The new album from Australian band Middle Kids starts in a vulnerable place. In its opening track, Bad Neighbours, singer-songwriter Hannah Joy inspects the lifelong reverberations of childhood trauma.
“That’s definitely the most intense track,” Joy says, speaking to the Guardian from the sunny Turramurra home she shares with bandmate and husband Tim Fitz. It’s softer and more stripped-back than many Middle Kids songs: just acoustic guitar, strings and Joy singing about anger, pain, hurt and hope.
“I have often felt like I can’t break free from defining moments in my past, and it is easy to think that the wounds will never heal,” she adds. “Up until this song I haven’t been able to be so raw – so it’s a vulnerable moment on the record.
“But it was funny too, because where do we put this on the album? We were like, let’s fucking put it at the beginning. If you’re gonna go there, just fully go there.”
Fully going there became the game plan for Today We’re The Greatest, the band’s second album. It was something they hadn’t done before.
A Sydney trio completed by drummer Harry Day, Middle Kids broke through in 2016 with Edge of Town. At home, they were added to rotation on national youth broadcaster Triple J airplay and were nominated for Aria awards; abroad they were a hit, playing the song on Conan (followed by invites from James Corden and Jimmy Kimmel) and at festivals including Lollapalooza.
That single, and the subsequent debut album of radiant indie pop-rock, was mostly made up of lyrics Joy describes as conceptual. Edge of Town, for instance, was about “a girl who got swallowed up by the earth”. But recently, her reluctance to put herself in her songwriting has felt more like a creative hindrance. “I think I’ve been guarding that for a reason, because of fear,” she says. “But making this album, it just felt like the right next move for us to go there.”
She was pregnant with their first child at the time, which also changed her approach. “[Pregnancy] really makes you wonder, what do I actually think is important? Because I’m going to have to raise a human and impart that to them.”
That contemplative state manifested, in part, as sweet, triumphant love songs. The combination of impending motherhood as well as “being married for a while and realising what it is to keep choosing to love someone beyond the point of good times” made the concept of love feel meatier and real enough to write about. One track even features the sound of her son’s heartbeat, recorded during a 20-week sonogram.
But in other songs, she reflects on the more difficult chapters of her life. On two tracks, including the early single Questions, she reflects on the relationship she had with alcohol and men in her early 20s.
“It’s a big Australian cultural thing, but it’s crazy how much of my world revolved around drinking,” she says. “It sounds so silly talking about it now, but it was such a fuel. Everything seemed fun and sparkly all the time, but then I realised that I’m not engaging with anyone properly, or myself properly. And I had all these relationships [with men], but they were nighttime relationships. I wouldn’t even know what to do if I saw them during the day.”
Meeting Fitz, who doesn’t drink, forced a change.
“I had to learn how to engage with him without alcohol, which is really challenging. It was a big challenge in our relationship and it still can be, actually,” Joy says. “I was a bit of a loose canon at the beginning and I realised that I want to be able to honour this relationship, so I’ve got to sort something out.”
Taking a year off drinking helped. “For a while it was this big thing I was dealing with, but I don’t really feel like that any more,” she says. “So I think Questions came from this place of looking back and going, what the hell? I was bouncing around like a reckless, drunk little girl.”
On some songs, including that opening track, Fitz helped her put words to her past.
“[Bad Neighbours] is one Tim had more input than others on lyrically, which is really interesting, because it’s so raw. It’s like he was giving me words for my own thing,” Joy says. One line is repeated over and over: “Just when I’m breaking free I can’t quite hold it all together.”
“As we grow older, you start seeing how experiences when you’re younger can have such a formative impact on you,” she says. “And it’s like gosh, I should be over this, or I should be healed. But some things in life you’ve just got to keep working through.”