“Girlhood is the album I wanted and needed to hear when I was younger”
“For me, Girlhood is the album I wanted and needed to hear when I was younger, ”Brisbane-based, alt-country singer-songwriter Hayley Marsten says of her eagerly anticipated second album. “Everything from the songs down to the way the album looks was really inspired by who I so badly wanted to be when I was a teenager and I’m really proud of what I made for that younger self.”
Although Hayley admits her debut record Spectacular Heartbreak (2019) – a self-described“breakup album” – was “very vulnerable”, Girlhood delves even deeper. “I honestly feel like going to therapy really informed a lot of the songs on this record,” she reveals. “I was doing a lot of reflection on who I was, and the way that I treat myself. I think Girlhood is my entire personality and all the things that – had I listened to it when I was 15 – would’ve made me think,‘Wow, what a cool album!’ Even the cover art is pink and purple and glittery!”
Hayley was riding high following the release of her critically acclaimed debut album, which attracted over half a million streams in its first year. “It had gone really well, I’d been nominated for all of these awards [Alt-Country Album of the Year at the Golden Guitars, Country Work of the Year at the QueenslandMusic Awards] and toured with some really great people, and it felt like things were finally coming together for me,” she reflects. “My whole life revolved around music and a lot of my self-worth was tied to being able to work and achieve. Then when I couldn’t do that, it was really hard for me to get out of bed. So I started going to therapy.”
Around this time, Hayley says her “standing co-write dates” with longtime collaboratorKieran Stevenson (who co-wrote the title track from her debut album and is also in her band) gave her “a reason to get out of bed” in the morning. During one of these songwriting sessions, Hayley explained to Kieran that while she was experiencing some therapy breakthroughs, a new type of fear had emerged. “The depressive state that I was in felt like a weird safety blanket that I wanted to cling onto,” she recalls, “because at least I knew and understood it, and there were no new scarier ways for me to feel upset.” Kieran empathised, the pair got to work and ‘I Knew The Pain’ – her latest single, released last month– “just totally fell out”.
“I miss the old familiar pain/ The way you call my name/ And now I only see you on bad days/ But I miss the way/ I knew the pain.”
Some might call ‘I Knew The Pain’ a sad banger: like much of the material on Hayley’s stunning new record, this song is instrumentally upbeat – with shiny, optimistic guitar riffs and jaunty drumming – to juxtapose harrowing lyrical content.
Co-writing sessions with Kieran also birthed three more album tracks: the shiny, synth-led‘Drowning Myself’; ‘Good Writer’ – a humorous takedown featuring shimmering guitar parts; and Girlhood’s second single ‘I’m Fine, Thanks’ – a song about moving on, which channels the playfulness of HAIM.
Honouring her dark sense of humour, Hayley originally pencilled in ‘I’m Fine, Thanks’ as this record’s title. “I’m so glad that I thought about it for a bit longer,”she admits, “because I feel like Girlhood is such a better encapsulation of what this record actually means.”
‘Girlhood’,the song, was written at the 11th hour. “The word ‘girlhood’ appears in the lyrics of ‘My Body Was Not My Own’ and it’s a good word so I decided that I wanted to use it in another song,” Hayley explains. “And I’m so glad I trusted my instincts, because I just feel like it pulls the whole record together and is a nice bow-tying of that whole thought process around becoming a woman and getting out of that childhood mindset.”
“Goodbye to girlhood/ I’ll do things she never thought she could/ Only now at 29leaving girlhood behind.”
“I actually turn 29 the day before the album comes out,” Hayley enlightens, “and I really do feel like I’m only now actually stepping outside the mindset of thinking that I can’t – or I’m not allowed to – do stuff or say things or wear things, because it’s not appropriate. It was always really hammered into me to be a nice girl and a polite girl, and to not make a fuss or kick up a stink.And if your opinion’s a bit controversial, keep it to yourself. I just now feelI’m slowly trying to break the habit of conforming. I think it’s a constant journey of unlearning those bad habits; that kind of shedding feels very empowering.
“The whole mentality of my adolescence was that the goal in life was to be cool and likeable and attractive to boys. And I just never got to be who I actually wanted to be, because there was too much fear or shame around it. So I wanted this record to be all of those things that I wished that I could’ve been back then, but felt too scared to be.
“There’s songs on this record that have really heavy guitar; I always wanted to be in a rock band, but I just never felt like I was cool enough to have distorted guitars on my records. And I never felt like I could dance outside the lines of straight-up country music, but I’ve always really loved synthesiser sounds and stuff like that.”
