Hazel English: “There’s a lot of pressure in society to succeed”

Three years on from the release of her double EP, Hazel English is back with her debut full-length, 'Wake UP', giving us much-needed escapism and clarity during times of turbulence.

Dialling in for a chat on the Dorkphone is a little different at the mo – speaking from self-isolation; the result of a global pandemic, which has seen Coronavirus (COVID-19) rapidly sweep across the globe. While most of the world stays in quarantine, turbulent times like these mean reaching for more music – old and new, to soothe anxieties and give us something else to focus on if the daily news threads or Whatsapp group chats become overwhelming.

“When I first started writing the album, I was feeling similar to how I’m feeling now,” Hazel English explains. “Like I can’t move forward on what I want to be doing in my life, and a bit stuck where I am. That was more of a mental thing for me, not physical, which it is right now, so it’s strange to be returning to those feelings.” Hazel never anticipated that the main motivations for writing her debut album, ‘Wake UP’, would correlate so heavily with the current climate; no one could.

“For me, it was just blockages that I had within myself because I kept falling into bad habits, like getting stuck on social media and the fear of trying new things or projects. I just felt like I couldn’t move forward and progress, so I started to reflect on the reasons why I was feeling that way. It opened me up to a lot of revelations. I was feeling a mixture of apathy, isolation, despondency, addiction to social media, consumption and I think a lot of these things were symptoms of my environment.”

During the process of writing ‘Wake UP’, Hazel turned to philosophy for inspiration, leading her back to the works of Guy Dabord; The Society of the Spectacle in particular. Released in 1967, Dabord explores a society where we prioritise appearances versus reality. “We’re kind of living through these moments now, which we hold up on social media and present as our true lives, spending all this time behind the lens, rather than living our life. The book talks about how important it is to be present in the moment and getting rid of these false ideas.”

The thoughts and insecurities Hazel mentions surrounding the excessive use of social media rings truer than ever to our current living situation – and how we’re all learning, now more than ever, to try and live in the present. “It’s even more challenging right now because we just have social media and our screens to connect with friends and family. It brings me a lot of anxiety as I’m figuring out how much time is too much time spent online.

“The other night, I just started playing songs for the first time in ages and felt so relieved that I was doing something tangible and not just consuming constant streams of news, entertainment or messages. I’m just trying to balance talking to friends, catching up with the news, but also taking time for myself without putting pressure on having to create something spectacular during this time.”

Scrolling through Instagram feeds now, you’ll see an array of illustrations on ‘how to self-isolate’, giving the term ‘self-care’ a whole new kind of meaning. While these posts may mean well, the pressures of having to create or be productive is something we can all be guilty of allowing to make us feel bad if we just want a nap or watch TV. Hazel tries to deconstruct where these pressures to succeed come from. “[It] comes from society, not from within me. There is an urge to create, but it needs to come from an organic place, not from a place that says, ‘I’m only valuable if I’m constantly productive’. That’s kind of what capitalism does to us – makes us think that we have to be constant producers of work for consumption.

“There’s a lot of pressure in society to succeed, whether that’s having a lot of followers on Instagram or streams on Spotify. I realised I was feeling a bit empty about that because deep down these things don’t really mean anything to me. What matters to me is creating the best art that I can and creating meaningful things that other people can connect to, so I had to readjust my idea of what success looks like.”

“It brings me a lot of anxiety as I’m figuring out how much time is too much time spent online”
Hazel English

Hazel’s double EP, ‘Just Giving In’ / ‘Never Going Home’, released back in 2017, features 11 tracks brimming with a fizzy pop punch for the sunniest of daydreams. While ‘Wake UP’ still carries the same fun pop-filled finesse of the first record, the process for writing the second shows a promising and exciting transition.

“With the double EP, it was much faster because a lot of the songs were written and recorded on the same day. There were fewer people involved and this time, I spent a year doing sessions in LA, just writing with a whole bunch of different people, which was really fun to try because I’d never done that before. It was a whole new experience.

