Interview: Hayley Jensen

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Hayley Jensen will be familiar to many people as a member of Team Kylie on The Voice in 2014. It wasn’t her first turn on national television, as she also appeared on Australian Idol. Hayley hasn’t been known as a country music artist in the past but she seems to have found her natural home in country now, releasing a country single called ‘The One’. It was my pleasure to speak with Hayley about this song and other things.



It’s a terrific song, I’ve been listening to it a lot. How did it come about – how did you come to write it and record it?
I guess after The Voice I started songwriting again for my own solo releases, because I’d been working with a few different bands over the last few years and I thought it was time to start doing some solo stuff again. So I’d written another song that I wanted to take to work with some songwriters I’d previously worked with who were previously in a band called Jonah’s Road, which was quite a big Australian country music band a few years ago – two brothers who are great songwriting partners of mine. So I took this other song to them and we worked on that for a few hours, and we had a few hours left before we had to head off and we said, ‘Let’s see what else we can write.’ We were discussing ideas of what we might want to write about, and one of the guys had just recently been over to Ireland and seen this little Irish guy playing in a pub somewhere. [The guy] was obviously trying to woo some lady in the front row. He finished his song – dedicated to her – and she looked a bit coy, and he said, ‘C’mon, love – there’s no reason you couldn’t be the one’ [laughs]. She said, ‘How embarrassing.’ But [my songwriting partner] said it was just a little moment that he remembered that stood out on his trip. And it just got us thinking about when you meet someone, you never know, and everyone’s on that journey, I guess – unless you’ve found the one – it’s that search that we’re all familiar with at one point. So we thought it was a nice sentiment to write about. That’s how it came about.
And it’s a very good story, I’ve got to say. I also note that you recorded it with Matt Fell, who you’ve worked with in the past, so obviously you like him as a producer.
Yes, he’s an incredible producer. He produced my first record when I first came out of Australian Idol many years ago. He’s a multi-instrumentalist and really tasteful, I find, in all his choices in production. It was always going to be my first choice             to have him on board again after he did my first record and he’s produced records for some amazing Australian artists: Shane Nicholson, Sara Storer, Graeme Connors – a lot of really iconic Australian country artists. And I just love what he does, too, because it’s not so typical sounding – he uses instruments and voicings and things that are not typical, they’re interesting. Even when I listen to the songs still – even though I’ve been part of the whole production process, I hear things in there that I kind of go, ‘Wow, what was that instrument again?’ He’s very tasteful. I love working with him.
A single release suggests you may be thinking about album, and also talking about recording with Matt, I imagine if you were to do an album sometime soon he’d be your producer.
I’d love him to be. I produced about six songs with him towards the end of last year – ‘The One’ being one of those songs. I was planning to just do an EP and then we got to the end and I’ve got the songs now pretty much ready to go. I felt like there were parts of the story missing or something. I didn’t feel like all of the stories that needed to be in that collection were there yet. So I’m now thinking of doing an album. It’s quite a new thing. I’d say there will be a few singles coming out before that does but that’s definitely the plan, by the end of this year, to have a record ready to roll.
Is it kind of weird, though, having those songs recorded and just sitting there – existing in the ether, almost? You know they’re there …
[Laughs] It’s really weird because I’m, like, ‘You know, everyone, you’ve heard my songs …’ No, they haven’t. It is strange but sometimes that happens in music: you record things and sit on them for a long time trying to work out the best way to release them, waiting to get a deal here or something else happening there, and in the meantime as an artist you can get really frustrated thinking, I just want to release them. It’s almost like a child: I need to give it the best start in life. I set everything up so that when it goes out into the world it lives its life on its own. But I’ve done everything I can make sure that it’s got the best opportunities for success. It is frustrating but I know it’s for a good cause [laughs].
It also sounds like you know to trust your instincts – you have an instinct that the stories aren’t quite complete in that collection. Have you always trusted your instinct with things or is it something that you’ve learnt you can do?
I’ve always been encouraged by my family and others to trust my instincts. It’s hard, because you always have different people’s opinions coming in. Even what you could think in the first instance might work you have that realisation a bit later that that didn’t work. There’s songs that I’ve written and produced and released that I think back later, Was that the right thing to do? I think you do always learn from those experiences. But then sometimes you find you’re completely off, so there’s songs I’m releasing on an album, for example, that I’d never release as a single that I have a look through the statistics and what have you and you see, ‘That’s the most popular downloaded song and I never did anything to promote that.’ It’s quite bizarre. But I think that’s the wonderful thing these days with the internet, particularly on iTunes people can browse through the songs and thing, Oh, I like this song, I’m going to pick that one. Even if the artists or record management or label decide to release one song, ultimately it comes up to the people listening – what they will pick and champion. That’s sort of good too – you know it’s not the final decision [laughs].
As long as people don’t start making decisions based on those sorts of statistics – there’s a danger that things could become too prescriptive, that people look at those statistics and say, ‘It’s that kind of song, with that time signature and that key that is really popular’.
You’re right – that’s definitely a danger. I think there’s too much … I was going to say randomness in it all to put people’s preferences down to that kind of thing. I think it’s more of an art than a science and I hope it stays that way.
I think you can also never underestimate the appeal of a voice and what people respond to in a voice. People hearing your songs, they’ll hear what your voice sounds like before they’ll listen to the lyrics. Humans respond to voices really instinctually.