The first song Hayley wrote for Girlhood was the piano-driven third single‘Bittersweet At Best’. “I just sat down with the guitar and opened my mouth and it came out!” is how she remembers the songwriting process. Hayley initially had doubts about this one, but decided to record it “just in case”. But after she shared the demo, Hayley remembers, “My partner Dan [Sugars, producer] and Kieran were like, ‘Oh my god!’ – almost crying! And I was like, ‘Okay, maybe it is good then’.
“I wrote another song for the record called Teen Movie, which I thought was okay, and I sent it to Kieran thinking it had potential but would need editing. He was like, ‘Don’t change anything, that is the best song you’ve ever written!’”
“I never had examples of good love in front of me/ So I took my cues from teen movies.”
Hayley grew up in Gladstone, a coastal town in central Queensland, and her mum was a fan of John Hughes films (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles). “When I was a teenager, my parents got divorced. I was watching a Mary-Kate & Ashley TV show and their divorced parents – in the TV show – were gonna get back together and I was like, ‘Oh, maybe it could happen!’ And I look back on it now and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, you poor, sweet, delusional girl,” she shares, laughing.
At the start of last year, Hayley returned to her childhood home for a week and discovered her bedroom was exactly as she’d left it. “I felt really connected to my past self,” she explains, “and I felt, in a way, that she was a better version of me because she didn’t have all of this self-doubt. Looking back through rose-coloured glasses I thought, ‘Oh my god! I was so confident and sure of myself, and I just knew that things were gonna work out, and now I don’t feel that way at all!’ But I think, in reality, I was a very, very shy girl who was really unsure of herself.”
It was during this Gladstone visit that Hayley had an epiphany: “I was like, ‘I wanna make music that my teenage self would like and be proud of!’ And I had this thought in my head for such a long time. Maybe subconsciously that did inform how the rest of the record came together; even down to the title track going on at the last minute. I remember being in the studio thinking, ‘Ooh, is there enough? It feels like it’s not quite there yet’.
“It was all very serendipitous. I feel like ‘Girlhood’ really ties the record together and makes it feel like a full picture of this period in my life.”
Instead of her usual practice of travelling interstate and booking studio time for a couple of weeks, Hayley recorded album number two in Brisbane – taking her sweet time and recording it bit by bit – which definitely paid off. “Listening back to these vocal performances is the first time I’ve been like, ‘Wow, I’m actually a good singer!’” Hayley marvels.
Girlhood also saw Hayley working with an “A-Team” of producers that she trust simplicitly – Kieran, Dan, Michael Muchow and co-executive producer Cody McWaters (King Stingray, The Chats) – so she felt super-comfortable putting forward “weird ideas like the live track at the end [‘Live Transmission’] and orchestral strings on the opening track [‘Getting Better’].” They also encouraged her to take risks.
“Songs like ‘I Am A Rich Man’ [Girlhood’s fourth single] – there is just no way I would ever have attempted to sing that with any other group of people and it took me a long time to get that perfect, because it is really hard for me to sing. But I’m really proud of how it turned out. I would never have written or released a song like ‘I Am A Rich Man’ when I started out, because I was so afraid of offending anyone or being too much.”
‘I Am A Rich Man’ opens with Hayley sharing a famous Cher quote – “Cher said,‘Mom, I don't need to marry a rich man; I am a rich man” – and she hopes this sentiment, and the song itself, will inspire and empower young girls. After writing the bones of ‘I Am A Rich Man’, Hayley called in another favourite songwriting partner: “Imogen Clark and I jumped on Zoom and ate dinner while we finished it,” she shares, laughing.
The live track that closes Girlhood, ‘Last Transmission’, was penned at a time when Hayley felt unsure as to whether she’d ever play another show. “I feel like every artist goes through phases of being like, ‘I’m not doing this anymore,’and you just throw a little tantrum,”
Girlhood was crowdfunded and one of the pledge rewards was listening to the album in advance. “In January I performed the whole album – sans ‘Girlhood’, because I had only just written that song – and we recorded ‘Last Transmission’ so all the pledgers’ ‘WOO!’s are now on the record,” Hayley tells. “I just thought it would be a nice time capsule like, ‘Hey, if I don’t see you, thanks for giving a shit and coming to the show.’
“If this is the last transmission that you hear from the stage/ This made me happy/ I’m glad you came to see me play.”
Earlier this year, Hayley signed with the prestigious alt-country label Cheatin’ Hearts Records and also took the stage at Australia’s biggest country music festival CMC Rocks, performing in front of 23,000 people. “I looked out into the audience during the set and there were people with signs with my lyrics on it!”she extols. “I will never forget that one.”
Hayley’s “very autobiographical” Girlhood album most closely represents where she’s at right now, both as an artist and a person: sometimes sassy, always heartfelt.And something tells us Baby Hayley would wholeheartedly approve of Girlhood, which is, unquestionably, her adult counterpart’s most honest and accomplished set of songs to date.