“Hope is an underrated word.”
That’s how the soft yet commanding voice of Hannah Joy opens up Middle Kids’ second album, Today We’re The Greatest.
Hard to believe, yet hard to disagree with, isn’t it? After the year we’ve all had, the tragedy and macabre reality we’ve all witnessed, hope can be something that’s difficult to cling to. But, at the same time, hope is exactly what keeps us going – whether we’re conscious of it or not. If we all had no hope, existence would be barren, empty, devoid of anything of importance.
That’s the raison detre of Today We’re The Greatest – forcing yourself to be aware of hope so it might evolve into happiness. And, for Middle Kids, they really had no choice as two of its members, Joy and band mate/husband Tim Fitz welcomed a new life into this world – their first child. Strange time to be raising your first child (Katy Perry did the same thing) but it has helped centre the band, including drummer Harry, after years of never being in one place for too long.
MTV Australia spoke to Hannah Joy about raising one baby, releasing another baby (Today We’re The Greatest) and about making hopeful music when it can be hard to find hope anywhere.
Obviously, you were parenting the first year of your child through 2020. How was Middle Kids' 2020?
Surprisingly chill, because we thought he was going to be a little road baby from the age of three months old, and he literally couldn't be more opposite. He's a little COVID bubble baby, but I guess in terms of timing, it's not so bad, having work shut down. To be able to just spend that time with Sunny was pretty special. I have no idea what that would have been like on the road, but I guess we'll find out soon.
How are you going to do that? Are you tasking friends?
Don't ask me too many questions. We just got a nanny, so she can just ride with us in the van. Yeah, I don't know. It will be cool. I guess we've just got to figure it out. I don't really know. We're trying to find other people who are both in a band and have a baby, that tour. It's not really a done thing, so I'm just going to experiment.
It's probably a welcome recalibration for you guys, because you ran international tours just constantly for the first few years of the band's existence. Now you have an excuse, plus a pandemic, to dial it down a little bit as well.
Yeah. I think too, even just to have had the time to reflect upon that time has been amazing, because as you said, as soon as we released our first song, we were just on the move for many years. Whilst that was a wonderful energy and experientially great, I don't think we ever really stopped and had the chance to even just let it all settle, or even think with some sort of intentionality, ‘where are we going?’ You just say ‘yes’, which I think for a while was really good. You just follow the energy. It's been really cool though for this next chapter, to have had this time to be creatively and musically and strategically who are we as a band, and how do we want to express that?
Where do you think you ended on that, having those reflections?
What's actually cool is I think that we definitely were able to explore that while making the second record, even though it was on the back of a lot of touring. I did create some space to make that record, even from a writing point of view, which I hadn't done with previous stuff. The previous stuff, I was just writing on tour and this was more, ‘I need to go and find some songs’. I'm not just going to accept whatever just comes at me, because I'll often write that way. I'm like, ‘oh, here's a song. Cool’, as opposed to being, ‘here's a song, but then I'll take three or four more, and then that's actually the song’, or go to a new place and find it or whatever.
But I think, to go back to your question more, the more we think about it, and the role of art and expressing ourselves, it's so aligned to your holistic life experience – to be able to create art from what you've learned and what you reflect on. What you experience is this beautiful relationship, and if we want certain things in our life, it will also come out in our music, which is cool because I haven't written much in the last year, but I feel like I have written a lot. As you live your life, you're writing something. I feel like it's all swirling away. I've just got to pick them out.
I think we just feel we want to keep expressing who we are and what we're experiencing, and doing that together just feels freaking awesome. I think we feel more grateful than ever for music, even though mid-COVID I was like, "Everything is meaningless. Music doesn't mean shit." I had a real crisis of faith in music, and then I think now I've come back on the other side, being like, "Music is everything. It's going to save us," kind of thing. I don't really know. I'm like a pendulum swinging a little bit, but I eventually hope we'll find middle ground.
Is that crisis near the beginning [of the pandemic], or would it be at the end for Australia?
It was actually more in the middle. At the beginning, you have that naive optimism. It's fine, and it will just wrap up, or we'll get through it, or it'll look like this. Then you get halfway through, you're like, "fuck, this is really gnarly" and we are so out of control. That is actually the true state of our being. Even if there is a pandemic, you just really see some things that you're able to avoid with the busy-ness of life, but they're true things, and you've got to see them. But I think in that place, the scaffolding can't always stand up to that, and then it collapses and you need to rebuild. Basically, in a very rambling way, I'm saying I had a mild identity crisis, but we're rebuilding.
With Today We're The Greatest, another big difference is that you recorded Lost Friends in a studio at home. At the time you talked in interviews, going, "Oh, I don't know how we could ever work in a big studio." What changed this time? Did you find yourself agonizing over the sound more? What did you take out of it?
