To take on someone else’s story, you’ve still got to inhabit them.
I think it’s easier for me to sing songs that I’ve written because when you get up, it’s not acting but you still have to sell the song to people and it’s a lot easier when you’ve felt that way and you’ve been through that. And a lot of times country music fans, I think, are really in tune with that, and they’re not dumb – they’ll know that you’re being inauthentic if you’re not singing what’s really in your heart. That’s what’s really special about country music.

I completely agree. This is your second EP coming up – when you recorded your first EP, were there particular influences over the writing or the musical style that were perhaps different to those for your second EP?
When I wrote Even I was mostly a teenager for that time and I wrote all by myself for all of the five songs. I think I was a little … not immature, but kind of. I hadn’t really done a lot of living and I had lived a sheltered kind of little life. And I was still finding my way with what I wanted to sound like and what I wanted to say. With this EP I feel so confident and I just know that this is who I want to be and what I want to say and how I want to sound, and everything is exactly how I want it to be. I’ve had a lot of time to grow. I’ve lived out of home – I’m from Gladstone in central Queensland originally but I have just finished a university degree, so I lived out of home in Brisbane for three and a half years. I’d never been away from my mum before – I’m an only child. So I had a general university experience, which I think is pretty well summed up in the first single. Lonestar really feels like the start of something special to me. I’m so proud of it, I can’t wait for people to hear it. It feels like I’ve been working on it for a million years and I can’t wait for it to be out.

When did you start writing it and when did the recording happen?
I started writing for it a month after the last EP came out and I knew that it was going to be called Lonestar after I wrote the title track, and everything else fell around that. Then we recorded it in December last year, with Matt Fell, and it was great.

I imagine once you’ve got those songs in the can you would be keen to get them out. So have you had to learn patience with that part of the process?
Yes. Once I came back and they were all done, I thought, This sounds so good. I just want people to know that I’m good [laughs]. I just kept thinking, If we do it properly and we wait, it will make a bigger splash and I want as many people as possible to hear this music, so if I have to wait six months for it to come out and be done right then it’s okay. I’d rather do it right than do it fast.

A good policy. There are several different moods on this EP but I did detect on some of the songs an almost jaunty tone – it sounded to me like you were upbeat going into the studio. Was that how you were feeling?
When we first got to Sydney I was kind of freaking out a bit because we hadn’t picked the songs. I had a pool of them and Matt hadn’t said, ‘Yep, these are definitely the ones’. So I was a bit anxious at first but once we got in the studio … The guys who played on this record are amazing. Once it started happening, how could you not be overjoyed? I had some of the greatest players in Australia on this record and Matt is amazing, so by the time we came around to recording the vocals the songs already sounded so happy – I was very, very excited to be finally recording this music.

Is it weird to hand over the song selection to someone else when all those songs are quite close to you, or do you actually find it a relief that someone else does that part of it?
It was kind of scary because when I had started writing this EP and I’d got most of the songs together, I was really proud of them and I knew that they were really good. I felt like it was my baby and I thought, I don’t want to take this to the wrong person – it has to be the perfect person to make this right. So it was a bit scary at that point but once I picked Matt it all fell into place and it wasn’t scary because I knew he was going to do a great job. I trusted him enough to know that it wasn’t going to be like a scary thing, a daunting thing, to hand these songs over to him because I knew that he was just absolutely going to kill it – and he did.

You mentioned people who played on the record – I don’t have any information about who played on it, so if you could run me through that …
Glen Hannah played guitars and Shane Nicholson played many guitars, mandolins … Did he play banjo? No, I don’t think so. Josh Schuberth played drums and Matt played pretty much every instrument you could think of that is on there. And I just sang – ‘I’m going to leave it to the professionals. They can play everything better than I can.’ [Laughs] It was pretty amazing to be in a studio with those guys.

Especially because Shane and Glen are producers themselves – I would think it adds an interesting aspect to their performances on other people’s records. In this country there’s a good, solid pool of really professional producers and musicians like Matt, Shane and Glen, and the fact that you can have them playing on your record with that producer’s ear, it’s great.
Yes, and to have them say, ‘This is a really great song – I really like this line’ or whatever. Obviously any time anyone says something complimentary about my music I really appreciate it, but from those guys, who play on hundreds of records every year, they know their shit so [I thought], This is gonna be good. They didn’t have to say anything, they’re getting paid to be there, so for them to actually say, ‘I really like this song’ or ‘This song’s really special’, that’s a huge compliment to me.

You said you wrote the first EP on your own, but on this EP you had some co-writers, and some very good ones. You wrote one song with Lyn Bowtell and I’m wondering how that relationship came about.
Lyn and I had known each other a little bit because I was at the Academy of Country Music last year, and then I went to the Dag Songwriting Retreat last year in July, and we got paired up. I knew I wanted to finish this particular song and I just was praying that Lyn Bowtell was going to pick my name out of the hat, and she did. Because it was such a personal song, I really wanted it to be someone I already had a relationship with, and I don’t think I could have gotten anybody better than Lyn to write this song with. Now she’s my vocal coach and we catch up all the time, but she’s more like my life coach sometimes. I say, ‘Lyn, what do I do?’ and she says, ‘Honey, listen – this, this, this. You’ve got this – don’t freak out.’

