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For Briston Maroney, it's been a journey to arrive at the current moment. A mental, physical, emotional, and musical one. But it's left him equipped: not only with a deep understanding of self, discovered through life's trials and errors, but just as important, with a piece of art that reflects his personal growth. Sunflower, Maroney's debut album, is the culmination of the past decade of the now-22-year old's life. "It's all of the things I've been stoked about since I was 12 coming together," the wise-beyond-his-years, Nashville-based singer-songwriter says with a laugh of his striking album. "It's been a literal and physical relationship with the record as far as coming to a point where I understand what parts of me it represents, what it means to me as a person and what it means for my entire life."
Recorded between the summer of 2019 and early 2020 in LA with acclaimed producer John Congleton, Sunflower is "definitely a milestone," Maroney admits. "I'd be lying to say I didn't feel a little bit of that. And why not let yourself enjoy it?" It's also a gut-punch of fuzzy power chords ("Sinkin") and genteel acoustics ("Cinnamon"); deftly-composed pop songs ("Freeway") and hard-charging rockers ("Rollercoaster"). "I put all of myself into it," Maroney adds of the 10-track LP. In retrospect, he adds, "I definitely have this sense of calmness now. I did what I was capable of doing and I'm just glad I was around my friends and my people to help me get to this point."
An energetic live performer with a craft first honed in basements, living rooms, and jam-packed clubs, Maroney quickly developed a style steeped in the sweat and sounds of Nashville's DIY scene. After self-releasing his 2017 debut EP Big Shot and amassing a strong local fan base, Maroney ultimately attracted the attention of Canvasback Music. After signing with the label, his subsequent releases -- Carnival (2018), Indiana (2019), and Miracle (2020) -- remained entirely self-written with just a single producer credited on each project, namely Grammy Award-winning producer Tone Def and UK-based producer Jim Abbiss (Arctic Monkeys, Adele).
When Maroney began to tour the US and Europe alongside other artists, co-writing sessions became commonplace as they created music together while on the road. It was at this point he made the conscious decision that he would seek out additional songwriters and producers to work with on his debut full-length project; as Maroney's music world grew, so too did his desire for collaboration.
While Maroney is the first to admit he was 'terrified-in-a-good-way' to be working alongside top-notch talents with the likes of Manchester Orchestra's Andy Hull and venerated songwriter Dan Wilson on the creation of Sunflower, over time he came to understand a simple lesson. That being, "If you're approaching what you're doing from a place of love and kindness and passion you can be as open and flowing artistically as you want to be with your collaborators," he says. "I learned a ton from writing with those people," Maroney continues. "I think the biggest thing I took away is you get to decide how open you want to be, and you get to decide how much of a stage you want to set for emotions in songwriting."
If there was a sense of apprehension heading into such sessions, it's only because songwriting, for Maroney, has long been such a highly personal process. "It's been my journal for a really long time," he explains. "There's a beauty in songwriting. It's a scrapbook. It's a photo album. And if you're really putting your heart into what you're doing and writing songs for the right reasons, every one of them should take you back to a very specific place." For Maroney, the songs that comprise Sunflower take him along the long and winding path to the present, from his time as a young, upstart-tween musician busking at the Knoxville farmer's markets to playing dank basement gigs, sobering up amid personal struggles, and finally arriving right now at his most fully-realized self.
"Hopefully this record is representative of my journey," Maroney says, singling out the opening track "Sinkin" as summing up the record to him in a single cut. "Here's 100 percent of who I am," he says of the brash and bursting song. "It feels the most connected to my heart."
"I hope that people hear the record and see the songs as windows into what I've been experiencing and hopefully they'll relate to that," Maroney says, continuing. "I know these songs will continue to do that for me."
Working with producer John Congleton, Maroney explains, was about learning to trust his impulse. While Maroney had long been the first to question initial instincts, Congleton taught him to respect his gut. "He communicates really directly and really taught me a lot about speaking precisely and speaking about what you want to accomplish with a song and a record," Maroney recalls. "Whereas I have a tendency to be really abstract. I learned to be able to switch into that mode. He had my back the whole time."
Maroney gushes as he reflects on the session with Congleton that resulted in "It's Still Cool If You Don't." Their initial stab at writing together, "was the first experience of really letting go," Maroney contends of the song. "Just coming in and having a silly idea and being down to see where it goes." Working on "Cinnamon" alongside seasoned songwriter Jenny Owens Young, which Maroney describes as a "quieter more low-key song," was by contrast an exercise in "being all gushy" and exploring his feelings on love. "That was really fun to write a love song with someone else who was also in love with a person," Maroney offers.
