It’s half way through their sold-out string of shows back on home turf in Australia and Middle Kids’ Hannah Joy is stood holding a bouquet of roses. A smile spreads over her face as she steps towards the barrier of Sydney’s grand Metro Theatre. Leaning over the front row, she begins to throw the stems out into the crowd. A young girl on the front row is holding her hand aloft. Seeing the girl to her side, Joy hands one across and the delight in that exchange is palpable.
“Did you see Hannah passing out the roses?”, bassist Tim Fitz questions when I ask how the recent hometown shows went. “That was a special moment because it was the first time she’d done something like that amongst the crowd. There were some really sweet moments where people were so excited to get a little rose from her”. But despite that beautiful intimacy with their fans, Joy isn’t completely sold on the idea. “I feel a bit dorky”, she admits. “But I was tossing up between that and biting a chicken head off, you know? The roses is more Middle Kids”. Just like that, she’s boiled down the charm of a band like Middle Kids. Because to write-off this heartfelt indie trio on the rose anecdote alone would be foolish. Middle Kids are plucky and those packed out Australian dates are testament to just how far they’ve come in the year since their debut Lost Friends.
Not long back off tour and set to the hit road again imminently, Joy and Fitz are speaking to me from their new kitchen space. It’s dark outside and they’ve spent the day moving into the heart of Suburbia. That might seem like an odd-choice for a band rocking the theatre stalls of Sydney’s best loved venues but music is at the heart of their decision to relocate. “We used to live in this awesome house with our own studio where we recorded most of Lost Friends,” says Joy. “But we’ve moved to a place where we can have an even bigger studio”. Despite her joking that it’s just them and “old people” out in the ‘burbs, it sounds like an ideal location for creativity to blossom. She continues: “The studio is upstairs and you just look outside and all you see is foliage. Beautiful green leaves, you feel like it’s kind of a treehouse”.
An apt analogy for an artist whose musical career to date has been rooted in something more organic. Joy’s first band, Beaufields spun blissful odes of seeing the planets and constellations in the night sky. Flanked by Catriona Hunter (drums) and Ellen Riley (bass), the trio helped Joy to gain confidence as a performer which, once you’ve learnt that, kind of explains her hesitation around serenading a crowd of thousands. Meanwhile, on the same Sydney scene, Fitz was performing as part of indie pop troupe, March of The Real Fly who were also finding analogies for fragility in Mother nature. It was around this period that Fitz began producing for other artists, tinkering away in his studio to record drums to tape in back rooms and bedrooms and relishing in the lo-fi sounds. The pair contributed to one another’s solo materials and then for Joy’s live band, this time teaming up with “the intense, masculine yet sensitive drumming of Harry Day”. The evolution of Middle Kids had begun.
To this day, when the couple - who are actually married - return home, Fitz finds solace in a more spiritualist place losing himself to the sounds. All in the name of progression, naturally. “You feel trapped on the road as you can’t really do anything. So I like to just spend hours in the studio making music that I know will never be heard. I just tell myself that it’s research”, he laughs. “He’s like King Tinker!”, Joy quips. “He always goes through the rooms in his undies, picking up different instruments for hours”. Her own returning rituals follow a similarly rhythmic approach but rather than beats in the bedroom, she’s creating a colourful palette of wholesome, home cooked food. Another thing - much like personal space - that’s hard to come by on the road. “Cooking for me is massive. There’s that really lovely tactile experience of chopping; the mixtures and the colours. I find that an absolute wonderful creative release and there’s no pressure, you know. I just want it to taste good”.
