Middle Kids Powerhouse Hannah Joy on the New Album, Making Music with Boys, and Motherhood

“When I was younger I thought that once you get pregnant you’re fucked, everything stops.”
We sat down with Middle Kids’ Hannah Joy to talk about everything from making a new record, playing in a band with guys and touring while eight months pregnant.

Middle Kids by DAPHNE NGUYEN
Middle Kids by Daphne Nguyen

Sydney indie outfit Middle Kids had their breakthrough with the single “Edge of Town” in 2017 and they haven’t looked back since. They’ve toured Australia extensively but have also made their way to the States and Europe both as headliners and appearances at festivals such as SXSW and the Great Escape. In 2018, they released their debut album Lost Friends to critical acclaim and now they have just sent the sophomore, Today We’re The Greatest, into the world.

We zoomed in on main songwriter and lead vocalist Hannah Joy (and guitar player and pianist) a few days prior to the big release day for a chat about the new record, being in a band with boys, motherhood, and much more.

First of all! You’re releasing a new album. Excited?

Yeah, I’m excited. It’s funny because we actually finished it a while ago but it’s been fun approaching release date. It’s kind of made me remember that we have a record and that we like the record.

Yeah, I wondered what the process has been like because you recorded it in L.A.?

We did. Kind of very luckily because we were tossing up whether to do it then (late 2019) or later in 2020. And if we had gone for the latter option, we obviously wouldn’t have been able to get over there. We were pushing for it to get done because I was really pregnant so I was trying to get it out before the baby which ended up really helping us because we managed to punch a record out before Covid hit. And then we took a while to mix it. It was cool to have a bit more space to really feel like we finished it as opposed to it being in and around touring and having that decide whether it was finished or not.

On Lost Friends (debut record) you wrote a lot about the ‘duality’ in life. It’s beautiful and painful, there’s good and there’s bad. It seems like there’s some of that going on on this new record as well?

Yeah, like “You’re still talking about that?” (laughing). But it’s true, it’s something that’s still a really strong theme in our music. The good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. It’s funny how I can’t really escape that, I feel like it’s something I’m always singing about. Maybe because that’s just life.

Yeah, I was just about to say that. So these themes aren’t new but the press release about Today We’re The Greatest also says that this is your “most personal and courageous effort to date”. How so?

Probably even just in terms of subject matter and sharing parts of my story more. Parts that have been hard or painful and still are. I’ve definitely done that before but it was also accompanied by a lot of noise and action which is really cool. Looking at Lost Friends it’s so much more of a big indie pop big drums record which lent itself really well to the shows we were playing. I think kind of stripping some of it back now, it feels more naked in the way that I can’t hide behind the noise as much. It’s more raw.

But I think we wanted to make music on this album that was more dynamic and had more of these poignant, softer moments and you’ve just got to step into that if you want to grow and try and be brave and I think that’s part of what we try to do for sure.

You’ve touched upon it already but comparing the new record to Lost Friends, is there something you want to highlight?

Another interesting comparison is that Lost Friends was still very much in a time where we were, particularly for me as a player, a guitar heavy band and that being one of the centre sounds. This band was the reason I started playing guitar, I didn’t do that before and it felt so good to be able to rock. You can really rock when you play the guitar. I always played the piano and felt that it was so stilting and stiff. Then I discovered the guitar and was like ‘woohoo’ and kept writing out of that place.

But I think on this record it isn’t so much guitar-centric. It’s definitely there and has a big presence but there’s a lot more piano being the foundation of songs and the guitar being more a colour or texture weaved through the music. Which is cool because it’s almost like going back to other parts of each of our musicality, not just being like “we’re an indie rock band”. Which we obviously still very much are! But I wrote a lot of these songs on a synthesizer or a piano and I enjoyed hearing that through the record.

I was also wondering how this past year has been for you guys. You’ve always been touring SO much which obviously hasn’t been possible but you finished this record. And you had a baby! What’s all that been like?

It’s been totally, obviously, not what we thought. And in some ways, it’s been probably exactly what we needed. And then also a lot of challenges. When we first had Sonny, we thought we’d be back on the road quickly and were planning on moving to Los Angeles when he was about three months old but obviously by that time, Covid was in full flight. But yeah, we had set up last year as a big touring year and learning how to do that as parents and with a baby and we were really up for that. But it was actually really beautiful to have this time with Sonny, kind of in a little bubble. I feel blessed to have had that.

I probably had a mild identity crisis as well which I think is good though! We hold on to these things that we feel like we need to be ourselves or feel like we’re doing okay, these ways that we measure ourselves and the world and when that’s gone what’s left? I think it’s good to have experienced this to be like “Okay, good, what IS left?”. Where does your true identity and spirit lie? You have an opportunity once a lot of things get stripped away to kind of build that up again in a way you feel is true and authentic. That’s been like a big thing for me this year. Probably for all of us. And then with motherhood thrown in the mix.

I think a lot of people have felt like that. Jumping to something completely different. There’s a recent study that found – or maybe I should say confirmed – that women are under-represented in the music industry. And that most female artists are solo and in pop. I just wanted to hear your thoughts on that being a woman in a band playing alternative music?

It’s been interesting even for my personal journey because I started off playing classical piano and that was really the main way that I was engaging with music. It’s very solo and introverted and not collaborative at all. It actually worked quite well for me because I was quite insecure, I guess I still am, but I think for me to have found the boys going on that journey was really challenging because I was not used to sharing and participating and contributing.