I think what enabled us to go into a studio and do very well in a studio, because it was an amazing experience, was we'd already found the album before we went in. I had a very clear vision for these 12 songs. They weren't fully finished, but in terms of knowing the spirit of each song, they were already existing, which is a wonderful place of being when you go into a studio, because it just means that you're not trying to get in there and be like, "Oh, I still haven't got the song yet. Something's missing," or whatever. It's there, which just gives you full license to really explore in terms of sound and where you put it sonically, and what you throw at it. It meant we could go in there, and there are all these instruments that we've never really been able to have.
Having someone else take care of the logistics and the engineering side of things really just freed us up to go deep into the songs, and just see, "oh, what does that sound like on that? What does that sound like on that?"
I just knew we were never going to lose the song, because sometimes you can lose a song when you're building and building and building. But when you know it well and you know what it wants to be, it means you can put things on it and you know what's going to stay after the fact, so that was really fun.
Lars Stalfors is a wonderful man who we worked with, who produced it with the team. There was such a beautiful relationship with him and all of us, which is good because we were in there for 14 days. We never even got over our jet lag, because we never got on their time. We never saw daylight, because we'd just go to bed real late, get up, go to the studio. It was a terrible time for our bodies, but c'est la vie.
The album's quite a pure statement of love and happiness. I feel like in indie rock, and the age of people like Mitski or Phoebe Bridgers, being happy is almost subversive. Do you agree with that?
Get that out of here, I'm meant to be a lonely sad girl!
Yeah, it is funny. I think interestingly, I felt for this record I wanted more moments of fragility, and I think that is in there as opposed to Lost Friends, which is just big drums, big choruses that you can sing whatever. There are moments of that, but there's a lot of stripped back moments. But I think you're right. There's a definite thread of hope and joy in the songs.
I just feel the more I make music, the more I find there is space for both joy and sorrow. I think that our music actually has a lot of that. On one hand, it is a very wonderful proclamation of hope, and then on the other hand, there can be underlying or even quite overt pain or confusion or angst. I think it's cool how music can encapsulate both of those things, and I think that's something I love about our music. It isn't shiny, but it is definitely quite positive a lot of the time without ignoring wounds and what we carry with us. I feel that was a cool thing we were trying to balance on this record.
Like you say, it's very vulnerable, and more direct than before. Particularly on a song like "Questions" – the lyrics, "How am I supposed to trust you when you're lying all the time? How am I supposed to know you when you're drunk all the time?" Were you scared at all of sharing more directness like that?
I think so. You're sharing more of your personal experience, which is strange. In Lost Friends, I would definitely share personal things, but it was just in amongst a lot of noise, so it's comfortable. I could just get up on stage, and just high kick and scream and jump around and everything. But I think "Questions" – there's so much space in the beginning of that song. It's me and Juno, and I think it feels more of a risk and a call to be brave, to go out and just sing that. I think people do that more naturally than others, and then I think for me, I have had to learn how to get in that space a bit more, but I feel it's totally an important part of stretching yourself as an artist or even as a person. I find the music that really touches me is people sharing their stories, and me being like, "Oh, yeah, that resonates with me," or whatever.
You also said that you weren't really sure how to write a proper love song until recently, and that you have been able to on this record. Are there any favorite love songs of yours? Obviously, having a child, getting married, etc triggers that too, but is there any love song that spurred you on?
That is a really interesting question. Probably not. I don't even really listen to many love songs. Actually, sometimes I feel like Sufjan Stevens sings about love songs, but then you're like, I actually don't know if this is a love song anymore. Sometimes I think, oh my God, this is a love song. I'm like, is it? I don't know. I would have to think about that more, because in some ways who I ... Matt Berninger from The National, they're not always love songs, but ... Or there's this song on Trouble Will Find Me called My Girl. It's a really beautiful song. I think he will often sing about love in a way that feels quite poetic and nuanced in a way that I really like.
Sufjan Stevens is a funny one. I don't know if you've ever seen that Facebook thing, 'Is this Sufjan Stevens song gay?' or about-
'About Jesus' or something? Yeah, I've seen that. That's so good.
Yeah. It speaks to the same thing. Did you like his record [The Ascension] last year?
But often I get stuck in old records. It also takes me a couple of years to catch up with new stuff, because I'm still 14 years old, listening to the same records.
That's fair enough. Not as good as Carrie & Lowell, for sure.
Oh, man. Actually, it didn't take me any time at all to get swept up in Carrie & Lowell. It's such a beautiful record.
Yeah. It's very absorbing. You mentioned that the new record has a lot more instruments [beyond the indie rock setup], and I read in another interview that you're planning on adding some extra players on stage for your upcoming shows. What can you tell me about that? You've got string players?
