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It’s easy to get swept up in the numbers of fledging success. Playcounts and streaming stats all play a part, and in 2017 you can near enough work out exactly how many Mexico City-based fans dig a new artist, if you please. But for anyone making music, IRL encounters are way more important. Hazel English gets plenty of these, and for her, these conversations with fans are why she makes music in the first place.
The Oakland, San Francisco-based artist makes amazingly infectious dream-pop that’s bound to affect people. Her candid songwriting – whether documenting the experience of leaving home or living with anxiety – draws people in. “It’s really cool to hear when people say, ‘This song really helped me this week,’” she confesses. Although writing personal lyrics can play a primary, self-facing purpose (“it’s cathartic”), nothing tops the realisation that someone else feels the same way. “Something I made had an impact on somebody else – that blows my mind. Actually having a conversation with someone who loves my music, that means a lot to me. Suddenly it’s not just a number, it’s a physical person standing in front of me that’s getting something out of this.”
New 2 X EP release 'Just Give In / Never Going Home', out via House Anxiety / Marathon Artists, is a startling collection of old and new, compiling her debut EP alongside six new tracks to create her first full LP-length release. The ‘Never Going Home’ side combines the hazy, direct songs that have helped Hazel rise to prominence this past year, while the ‘Just Give In’ side documents her blossoming creative partnership with Jackson Phillips (aka Day Wave). Both musicians met when Hazel was working in a local book shop. Jackson popped by on his way to get a synth repaired, and the two got talking about music, before deciding to collaborate. It’s a meeting of minds that’s helped forge this essential debut collection. Each song sports a timeless, sun kissed aesthetic that you might expect from Bay Area-based creatives, but Hazel’s direct style and pop sensibility take things to another level.
A traveller itching to see new places, Hazel first found Oakland on a trip away. It only took a few days to convince her this could be her new home. Shortly after, while studying creative writing in Melbourne, Australia, she had the option to study abroad. She didn’t know she’d stay here, or indeed that she’d find the tight-knit musical community that thrives in the Bay Area, but she was drawn to something unexplainable about the place – a connection. “This is gonna sound really hippie, but there was an energy,” she states. “It felt very accepting and open. It’s such a beautiful city, Oakland. The architecture is gorgeous and you’ve got the bay. It has a very big history of acceptance and diversity and multiculturalism. It seemed to me like the city I’d been looking for. I thought I was just gonna go for six months, but I got connected with the musicians and felt like a really strong part of the community. So it felt like home. That vibe really made me feel like I could be whoever I wanted to be, I could try whatever I wanted to do.”
Given the time and space to make music in her new home, she took a casual approach to working with Phillips, even as debut track ‘Never Going Home’ racked up millions of plays online. “We were just kind of taking our time. Over the span of a year, whenever we could we’d go and work on something.” Picking lyrics from her journal entries and jotting down ideas on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, this simple but personal approach worked wonders.
Across Just Give In / Never Going Home, what’s most striking is how these songs could work in any environment. Countless acts subscribe to a beach pop template that Hazel’s early work aligns itself with, but they’re more about a vibe and specific style, less about the strength of a pop song. It’s no surprise to discover how scientifically Hazel treats songwriting. “At the heart of it, you strip back the production and it still has to be a good song,” she states. “You can’t trick somebody with production. If it’s a good song, you know it’s a good song.” She usually writes the bare bones of a song on acoustic guitar, and if something sticks through this method, she’s ready to take it to the next level. “I don’t ever want to make a song where I can’t play it stripped back. Some people just want to make a song that’s super vibey, which is great. For me, I want to write a good song first before adding the vibe.”
In other hands, you could imagine these songs being direct, shiny chart smashes. It’s not inconceivable to envisage the world’s biggest stars flocking to Hazel for the perfect hook. Plenty of these arrive on Just Give In/Never Going Home. The glistening ‘Birthday’ captures summertime melancholy with smart precision, new single ‘Fix’ flips excess on its head, while ‘It’s Not Real’ is a brilliantly stark account of how the mind plays tricks on you. For Hazel, writing words came before writing music. She still pens poetry, but she admits it’s easier to be direct and share honest thoughts in a song. “It’s harder to be as brutally honest when there’s not something else going on in the background,” she says. “For me, I’m using music as a vessel to express those things.”
Closing song ‘That Thing’ is an exciting outlier on the release. A perfectly-paced collision of stirring synths and circuiting basslines, it sees her working with Justin Raisen, a deskman described as Ariel Rechsteid’s protégé, with production credits including Angel Olsen's sensational 'My Woman', as well as Sky Ferreira and Charli XcX. Although this shift in direction could remain a complete one-off in Hazel’s back catalogue (“I just want it to feel like a standalone song, not paving the way for what’s gonna happen next”), it’s further proof that she can work magic in different territories.
There’s no guessing which direction future material will strive towards, but virtually nothing seems off limits. In turn, this double EP doesn’t just serve to document Hazel’s more-than-promising first steps – it suggests that whatever’s next round the corner will be the making of a star.
Some things just take time. Nothing could be truer for Philadelphia's Suburban Living, a project originally envisioned in 2011 as a solo endeavor of Virginia native Wesley Bunch. Yet, after 5 years and a move to Philadelphia, Bunch found Suburban Living to be much more than solely his own, joining forces with seasoned musicians Michael Cammarata, Peter Pantina, and Chris Radwanski in his newfound home. The resulting collaborative relationship amongst these four refreshed the project and expanded upon the already impressive groundwork laid by Bunch.
In early 2015, on the heels of touring throughout the U.S. and Japan, Suburban Living began writing what would become the band's sophomore full length, «Almost Paradise.» During this time, a chance meeting with Philadelphia-based engineer Jeff Zeigler (The War on Drugs, Kurt Vile, Nothing) led to Zeigler offering to work with the band on their next recording. «Working with Jeff was pretty amazing. I’d never worked with an engineer that knew exactly how I wanted something to sound without me having to express it.» explains Bunch. The support of Zeigler, as well as his bandmates, equipped Bunch to spearhead undeniably the best Suburban Living material to date.
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