I didn’t have the confidence to do that, it took me a while to learn. I think that often women have such a natural gift of sharing space and wanting to connect and check that everyone is being heard and all these kinds of things but the flipside is that it is hard for us to be like “here is my piece”, this is what I have to bring to the table. Men can often have a strength in being the exact opposite – and on the flipside of that it can often be harder for them to ask “what do you have over there?”.

So it sort of makes sense that for women in the arts, it’s sometimes easier to do a solo project. It can be hard for men and women to work together in a collaborative way. That’s just one generalizing example though.

But it has actually been a really wonderful process for the three of us to learn to work together, just as people, but also as men and women – me learning how to contribute and not feel bad for saying what I mean and having the confidence to do it. And for them to also be sharing space in that way. I feel really grateful to be in a band and have the opportunity to work with other people but even them being men because we are so different and learning how to understand each other and bring out what each of us have.

But I definitely think it is a challenge in this industry particularly. But in Australia I definitely see change. Particularly in the last five years or so. Just in terms of women participating more in different kinds of roles and feeling empowered to do so and that’s been pretty cool. It’s definitely very male-heavy but I do feel like spaces are opening up and we’re learning how to reach out and listen and share it and I really hope that the more we do that it will snowball and the more we have examples of other people doing it, it creates space for others.

Yeah, it’s so important to raise awareness and getting this into the conversation. But it must also be tricky sometimes because you obviously don’t want to be picked for something because you’re a woman but because of your art?

That’s the thing – how can you create change and make it a part of the conversation. But to me there’s an order of things and as artists we want to celebrate art. Often that’s actually a really helpful thing because you submit yourself to something bigger than yourself. I think even in this sense that if you’re striving to be an artist then art should be the dictator of that – not the other things. But I think it’s all in there and everything has to be wrestled with and talked about. But obviously, you want the art and the music to be resonating and powerful. And if there are barriers that are stopping even women from doing that then they need to be taken down and we need to figure out how to do that as a society.

I think we are learning and that it can be slow and I love as women how we can be doing that together and pulling that out of each other. I see it a lot in Australia which is really encouraging, a beautiful, strong community of women getting behind each other and celebrating each other. Not because they are women first but because of their art. But there’s obviously a wonderful connection just being women that’s in the mix.

Now, there are so many amazing young women in the industry in Australia – G Flip, Vera Blue, Thelma Plum, Meg Mac, Odette and I could go on and on – but did you have female role models growing up? In music.

Not heaps. I really had to seek them out. So there was definitely something missing in that sense, it wasn’t apparent. But my piano teacher was one of my biggest role models and she still is to this day, she’s an amazing woman. She’s a fantastic pianist and she busted my lady balls all the time. She was my teacher from when I was four till 15 maybe and I haven’t really thought about this before but she made me fill the gap in a lot of ways as a young person because she was the person closest to me musically and she ran this big music school and was such a bad ass and I was just like “yeah, women do that, I guess I can do that” so maybe I was lucky to have her.

So many in my family are musical but particularly my grandmothers are wonderful musicians, they’re both insane pianists as well actually. They played with me all the time. My nana would pay for my piano lessons because my parents couldn’t and they were just champions of music for me. I didn’t feel like I had to break through anything or that I couldn’t do anything because I was a woman – in the musical realm. I saw a lot of women doing it. But in terms of female artists to listen to there weren’t heaps. Looking through that music that grabs you when you’re 13-14 and coming of age, it is very male-heavy which I didn’t see as a problem then but I think as I got older I did feel like I was in want of something and had to go find some artists.

So do you think it would have been different if you hadn’t had all these women around playing music?

For sure. 100 percent. I have three brothers, my actual world was very male-heavy. I love them and it’s fun but having these women specifically involved in my musical journey was very significant.

That’s awesome. So… I thought it was so incredibly cool that you went on tour while massively pregnant. And you recorded this new record and all that. Do you see yourself as a role model?

Uhm, I don’t know… I haven’t really thought about it that much but it was cool that around that tour when I was eight months pregnant, I got a lot of messages from women feeling encouraged by me doing that. Even for myself it was cool to see that I could do that. I didn’t even know. When I was younger I thought that once you get pregnant you’re fucked, everything stops. Or at some point you get so big that you can’t even move anymore. That’s literally what I thought. So it’s cool to show people that you can actually do a lot – depending on your own journey, of course.

The human body is so powerful. I was seven months pregnant when we were recording the album so he was fully pushing on my lungs but I could still sing these songs which is really cool. I had to go and redo some vocals after I had the baby so we went into the studio in Australia when he was about four weeks old. So my abs were still split in two which is a big part of providing voice control from your core but I still managed to do it. All that is just to say that I have been shocked by the capacity of the woman’s body. The fact that I grew a baby, I have no idea how we do it, do we just have this power within us? That we’ve been given that ability is totally incredible and such an honour that we have that role in society.

It must have been a very special journey and very cool that women have been so encouraged by you sharing it. It’s super inspiring. So… You’re releasing the record now what’s the plan for the rest of the year? If you have dared making any…

We’ve always had plans, we just keep cancelling them (laughing). The one thing that we know we can do is at least write the next album so we’re getting in that zone. I think it will be helpful having this released because I find that until I release the music it still kind of haunts me and can be a little bit of a block. Or I just like to have that stake in the ground to go in search of new songs. I feel excited for this chapter. In many ways, it’s nice to not have to juggle it with touring, the focus for the next few months at least is to write and find those songs.     

Today We’re the Greatest was released March 19, 2021 via Lucky Number. The interview was conducted prior to that.


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