Photo: by Ellen Virgona
It’s mid-morning and the world is temporarily alright as The Middle Kids’ singer/songwriter, Hannah Joy, has a new album, a tour in May, and, perhaps more importantly right now, a cheese and tomato toastie in her belly.
Though she does want to point out that this would be a misrepresentation of her habits as she almost always has ham. Does that matter? Yes, these little things matter for Joy and bandmates Tim Fitz and Harry Day.
It was attending to the little things – personal, practical, political - that made it possible for the Sydney pop band to get through a year that was nothing (no gigs, no releases, no movement anywhere) and simultaneously everything (the birth of a child to Joy and Fitz; the flourishing of a new way of writing; accepting who they are, not who they pretend to be).
Let’s start with the smallest/biggest element, that baby, born a year ago, just as the world went very, very weird.
For a band who within the first six months of its life in 2016 was overseas sharing bills with the coolest of indie-cool bands, who within its first year was regularly on American television and having backsides kissed in many different countries as they never stopped playing, whose 2018 debut was ARIA-nominated and won triple j’s Australian album of the year, 2020 played with their minds.
“I think I probably had an identity crisis, in a low-key way,” Joy says. “In terms of my identity, we can cling to these things, and we don’t even know we’re doing it half the time, but clinging to the things that make me feel that I’m this or that, that I’m invaluable and this is who I am … like for many other people, some of these things were taken away.”
Having a child – “which takes pretty much all of you” - forced her to ask herself not just what mattered, but what was true about her. And what wasn’t.
“I was scared that if I had a baby I wouldn’t care about anything else, but I feel like my reserves are deeper and I think having [him] has been so amazing in terms of pouring myself out and I want to keep doing that with music as well.”
The music that emerged was franker and deeper, often quieter and stretching beyond the sparkling indie rock of the debut, Lost Friends, and making this year’s Today We’re The Greatest, a genuine leap forward.
“We feel that: we were digging deep for this record,” Joy says. “When we released our first track, Edge Of Town [in 2017], we basically hit the road for, what, three years and you can so hear [Lost Friends] is influenced by big American rock shows because I wrote so many of these songs in sound check or when on tour. It was whatever was streaming up through the cracks, and I was grabbing the little song shoots and making something with that.”
This time? Firstly, there was the sound.
“When I’m on stage with our last music, I could just thrash it out, sing and kick and then be like, ‘done’. But with a lot of this new music, you have to just sit in the space and share without the noise. You realise that there are just so many other ways to pack a punch or connect really deeply, or to move someone really deeply, without a wall of sound coming at you.”
Then, there was the openness.
A couple of years ago in an interview with the online music show, The Right Note, Joy talked about how she was such a fan of Julia Jacklin, an artist who works very much in the area of personal frankness. But Joy wasn’t sure that she could do the same.
That’s certainly changed, but was it knowing herself better, or not wanting to hide herself anymore?
“I think it’s probably the latter. Ever since I was a child I had such a strong tendency to hide, to not want to be seen. Which is so funny, when I’m the lead singer of a band, though that’s pretty uncomfortable a lot of the time.”
Out front, theoretically baring yourself to everyone, can be the best place to hide who you really are.
“That’s so true,” she says. “As I’m getting older there is a beautiful freedom, I’m learning, in being seen as you are, good and bad. What this record talks a lot about is not having to be shiny: life is kind of brutal and kind of boring, and filled with beautiful things, and that is life. And when you can accept and hold that, there is a beautiful freedom and there’s a kind of greatness in that.
“To me, a life well lived is when you can be present and be okay with living in the sorrow and living in the joy and living in the mundane.”
It’s no small part of any relationship, maybe any intra-band one, and indeed any life, to recognise you aren’t going to be abandoned just because you are not always sparkling and new.
“That’s so much what [new song] Stacking Chairs is all about, having that experience. Because I never let myself be in relationships where they could see that I was boring,” Joy says. “If that ever started to look like it was going to be the case I’d go ‘bye’. That’s terrible, but it’s true. But having the experience of having someone see not even your shit, but your normalcy and your boringness is extremely profound.”
As she sings, it’s not about flamboyant promises to be there for ever and a day, but instead “When the wheels come off, I’ll be your spare/When the party’s over, I’ll be stacking chairs/When the world turns on you, I will be there”.
Little things, that matter.
Middle Kids play QPAC, Brisbane, May 13; Melbourne Recital Centre, May 21-22; City Recital Hall, Sydney, May 28-29.
A version of this story ran originally in The Sydney Morning Herald