Interview: Hannah Joy of Middle Kids

Middle Kids

This past week, I was able to connect on Zoom with lead vocalist and guitarist of Middle Kids, Hannah Joy, before her band got set to leave for a comprehensive headlining tour of the United States. In this interview, we talked a lot about each of the songs from Today We’re The Greatest, the songs that she felt will most connect with fans on this tour, and the cool story behind playing with right-handed guitars even though she is left-handed. Middle Kids will be starting their headlining tour this month.

First of all, thank you so much for connecting with me today, Hannah. I know, you guys have been very busy as of late with a lot of things going on with the touring the states and Firefly Festival coming up, but let’s talk about your new album Today We’re the Greatest. It’s one of my favorites to come out this year, it was at the top of my mid-year list. Why did you choose to title the record this and what does that statement mean to you today?

Well, we really kind of chose it because of the song. Even though it’s funny because the title track is actually the end of the record, and we said, “Uhh, we’re not sure about this!” but we just did it anyway. But I think the sentiment of that song encapsulates, I think so much of what the record kind of sings about. And it’s like this…just the holding of two things is the fact that we’re small and tiny, and life is weird. But then also, we’re good and beautiful. And I think a lot of what I sing about is kind of like the tension between these two things. And I don’t know, it was just kind of like a cool proclamation to be, in this moment, we are great. And even though life’s messy and whatnot.

I think with the last EP that you put out, called New Songs For Old Problems, it was basically kind of taking a look at like, some of the contrasts you wrote about on that record, and I think you just expand on it so much more beautifully on this album. So it seems like a logical progression in your songwriting, but I was just curious about what went into the lyrics of the rest of the songs on this new album?

Man, I think a lot of the lyrics were very telling of the season I was in when I was writing them, I got a lot of the record I wrote when I was pregnant. And I think that’s often a time where you start trying to be like, “Oh, shit, I should try and figure out what life is about, because I’m about to bring out a human!” I didn’t really know what I’m doing. And that, and also because you’re standing on the edge of something very unknown, and it’s significant, but you have no idea what life is going to be like on the other side. And so I think a lot of the lyrics are probably more personal in some ways than what I’ve written about in the past. And I think just coming from that headspace and I think that’s a big deal, and then also I think for this record, we took a lot more space and time just to kind of do the writing, and making of it was all of our other music. I was writing and sound checks on tour, and just on the road so much. And I think there’s a lot more space and thought around kind of some of the stories and I think I really loved writing this record, because I got to kind of really dig deeper and kind of explore a bit more as opposed to when I often write I’ll just see whatever falls in my lap, and I kind of my game sounds as this kind of like kind of seeking a little bit more.

And you mentioned that you were pregnant during the recording process, so did the songwriting kind of evolve? Was everything written out as you’re recording it, or were the lyrics written more from an introspective feeling of…I’m bringing a human into this world?

Well, yeah I felt like I was on the clock, because I was like, “Oh, I’ve got a baby coming!” I want to get this “album baby” out before my actual baby. And so I think it was an interesting time, because there’s a big kind of energy behind it. Just personally, just wanting to kind of birth the things because I just didn’t know how I would do that. Which is really cool. Because I think there was a lot of creativity that flowed out of that sure, which I’m grateful for. It wasn’t like there’s an urgency and I’m stuck. There’s actually an urgency and it serves a cool momentum to make the record. And then, because we recorded in LA, like in two weeks. The songs were pretty much already realized. And we just went into the studio and just kind of like through all the sounds and stuff added which is a really cool experience for us because we’ve never made a record in the studio before…

Oh, did you track the other records live?

Some were live, and then a lot of it just in our house, because we have a little studio. Yeah, so we just kind of would make it just really random moments. It was just like this big patchwork quilt but whereas making this record was…we carved out two weeks of when we were in the studio, 12 hours a day, and it was actually insane. But it was cool for us. I think that’s the thing as artists though, you want to see yourself putting yourself in different situations to see what comes out of that.

