Hayley Marsten is a singer-songwriter from Gladstone in Queensland who has been steadily building a fan base – and a reputation as a writer and performer of great country songs – through the release of singles and EPs. Last year she recorded and released her debut album, Spectacular Heartbreak, which has been nominated for a Golden Guitar for Alt Country Album of the Year. Attending the awards on Saturday 25 January will be one of Marsten’s many appearances at the Tamworth Country Music Festival, which include:
Friday 17 January – The Albert Hotel (5 p.m. – 8 p.m.)
Saturday 18 January – Capitol Theatre (8 p.m. – 10 p.m.)
Sunday 19 January – Tudor Hotel ‘Write Like a Girl’ showcase (1 p.m. – 4 p.m.)
Sunday 19 January – The Albert Hotel (w/ Melody Moko – 5 p.m.)
Monday 20 January – Fanzone (3 p.m.)
Wednesday 22 January – The Dag Sheep Station (11 a.m. – 2.30 p.m.)
Friday 24 January – Tudor Hotel ‘Write Like a Girl’ showcase (1 p.m. – 4 p.m.)
Friday 24 January – The Pub (w/ The Buckleys – 5 p.m.)
Friday 24 January – The Press (7 p.m.)
‘It feels really special,’ says Marsten of the nomination, ‘and I can finally not feel like I’m a complete outsider in the country music industry. It feels a little bit like, “Hey, we like what you do.” And I feel like less like I don’t belong in a room with all the industry people now. It feels nice to be getting a pat on the back for all your hard work.’
Fans of Marsten’s will probably not think of her as being outside the country music tent – she is steeped in the country music lineage, drawing on the genre’s musical and storytelling traditions, offering songs and stories that appeal to all ages. Of course, they are offered in Marsten’s style and with her perspective on life, which is what makes them different and interesting. It’s just that, as Marsten says, ‘every artist suffers from self-doubt and I am a huge self-doubter, and the Golden Guitar nomination put that at ease – at least for a little while. I’m sure I’ll start it back up when I start a new album and just question everything. But I’m very proud that my first album is an album of the year finalist.’
The album seems like a logical progression after Marsten’s steady release of earlier material, although its existence wasn’t necessarily assured.
‘I’d already decided that after [the EP] Lonestar I was going to make an album,’ she explains, ‘but I didn’t really have a proper plan. Then I released a single called “Coming Home” and it went really, really well – a lot better than I was expecting. My publicist said, “You need to have new music ready to follow this up pretty soon, so you should probably get in the studio.” So it sort of started out as, Oh, I guess I do need to write some more music.
‘Usually, the thought of the pressure of a deadline to write a new album or to write a new song was really stressful for me. But then it actually worked out fine. So we got in the studio and recorded “Wendy” and “Red Wine White Dress” at the end of . And then I thought, Well, obviously I have to make an album to fit around these. I’d already written half the album at that stage. The unsureness to me was more how I was going to pay for it, because I support myself with music but I also have a retail day job, and neither of those things pay a lot of money at this stage in my career.
‘So I was applying for about a million grants and they all came back and said no. I really didn’t want to crowdfund my record because I was scared that no one would care and that it would be a really horrible experience. But it was either take the gamble on this and if it doesn’t work out you’ve got two singles that you can still release this year and then revisit an album in 2020, or take the gamble and maybe people do care and you can make the record. So I took the gamble and here we are. It seemed like it was a big mishmash of a plan, but when I look back it’s, Oh, I totally planned it to go that way.’
The success of the crowdfunding campaign also gave Marsten extra impetus when it came to making the record.
‘I think the fact that all these people had gotten behind me and pledged for an album that they hadn’t even heard any music from,’ she says, ‘obviously I was going to already try to write like the best album I possibly write, but with all of that on top of it I thought, I need to make this so incredible that people will say, “I’m so glad that I gave this girl money to make the record because it’s so good.” I didn’t want people to get the record and think it was like a sad pancake – like a first pancake that’s kind of crap and you throw it away. Everybody who pledged for that record helped me get a Golden Guitar nomination. That’s pretty incredible.’