What an extraordinary person to have as your vocal coach, because she’s such a great singer. But when you were finding your singing voice, sometimes you have to move around a bit to find the right tone – did it take you a while to find your singing voice? Because it’s a very strong, confident sound.
I think the voice that you hear on this EP did not come about when I first started singing. I don’t know if I was just an arrogant child or what, but I always knew that I could sing and that I was a good singer [laughs]. Only-child syndrome or something. I always knew I could sing but I never did anything about it. But in high school I did a lot of musical theatre and stage musicals, so I think I just slowly, over time, found what my voice is, and I think I’m still finding what it can do. I was in choirs and stuff and they’d say, ‘You can’t sing high’ – ‘Okay, obviously I can’t do that.’ Meeting Lyn has been a big turning point to bring out the voice I’ve got on the EP because she said, ‘Of course you can do that – you’ve got a voice in there that you’re just too afraid to use. You don’t know how to use it properly.’ Everything seems like a big change on this EP because I finally know what my voice can do and how I can write and that sort of thing, so it’s a big step forward.

And it’s such an intriguing notion, to have a voice in there that you’re almost too afraid to bring out. Like something’s trapped deep inside. But it would also be quite scary to confront that idea, first of all, and then to do the work to bring it out.
Yes – I think it was because I had been told that I couldn’t do it and then I thought okay, obviously I can’t, and then I never tried, because I thought, If I try to sing this really high note I’ll stuff it up. So I think it’s a confidence thing, and Lonestar, the whole EP, is about regaining your confidence and regaining your inner strength. So to be going on that separate journey to find out how to sing again is a funny sort of partnership, I suppose.

You mentioned finding your confidence, and in the title song there’s the line, ‘You said I’d never make it to the top/Girls like me they always stop’, and it sounds like someone said that to you at some stage. The girl you were at the time that was said to you – how is she different to the girl you are now?
I’ve spent a lot of time in my home town recently and I was thinking about when I was in high school and when I first moved away, I was really unsure of myself and unsure of what my future would be like. I didn’t know how to make what I wanted to happen happen. And I had a lot of time around me at the time – well, one particular person at the time, I suppose – who wasn’t really supportive and just was really an energy suck on my whole personality and life, and just moving past that and not letting dull your sparkle, and not letting people come and say, ‘You can’t do that’. You don’t know me – I can do whatever I want. I think I just have a bit more confidence in myself and that I could do this and I am capable. Just claiming back my own self-confidence.

It can be so much easier for other people to say, ‘You can’t do that’, than to try themselves.
I think also a lot of people have tall poppy syndrome, and if you’re doing well, instead of trying to help you do better they want to say, ‘She’s only getting this because of this, that and the other’, and maybe at the time, when Even came out, I might have believed people who said that to me because I didn’t really know myself if I could do it, and now I think this new era of me, I don’t really want to let anybody talk to me like that, and I certainly won’t believe them if they do anyway.

Therefore you are in an excellent position at quite a young stage in life, because it can take people decades to get to that point.
Well, thank you, yes – it feels a lot better to be surrounded by people who are trying to push you up instead of bring you down.          

I’m just thinking about those songs that you took to the studio that didn’t make it onto the EP – are they tucked away for future use or are they gone?
They might be for future use. I write all the time, so I have a giant pool of songs for every time I want to record – well, only two times, really. I’m not going to say I’ll never record them – I’m hoping that I might just out-write myself and there will be songs that are so much better than those that they won’t make it on to there but we’ll see what happens. There are some songs that I think, I’m still going to play live, just because they are really fun, so if people really like them they will get recorded, because you’ve got to give the people what they want [laughs].

Well, that’s right – a very good principle of entertainment. And another of your co-writers was Aleyce Simmonds. After doing some co-writing on this EP, do you prefer it or do you prefer the balance of some on your own and some with others?
I like the balance, I think. Aleyce and I wrote ‘Cash’ together, Lyn and I wrote ‘Coming Home’, and Allan Caswell and I wrote ‘Second Fiddle’. Aleyce was the first co-write I’ve ever done and I was really nervous, because when I’m writing songs it’s just a weird process for everyone, I think, and sometimes to share it with other people can get a bit daunting. She was lovely and we had a great time together and wrote a really great song, so I’m really glad that she was my first co-write and it wasn’t some terrible train wreck [laughs]. I really like having the balance, and also sometimes I think when you have a really tough song that you know it’s good, it’s really nice to be with somebody else who has a really fresh mindset. I’ve tried to write songs before that I know are good but my brain just … you know you’re hitting a brick wall, and I think it’s really special because music is one of the few artistic platforms that you can collaborate on, and there’s something really special about sharing stuff with other people and having them understand you, and building friendships from that is really cool.

You have a couple of shows coming up but are you looking to tour – looking ahead to Tamworth?
I am in the middle of planning a little house concert tour. We’re still taking applications, just to spread out a bit more. But I’m going on the road with my friend Ana Georgia – she’s just about to release her first EP. I’m just trying to get through the craziness of the launch shows in Gladstone and Brisbane, because they’ve been taking up a lot of my time lately, so hopefully as soon as they’re over – and hopefully they’ll be a huge success as well – we’ll be able to organise that tour and get out and meet a heap of people and share this music with everyone.

Find Lonestar on  
hayleymarsten.com

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