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Interview: Middle Kids' Hannah Joy talks all things their latest album 'Today We're The Greatest'.

Interview: Middle Kids' Hannah Joy talks all things their latest album 'Today We're The Greatest'.

"Someday we'll be gone but today we're the greatest," proclaims Hannah Joy from Sydney-based band Middle Kids on their sophomore album, 'Today We're The Greatest', which dropped earlier this year in March. With a more stripped-back production, and more life experience under their belt, the band (comprised of Joy, Tim Fitz and Harry Day) released this album in the hopes that people hear the music and feel love in all its many forms.

Middle Kids will be touring the album with shows in New Zealand kicking off in Wellington this week on June 25th at San Fran and in Auckland on June 26th at the Tuning Fork.

We spoke with Hannah about making songs, sandwiches, philosophy, and more...

COUP DE MAIN: You’ve said that this record leans into a more stripped-back sound musically than some of your older work - was it easy for you to slip into that sort of style for the newer record? 
MIDDLE KIDS - HANNAH JOY: I think it kind of was - because so many of the songs when I first write them, they are pretty skeletal, like, I'll write on the piano and sing over it or on the guitar and sing over it, and then build upon that. So I think there was just more, or less, building upon, because in the past with some of the songs, I'll write it, and then we're like, 'Yeah! Big drums, and like, lots of guitars!' And we still do that in some moments, but I think having a bit more space in some of these songs on this record... it was pretty easy, because I felt like a lot of the songs kind of lend itself to that anyway. So we were just kind of trying to reveal more of that in there.

CDM: In ‘Cellophane (Brain)’ you talk about "looking up star signs" and the lyric, ‘You shake, you never change,’ really stood out to me. Are you someone who believes that star signs and astrology have a real effect on the way people are?
HANNAH: That's a good question. To be honest, I don't even really know anything about star signs, which I think then is very telling about my relationship to star signs in that they don't affect me personally. All I know is that I'm a Leo, so that's something! But I think it's more like using that as an image, "Looking up star signs..." and I guess you could insert so many different things of us trying to find meaning. Or what does this mean? Or what's going to happen to me? Or why am I here? Why am I this way? So I feel like it was kind of a cool image for the modern person.
CDM: When you said you were a Leo, I was just thinking about how so many lead women musicians are always Leos! 
HANNAH: Is that true? 
CDM: Yeah! Like, Charli XCX, Dua Lipa... all of them! 
HANNAH: Okay. <laughs>

CDM: In ‘Some People Stay In Our Hearts Forever’ you deal with that heavy but definitely relatable topic of looking back at an older version of yourself and kind of licking old wounds, hoping that they’ll heal. Do you find yourself often looking to the past, or staying in the present, or looking ahead? 
HANNAH: I'm trying to stay in the present, but it's such a discipline. I recently - and I think this probably affected some of what I was writing about - read Eckhart Tolle. He is this kind of modern day philosopher, he wrote this book called 'The Power Of Now', and it's all about [how] only the present exists. Like, the future doesn't actually exist. And the past doesn't exist. We just carry it in our minds and so if we're always thinking about either, or all of them, we're not living our lives; we're kind of wasting our lives, which is actually a pretty obvious thought, but I think we have such a tendency to kind of circle around old things or our fears of what could be, and I think ‘Some People Stay In Our Hearts Forever’ is a big example of that and I think if I just let myself... if I wasn't like taking reign of my thoughts or whatever, I probably would look back, and kind of play those kinds of tapes. But I'm trying not to. <laughs>
CDM: It's hard, right? You're always kind of told to look ahead, but not focus back too much. 
HANNAH: Yeah! <laughs>

