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Hazel Iris: The Storytelling Songbird


Hazel Iris: The Storytelling Songbird

Late June, I went along to The Bedford in Balham to see Mally Harpaz play alongside Hazel Iris. The Bedford is a great venue; it’s got the marks of a place that could have been on Most Haunted and probably was.

London is incredible for providing venues that support talent. The Bedford has a night called The Bedford Live and it lends a stage to musicians looking for one. That means it’s free and needs support to keep it going. It’s well worth popping down there on a Monday-Thursday, trust a cloudy apple cider-drinking Brit on this one. I only lie to therapists.

At the back of the pub area, there’s this fabulous room that feels like a miniature auditorium. I sipped aforementioned cider, caught up on notebook musings and waited for the gig to start.

No bones about it, I was there to see Hazel Iris and Mally specifically, but I enjoyed the entire set and it kinda made me wonder how I’d have fared in my own guitar-thwapping baby punk days had I been down south.

Hazel Iris can captivate an audience.

No doubt about it.

Her music is different. Literally. Every song she played had a different style, a different vibe, and told a different story. Had I not wanted more when I saw the tutu, all it would’ve taken was the opening bars to “Mountain Top” and it did.

I feel sort of lucky to be around close to the conception of Hazel Iris. The band has only been playing together for a little while, and yet they’re so well pulled together and the music is so on point that I’m more than excited to see what’s next.

I’m also excited that I got to chat to Hazel herself about how she writes her songs, her own story, and the stories of others that she tells.

In a way, stories and musical lines tend to fall together for me at the same time. It’s as though they already know how they want to be told and heard.

Before we get to the music, can we talk about your physical journey? The one you took from California — your hometown — and how you came to reside in London. What brought you here? What captured your heart to make you stay?

Growing up in one of those beautiful, sleepy places on the Central Coast of California, I would stand at the edge of the water and stare out over the Pacific Ocean, wondering about the places over the seas.  I used to long for the time when I could go out and discover all that I wanted to discover.

Even as a small child I was always singing and I was ecstatic when I finally got to have voice lessons. When the opportunity came for me to study opera in Germany, I leaped at it head first!  Embracing a new culture and language was both exciting and a little scary at the beginning, but it proved to be an amazing experience. I loved everything about it – from learning to set stage lights to immersing myself into interpreting the works of others.

After completing my studies, I was unsure about what I wanted to do with myself.  It seemed as though everything was possible and London felt like it might be the right place to head to for the next musical adventure. At that point in time I certainly never thought I would be writing, recording and performing my own music.  I love that there’s always something new to explore here, that the arts are so accessible, and that every street has thousands of tales to tell!

I suppose I was easily sidetracked by things with arresting tunes and puppets!

Musically, your EP “Misfortunate Tales” reminded me, on my first listen, of an opera or at least a story told through the songs. When I saw you play at the Bedford in Balham, you said that you want your songs to tell stories and I thought, “They do! They so do!” I think I even wrote it down. Is that the approach you take to writing them? Do you know what stories you want to tell before you start?

Stories have always fascinated me. When I was small,  there was a tv show called “Long Ago and Far Away”. The soundtracks were always beautiful and I used to sit there watching and listening, completely transfixed.  I also absolutely loved Jim Henson productions. I suppose I was easily sidetracked by things with arresting tunes and puppets!

There was a bit of a story boom in 19th-Century Germany, where the brothers Grimm were collecting folk tales while Romantic composers such as Schubert and Schumann were obsessed with writing Lieder (songs with lots of stories).  During my studies, getting to learn about and analyse (European) history of music and tales, from the Commedia dell’Arte, to opera and lieder in-depth was something that spoke to me like nothing else had.

In a way, stories and musical lines tend to fall together for me at the same time. It’s as though they already know how they want to be told and heard.

I like the way the EP flows. Like, I take mixtapes very seriously personally and I like each track to flow, which “Misfortunate Tales” does really well. It’s like a soundtrack from beginning to end. Was the track list intentional?

Thank you, I’m glad you like it! Yes, although there are only five songs on Misfortunate Tales, it was really important that the music and characters had the right flow of texture and energy. I wanted the listening experience to feel a bit like walking through a portrait gallery, and the pictures could introduce themselves.