Yeah, string and horns. Part of that is because of the space. We're playing in these concert halls, so acoustically, they really work with lots of instruments. I think we really want to lean into the space, and create a fun musical night. I also just think the record makes sense with that. There is other instrumentation on there, and also a lot of space for added instrumental moments. I did a bachelor of music and composition, so I actually come from arranging for orchestral instruments. I feel really excited to marry some of these other musical elements. I think it will be good for us, because we can't just play a normal indie rock show, because everyone has to sit down. It's just such a different vibe, so we've just tried to think about ways that we could put on a night that works well in this kind of way.
You mentioned your classical background. Were you also arranging the strings on the record as well?
Yeah, yeah. There's not much on there, and then a lot of it is me playing the Mellotron strings, so they're just samples, but, yes.
Tim also comes from a jazz background, right?
And [drummer] Harry [Day], yeah.
And Harry. It's the first time that you've been able to bring those skills to the band, would you say?
Yeah. I think for this record, for all of us, I think it's trying to bring to the table more of our giftings, and we're wanting that from each other. I think that comes from just even getting to know each other's gifts more, and wanting to pull that out of each other. I think even in terms of our playing, I think we wanted to push ourselves. Some of Harry's fills are so sick on this record, and a lot of the bass lines Tim did are some of my faves. I think even for me, really pushing myself vocally with some of these melodies. I think when we first did Middle Kids stuff, I just figured out how to play guitar. We were like, 'cool, we're a guitar band'. We are, and we love that. We were really sitting in that and having a lot of fun in that, and I think now we're reaching wider in terms of what we're pulling from, which is cool.
Do you think the aim going forward would be to push grander again?
Yes. So no meter, no key signatures, just free form music, totally atonal. It will just be like some cacophonous mess!
But you're right. I think that's the thing. Hopefully we can keep stretching out wider. That feels like an important goal, I think, which is cool.
I wanted to ask about the album artwork as well. Who made that collage of the images? I don't know, are they meant to be tears?
Well, it's either tears or rays, but who's to say? Well, the artist is called Ben Giles Lewis. He's from London, and we came across his stuff. He makes a lot of wonderful collages, and we liked the idea of a black and white still image with superimposed intense color, because we think that visually represents the album in a way that works. I think so much of the themes in the music, even the mixing of guitars, like wood and metal and then synthesizers, like sound waves. It's these worlds coming together and making something. Lyrically, mixing the everyday with magical moments, because that's how life feels a lot of the time – just normal, the same thing over and over again, and then moments of complete magic and beauty.
That was cool. I feel like I've said that so many times today.
It can all be cool.
It is cool.
That lines up as well with the line on the last song, where you're like, "Life is gory and boring sometimes."
Totally, which is why we wanted to put that track at the end. I feel like it's a wonderful thing to say. Especially being Today We're the Greatest, that's what life is. Life is gory and boring, and we've got to live that life, and you can't escape that.
Yeah. I feel like that probably rings extra true after last year.
Yeah, that was just purely coincidental.
What inspired you to put your child's sonogram on the record?
Well, I think again, even on this thing, it's cool to not only be trying to express something through words or through music, but also just through everyday sound. There's another track with rain, that was just this storm in our house one day. Just this mixture of the little moments in life mixed with really cool music, quite beautiful music. It's just another way to emphasize that. That's really a lot of Tim's gifting that he brings. He's always just listening to music and to sound, and I think he has this phone app, and he's like, "Let's get this."
I'm always like, "Oh, come on," but it's cool that he lives in that open way, and sound is always speaking to him. It was cool to pull in different parts of that on the record, and then obviously, our child's heartbeat is pretty profound, too.
Yeah. Well, it'll be the nicest kind of time capsule. Was that storm on "Golden Star"?
Yeah. Originally, that recording is 45 minutes long-
... and Tim was legitimately pushing for the 45 minutes, in its entirety, to go on the record.
But at the end?
Yeah. He was like, "The whole thing should be on there."We're like, "Dude, no one's going to listen to that." He's like, "No, I really see this." It was so good. I love it. Then he was like, "Fine, I'll release it on my own as a 45 minute special thing."
That'd be nice to work to.
Yeah. Well, it totally is. He actually, for a while, put it up on Bandcamp, which is cool. But for the record, there's only so much space on a vinyl.
You'd have to dedicate an entire extra LP. I read an interview before, you mentioned an interest in post-rock. You guys have that broader influence on Today We're The Greatest, that perhaps people that heard your first record or the mini LP might not have thought was in there.
Oh, it is so true. Yeah, it's been cool to feel, particularly on this record, that I can hear moments more of artists that I feel I really like and listen to. The indie rock world was actually pretty new for me, and I love being a part of it. But it feels like this record has more of what we've all listened to, as broad as that is, just condensed into a little three and a half minute indie pop ditty.
You're just coming full circle again. You discover indie rock, and then you come all the way back to classical.
Interview by Josh Martin and words by Jackson Langford.