The current political climate is probably not the best crash course in American civics for non-natives, like Australian singer Hazel English, but it is definitely the one she’s getting.
Born and raised in Sydney and educated in Melbourne, the ambient pop songwriter wasn’t tuned into politics – Australian, American, or otherwise – for most of her life. Now an expat living in Oakland, English, much like the rest of us, is getting a front row seat to the current Trump-induced shit storm.
We caught up with her in advance of her first-ever headlining American tour to talk politics and the writing process behind her blissful indie-pop tunes that grapple with issues of control, belonging, and anxiety.
Remember, kids: just because the art isn’t overtly political doesn’t mean the artist behind it has nothing to say.
Hazel English plays with Elsa y Elmar at 8 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 21, at Rickshaw Stop. $10-12, rickshawstop.com
SF Weekly: You just got back from a run of shows in Australia. How did it feel to go back and play there?
Hazel English: It was nice. It was great because my family finally got to come see me play. I’m still getting over the jetlag.
SFW: Speaking of your family, what did you listen to growing up?
HE: Enya was pretty popular in our house. The Bee Gees, ABBA, stuff like that. My dad also listened to a lot of blues music. He loves Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.
SFW: You studied creative writing in college. How does that background inform how you write lyrics now?
HE: It’s hard for me to say how because I don’t really analyze my own songwriting, to be honest. But I’m always writing. A lot of the material I write doesn’t make it into a song. I’ve got a lot of extra stuff that doesn’t really go anywhere. Sometimes I write poems. Sometimes I write fiction too.
SFW: How long have you been writing short fiction and poetry?
HE: Since I was really young. I remember writing stories when I was 8. I started writing poetry when I was about 13, so I feel like I’ve been writing for quite a long time. That came first for me, more than music. Although I’ve always been into music too.
SFW: You often sing about your fears and anxieties. What made you decide to use those subjects in your music?
HE: I essentially just write about what’s on my mind at the time, so a lot of my songs come out about that. I’m constantly feeling those feelings. I think a lot of other people deal with that stuff too, so I hope other people can relate in some way.
SFW: Do you think it’s cathartic for you to write about your anxieties and fears?
HE: Definitely. I mainly pick lyrics straight from my diary so they’re quite personal.
SFW: Do you ever look back on your old diaries?
HE: I was just doing that the other day! Well, I mean a lot of my old journals are at my parents’ house, but I was just looking at one from two years ago. It’s like reading an older version of yourself. I tend to try and use the stuff that I’ve written most recently to keep it close to how I am feeling right now.
SFW: You’ve had a bit of time between now and releasing your debut EP. How has your perception of those songs changed?
HE: I still feel like they’re quite relevant to me. Songs like “Never Going Home,” for instance, I still feel that excitement about living in the U.S. I still go through the same feelings that I felt in those songs.
SFW: You often sing about California like it’s a person you have a relationship with. How would you describe that relationship?
HE: Like an intense romance. For me, it was like falling in love. Everything was exciting. You feel the same rush that you feel when you meet somebody that you fall in love with. There’s a similar sense of getting addicted.
SFW: What made you decide to stay in the Bay Area after studying abroad here?
HE: It just felt right. Everything felt like it was falling into place. I can’t really explain it. I felt like I had to be here. I really enjoy how open everyone is here. It’s such a community.
SFW: As long as we’re talking about you moving to and living in this country, any thoughts on the current political situation?
HE: [Laughs.] It’s interesting, I guess. A little scary. What’s cool to see is how people are really starting to become more politically active. We didn’t learn very much about politics in my school, so for me it’s interesting because I’m learning about politics here in the U.S. and how the system works and how it’s different from Australia. I feel like it will be an interesting year. It’s a learning experience for me, but it is scary.
SFW: Do you think you’ve become more political following the election?
HE: I definitely think I’ve become more politically aware than I was before. It’s easy to not think about it when things are going fine. It’s forced me to really take notice of what’s going on and find out about how the government is run here. We weren’t really taught about other systems of government in Australia. We just learned about Australia.
SFW: Did you go to the Women’s March?
HE: I was in Australia. I really wanted to go. I would’ve gone if I was here, but I was in the tiniest town that didn’t have a march! It sucked. I was on Twitter all day living vicariously through other people. I went to Australia before Trump got inaugurated so it was so weird to see all this stuff happening at a distance. The only way I was finding out about it was through the internet, but I was in a place with really bad internet! [Laughs.] It was like, “Oh my god, I’m missing out on this huge moment!”
SFW: You are getting more and more buzz within the industry. How do you keep it from going to your head?
HE: It’s not too difficult because I’m a pretty self-deprecating person. As you can probably tell from my lyrics, I have a lot of self-doubt, so I don’t think that will ever be a problem. It’s more like how do I not destroy myself with all this anxiety and self-doubt? I don’t really think about it, quite honestly. I’m just grateful that people are listening.