When writing and recording the songs Marsten made the commitment to be, she says, as honest and exposed as possible – even if that wasn’t always easy.
‘When we were writing the songs I thought, This is fun. This is great,’ she says. ‘And there are certain songs that when it was time for the album to be released I thought, Oh no, people are going to hear this and they’re going to know what I’ve written about. So that was a bit scary. But especially in country music, you can’t write something that isn’t true and honest to you and expect people to think that it is, because the genre itself is so steeped in storytelling and I don’t think it would ever be easy to write something or sing something that isn’t true for me. I think I’ll probably just be as honest and as exposed on this album as I will be on all of the rest of my work, because I feel like that’s when you have a connection with people and that’s how you build fans. And for me, the people that I’m a really big fan of are really honest. It’s no secret that I’m a big Taylor Swift fan and she’s kind of made her career on being a very honest songwriter.’
In crafting some of the songs, Marsten worked with friends including the extraordinary Lyn Bowtell, with whom she wrote ‘Wendy’, Bowtell is well known to country music audiences as a successful solo artist as well as a member of Bennett Bowtell & Urquhart.
‘Everybody I’m friends with in the industry is older than me,’ says Marsten, ‘which hasn’t been a conscious thing. I haven’t sought out people who are older than me, it’s just worked out that way, and it’s been wonderful just because they are great people and lots of fun to hang out with but they are also very giving with their time and knowledge and experience, especially Lyn Bowtell. Lyn was my vocal coach for many years before we wrote together, and sometimes my vocal coach lessons were more life coach lessons. She is such a special lady and we’re so lucky to have her in the industry.
‘I think it’s definitely a [generous] industry, especially with the Academy of Country Music where you can reach out to people and they are really giving with their knowledge and time. And they want to help you because they want to make the industry better. It’s not like, “Oh well, I’m not going to tell you how I did that because I only want to do that.” I think a lot of people in country music understand that there’s enough sunshine for everyone. It’s not like if somebody else doing well then there’s no room for you to shine. I’m sure there are people who don’t feel that way, but everyone I’ve come into contact with is like that.’
Marsten herself is more than willing to pay it forwards, as the saying goes.
‘If people want to ask me, I’m always up for a chat. Just try and shut me up, really! I’ve done a little bit of mentoring in the past, just people from my home town or whatever. But I think that the way this industry moves forward and gets better by emerging artists getting the right kind of information and guidance, because I made a lot of mistakes and I trusted a lot of people who I shouldn’t have when I first started. And I don’t want to see other people have that same amount of setbacks.’
Like many country music artists, Marsten is independent, and some of those setbacks are part of the ‘balancing act [of] being an independent and self-managed artist. Learning how to do all the business stuff and then not forgetting that the reason that you do all the business stuff is because you write music and you need to write more music, otherwise there’s no point going on tour if you’ve got no new music. It’s something I’m still learning how to do.’
While Marsten says that ‘every single moment of my career it’s, Am I doing the right thing? she says one thing she never questioned was working with producer Matt Fell to create Spectacular Heartbreak.
‘That was a no-brainer for me,’ she says, ‘because we’d had such a good time recording “Wendy” and “Red Wine White Dress”, obviously I was going to get him to do the album because it just made sense. And as soon as I got into the studio and told him my vision for the album – which is the first time I’d gone into a recording session and said, “This is what I want to do” – he totally understood exactly what I was going for. More than just understanding, he was really excited to run with that and take it to the extreme, which I loved. That part wasn’t that stressful. It was everything that came after. Wondering, Oh my god, what if I’m making a huge mistake?
Another of Marsten’s songwriter collaborations was with fellow Queenslander Brad Butcher, on the song ‘Red Wine White Dress’.
‘Brad used to live in Brisbane,’ Marsten says, ‘and I would see him quite often when he ran a songwriting night on Southbank. So I would go down there every now and again and see him and have a chat. And then one day I was really, really nervous and said, “Hey, maybe we could write together sometime.” And he said, “Yeah, that sounds good.” So we set it up.