It’s kind of interesting – when I was working in my previous band, working with other songwriters who were part of the band, I’d be deliberating over this lyric and ‘Oh, we can’t release it – I have to write this word’. [One of them] would say, ‘Hayley! Nobody’s listening to the words!’ ‘Yes, they are!’ [I’d say.] ‘They have to be! It’s the stories that matter!’ He’d say, ‘No, they’re listening to your voice and the melody, then if they really like that they’ll listen to the words. And then they might be nicely surprised at what they hear.’ I don’t know – it probably depends on the type of music. Some people when they sing you automatically hear every word and it takes you away, and other artists you might never know what the song was about but you loved it [laughs].
I do think in country music the words really are important to the audience because it’s so much about storytelling. You’ve come back to country music. You were in Back to Bacharach touring around the country and you’ve dabbled in other genres – well, you’ve done more than dabble. What’s brought you back to country music?
Even though I love all the songs that we did as part of the band, it does come back to feeling like I have stories to tell and experiences to share, and wanting to have a deeper kind of thing than just banging out a few pop tunes. I guess it’s expressing who I am and that’s what I feel like – as a singer-songwriter in this genre you really get to … well, what can I say – indulge yourself in that [laughs].
That’s one of the lovely things about country music audiences – they are very accepting of a range of stories. There’s no one type of story that Australian country music audiences, at least, are looking out for. It’s a very open-minded, open-hearted genre of audience.
I’ve certainly found that just since coming back to it and really committing to this new part of the industry that I’d skirted around the edges of before but never jumped both feet in. I can honestly say that it is like a big community and the support that I’m getting from people and the types of comments they give, it’s really considered. They’re actually listening to the song and they’re really listening to the words and following along the journey rather than [it being] something new that pops up then goes away the next week. It’s really loyal people. You really do feel that sense of community and I guess that’s why the stories are so important, because we all relate to them in our own ways. I might be singing about one experience but somebody else could hear it and it reminds them of another has the same emotion attached to it. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to do and be part of.
And, of course, the apex of all of that is the Tamworth Country Music Festival, so how was your Tamworth this year?
Well, I just can’t believe that I’ve never been before, because it was really incredible. Especially being part of – even if I put Star Maker aside, being part of that experience with other artists, just having the opportunities because I was part of that, gave me such a great introduction and probably opened up a few more doors when I was there than it would have been otherwise. It was incredible. Why can’t we have that all the time somewhere? Everywhere you go there’s music playing – there was music playing in Big W! Somebody playing out the front of Target. Lowes had people. As well as the big pubs and everything like that had artists all day. It was incredible. Speaking to some of the other people who were part of Star Maker – we all talked on Facebook afterwards, saying, ‘Is everyone experiencing the big come-down after Tamworth?’ You feel like a superstar and on cloud nine the whole time you’re there, getting to do what you love every minute of every day, and then … back to reality [laughs]. For me it’s been, ‘I’ve got to make this new video clip for the new single and I’ve got to get it out there!’ So it’s been kind of a continued effect, which has been lovely.
I’ve also observed that the connections and relationships that get formed at Tamworth – creatively, meeting producers, musicians, other songwriters – they’re like this arc over the whole year that follows, where things happen and then everyone comes back together and different things happen, other people come back together. So it’s a really extraordinary event.
I absolutely agree with you. As I said, we’ve got this Facebook group – this little virtual community with all the Star Maker people, and everyone’s saying, ‘Are you playing here?’ ‘Let’s all apply for this!’ ‘Let’s all go there!’ But then I guess jumping up and singing with Amber Lawrence and the girls as part of the Girls of Country tour was amazing – getting the songs that we’d written a little bit further out there. And now Amber’s saying, ‘I’m thinking of putting this [song] on my next album that Shane Nicholson is producing’, and I’m, like, ‘Awesome!’ Just building those relationships – as you say, it’s a special connection you have when you’re part of something like that. It’s really beautiful. I don’t think you find it in other styles of music. I certainly haven’t found it in any other genre that I’ve dabbled in. It’s special.
I think that’s right. The other thing you find in country music that I have never observed anywhere else in the world to the same extent is equal representation of male and female artists. In Australian country music it’s pretty much fifty-fifty, as far as I can tell.
I hadn’t actually considered that. When you look at America it certainly seems as if it’s a bit male heavy. Certainly n Australian country music, you’re right [about the female artists], and that’s a really wonderful thing that there’s the same kindo f support and embracing of everyone – it’s not one or the other. Yeah, you’re right – that’s awesome! I hadn’t thought about that.
It’s not ageist, either – I’ve seen bands with a range of ages in them. It’s music that brings people together.
That’s right. And it peeves me to no end that a lot of the industry is ageist and a lot of artists who have so much experience and incredible talent just don’t get the opportunities that young people do. And, of course, we need to make sure that everyone gets opportunities, but you certainly see that at Tamworth, being the representation of Australian country music, and it’s wonderful.
One last question: you’ve mentioned The Voice and Star Maker, so you’re clearly not afraid of a competition.
[Laughs] I’m a bit of an addict. I’ve got to stop with this!
Is it more nerve wracking to sing on live television or to a small number of people in a bar?
Small number of people in a bar, every day [laughs]. Absolutely. And even worse if it’s one or two. Way more nerve-wracking, way more intimidating. Live television – there’s something that takes over you when you’re doing that sort of thing. When you’re thrown right in the deep end like that there’s some sort of … it must be adrenaline, and it almost feels like an out-of-body experience. But when you’re there in a small room of people, you’re definitely in your body and you’re feeling every single little stare [laughs]. You can see every head tilt and eye twitch [laughs].

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