While the world awaited Lana Del Rey’s Chemtrails Over The Country Club, diminutive Australian singer Hayley Mary tantalised us with a cover version of its title track for Australian radio station Triple J’s Like A Version series. In a metallic gold dress-coat by local designer Alice McCall, fishnets, and knee-high black heeled boots, Hayley Mary is every inch the rock star. Her smoky diva voice recalls one of Australia’s most well-known rock frontwomen, Chrissy Amphlett.
“Covers are hard, it has to suit your voice,” says Mary. “Musically, I’m a Lana del Rey fan; I think she’s a great songwriter and artist. But I don’t follow a lot of contemporary music. My favourite band is still ABBA. I wanted to do something contemporary and what that song had, like a lot of Lana’s songs, was enough depth of lyrics to appeal to me. It was a week or two old when we did it, so it was new. Plus, I’m a huge David Lynch fan and I get that vibe from it. It’s timeless, that’s what I like her about her.”
Hayley Mary fronted Sydney-based indie rockers The Jezabels from 2007 to 2017; in their decade as a band, they released three EPs (The Man Is Dead, She’s So Hard, and Dark Storm) followed by studio albums Prisoner in 2011, The Brink in 2014, and Synthia in 2016. Though they’ve been silent since, Mary hinted to NME Australia last year that there’s always potential to revisit the project, saying, “We never really stopped, we just don’t really have anything happening at the moment.”
Considering the band’s reputation as “volatile, provocative and intelligent” (Jenny Valentish for Sydney Morning Herald), their namesake – the infamous biblical Jezebel, who appears in the New Testament Book of Revelation and is described as “an unrepentant prophetess,” “the bad girl of the Bible,” and “the wickedest of women” – makes sense.
But was Jezebel truly a murdering prostitute hellbent on chaos? Not according to Hayley Mary, who explained to AllMusic in 2012 that in fact, she was misunderstood, an example of how women are misrepresented and maligned. “My dad was raised Catholic but he has pagan leanings, a cynicism for the establishment. [He] wanted to call me Jezebel when I was born, but my mum thought it was a bit extreme, so they ended up naming their cat Jezebel,” she explains. Studying “various ‘isms’ – feminism, Marxism, all that stuff” at the University of Sydney, she began to realize “there was a lot of revisionist history of misunderstood people from the past. Jezebel was a whorish figure in the way I’d been brought up, but when you actually read the Bible, she was a Queen who tried to escape. So, when did she become a whore? She became vilified, and it happens a lot throughout history.”
Also at uni, Hayley Mary met Heather Shannon, Sam Lockwood, and Nik Kaloper, with whom she would form her band. “Heather and I started Jezabels as a two-piece, and my cat was dead by that time – we thought Jezebel was a cool name,” explains Mary. “When the guys joined and we started making more rock music, they weren’t sure about The Jezabels, but I convinced them that it was a reclaiming of this misunderstood Biblical figure and they got on board with that.”
Mary’s ongoing struggle with depression and Shannon’s ovarian cancer diagnosis forced questions of existence and purpose upon The Jezabels. Those same questions still challenge Mary, now in her mid-30s. She recalls trips taken across Death Valley (which inspired “Pleasure Drive” from The Brink LP), and living and working in London for a year. A nomad at heart, she is in her element when not anchored to one place, though she doesn’t “need to be overseas all the time,” she says. “I like living in different places for six months or so, finding a new world. I’m half-Scottish so I’m drawn to the UK. I found myself coming back and forth, spending a year in Sydney or Melbourne then returning to the UK again.” So, how did she cope with lockdowns 1.0 and 2.0 in her hometown of Melbourne?
“I ended up in Sydney for six months of the lockdown,” says Mary. “I did the first lockdown here, then went up to Sydney to mix some recordings and got stuck there when the second lockdown happened. It was productive in a way that I couldn’t have been in Melbourne. I was lucky to have the stint in Sydney.” She’s played a few acoustic shows regionally in NSW and Victoria, and has enough songs to form a new record, but is hesitant to “drop an album prematurely in a COVID-19 landscape,” she says. “I think I’ll put it out in a different sort of way.”
Mary’s solo career has seen her pick up a guitar and embrace being an independent solo artist, releasing her debut EP The Piss, The Perfume in January 2020. “I’m still in my love affair with rock, because as old as guitar music is, it’s so exciting to me to pick up a guitar. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel with this music, but it’s based on the old tradition of songwriting. I care a lot about the lyrics and the feeling,” she says. “There’s influences like Americana, but there’s also some punk in there and ’80s diva pop. There’s a fusion of genres and eras, I guess, like on my first EP.”
Mary explains that while she’s not pioneering anything as far as guitar playing and songwriting, it feels like she’s pioneering in her personal life, alongside Johnny Took of DMA’S. The relationship began when she was trying to find her footing as a solo artist, wondering “Who am I without Jezabels?” Mary says the loss of identity after thirteen years in a band is “still difficult,” and her management encouraged collaborations to help her through it. “Johnny was instrumental in helping me find my strength as a songwriter, and we’ve co-written a bunch of songs together,” she says. “He co-wrote my last single, ‘Would You Throw A Diamond?’ He’s been involved in producing and demo-ing. He’s my key collaborator. When someone can bring the best out of you, that feels like a good sign.”
Hayley Mary’s ideal 2021 involves the announcement of more shows, more videos and the prospect of an international tour by the end of the year. Until then, she’ll be writing, and she’s also studying audio engineering and music production at Melbourne Polytechnic. “I’m empowering myself,” says Mary. “I don’t want to be at the mercy of people so much. I want to take more control, be able to tell producers ‘I like it to be this way, for this reason.’”