Did you feel any added pressure since there was kind of like this momentum, I talked about with the first album being pretty successful, the second EP doing well, and then this feeling of “Oh shit, we’ve go to deliver our sophomore album and avoid the dreaded “slump,” as its been written about for so many artists…but your band definitely crushed that out of the park. So did you feel that pressure at all when you’re writing this one?

Not really, but I think it’s because when we’ve made this out of music, you kind of get to the other side of me. I didn’t even know how he did that. We just did it. And so then you just kind of feel it in the first place. I don’t have much control over it anyway. There’s definitely a feeling of you’re just kind of along for the ride. And so then, when you already kind of feel like you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, then you just keep going because it’s kind of mysterious.

So one of the songs that really stood out to me on the new album was “Stacking Chairs,” and it’s your recent single. The band recorded a video that has some awesome dance moves on there, too. <Laughter> Can you tell me a little bit about what the song means to you, and how the music video shoot came together for that?

We originally wrote this song kind of about Tim and his perspective of life, or from what stories I’ve heard because he grew up in Papua, New Guinea in a jungle community for the first 10 years of his life. And I’ve always been so fascinated by his kind of experience. And I think it was just kind of cool saying, “I’m gonna really think about this person’s life and try and create a song around that.” I mean, really, the big theme, and that is just what it is to stick by someone and kind of be doing life together. And so it’s kind of cool. When we made the video, things were pretty bad with COVID here. So we had to do like a very skeleton crew just in one room and it was kind of a cool creative task to see what we could make. And we worked with this director who’s kind of made all our clips for this record, Bill Blakely, who is just amazing. So I think it’s just the clips and it’s kind of like just a cute little window, I think into action, a\nd into the story of the song.

Yeah, and it brings out your guys creativity, as well as your personalities as well. I think it really came together greatly for you guys. So, I absolutely love your guitar solo on the song “R U 4 Me?”, and that little laugh that you do before the guitar solo starts. Where did that riff come from? And can you describe how this song came together?

Yes, that’s actually a cool song. Because Tim and I wrote that song together from the ground up, which we never do. Historically, it’s always been when I write a song, and then I kind of show it to him, and we work on it together from there. And with this one, we were in LA, and I was doing a bunch of writing sessions with people. And then we said, “Why don’t we just try and do a writing session together?” So we did, and we were kind of scared because we didn’t really like feeling out of our comfort zone. But the song kind of came together really quickly. And then when we were recording just the demo vocals, there were like these back backing vocals that go like “Haha,” and I came in too early on one of them. And then I did that really weird, kind of maniacal laugh. And we just kind of kept it and we were like, “Oh, that’s such a cool vibe by going into this kind of really, really weird fucked up solo that kind of makes no sense.” <Laughter> So I think that was a cool song to make because like the spirit of it was all straight from the beginning and to the point where we actually kept so much of what we recorded just as really rough stuff. And we ended up keeping it because like the spirit of and the energy was there. Which is really cool. And Tim wrote that guitar solo and it’s so funny because he just like did it that one time, on one take and was just being stupid. And then when we kept it, he was like, “Oh, now I have to figure out how to actually play this!” We have our touring guitarist, and he plays the solo in our live set. And he even thinks the solo is stupid. <Laughter>

And can you talk a little bit about your guitar playing background? A lot of people will kind of write on the comments of your band’s YouTube videos saying, “Oh, you’re playing the guitar upside down,” but what made you want to learn that way? And was it out of necessity, or was it just the kind of thing that happens organically?

It was a great mistake, because when I grew up, my dad just had an acoustic lying around, and I’m very left-handed, and I’m so uncoordinated with anything to do with my right. And I just started picking it up, not realizing just holding it upside down. And then I just started teaching myself some chords by myself. And then I kind of settled into that and that was kind of my relationship with the guitar. And my dad mentioned it saying, “Well, you do know you’re playing it upside down, right?” And I said, “Oh well, it feels really comfortable for me!” I could kind of get my way around enough, but then I never really kind of did anything with it because I was so into piano and classical piano, and that’s kind of where I was. And then when we started this band, I was thinking, “Oh, I should really try since it’s hard for some of these songs.” Because it makes sense, right? And then I said, “Maybe I should learn it the right way.” And then I tried, and it just felt so wrong. And I’ve just never been able to go back. And so I’ve just had to try in order to get up the guitar neck and stuff. There’s definitely a cap on what I can do because the guitar is not meant to be played like that. But I’ve just kind of made it work for what I need to do.