It’s a welcome moment of respite for a musician who has poured her heart into the lyricism that shines throughout Middle Kids’ back catalogue. Evergreen themes are awash throughout. As debuts so often do, Lost Friends works through formative feelings around growing up and finding your place in the world. In some ways, it’s similar to the discombobulation Alice feels in Wonderland when she’s strolling through the flowerbeds only for the pansies and posies to turn on her when they can’t cordon her off into a tribe. Joy’s thoughtful lyricism taps into a connectedness through community that we can also recognise. “I feel like the whole album (Lost Friends) one of the big themes is about belonging and that real deep desire for that but often feel like you don’t belong anywhere”, she admits. “As a young person, you have such a dynamic imagination that you actually have to learn how to express it. You can also end up believing lies about yourself. It may not have been explicitly said to you but you can start believing things, you know whatever they are - shame or that you’re not good enough”.
As middle kids themselves - not just the namesake but also in birthing order - Joy and Fitz carry a lot of the anticipated character traits. They’re agreeable - when answering questions between the two of them, they are continually conscious of when the other might have something to interject or add to the story. They’re sociable - it’s not every day a band is enthusiastic to a late night Skype call when they’ve just carted their entire home an hour down the road. And they’re unquestionably loyal. To one another, to drummer Day who gets a big shout out in his absence and to their fans. Petal by petal, they are connecting with each and everyone of them during those live shows. But they also cut a familiar shape in their family dynamics too that others might well recognise. “It’s always so funny when you go back home and hang out with your family. You start acting like you were when you were fourteen-years-old”, Joy laughs. Tim’s quick to see the parallels with his own set up. “We both have pretty strong family cultures that we’ve come from but there’s a lot of “this is how this family is” and that’s not a good thing. You’ve got to learn how to define yourself outside of that. Uprooting things that aren’t beneficial anymore or have caused you pain and plant new things”.
Both Joy and Fitz speak quite openly about their own vulnerabilities. It seems, much like their ambitions with the new studio space, in their years together they have quietly been sowing the seeds of change together. Something that’s testament, Fitz believes, to Joy’s ability to embrace natural faults as she sees them without judgement or reprobation. “Hannah was the first person I met who wasn’t scared of imperfection”. It’s this idea that emits like a beacon from album number - and live show favourite - 'Don’t Be Hiding' in particular. “...And that's kind of the line of the song ‘I’m not scared of the stuff you’re fighting’”, he expands. “That is like one of the most liberating concepts I learnt from Hannah. ‘Yeah, you have imperfections and so does everyone’. It’s not necessarily the best part of you but it’s not a scary part of you”.
“You know what’s funny?” Joy interjects. “That song is one of our loudest singalong songs in our show”, she pauses to take a swig from her water bottle. But it’s not just in voice that the fans are showing their gratitude for the track. “People have this very particular way that they dance to this song, collectively. They take on an old person persona. They’re kind of standing in the crowd like old ladies”. She does a swaying motion back and front with arms flailed. “The whole audience turns into dorks”, she beams.
It’s a special feeling to ignite within a crowd. To feel so liberated and accepted that you can be your most free, busting out those geriatric jive moves with the best of ‘em. But then who are we to judge when it comes to what makes something beautiful? Joy is quick to agree. “Beauty is wonderful but what is beauty? It’s so much broader than we can feel. I think that’s a personal journey of mine to see the ways that I am beautiful now”. She makes an emphatic stop sign with her hand to signal the now. “Even amongst my failings and insecurities. You hope that you can grow and become better but in this place now there’s still a lot of beauty”. “I also think if you don’t mind me saying…” She looks to Tim. “Getting married and getting to know Tim in a very intimate way, I’ve learnt how men can have their own insecurities too. Men can feel a lot of pressure to act a certain way with their body. There’s often a message that goes around about how “you’re perfect you’re just the way you are” which I’m really reactive to because we’re just not but why should we even be? It’s simultaneously learning to love ourselves the way we are but also learning to have the humility to say “I’m still kind of weak in these areas”. Roused by her confidence boosting speech, Fitz reasons. “You don’t have to be perfect to be loved”, pointing a forthright finger like a wise father figure.
