The Oakland-based Australian talks vintage clothes and what makes for a good song lyric.
Four years ago, Hazel English was living and studying creative writing in Melbourne. A student exchange program found her in San Francisco where she fell into the local music scene and soon built a small name in the Bay Area with charming, effected vocals and shimmering, dream pop instrumentals. Last year, she released Never Going Home, her debut EP, a collection of wistful, daydream-pop melodies that were praised for having the "power to transform life's uglier realities into something beautiful and ethereal."
Today the singer-songwriter is back in her hometown, and she strolls across Lygon Street in a 60s style patterned dress. It's bright yellow, singing against the washed out browns and greys of Melbourne buildings. She looks comfortable, but she's carrying some California spirit with her too.
Hazel has been staying with relatives since she arrived a few days ago, but the trip from North Balwyn isn't particularly efficient. Neither is our search for a quiet cafe on a Saturday, so we decide to settle for a seat at The Curtin, where she is set to play a stripped back set that afternoon.
Noisey: How does it feel to return to Australia to play shows?
Hazel English: It's really nice. It's great to visit my friends and family, and it's funny because it brings back a lot of memories too. I mean, I haven't been away that long. I usually try to visit every year but it's still kind of strange to come back and see what's changed as well, like the shops that I used to go to that aren't there anymore. But then there are things that still remain the same.
What's the biggest change about Australia that you've seen?
Well, for me, I just get upset when my favourite vintage stores close. There's still a lot of thrift stores around but the really curated vintage ones, the classic stuff, I can't find them anymore.
You have a thing for vintage clothing. Do you still work at the vintage bookstore?
Yeah, I do. I've always had a love for vintage stuff. It kind of started when I was 15 and started to go thrifting, and from there, I just really got obsessed. I've always loved old movies, old music—I've always just gravitated towards it. I also got to a point where I realised I don't really need to buy new clothing because I don't really like modern stuff, and I consciously started to try to not buy that. Also, from an ethical standpoint and a sustainability point of view, I really made it a point to try to only buy secondhand. I really just made an effort to do my research and find out what's the most sustainable way I can live and purchase clothing.
So, would you say you're a pretty eco-friendly person?
I try to be mindful. I'm also a vegetarian. I just think it's important to be aware of the products you're consuming and what you're putting your money into. I think it's important to know: what are the products you're buying? Where do they come from? Who made them?
Other than the vintage stores, what did you miss about Australia since you moved to the States?
I always tell people I miss the brunch the most. [laughs] There's a few brunch places, but not really the same and they're not to the same extent. They're not as adventurous with brunch. [laughs]
What didn't you miss about living in Australia?
That's a good question. I definitely didn't miss the weather in Melbourne because it's beautiful weather in Oakland pretty much all year round, and I just don't like how much changes in Melbourne. You could go out thinking it was sunny, and it'll suddenly rain on you. But yeah, I think it's just fun for me to experience somewhere new. I didn't necessarily leave Melbourne because I didn't like it, I'm just always pushing myself to try new things and go to new places. I'd been here two years and I wanted to explore something new.
Do you find that your creative writing background intersects with songwriting?
Definitely! I think it probably informs my lyrics a lot. I write a lot of personal lyrics that are more confessional. I'm really into confessional style poetry and stuff like that.
What makes a good lyric?
It has to be honest. To me, that's the most important thing. What guides my songwriting is being as honest as I can. I think a really great song is also vulnerable. People just intuitively know when something is the truth or not. So there's no point trying to pretend to be something else.
And what about the journals you keep, that you occasionally use to inform your lyrics?
Yeah, it's usually just my thoughts at the current moment. The things that I'm going through, the difficulties. It's more of a release for me and a way to deal with my anxiety and stuff like that. I've written journals since I was ten years old. It was kind of just a habit. I feel weird if I don't write. If it's been a while, I'm like, "I need to get out my journal because I need to process my thoughts."
How do you think you'd look back on the journals you're writing now?
It's interesting because when you look back, even a journal I wrote last year or the year before, you forget about those things you went through, and when you read your journal, you re-go through it all again. It's like you're archiving your life, which is really cool in a way because I'm also a very forgetful person. It's really a way for me to remember the things I went through, and I feel stronger as a person for having gone through them and learnt something from it.
Never Going Home was written when you first moved to the States and was adjusting to the new environment. You talk a lot about anxiety, confusion, and being in control. Do you feel in control of your music career now, in this moment?
I do in as far as I know what I want. I think there's a point where you've gotta let go of the little things too. It's easy to get caught up in this mindset of, "Everything has to be perfect! It has to be this, this, this!" There's an element—especially with collaboration—where you have to let go a little bit and be open to new ideas and new things. So I feel like I'm still always having to try to keep an open mind.
Do you hope your music starts an open conversation about anxiety?
Yeah, definitely, because I don't think it's really vocalised enough, and I think there's still a bit of stigma around it. And I feel like a lot people who deal with anxiety don't want to admit it. Or maybe they think they're the only ones going through it, and I really don't think that. Especially in the world we're living in right now, where so much is uncertain, I think it's a really common thing. There's nothing wrong with being anxious. I want people to know that it's okay and they're not alone in feeling that way.
One thing I've realised is that people don't think anxiety is an actual thing. They just think, "Nah, you're just worried about something."
Yeah, it's pretty crippling. It really affects you on a big scale. People still have trouble with the idea of mental illness because there's no outward signs. It's not like cancer or something where you can see that someone's physical appearance is changing, so it's easy to brush it off. And also, I think as a person that deals with anxiety, it's easy to brush it off as well, and say, "Oh, I'm totally fine, I'm okay and I'm not depressed."
Have you found your music has opened any doors to conversations about anxiety?
Maybe! Some people have told me it really helped them, so that's awesome. That makes me feel great. I don't know in terms of other conversations that have been had. Hopefully it sparks internal conversations for people.
You're part of the whole blogosphere, viral music era. What do you think about this new way of popularising bands and music?
I think the rise in blogs has really helped smaller bands that you wouldn't have heard of otherwise. It definitely helped me starting out. Nobody knew who I was and I'm really grateful for all the support. It's really cool to see that democratic style where anybody can start a blog, anybody can write about music and similarly, anyone can start a band and get noticed.
How have you found people have reacted to your music?
I like when people tell me that they listen to my song and come up with their own meaning. I really like that because it means it's something personal to them. Or they might say, "Oh, this reminded me of a memory that I had!" That's really cool. I hope that people can make it their own thing.
What are some of your proudest moments of making music under Hazel English?
Playing with Ride was probably one of the cool moments. Also, our first show was really great. We played with a band called Craft Spells who are really awesome. It was a really fun show and it was really exciting to see the shift from recording to the live show. And we went on tour for the first time in Europe last year, that was really big for me, really exciting.
Was there a moment when you believed this was a project you could work on consistently into the future?
I think I just decided that early on, to go at it full force and just see what would happen. I just thought I've got nothing to lose so I'm just gonna make this my main project and focus on music for now.
What about your hopes for the band in the future?
I'm looking forward to going on tour again when I get back home. I just want to keep performing, keep writing, and I hope that people keep liking the songs. I hope, mainly, that I can keep enjoying the process, and not get caught up in worrying about things.
Are you concerned that the passion will one day die out?
Maybe. If it happens, it happens. You can't control it. I'm not worried about having things to do because I have many interests. [laughs] So I'll just find something else, if that happens.
'Never Going Home' is available now on Pod via Inertia Music.