Queensland singer-songwriter Hayley Marsten has been releasing music since 2015. She started with singles, and with them established her country music lineage as well as her songwriting skills. From the start she’s had a particular way with words – an ability to find a different angle on a story or a turn of phrase that is memorable; she’s also not afraid to be funny. For these reasons she is reminiscent of – but quite different to – Beccy Cole and Fanny Lumsden, two artists who are in themselves not at all similar but who are both steeped in country music and able to find their own ways of expressing that heritage while appealing to contemporary audiences.
In 2017 Marsten released the EP Lonestar, which offered six songs’ worth of proof – if more was needed – that she was creating a distinct identity within country music, building on the pillars of songwriting, singing and performance that were apparent from the start.
It’s taken four years since those first singles for Marsten to release her debut album, Spectacular Heartbreak, and no doubt she’s had to be patient in that time. It must be tempting to release an album as soon as you have the songs – and no doubt she had them. But she waited until she had eleven that were just right. The result is an album that is completely satisfying, engrossing, emotional and balanced. From the opening, title track, Marsten sets the tone: the lyrics may be about a ‘spectacular heartbreak’ but this is not the album of a woman who is wallowing. The wink and nod she’s always had in her lyrics are there, as is the door she opens to show that she’s on our side – she’s singing to us, and she’s letting us in on her stories.
What is also clear from the start of this album is that Marsten is on her own side, and that claiming of her power, and of her role as the storyteller, means the listener can instinctually relax and be entertained. And entertaining is exactly what this album is – there is not a dull moment, or an opportunity for the attention to wander. There are eleven songs that all deserve to be there and which are accessible to newcomers to Marsten’s music as well as those who have been following her for a while.
The subject matter of the album covers the spectacular and the heartbreak; Marsten’s writing collaborators include Lyn Bowtell, Melody Moko and Brad Butcher, although several songs are written by Marsten alone. It is, no doubt, due to Marsten’s patience and the experience that came about because of it that she can take subject matter that is not just thoughtful but often confronting and make sure it’s in a form that we can feel it and understand it. That’s what makes it relatable; that’s what makes it memorable. To offer your audience meaningful entertainment requires an astute awareness of how far to go and when to pull back. It comes from that relationship with the audience that Australian country music artists are so good at understanding.
Hayley Marsten may still be a young artist but this album is the work of someone who is far past the stage of emerging. She has emerged, with glorious honesty and self-awareness and, above all, the ability to produce music that is bittersweet, poignant and engaging, with great melodies (and astute production by Matt Fell), that offers the best kind of treat for listeners. So let’s leave the heartbreak aside and call the album for what it is: spectacular.
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