This kind of self-belief carries over from their full-length and only glows brighter in their first offerings of new music in 2019. "Real Thing" documents that quiet, persistent voice that asks whether you’ve found the thing you were looking for. The relentless back and forth in your own thoughts of whether you’re not doing enough or doing it all fast or well enough. Surely, they’re quite raw emotions to dive back into for a live set? “Oh yeah, I have a kind of post-vulnerability hangover after these shows”, Joy laughs. But there’s another kernel of hidden strength against adversity in the track that isn’t apparent from the recording alone, according to Fitz. "'Real Thing' was vulnerable because you really believed in it. There wasn’t necessarily a plan from the label to release it and, basically on Hannah’s belief, we recorded it ourselves and we got it mixed properly. It took ages and then we said 'Here’s this song' and they were like, 'Oh, well that’s the next single'.
"It feels vulnerable to do something totally ourselves. It’s a vulnerable move to say 'This is all us and here it is. You didn’t ask for it…' We feel a lot of ownership of that song and are so proud that it’s out”.
"Real Thing" alongside follow up release "Beliefs and Prayers" are just two of the tracks that will feature on Middle Kids’ upcoming mini-album, New Songs for Old Problems out this Friday. Ahead of our conversation, I’d made some notes to understand more about how these songs differed from the debut but now, in the knowledge of their new suburban setting, some of the immediate production variables seem obvious. Rather than holing up in their home studio - as the band did for much of Lost Friends - New Songs... was captured far more serendipitously. “Two of the tracks were done overseas. One in LA and the other one just outside of Sydney”, explains Fitz. Joy’s quick to add that they had a day off on tour to capture them, only further proving this trio’s tenacity when it comes to creation. But the mini-album didn’t just signal new physical terrains for the band, it also saw King Tinker’s role coming to the fore - all those nights of jetlag inspiring Fitz to shake up their old ways of doing things in the studio. “There were things that I’d learned since the last album. I played guitar through cassette tape machines that were turned up really loud to make the distortion sound. We hung microphones on light fittings in the room to get a bigger sound. You know, doing a few more things that were a bit bolder”, he explains, clearly enthused by the project. “We were a bit scared making the album because it was our first record and we didn’t want to ruin it. We wanted to be professional about it, you know?” (laughs) “With New Songs...we had a lot more freedom and went with our guts. It feels like a true expression of us”.
As if to illustrate the continued unity of the pair at the heart of Middle Kids, Joy is equally pleased with the thematic choices of the tracks. Although, she too was keen to let fresh ideas bloom and instead channeled the frustrations she’d observed in the world quietly imploding around us. “They’re a bit more angsty than the album. I was feeling a bit more distressed about the state of things in the world so it’s a bit more “Aah”....” It’s something that Fitz had spotted when he was handwriting out all of the lyrics for the band’s upcoming album art. “All the lyrics feel like one song”, he begins gesturing columns in front of him. “They feel like one long rant from quite a stern person. That’s when I looked at I thought “Well, this definitely feels distinct. It has its own flavour”. So why the shorter format? “I mean, it could be too much with more than six songs. You can have too much of one vibe”, he jokes. I make a comment about how prolific they appear to be as songwriters in and amongst their relocating and life on the road and get a typically humble response from Fitz. “It’s all self-created stress”.
In some ways it makes those homely rituals they keep coming back to even more precious. A quiet confidence that even when they’re flat out from touring internationally, Joy will be back in the kitchen chopping methodically as she turns over fresh thoughts in her head while Fitz will return to solitude in the stillness of his studio. But the lingering possibility of album number two will soon nip that in the bud. “There’s definitely an energy that’s starting to come, it’s like an unresolved tension. There’s something there and we’re just going to tap into that when we get back”, Fitz confirms, looking past their upcoming UK shows. And just like that, despite being surrounded by cardboard boxes with their worldly possessions still packed in and amongst the bubblewrap, the seeds of another record are starting to germinate.
New Songs For Old Problems is out on 24 May via Lucky Number