Your music also stands out a lot from what’s out there already. I’m sure you get comparisons because that feels par for the course for female musicians — it’s lame — but I’ve personally not heard anything like it which I love. What inspires you in your songwriting? How do you take the ideas and create the expansive landscape the songs deliver?

Physical surroundings very much inspire me, whether I’m out in nature or on a crowded high street. Sights, smells, tastes, and light all have an enormous impact on the way I write.

In my songs, vocals are featured and instrumentation is more than accompaniment and rhythm.  The instruments all have emotional roles to play in “setting the stage,” whether they are another character or the wind blowing through tall prairie grass.  I think my homesickness for the California landscape tends to come through here and there.

When I was little I would have my toys “sing” instead of talk to each other.

Has it always been a part of your life? Music, I mean. How did you get into it? Both the listening to and the creating of it?

Growing up, there was always music on somewhere in the house. I remember curling up next to the speakers in the living room when a song I especially liked was being played. And I guess I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. When I was little I would have my toys “sing” instead of talk to each other.  Later I sang in school choirs and eventually had lessons, but it never occurred to me to actually write something of my own until after I came to London.  That only came about because someone once asked me if I thought I could write a little ditty and I thought I’d give it try…I’m so glad they did!

What’s the first song you remember hearing that stuck with you?

There are two incredibly different songs and I’m not sure which came first. One is Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor, which sounded so lovely and sad that I made up a tragic story about it and made myself cry.

The other is Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”.  It’s at the other end of the spectrum in every way and the carefree joy and energy were exhilarating!

And what artists inspired you when you were younger? What artists inspire you now?

It’s hard to identify specific artists that inspired me when I was younger, although I think that Björk was the first person to leave a strong impression. I had never heard anything like her and I loved her for it.

As for now?  I can say without a doubt that music from Berlioz, Stravinsky, Scott Walker, Siouxie Sioux, and Tori Amos continues to leave me speechless.

I’d love to talk “Misfortunate Tales” track-by-track if you’re up for it! As an EP, it is completely linear, but each track is so different, compositionally, that we wanna hear about each of them. I’ll tell you what I hear, you tell us what you saw. Kinda like a Hazel Iris exclusive Mythbusters episode, with my interpretations being the “myths”, if you will!

Misfortunate Tales was produced by the brilliant Andrew Hunt. He took time to get to know me and how I tick, and where I was coming from musically.  It was essential to find someone who was up for the task because as you say, each piece does stand alone compositionally but they all needed to flow together. He did a fantastic job.

The dreamscape reminds me that the past is always with us in one way or another.

Hazel Iris

With the first track, “Mountain Top”, I see a music box with a broken ballerina spinning in the snow. The soft bass progression and almost Carol-esque harmonies pose the question, “Do you know where dark  dreams come from?” It does sound dreamy! It has an air of “Army Dreamers” to the chorus. What’s “Mountain Top”s story, as according to Hazel Iris?

Mountain Top is very much a music box song!  A long time ago I had one which was covered in tiny mirrors, with a glass unicorn on top. Also in the movie “Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang” there is a scene where they pretend to be music box dolls. I was entranced by the idea and needless to say, it was my favourite scene!  The basic storyline of Mountain Top is about someone who wanders into a forest, becomes trapped and ends up becoming a part of it.  The chorus is a kind of commentary on the situation (by forest spirits, if you will. Also, thanks for the Kate Bush ref!)

It needed to have a dreamy/haze-like feeling in addition to the mechanical aspect. Andrew worked quite hard to get it just right, and he won the UK MPG Breakthrough Producer of the Year for his work on this song.  I’m extremely proud!

“Watterson” maintains the dreamscape but turns into more of a dance, maybe like a war dance? Civil war? Can you tell us about “Watterson”? Is it biographical?

Watterson is 100% biographical. It is about my great-great grandmother.  One day a Choctaw man showed up at her family’s horse ranch, asking for work. They took him on and not long afterwards the sheriff came looking for him, as he was wanted for the murder of a white man.  She rushed into the fields to warn him and they immediately ran off together. They were on the run for many years, until he was finally tracked down and arrested.  She fended for herself and their children until his release.