‘We went and had a coffee and had a chat. I said, “So this is this song I’ve written, but I hate it. I think it’s good bones, but it’s not right. And it’s a song called ‘Red Wine White Dress’.” He said, “Oh my god, I love this hook” and he was really excited about it. He said, “I’m so glad that you chose me to write this with you” And it was just really easy because Brad is someone that I knew and we get on really well. We’re both Central Queenslanders so we’ve got the same sense of humour. It was really easy to tell him all the thoughts and feelings I had and why I was trying to write this song.
‘So we sort of ran with it from there and edited it down on and he made it so, so, so much better than it was, obviously. I’m very proud of how that song has been received by media as well as the industry because it’s a very special song to me for sure.’
‘I think the reason I like songwriting so much is because it is different every time,’ Marsten says. ‘There’s one song that I thought, I want this to be just me and I want to write by myself. And I couldn’t write it and I had to get a co-writer in because I was just so stuck in my own head about trying to write by myself. That was the title track.
‘A lot of the times the songs I wrote by myself on that record, it’s just because they came out so quickly and they were done. I didn’t need to do anything else on it. I am a lazy person sometimes, and if it comes out really easily and I like it all I think, Well, that’s great. I’m just going to leave that. Then at other times I may write something and I have a feeling that it’s going to be good – like I knew that “Spectacular Heartbreak” was going to be a good song before I’d even written it – but all the songs that I took to co-writers were songs I had written and wasn’t happy with. I’d written the chorus, and I’d tried to write a verse or a bridge or something and I thought, This is good, but I feel kind of stuck as to where to go next. Especially the song that I wrote with Melody Moko, “Grocery Line”. I had had the idea for it for a year and a half, and I’d tried to write it about three times and thought, This sucks. I don’t know how to write this. And because I thought it was like a nice kind of a love song on the record maybe I needed someone who was actually in a happy relationship to write it with me.
‘I have been told that it’s a very sad song, so I guess I’m just a sad person, obviously,’ she says with a laugh. ‘I thought of it more as a vision board kind of song. But the co-writing happens differently every single time. Some songs I’ve written have been really laboured, it’s been really hard to write them because of the subject matter or because breaking through that barrier of being really honest about stuff has been really difficult. And other songs – Imogen and I wrote “Hitch Your Wagon” in about 20 minutes. That’s why I love songwriting so much. It’s different every single time. I get bored very easily but it’s never boring because it’s never going to happen the same way twice.’
There will certainly no chance that Marsten will get bored at this year’s Tamworth festival, since she has one of the busiest schedules of any artist.
‘I always say, “I’m only going to do a couple of shows in Tamworth this year – I’m going to have a relaxing time”, and then I take on a million shows and I say, “Well, that’s not going to happen, it it?”‘ she says. ‘Tamworth always feels really hectic and crazed. Especially last year – I was working at the Academy before I did the festival, so I had been in Tamworth for almost a month in the heat, running around. This year I think will be a little bit more relaxed, I suppose. ‘
There definitely is a lot more diverse stuff for me to do this year – I’m playing a show with my band and I’m doing some songwriter showcases. My friends Sarah Leete, Arna Georgia and I are running our Write Like a Girl songwriter series again, which is really exciting. So I think it’s going to be a much more interesting Tamworth this year. Last year I just did it all by myself and I think the one thing that I’ve learned in the past 12 months is that it’s a lot more fun and a lot less stressful onstage for me when I have somebody else there with me that I can rely on and trust. Not that I don’t love sitting by myself and just having me and my guitar, but getting to play with a band – and I’m doing a few duo things with my guitarist as well – just makes it a lot easier. If someone stuffs up there’s someone that’s going to have your back to make it look like no mistake has been made. So I’m looking forward to doing that this year and just having a bit more fun.’
As anyone who has seen Marsten perform live knows, her shows are always fun, and her songs spectacular, even when they’re about heartbreak. She has found a balance in her music that has won her even more fans – and no doubt more will discover her during the festival.