Where "Rollercoaster," an older track that Maroney and his band typically closed out their sets with, was his attempt at getting a bit raucous, the track "Deep Sea Diver," which Maroney penned with Dan Wilson, was a far more meditative affair. Or as Maroney says with a laugh, "It's like, well, if this really pissed off angry rock thing doesn't work here's my best attempt at trying to be John Prine."
If anything, the process of assembling Sunflower was the best way Maroney learned to take his foot off the gas a bit and ease into his life in a more gratifying way. Where he admits at times throughout the recording process he was "squeezing it so hard," completing a brilliant debut album to him "was so much about just learning to be a little more laid back," Maroney says with a smile. "I still feel really connected to it, but I'm so stoked to share it and especially one day play it live," Maroney adds of Sunflower. "Right now, I am just so thankful and happy."
“I joined the church worship band but grew tired of it very quickly”, says Jackie Hayes, whose devoutly Christian upbringing in suburban Illinois was somewhat at odds with an angsty teen who’d rather worship Paramore than pray. “I was never religious, so I ended up telling the church leader that I didn’t believe in God, and she kicked me out. It was a disaster after that – everyone was so angry at me”.
Having dropped her gnarly debut EP in the midst of the pandemic last year – with a second due in August – it’s safe to say that the days of church band are now well and truly behind Hayes. Her upbeat ennui reflects on Gen Z disillusionment with a healthy dose of dry wit, and speaking to NME from her now-home of Chicago, she explains how years of hard graft and a game-changing move made for an unlikely coming of age experience.
“I did a few county fair talent shows and would always do these emo songs like Paramore or Pierce The Veil – it’s not exactly what these middle-aged judges in 2013 wanted to hear”, she smiles; membership in a church band was perhaps ill-fated from the start. Craving more than just pastors and pageants, she swapped small-town life for the Windy City at 19. “I was not allowed to play shows when I was under 18, so I had to wait before I started doing anything for my music career. I guess a lot of it when I was younger was doing things for other people, versus now I’m doing this for myself – that’s why I had to move out”.
Although Hayes acknowledges that “it was very difficult for me at such a young age to be that financially independent”, she maintains that “I don’t regret it because I was able to meet everyone that I work with now”. And once in Chicago, the ball really started rolling; having released a trio of singles in 2019 before last year’s debut EP, Hayes road-tested her new material by regularly filling opening slots for various artists. In doing so, she became a frequent fixture at locally legendary venue Schubas – to the extent the staff now joke of her unofficial “residency” there – and began to catch the attention of fans and fellow artists alike. Before long, she’d played dates supporting The Japanese House, Claud, and ROLE MODEL, experiences which she describes as “a lot of fun, especially because I was still working… it felt like a vacation or get-away from my job”.
While the outbreak of coronavirus put paid to these live performances (along with just about all other forms of fun), Hayes by no means took her foot off the gas. Regarding the process behind her forthcoming EP, she explains that “most of this stuff was written from around fall last year to this spring, I was working at a grocery store the whole time, up until I got laid off in March”. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that this strong work ethic permeates the project; burnout and exhaustion act as overarching themes which weave together the five tracks into a coherent whole. “Before I was signed, I was close to wanting to give up music, because I was working so much”, Hayes says. “Those songs are about me missing the drive and motivation of my younger self”.
This feeling is succinctly captured by lead single ‘omg’, on which hazy guitars background the central refrain: “It’s just not as fun as they advertised / What a waste of time”. Here, Hayes deftly invests personal topics with a poppier edge in a manner reminiscent of Snail Mail or boy pablo; from childhood experiences at church (‘sunday’) to idealising adulthood as a teen (‘brand new’), the EP is a masterclass in such upbeat introspection. Although she’s already amassed somewhat of a cult following, due to the pandemic she’s yet to actually come face-to-face with her fanbase at gigs. “I think I’m still trying to figure out who my fans are. You know people make memes like ‘Radiohead fans are like this, Phoebe Bridgers fans are like this’ – I wonder if that’ll ever be a meme for me”, she laughs.
“I still have a really long way to go obviously, but this is just the beginning of what I hope will be a long career”. With a self-awareness and candour belying her age, she’s truly overcome the growing pains of her (relative) youth through sheer hard work and humility; that meme might be created sooner than she thinks.
Jackie Hayes’ ‘There’s Always Going To Be Something’ EP will be released August 13
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