“You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting! So… get on your way!” The closing verse from Dr Seuss’ ‘Oh, the Places You’ll Go!’ might’ve been written for children, but its sentiments of optimism and empowerment are ones we can all benefit with being reminded of from time to time. Sentiments like these, of determination, optimism, and strength, are the lifeblood of ‘A Billion Heartbeats’ – a record that found its inspirations not from a mountain, but at the top of a glacier.
“I always felt like I needed to get as far away from my home, the city, and external influences as possible in order to access the place that songs come from,” Blaine Harrison contemplates. “I thought Iceland in January felt like about as far removed from London as I could think of,” he laughs. But much like when the narrator of ‘Oh, the Places You’ll Go!’ finds themselves in The Waiting Place, it wasn’t until he escaped – in this case, back to London – that the frontman was able to find what he was searching for (as Seuss describes, “the bright places, where Boom Bands are playing”).
Having retreated to an Icelandic fishing village, it was a rare flash of contact from back home (unsurprisingly, phone reception is difficult to come by at the top of a glacier) that served as a lightning bolt of inspiration – the day of the International Women’s March in 2017. “I was struck with this real sense that this is where we need to be right now. We need to be in the thick of it all and in touch with the bigger conversations that are happening at this particular time,” Blaine recalls. “It’s all good and well having this incredible sense of peace, being far away from everything, but actually the stories that I feel that we need to be telling aren’t happening there. They’re not happening in the wilderness, cut off from everything. They’re happening back here. They’re happening on the streets.”
Booking a flight back almost the very next week, moving into an abandoned building on the Strand as a property guardian, ‘A Billion Heartbeats’ began to take its shape on the streets and in the squares of London. “Every week I’d hear the sound of a protest coming down to Trafalgar Square,” Blaine describes. “I’d get up, and I’d go outside, and I’d join it – really as a means of education, as a way of connecting with the messages of the different protests.”
Citing NHS protests and the Black Lives Matter march, free Tommy Robinson protests and Remain marches, these are the movements and the voices that breathe life into Mystery Jets’ new record. “I found if I went and listened to speakers, surrounded by other people, these messages behind these causes took on an immense power,” Blaine illustrates. Power is something ‘A Billion Heartbeats’ possesses in spades. From the distorted refrains of lead single ‘Screwdriver’ to the boyband-esque backing vocals of ‘Campfire Song’ (a track that comes complete with chant-a-long chorus and heart-soaring key change), this is Mystery Jets at their most real.
“I think that as a songwriter, your work is a product of your time and a reflection of the time that you’re living in,” Blaine portrays. “It really felt like the times that we were living in were feeling more polarised than ever.” With Brexit on the rapidly-approaching horizon as just one example, there’s no denying these are tumultuous times we live in. “I think, in a funny way, that’s when music can really serve a greater purpose than just be a soundtrack to our lives,” Blaine asserts. “It can actually comfort, and it can provide an escape route from the bleakness of the outside world.”
With ‘A Billion Heartbeats’, that’s exactly what Mystery Jets strived to do: not offer answers or solutions, but simply give voice to the concerns that surround them and echo a resounding sense of hope. “There’s definitely a danger that songs can be an ill-informed, or over-earnest, or – even worse – preachy,” Blaine mulls. “Not everyone’s looking to pop music to provide an answer to anything, and I don’t think it should. I think what it can do is it can pose questions, and it can provide comfort, and it can make people feel like they’re being heard and like they’re being seen.”
“Ultimately, as a songwriter, your currency is empathy,” he explains. “That’s how you can engage with the world around you.” Forged from energy and empowerment, ‘A Billion Heartbeats’ might have found its inspiration in political protests, but for Mystery Jets, it was never about telling you what to do, what to think, or what to feel. “I don’t think we’re singing about politics,” Blaine states. “I think we’re singing about people. I think we’re singing about issues that matter to us right now, at a time when the world feels like it’s going through this giant identity crisis and people are feeling more polarised than ever. I think it’s in those times that we need to be reminded of our humanity and we need to be reminded of what we have in common.”
It’s a meaning that echoes through art and culture, that remains as important today as it ever has been. “You, the people, have the power,” Charlie Chaplin pronounced at the end of 1940’s ‘The Great Dictator’. “The power to create happiness… to make this life free and beautiful.” Crying out for unity, for tolerance, for freedom and love, these are the same sentiments that prevail on ‘A Billion Heartbeats’ and will continue to prevail long after the record. “We never give up,” the band croon on ‘Campfire Song’. And really, that’s what it’s all about.
“I don’t know if it’s just me being an optimist, but I think we’re living in a time where I really do feel that we do have the power to implement changes,” Blaine enthuses. “I don’t think that the world necessarily needs songs to make people feel empowered. I think people are empowered,” he expresses. “It’s about how they wield that power.” The world might feel like an increasingly polarising place, but from petitions to protests, rallies, marches, and movements, there are increasingly more ways to make voices heard and messages seen.
“You look at the climate movement, and it’s being led by teenagers, by school kids not going into school one day a week,” Blaine explains. “People grouping together to make things happen…” he adds. “That was written off as this kind of hippie ideal in our parents’ age. I think we’re actually living in a time where we can be powerful if we put our voices together, and group together on a common cause.” This is the belief and forward-driven energy that Mystery Jets carved into their new record, into every chorus hook, resounding refrain, and even into the very title.
A mammal’s average lifespan is made up of a billion heartbeats. “If you’ve got a billion heartbeats, what are you going to do with them?” Blaine challenges. “It sort of shines a whole new light on what you do with your time when you’re on this planet,” he illustrates of the album name. “It’s this idea of people coming together to create something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts.” Distilling the record into a sentence, the frontman offers “we want to make caring sexy.”
A soundtrack to empathy and empowerment, this is Mystery Jets at their strongest yet. As Dr Seuss wrote in ‘Oh, the Places You’ll Go!’, “you have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself any direction you choose.” With a billion heartbeats to put to your use, the question that remains is simple: “what are you going to do?”
Taken from the October issue of Dork. Mystery Jets’ album ‘A Billion Heartbeats’ is out in 2020.
Words: Jessica Goodman