CDM: I really love the lyric, "Join in my crusade shouting at everyone 'be nice' when I’m not even nice myself" in ‘R U 4 Me?’ and I think that statement rings true with a lot of people, and the way they perceive themselves. When you wrote it, did you think it was a universal feeling, or something you felt that only resonated with you?
HANNAH: Interestingly, what we see can be quite different to what people see. I think that's quite universal. That particular line also came from questioning/feeling the last couple of years. There is so much signalling or signage around - people wear it on t-shirts, like, 'Be nice,' or, 'Be kind,' or you see it on posters. And I appreciate the sentiment. Like, yes! But the reason why I wrote that specifically was: I was at this college, and there were all these signs around in caps lock, like, 'BE NICE,' and then under, it was like, 'It's not that hard,' or something. And I was like... you don't sound very nice! All in caps, 'BE NICE,' it doesn't feel like a very nice energy. It's almost like a command. And you've got to do the right thing. That can even be a thing on the internet where everybody's like, 'You have to be like this,' or, 'This is the right thing to do!' And everyone's so obsessed with being right, but I'm not sure if you're actually even being nice anymore? And that can be true for myself too, obviously, which is what that lyric is. So I guess it's the classic thing of going around judging people. And we could be even worse.
CDM: Yeah, and I feel like you spend so much time with yourself, you see yourself through all the good and the bad. So when you're not nice in your head, you're like, "Oh, I'm not kind!"
HANNAH: Yeah! <laughs> I think it's a good place to own that, and to be like: that's something I want to work on. I know my thoughts and they can be unkind, and I really want to be kind, but, yeah, you got to own it.

CDM: Does it take you a long time to get from the beginning of creating a song, right to the end? Or does it change from song to song? 
HANNAH: It actually can happen pretty similarly. Usually, I'm by myself, and I'll find a bit of music that feels quite inspiring to me before I've got any kind of melody or lyrics. And then if I can stay in that place of just being in the music... it's hard to explain because I'm obviously playing the music myself with my fingers, but it's like a cool feedback loop because as I'm hearing it, it's touching me; the sounds, and so then I write a melody or lyrics out of that place. And if I can sit in that, I can often write a song, beginning to end. Because I'm just in the flow of that energy, or that feeling, and that's really nice. Then you've got the story or the soul of the song, and then I can build upon it with the boys in terms of the different sounds and the energy of it. But there are times where that energy will only get me to a first verse and a chorus. And then I'm like, 'Oh, fuck, I have to write a second verse, but I'm not in that flow state anymore.' Then I'm labouring, trying to find images or lyrics to keep continuing on the story. One of my pet peeves is having to write a second verse, after the fact. Which is funny though, because I actually feel like we can end up having really good second verses, but it's because you are really fighting tooth and nail. When I'm just sitting at the piano, words can just flow out and you're like, 'Yay, done! That's really nice!' And then it gets to the bridge and second verse, and I'm like, 'Eugh!', but it just forces you to have to be a bit more of a craftsman. So yeah, often I can, do it in one go, but then I spend a lot of time finding where the song is gonna go. But in terms of the spirit of the song, I can often just get it in, in the time that it takes to write it / to sing it.

CDM: ‘Stacking Chairs’ as well has such a sweet meaning to the song, and I think the imagery of stacking chairs with someone after a party is so nostalgic even if you’ve never actually done that with someone. When listening to the album, do you ever hear a certain moment that makes you nostalgic for the time when you made it? 
HANNAH: So many. For us, historically, when we've made music, it's been because we have a studio in the house, and it'd be like, 'Oh, we'll just do a little bit here,' and then do the dishes. Like, in and out, in and out. But this one was two weeks straight in a studio and I have lots of memories about certain sandwiches I was eating on different songs. I've come to realise more and more that food is my muse, for sure. Anyways, our producer, one day, I think it was actually for 'Stacking Chairs', he told us about this really amazing Italian deli down the road in LA, and it was in this cool pink paper wrapping and I remember eating a sandwich that day and making 'Stacking Chairs'. It was a good day.

CDM: I really love the outro to ‘Golden Star’. It feels so serene and actually gave me goosebumps the first time I listened to it! What inspired you to end the song like that? 
HANNAH: Well, Tim, actually, just always chucks up mics randomly to record life around us, which is kind of creepy and annoying. But on this certain day, he stuck them up when there was this big storm and he got 45 minutes of really beautiful rain and Australian birds. And then he was pushing really hard to kind of make a double album. Like, do the record and then have another CD, or vinyl, that's 45 minutes of his bird music. We were like, "Dude, it's good, but it's not that good at all." <laughs>
CDM: You can have the end of one song instead...
HANNAH: Exactly, exactly. And then we put it on and it actually is a really beautiful moment. It kind of creates a cool breath between the songs and also just feels special because it's in our home in Sydney, and that's really nice.

