On the follow-up to beloved 2018 debut Lost Friends, Sydney alt-rock trio Middle Kids find the maturity and grace that comes with age – and, funnily enough, brand new youth. Frontwoman Hannah Joy spoke to Zoë Radas about Today We’re the Greatest.
In footage from 2019’s This That festival in Newcastle, vocalist-songwriter-guitarist Hannah Joy shreds her way across the stage in a display of vitality not uncommon to her band Middle Kids, but probably seldom seen in someone eight months pregnant. Because she was, you see, eight months pregnant. “I look like this big whaley mama,” Joy laughs, and recalls the sense of urgency she felt at the time in creating the band’s second album, Today We’re the Greatest. “I was like, ‘I really want to make a record before the baby comes, because I have no idea what life will be like with a baby!'”
At seven months pregnant and with the record halfway written, Joy, her husband and multi-instrumentalist Tim Fitz, and drummer Harry Day went to LA to write and record. “And then, all these songs came out,” Joy smiles. “So, we managed to get the album done, do the tour, then have the baby.”
Little dude Sunny is just over a year old now, but Joy recalls the ways the pregnancy affected her voice with clarity. “It was such an interesting physical experience of recording pregnant, and recording straight after the baby,” she says. “[While pregnant] I could sing quite a bit lower than I usually can. But I was like, ‘How low do I take this, because I don’t know if I’m going to ever be able to replicate it! The only time I can ever perform it is if I just keep getting pregnant… I’m not going to do that for a song! I re-did vocals [for the album’s title track] when Sunny was about four weeks old, and it was crazy – the control was completely different. It’s just so cool to see; the human body is insanely amazing.”
For this record, Joy’s lyrical ambition was to step away from concepts – euphemism metaphor, all those fancy literary devices – as she found they’d become barriers to honesty. Was it a natural thing to do in the place she was at, or did she have to keep reminding herself of this goal? “That’s a good question,” she muses. “I’ve been trying to live more in a place of vulnerability and honesty. Like, this is who I am, this is what I’ve been through, this is what I’m feeling. And that has probably been informing me when I’m sitting down at the piano. I’m just in a more connected, honest space generally.
“I have found that the best thing I can do for my songs, is to live, and that is really cool, because it means nothing is wasted in my day. Everything is contributing to my creativity. So even if I haven’t written a song in two months, I know that I am writing a song, just in my story, and eventually once I sit down, it will be there.”
One particularly forthright line in the album’s title track tells us plainly: “Life is gory and boring sometimes.” Joy admits that lyric is, in fact, her husband’s. “Tim just comes out with these amazing one-liners that kind of encapsulate everything up until this moment,” she says. “I think that line is so much of what Middle Kids songs are about. It’s like the intensity of life, but then also just the everyday of life. How do you hold both of those things, y’know? We’re obviously built for both, but living with them is such a tension. Because we want this big life, but then, we’re also tired and just want to go to sleep.”
It’s a duality similar to the idea that it’s okay to move from one interesting thing in life to another, until you die; that you don’t have to have a grand life ambition. “It’s so true,” says Joy. “I feel like there’s been this new thing, in the last five or ten years: ‘The world is your oyster – you can do anything you want!’ Which is beautiful and empowering in one sense, but it’s also a lot of pressure. Something that’s very important is to just try to live every day well, and to try to love the people around you well.”
Hitting on the brilliant single Questions, the first topic to come up is its video (see below): a complicated, one-shot affair set in a cabaret-type restaurant which features an especially composed and gorgeous horse. “Annie,” Joy smiles. “[She] was so beautiful. People ask, ‘Did you have to record [the clip] so many times because of the horse?’ No, the horse was perfect every single time. We had to record it a lot of times because of the people!”
The song itself weaves around a clapped rhythm – smacked out in playground style by various characters in the clip – which was another detail of Tim’s. “A lot of the weird stuff on the record will be Tim,” says Joy. “I wrote Questions a couple of years ago, and it was cool, but it wasn’t what it could be. Then Tim put in that bassline, and then he clapped. I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ It brought new life to it. A lot of those things are timing. We were on the road so much early in the band; I would write songs on the road, we’d record them on the road, we friggin’ mixed [Lost Friends] mid-tour in America! But with this record, we really gave ourselves space to kind of dig in, and throw sh-t at it. Like the clapping, just to see what stuck. These songs have got more personality – it’s like they’re growing up. They’re finding out who they are.”
Who Hannah is is still a story she’s writing, but there’s possible touchstone many years away which she’s alluded to in the past: in a 2017 interview, she said she hopes to write a symphony. “I still think about that all the time,” she smiles. “Sometimes it’s an escapist thing – all I want to do is buy a shack on the cliff of the ocean, and have my vegetable garden, and write my symphony. Sometimes that’s just me wanting to disconnect from life. But I grew up in the classical world, so that’s my roots, and I can see myself returning to it. I want to have a Romantic-era symphony, and I want to conduct it. And I see myself with, hopefully, long white frizzy hair, and one of those tuxedos with tails. I would also like to have a big choir. These things are still definitely big dreams of mine! I know I will get there.”
Today We’re the Greatest by Middle Kids is out March 19 via EMI.
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