Yeah, it seems like you’ve definitely adapted. You guys are very successful, as far as from an outsider’s perspective, with getting adding to all of these great festival circuits. But let’s talk a little bit about the live show. What do you think is gonna be your favorite song to play on this new album, especially with the US tour coming up? What do you think people are going to react and connect most with?

That’s a good question. I don’t know. I feel like we like to play more of the bigger, more energetic songs since they are really fun. There’s a song called “Cellophane” which I’m really excited to play because it kind of starts off pretty quiet, and then just kind of grows into this kind of weird, intense thing. And I really like songs with those kinds of parts, especially live, because it’s just this kind of slow-build of energy. They really experience it in a cool way in a live setting. And there’s a song called “Lost in Los Angeles,” and that’s a really beautiful moment. It’s a lot more sad and quiet. And I think for us, having those incorporated into the set a bit more, it’s really nice to just kind of take a beat, and sit in that, which we don’t do that often. Usually we just get up there and blaze through the songs and then get out of there. And I think what this record kind of does for the live set, because there are more kinds of vulnerable flow of songs, you can bring different moments into the set, which I think actually will be really nice.

Yeah, and I think people are going to connect a lot with something like those introspective songs that you’re talking about, and in between high energy songs like, “I don’t care,” and stuff like that, because when it’s your own show, you know they are your fans, and you can basically make that connection with them. With festivals, obviously, your approach will change a little bit and we talked a little bit about this in the first interview I did with you. But what are you expecting the United States audience to really think about these new songs from the context of what’s going on around the world?

Yeah, I mean, it will be so interesting. I think for us, it feels a bit mysterious because usually when we have a new record, we just play it to death. We’re just non-stop touring. We just haven’t been able to do that because of COVID. So it’s hard to even have a read or to know how these will go live because it is a little bit different. But I think that a lot of our music revolves around the heart and the gut. And I think that in a time when there’s a lot of hectic things going on, I just think it’s cool to be able to release some of that through music and through live shows and stuff. So I hope that it’s just a good time, and each of these shows are just like a special time of community, energy, and togetherness. When I think that’s been something that’s been really lacking and lost for a lot of us is that kind of ability to be with people. So I think we feel really thankful and excited to try and to have spaces that feel like even though it’s still dicey out there, but to be able to have a big communal experience like that.

Yeah, definitely. And so one of the last questions I have for you is what do you imagine Middle Kids will accomplish after this tour wraps up? And where do you think the band fits, per se, in today’s music scene? 

I mean, gosh, I didn’t know where we fit. I never know where we fit. And I think that maybe that is probably problematic, in some ways. And it probably also gives us freedom just to make what we want to make, and to do our own thing and just trust that if people like it, they can listen to it. If not, that’s fine too. But I think we are starting to make the next record. And I think, I’m just hoping that particularly next year that we can just kind of like play because I mean, in the end, that’s really why we do this. We just want to play. We’re just dumb, big kids that like to thrash about, so I think that’s probably going to be a big thing for us next year, after having these really quiet two years. We’re just kind of happy to keep making things.

And it seems like each album is a kind of reaction to what happened before, so hopefully, you’ll gain a lot of great touring experience on your headlining tour. So I was just curious about where this artwork came from? <Holds up new album cover>

Well, we found this artist, and he’s amazing. Ben Giles is from London, and we just thought it was like such a cool way to show the album. I like the black and white everyday kind of portrait and then it has superimposed bright colorful rays, with these cool meetings just of every day, and then the magic and kind of hyper-realism added.

Awesome insight! I wish you guys nothing but the best. I’m obviously really enjoying the new album, and I can’t wait to see you guys come up with next. 

Thanks, dude! Great to see you. 

Take care, and stay safe on the road!