CDM: You put out your first album back in 2018 which doesn’t feel that long, but when you hear that it's been three years it can be kind of startling to think it’s been that long. Do you find that songs on that album still resonate with you today the way they did then? Or do you feel completely different from that person? 
HANNAH: That's cool, because we have just finished up a tour where we were playing a bunch of songs from old and new records. And I still fucking love them. It was just so nice. I mean, I don't listen to my music, so if we're not playing live, I don't really have any relationship to songs anymore. We're such a touring band. Before Covid, we spent eight/nine months of the year on the road. So it was really cool playing again, and reconnecting with the songs. It's so fun, and they still feel very genuine and authentic, as I sing the songs - they still feel true. They ring true. It definitely represents a different season of my life for sure, but it's just part of the story, you know?

CDM: Some artists have spoken about how they just need to get out of the studio and go dancing, or something, and the inspiration just flows from going out and experiencing that. Do you ever feel the need to go out and seek an experience when songwriting? 
HANNAH: Yeah, not specifically, but I actually really hold strongly to the idea that your music is so informed by your life experience. And so you need to go and live your life in order to bring something of value to your art, and so I think I actually spent so little time playing music because I'm like, 'I really feel like I want to live and then I want to distil that into the music.' Things that naturally draw me out are beauty and nature, so I like to get in there, or food, or people and travel, so generally I feel quite compelled to be living and to be going out and to have a full life. Especially now, even as a mum, wanting to be present and all that stuff. Then I just find naturally, as a byproduct, when I sit down at the piano, I'm not thinking about, 'I should write a song about this!' There's just the overflow of experience that kind of comes out and it's a really beautiful relationship between those two things. So yeah, for me, I just want to live my life so then when I am engaging with music, it's like they're so linked that there's the thinnest of membranes between the two.

CDM: In my favourite book ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara, she writes: "Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it." I love the way it’s so simply put with just "yet we all do it" and I thought about that quote when listening to the closer for the album, ‘Today We’re The Greatest’, where you reflect on that similar concept of how mundane human lives are, but in a more optimistic light. Do you have a specific moment in your life that you kind of reflected on and felt like, ‘Okay, I really am alive’? 
HANNAH: I haven't heard of that book before, but the feeling of... 'Eugh, I've got to do it again!' You wake up again, you're like, 'Okay, here we come!' If I zoom out too much, it can be like a bit like, 'Oh, shit, just round, around, around.' And you definitely feel that when you become a mom, Holy moly. And I'm a real zoomer-outer. So I'm trying to not do that. But this is why I feel hopeful about it, because there are these insane, beautiful moments that kind of just drop in, and you're like, 'What-the?!' I'm trying to think of one from recently. I mean, I would actually say that having my son is the total embodiment of just absolute, tiny little things, over and over again. And then these beautiful moments, when he just learns something new, or it's this crazy mix of intense boredom and intense beauty in life. 
CDM: It's so human.
HANNAH: So human! And there's no way of avoiding it. We could be so afraid of being bored, or trying to live these big, amazing lives, and I just think that if we can embrace the fact that life is full of all those moments, we will be so much more peaceful and accepting of whatever comes.

CDM: You’ve just started up doing socially distanced live shows again, which must feel good! Is there a song that you were most excited to perform live and did it live up to your expectations? 
HANNAH: It's called 'Summer Hill'. It's on this record, and it's this big rolling, anthemic thing that's so fun to sing, and it's funny because the chorus is like, "We can go out, we can go anywhere," which is kind of cool now to be able to sing as we can go out. <laughs>

CDM: You guys are playing some shows in New Zealand this month! Do you have any big sight-seeing or adventuring plans for when you’re over here? 
HANNAH: We are only doing two nights in Wellington and two nights in Auckland. That last night, we don't even know what we're doing, so we want to! But we don't even know... I just booked an extra night because I'm like, 'We're going to be in New Zealand, we should really be in New Zealand!' But I don't even know where to go. Last time we were in Auckland, we went up to Piha. It was epic. We went for this run up the hill and then there was this big waterfall. It was crazy. So maybe we'll go there again. Or maybe we should go somewhere new. Are you in Auckland?
CDM: I am in Auckland right now! I was trying to think of something to suggest but all I can think of is mini golf, but that is not a fun thing to do in Auckland. 
HANNAH: <laughs> I like that though!
CDM: Nature's probably the best, I'd say.
HANNAH: Yeah, I'm sure we'll find something! 

Middle Kids' album 'Today We're The Greatest' is out now - watch the 'Questions' video below:

 

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