I felt as though I was writing some sort of slow-motion sea shanty, where the wind blows over prairie grass and mountains instead of the ocean.  This was a sort of confronting of family ghosts. Here the dreamscape reminds me that the past is always with us in one way or another.  

The clangy kick of “Darlin’” could play as the credits roll on an old school Tarantino film. I love the end lyrics “I wanna love you the deepest way/the most intimate way” that builds up to the climax. Because, same. Tell us about “Darlin’”.

Darlin simply celebrates the intoxicating joy of slow simmering lust. It’s that moment when nothing else matters, like a glowing neon light against a never-ending backdrop of pitch black nothingness…I should probably stop. right. there.

“No Name Western” is my second favourite on the EP. The musicality of this track is literally in its title, so I’ll save everyone and instead, pressure them to go listen. It’s awesome. When you guys played it at the Bedford, the room literally lit up. How did you go about creating that sort of spaghetti Western-Alamo-”Good, Bad and the Ugly” sound?

This song is all about pairing words of despair with a panoramic and cheerful setting. Most people would rather smile and tell you they’re fabulous than admit that they’re falling apart inside.

Ennio Morricone’s music is brimming with the beauty of tragedy and it made sense to go with a setting of blazing sunset, purple desert mountains and rolling tumbleweed. It was really fun and quite emotional to set it to the vision in my mind’s eye. I could never bring myself to give it a specific title, so it remained “No Name Western”.

The music world in general can feel like a gargantuan maze with a jungle in it and I’m very lucky to be able to discover my own path.

The last track, “Bring Out Your Dead” dials it back again with isolated, layered vocals over a drum/shaker. It’s got kind of like a primitive Baptist feel to it, but softer and more “Hazel Iris”. What was the intention of this song?

It’s all about The Plague. When I first came to London I was really keen to learn about its history.  The architecture is nicely higgledy-piggledy in terms of style and date, and I especially love the way the passing of the centuries can be seen so clearly within The City of London.

Bring Out Your Dead is a mixture between a ghost story and an ode to those who fell victim and those who survived.  It’s one of the first songs I ever wrote. I felt it should be as primal and simple as possible. You are right, it is hugely sentimental for me.

This September you and Mally Harpaz are playing a double bill in Stoke Newington, London — Inspirer will be there to cover it! — how did you guys decide on doing it? What can we expect?

It’s amazing that Inspirer will be there! Mally and I have been playing Hazel Iris gigs together for a little while now, and she came up with the idea of the double bill.  From the moment she mentioned it I thought it was a wonderful idea, as I love her music. She has such a distinct way of expressing beauty, power, and vulnerability that it’s almost a bit mystical.  Her act involves video art from collaborations with video artist Clara Aparicio Yoldi, and mine is, well, a kooky narrative experience. Our music isn’t necessarily what you would hear on the beaten track. We’ve got fabulous musicians lined up and it will be incredibly interesting to see how the acts compliment and play off of each other. We’re really looking forward to it!

Relatively-speaking, this band is a new project for you, and it’s pretty exciting to hear such a fresh sound so early on. Do you have more music in the works? What’s the next step for Hazel Iris? (It’s also totally cool if you don’t have a ‘next step’, I thought while saying it that most of us probably don’t).

I’m glad you think it’s exciting, I think so too! Yes, this is certainly all still a bit new for me. It was amazing to have Andrew Hunt produce Misfortunate Tales and also to work with Marvellous Records in order to release it!  The music world, in general, can feel like a gargantuan maze with a jungle in it and I’m very lucky to be able to discover my own path.  There will be more to come at some point in the future, but for now, it’s incredible to be able to hone my craft and to perform my own works (with fabulous people like Mally Harpaz)!

Where can we find you online on the great, world wide interwebs?




http://randomblog.space   (warning, this blog is truly random and mostly quite silly) (ed. note: Hazel said that. I’ll say it is totally random and lovely because of it, check it out!)





A proudly queer, freelance music journalist, Em splits her time between Durham and London. When she's not at a gig, mouth-agape, she'll be camped outside of a Parisian bistro taking photographs of strangers. The little pleasures in life are the most meaningful to her: Her dog, family-and-extended, and Milkybar buttons. Her motto -- a snippet from Alexander Pope's Essay on Man -- is, "hope springs eternal."

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