Interview: Hazel English Blends Nostalgia with New Sound on Debut Album “Wake UP!”

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Photo by Janell Shirtcliff

By Lily Doolin, WERS Blog Editor

Australian-American indie-pop singer Hazel English is begging the world to Wake UP! on her debut album. Blending both new-age sounds with the experimental quality and social awareness of music from the 1960s, Wake UP! explores how our current reality isolates people from one another, while also diving into English's personal relationships and experiences moving to LA. Before the release of the album, English spoke to WERS Blog Editor Lily Doolin about the process behind and the aesthetics of this debut project, and what song on the album means the most to her.

I wanted to know about the genesis of this new album. How did Wake UP! begin? What started it all?

Hazel English: I started writing Wake UP! about two years ago when I’d just moved to LA. I was just starting writing again after touring my first record, my double EP [Just Give In / Never Going Home]. It was an interesting transitional time for me because I was new to LA and I was still discovering the city and meeting people. I feel like some of my experiences throughout that process informed the writing, but I also was also kind of inspired by a few things. One of the things that inspired me and influenced me was this book called Society of the Spectacle, which is a book by Guy Debord written in the sixties. It basically talks about the way society has kind of become reduced to a set of appearances instead of real, lived experiences. For me, I immediately thought about social media and the internet, and this book kind of felt very relevant, because sometimes it can feel that way – that we’re just putting all these images online. But how much of it is really connected to our real lives?

I started to notice myself in my own life, I wasn’t feeling very connected to myself and to other people around me. I started to explore this idea of connection with others and connection with how we feel in our community, and the isolating feelings that seem more prominent in today’s society, like, “Why do we feel this way?” It’s led me on this path of discovery. A lot of the songs are about those themes and my relationships, and it’s all kind of tied in together.

Looking at your website, you have this really great image of you with that sixties nostalgic look. What about that era inspires you to incorporate it into your writing and the aesthetics of the project?

HE: I drew a lot from sixties music for this album, as well as just being drawn to sixties music and the vibe in general. I felt that the experimental and idiosyncratic tendencies of that era very much aligned with the sentiments I’m trying to express on the album. It just felt fitting to have this rawer backdrop to this very cool message I wanted to send with this album.

Do you find it difficult to balance – or maybe not difficult, but an interesting challenge to strike a balance between this nostalgia and your very current and fresh sound?

HE: I do think it’s an important balance. It’s easy to get lost in this wormhole of nostalgia (laughs), and get really obsessed with making it sound extremely true. For me, I think it’s just important to draw inspiration from things but also recreate it so you’re bringing something new to the table. I want it to feel like something that is bringing a different kind of flavor than [you get] from just popping on a sixties record. Otherwise, what’s the point (laughs)? There’s so many great sixties record that I can’t compete with those. That’s kind of my thinking from it. You know, with all music, it doesn’t come from nowhere, we’re always drawing from influences and inspiration, and then the trick is just to make it your own.

I wanted to hear a little bit more about what the process of putting together this album was like.

HE: It was definitely a longer process than my first record because this time around, I was working with lots of different people as opposed to working with just one person for the whole entire thing. I found it really fun to be able to collaborate with multiple people. I spent a lot of time writing songs: I think I spent just one whole year writing as many songs as I could with different people so I could choose the best ones. That was really my first time doing different sessions with different people. And then I got to work with two amazing producers, Justin Raisen and Ben Allen, so each of them I did five songs with. That was a really interesting way to do a record, I’ve never done that before.

Listening to this album, and then listening to the other music you’ve put out previously, this one definitely feels different in the best way. Your sound is growing and you can just feel the progression. How would you describe how this album is different from some of your other projects for someone who’s thinking about taking a listen to Wake Up!?

HE: For me, I just wanted to expand on my previous music and make it feel a bit bigger and a bit more live-sounding. We had live drums. I also wanted to give it a classic feel. I feel like it’s definitely a step-up in terms of expanding and it’s a little more experimental with the kinds of instruments we put on there. There’s some mellotron on there, there are organ sounds. I just wanted to try some new things. I would say it’s a bigger sound.

I’m so excited for you, this album is great. We’ve been talking to a lot of artists and with things being so crazy, I’m so glad people are still putting out new music. I read unfortunately that you had to cancel your upcoming tour that you had lined up for this, and that’s obviously such a heartbreaking thing to have to do. But what are you doing right now to keep the light on? Are you taking the time to reflect on the album release, or are you already back to writing?

HE: I’ve been busy working on videos for the album, that’s what’s been keeping me busy. I had a music video all lined up last month in March, and it got cancelled. It was really just after the quarantine started and it got cancelled, so I was like, “Okay, well, I have to figure out how to make these videos myself now” (laughs). I’ve just been having fun with that and staying busy with promoting the album. I think that’s what’s been helping me get through this crazy time, it’s just being focused on my working and just being grateful that people like you care about it, I really appreciate that.

I’m just gonna keep working, so anything that I can do. It is crazy that the tour got cancelled, but it’s not that crazy. I was kind of half expecting it. So many other artists have had their tours cancelled as well, so I feel like we’re all in the same boat. I can’t really throw a pity party, honestly. I’m just glad to be able to put out the record during this time and I hope that it brings comfort to people right now.

One question that I like to ask – and I hate to do this to artists because I don’t like making people choose their favorite babies – is what song on the album means something special to you, that you maybe want to draw particular attention to? Or maybe it’s a song that taught you something about yourself or your writing process?

HE: That’s a really good question (laughs)! It is, it’s really hard to pick. That’s a cool question you asked about the songwriting thing, I was gonna say one song, but I’ll say a different one now. The first track on the album is called “Born Like.” That song kinda came about in a different way for me. It came about from just a voice memo I recorded on my own. That was just the vocal part, and I’d had it in my phone for two years. It was one of my first few sessions in LA with my friend Blake Stranathan, who I wrote some of the songs with. I showed him this voice memo, and then we started working on this song. I knew it was a weird voice memo, so I was like, “How can I make this a song?” But that was the song where it felt like I was starting to… once we recorded that, I was like, “Oh, this is the vibe. I feel like I’m starting to know what sound I want for the album.” That was my first session with Blake, and we instantly clicked. He and I wrote about half of the songs on this album together. I feel lie that’s kind of an important song for the birth of the album and the vibe of it. It’s a really special song to me.

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