“It made me realise that I love working with new people and collaborating. I can sit and write a song at home by myself, but I’m not going to have as much fun doing it, and it’s probably going to take me twice as long because I can be a bit of a perfectionist. It’s kind of a way of relinquishing control, but I still have a lot of say in how the song happens. I just like the energy of having another person in the room and bouncing ideas off each other. I’m probably going to like it more and be less critical too.”

Working with others meant swapping the bedroom for a studio space and losing the DIY approach to production. “[Being] in a really great studio was really exciting for me [as I got] to do it the old fashioned way. It was a longer process, but I’m really glad I took that route and worked with some incredible people as well. Once you do a fully-fledged album, you get addicted to those lush arrangements. It’s hard to step back!

“It was also an exercise for me to write [lyrics] on the spot rather than spending too much time lingering on word choices and make snap decisions where I don’t mull over too much.”

Since the last release, Hazel has allowed herself to show more vulnerability in her writing, but also to be more expansive, sharing thoughts on wider societal issues. “Honesty is very important to me, so I’m always writing from a personal point of view, but with this album, I’m also talking about things on a bigger scale of how society affects me – rather than just immediate emotions. [‘Wake UP’] deals with both sides, but I was thinking more of the larger picture and analysing things a little more philosophically.”

Thematically, the LP shines a light on power and intimacy and how the two can relate to each other. “I guess I was realising when you become intimate with someone, it can get to the point where you’re so fused together that you forget your own identity and, in that way, I started to feel disconnected to myself. But then on the other end of the scale, I was experiencing moments where I was physically intimate with somebody but not feeling emotionally intimate with them at all. For me, it was about balancing that out – the need to have intimacy with people but also a need for space and self-reflection. I guess as a kind of a scale – a balancing act.”

Lead single, ‘Shaking’ offers a fresh and upbeat melody, but with a more serious subject matter behind it. “[Shaking] was really about seductive and manipulative use of power and using intimacy as a tool for gaining power.” This isn’t shied away from lyrically, as Hazel demands “get down on your hands and knees / Baby beg for me / Tell me that I am your queen / Maybe I’ll set you free”.

Hazel ponders on our search for identity and what drives us to seek this out so vehemently. “I definitely think it’s important to explore spirituality,” Hazel explains, “but I also think it’s important to question everything and not just buy into the first thing you read or something that just sounds good to you.” This circles back to previous musings of the power of consumption, especially across social media platforms, where clickbait can clout and pressures can mount. Luckily, Hazel offers some much-needed escapism of the 1960s, with musical elements echoing those from Dusty or Petula tracks. If we close our eyes, we can just smell the flower power freedom.

“At the time I was writing the album, I was very in the rabbit hole of the 1960s. I’ve been collecting vintage since I was 16, so there’s an idealistic and maybe naïve longing for that time. I loved how experimental and free the songs are and felt like the idiosyncratic tendencies of that era felt very align with the sentiments I was trying to express.”

Standing out in the streaming sphere also proved to be the driving force behind the creative process – again linking back to this constant current of consumption, as music is more accessible than ever, making the realm of commercial music in 2020 more concentrated than the 1960s. “I was seeing a lot of homogenisation of music in the Spotify world, with playlists and algorithms, [so] I didn’t want to make music for just being in the background.

“What I find exciting [about the 60s] is that people were becoming really active politically and challenging the status quo. People weren’t afraid to go against the norms and question society. We’re starting to see rumblings of that now, and it’ll get stronger as more people wake up to what’s going on. That’s why I look back and feel nostalgic because I think it was a time that people were really trying to make a difference.”

When thinking of how the new tracks will slot in with the old in setlists, it seems like an exciting prospect. Hazel reveals, “I wanted it to be a fun and exciting record for people so they can hear different things on multiple listens – there’s very much a live feeling with some amazing players on it.”

While bringing these new tracks to life might be further from Hazel’s grasp due to recent quarantine restrictions, it’s a method we must take to ensure artists can perform to audiences once again – the glimmer of hope we can listen and look for in the future. 

Taken from the May issue of Dork. Hazel English’s album ‘Wake UP’ is out now.

Words: Charlotte Croft

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