Earlier this month, I was able to catch up with Hannah Joy (singer/guitarist) of the indie rock band, Middle Kids before they played a sold out show at the legendary 9:30 Club in Washington, DC. During our conversation, Hannah shared the band’s approach to creating a memorable set of songs for their live shows, the process that goes into writing their music, as well updates on the progress of their second full-length album. Middle Kids recently released New Songs For Old Problems on Domino Records, and the EP is available for purchase wherever music is sold.
I’m here with Hannah Joy from Middle Kids before they play a show at the legendary 930 Club in Washington, DC. How has the live reception been to both the new material (on New Songs for Old Problems) and other tracks in your discography?
It’s been really cool! We’ve been doing this tour opening for Local Natives so for a lot of the people there, all of our material is new. <Laughs> But it’s actually been really cool to play new songs and I think that translates well when we play them because we’re having so much fun playing these songs live. There has been a lot of wonderful energy around these new songs, and we really wanted to create a set that has cool flows and moments in it.
One of the songs that really stood out to me on the new record was “Beliefs and Prayers.” The opening lyrics of the track in particular stuck with me for awhile. Can you tell me a little bit about what this song means to you and how the lyrical content came about?
It’s probably one of our more angsty songs, ya know? But really it’s in response to what a lot of people feel is this overwhelming noise on the internet of people voicing their opinions, and kind of telling people what’s right and what’s good, and how to take some of the truth with things that are not true. There is also a lot of ancient imagery in the song, like there is a story about Kane and Abel from the Old Testament, and this archaic imagery of old ways of thinking and struggling for the truth. Sometimes you get what’s there, and sometimes it can reveal something really ugly as well. But I think we can try and say all the nice things and attempt to be kind once the door closes on everything that’s going on.
Did some of the artwork on the new record get inspired by some of thematic elements on this collection of songs?
Yeah, I think so. I think in many ways it’s a very clear representation of things that we hold on to and sometimes what we’re looking for in one way or another.
How would you describe your connection with your fans, both in the US and back home in Australia?
It’s a really fun dynamic, and definitely our most favorite part of engaging with our fans is the live performance because it’s really at the heart of everything we love doing. It’s really great to be able to do that in front of people that care and are unique and energizing. Nowadays people will share songs and find new ways to get drawn to music. In Australia, we just did a big tour on the previous record <author edit: Lost Friends> which had been out for almost a year, and these concerts were really just these big sing-a-longs with people. It’s really quite amazing. And that, to us, is a really special thing. We don’t spend a lot of time on social media engaging with our fans, I mean we do occasionally, but we really depend on the live performance to have this special connections, and we’re really always on the road. We love traveling and playing shows at different countries where we get to meet new people and fans where they have such a passion for our music. It’s really cool to see that connection between so many people, because you feel like you’re a big part of it.
That’s great that you have such a strong connection with your fans. What were the early stages of Middle Kids like? What lessons learned can you share about your collaborative efforts as a band and how it has evolved over time?
It really just started off with all of us kind of playing music on our own, but we always all wanted to find a band that had a similar alignment or vision for their sound. It’s not always so easy to find, so when we found each other it was really special. And out of that place, the musicality or the music itself kind of just flowed out of each of us. The more time you spend together, the more you find you grow together as well. Like right now, we’re already starting to work on a second album and it feels like we’ve put some really cool practices together where the music and the jamming is such a great platform to let all the music come out.
The festival circuit has welcomed you all with open arms since the beginning, but you still make a great attempt to play intimate shows as well. What type of show do you prefer to play, and what challenges does each type of show bring?
Yeah, it’s funny because we do love playing a large type of festival show as well as a club show, because we love playing each type. But, I think the festival one is so much more intense since you want to bring that extra energy into it and fill a festival set with more upbeat type of songs so that it is like a total explosion of sound onstage. But for intimate shows, you have more time to be more conversational with the audience and be a little more dynamic with particular moments to control the flow of a song and really feel that connection with people. But, sometimes it feels like to hold the attention of people at a festival is certainly a challenge. But the way we respond to it is to go out there and put everything all out there. We love playing festivals and it’s cool we have enough songs that seem to work for that audience, ya know?
Definitely! What goes into writing a song for the three of you? My personal favorite on Lost Friends was “Maryland.” How would you describe this process of creating a song?
It’s usually a similar process for the three of us. For a song like, “Maryland,” that was composed mostly on the guitar and I sung over it. Then we added some instrumentation such as a sliding guitar and brought it to kind an alt-country direction which is what we sought out to do. But over time, we gave it a more defined sound and rich elements such as adding piano or other guitars. It’s cool, because that song has different elements to it, such as the basic skeleton of the song that it’s based around, then we add in jamming type of elements to let the song grow in a meaningful way, ya know?
When you play these songs live, do you ever find that you change up the variations of the songs?
Yeah, sometimes we do! Like for example, a song on our first album called “Old River” was originally written on just a guitar and voice, so we typically play it more stripped back. But lately, we’ve been playing around with some melodica, which is basically a little keyboard with a tube that you blow into and it makes a beautiful sound and it’s a very interesting instrument.
What are some of your core influences that you bring into this band’s style?
For me, I really love a handful of bands that have interesting instrumentation and write story-based songs, like The National. Really it has meaningful and image-based lyrics with really interesting sounds around it. And then, coming from such diverse musical backgrounds in this band affect how we play; yet all of these musical decisions that we make we really make to try and honor the song as best as possible. We really want the message of the song to be its strongest too.
What artists in today’s Indie Rock scene do you admire? Any future collaborations planned, with either touring or recording, with any of them?
It would probably be so different for each of us. One of my all-time favorite bands is Radiohead, for obvious reasons. Their entire body of work they’ve created, and continue to make, is really mind-blowing. It’s also been really cool to be on the road with Local Natives since they are such incredible musicians and they make their music so interesting.
Last question: You recently released a fantastic record in New Songs for Old Problems. What does the rest of 2019 have in store for the band?
The next few weeks we finish up the tour, then head back to Australia. From there, we’re going to start working on album number two, which is very exciting for us! And then we have another tour planned in Australia while we write the new songs. So it will likely take a couple months for us to finalize everything.
Best wishes on the rest of the tour, and I look forward to hearing what music you three put out next!