The Mercury Brothers had just played a set at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, and the audience was clamoring for more. It was still a few minutes ’til midnight that hot summer evening, but the sound guy brought up the lights and house music instead. In the crowd, inspiration struck singer-songwriter Avery Mandeville. The line “If the people want an encore then the people get an encore” popped into her head, and the next day she was in the studio recording a wistful acoustic version of it that would appear on her her 2018 LP Happy Birthday Avery Jane. In its verses, she wishes for summer tours over icy streets, running late for a gig because she tried to do her hair “in that perfect in between of I care and I don’t care.” She sounds sort of exhausted (or at least flustered) by the reality of being a musician. “I got new stuff coming out soon/Yeah, I got new stuff I’m trying to say/And all this truth I’m writing will never see the light of day.”
“Encore” might’ve been written off the cuff back then, in those heady days when we all took live music for granted. But in the hellscape that is 2020, it’s sort of soul-shattering to hear, particularly in the doo-woppy live version Mandeville released the following year, recorded at the Asbury Park Music Foundation. Her voice warbles “I never wrote a setlist” unapologetically, and when she casually deadpans “Can I get a na na na? Can I get a hey hey hey?” the audience answers back enthusiastically, like a miracle, like a distant memory. “And the crowd goes wiiiiiiiild!” she teases, and they do.
Mandeville is re-releasing the live version of “Encore” as part of a compilation that includes songs from Happy Birthday and the EP that preceded it, Salty. The comp, out September 18, will be her first release on esteemed New Jersey imprint Bar/None Records, and her first as Little Hag, a new moniker that encompasses the full-band sound she’s embraced since coming up as a teenager at open mic nights in the tight-knit Jersey Shore music scene. The name started out as a jokey Instagram handle but it stuck, partially because it made sense given the confrontational nature of her writing style. “I started getting Little Hagged in the street – people would be like, oh, you’re little hag! And I’d be like, yeah, you know what, I am. Once other people started identifying me with it, I was like, this is more representative of the music and my songwriting persona than just my name is, and I enjoy having a little bit of a separation of those two identities as well,” she says. “It was time to kill Avery and just be the hag.”
After signing Mandeville in February, Bar/None founder Glenn Morrow came up with a name for the comp that was just too good not to go with: Whatever Happened To Avery Jane? The project acts as a way to preserve Mandeville’s body of work while serving as a launchpad for the punkier energy of collaborative work with her band, which includes Matt Fernicola on guitar, Owen Flanagan on drums, Chris Dubrow on bass and Noah Rauchwerk on keys. Though the songs were written over the span of the last several years, the theme tying them together is the diaristic nature of Mandeville candidly navigating what it is to be a young woman in a sometimes claustrophobicly small music scene, as well as the nuances of dating, relationships, and intimacy in the modern age, from Facebook stalking an ex to the shock of receiving dick pics to celebrating the proverbial walk of shame. Some of the songs take a lighthearted approach, while others, like “The Woods,” broach allegorical territory, a la Sam the Sham’s “Little Red Riding Hood.” And sometimes, Mandeville comes right out and confronts the heart of darkness, as she does on a track called “Predator” – “So everyone knows and nobody cares/And you know who you are/There is a liar/And there are sympathizers/And you know where you stand,” she howls. “Predator stalks another one out/No one will stop him.”
The first time she played the song out was at a show in the Asbury Hotel lobby – and though the predator she’d written about didn’t have the gall to show up, the sympathizers, surprisingly, did. “I looked them right in the eyes when I said [that line], and I saw them looking at each other, go oh shit, and leave,” Mandeville recalls. “It was so fucking awesome. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a direct sort of satisfaction from being on stage. I wish I had that moment on tape; I would watch it again and again if I could.” This is Mandeville in full Little Hag mode – she’s the shrew who will not be tamed, unbothered by confrontation if it means even one person in the audience can relate or feel protected by her boldness. “I think that’s also giving me the confidence to continue being vulnerable in my music, to definitely not hold back for anybody’s comfort, not even for my own comfort. If I have a feeling, it’s real, and I’m gonna say it.”
That’s true, too of the opening track on Whatever Happened to Avery Jane? and the newest of the bunch, “Tetris.” Written just a few months ago, it’s a perfect ode to the summer that never was: Mandeville bemoans being stuck inside, left to pointless distractions while friends on her feed live life as though everything is normal. It was meant as a response to quarantine ennui, or, as Mandeville puts it more specifically, “this whole amalgamation of feelings kind of came to a head where I was like, I’m so horny and I wanna die and everyone is pissing me off.” Its opening lines (“Everyone wants to fuck me/No one wants to see me cry”) have the kind of raw shock value of Liz Phair classics like “Fuck and Run,” or “H.W.C.” but Mandeville also taps into the same kind of powerless depression Brit Daniels embodies with the line “Sometimes I can’t make myself shuck and jive” on 2000 Spoon track “Chips and Dip” when she sings, “Tried making my brain party/But the music wouldn’t start.”
Even if she hasn’t felt much like getting sunburned among the mask-less masses, Mandeville has been unusually productive during the pandemic. “I was like, alright, I’m hunkering down, I’m writing a bunch of new stuff, I’m getting all my content together to re-release old stuff,” she says. “I was really writing a lot in March in April – more than I had ever written in my life. My old kind of songwriting habits were like, get hit with a bit of inspiration here and there, hopefully that will amount to more than a couple of songs a year, but for a lot of years that wasn’t really the case.” She’s got enough new songs ready for an LP she hopes will be out next Spring, and has been demoing them virtually with her band, which she says has “led to some more interesting choices, or different kind of songwriting techniques that I hadn’t explored in the past.” And she’s got some livestream performances lined up, including one with Long Neck’s Lily Mastrodimos. She even played a drive-in style show this summer, where the audience sat in their cars, listening to her play in the parking lot via their radios. It’s not quite the same as those not-so-long-ago days when Mandeville’s band piled into her ’98 Lexus, scraping tail along the Parkway to get a gig they’d cap off with a debaucherous cover of Bloodhound Gang’s “The Bad Touch” – but if the people want an encore, Little Hag is here to give them one.
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