Orchestras and palindromes: a chat with Heather Shannon of The Jezabels

The Jezabels are amongst Sydney’s finest rock bands. Their career stretches further than a decade back at this stage, dotted by new fans and accolades every step of the way.

In 2019 they’re as potent as ever, and still taking their sound to places they’ve never been before. An upcoming tour with Corona Sunsets will see The Jezabels playing at surf clubs and RSLs all over the country, from the big cities to rural towns and everywhere in between. They’ve also locked in a slot at Bad Friday’s 10th anniversary, which funnily enough take places down the road from where a few of the band members currently live.

Right before all that kicks off, we sat down with keyboardist Heather Shannon, chatting about her recent work with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, musical palindromes, and the Sydney scene of times past.

the jezabels heather shannon interview

A decade on from the moment they picked up their instruments, The Jezabels are still doing Sydney proud. Ahead of some monumental 2019 touring, we caught up for the latest.

HAPPY: I saw you did some work with the Australian Chamber Orchestra recently.

HEATHER: Yeah, I did!

HAPPY: I wasn’t really aware of your orchestral stuff, how long have you been doing that?

HEATHER: Probably about three or so years now. When The Jezabels were on a bit of a break a while ago I entered this local competition with the Metropolitan Orchestra based in Sydney. That started me off, met a bunch of people and got a few opportunities out of that, which is really exciting. And I’ve always written string parts for The Jezabels, so it sort of stems from that.

HAPPY: I hadn’t heard of Haydn’s Palindrome symphony or really considered the idea of a musical palindrome, really. Was writing do that form a nice challenge?

HEATHER: Yeah it was really fun, because I knew of the symphony but I wasn’t familiar with it. And it literally runs front-to-back, which is pretty insane.

HAPPY: It’s crazy!

HEATHER: They also had other parts in the program that were a bit of a palindrome as well. It was a fun challenge, I actually tried to write a part of my music backwards to see if it worked… and parts of it sort of did, so I adapted it from there. I went with the theme; I had the first part, and then the second part of the concert was like an echo, like a reverb-y echo of the first piece. It was a bit more conceptual, and there was a bit of backwards stuff as well.

HAPPY: Very cool. Is the idea of writing in palindrome meant to just be a challenge, or is something that’s the same forwards as backwards supposed to sound special in some way?

HEATHER: I think it’s just a fun conceptual idea. I don’t know, it’s interesting from the point of view of the audience too, if they think of music in terms of that. They actually separated it, rather than playing the whole of Haydn’s symphony together, so it was kind of broken up into smaller sections, which I guess can be more manageable from an audience perspective.

HAPPY: Right, since thinking about it I’ve realised it kind of exists in things like reverse delay, but I was wondering if there was meant to be something the brain likes about palindromic music.

HEATHER: Totally. Maybe there’s a naturalness in the form, an organic-ness or something.

HAPPY: How did the concerts go?

HEATHER: It was great, yeah. It was such a spin-out to have the experience with such incredible players, and for them to be playing my music. It was a really cool experience and I felt really lucky, actually.

HAPPY: Have you ever thought about a Jezabels show with an orchestra?

HEATHER: We have, and we’d really love to look into that at some stage, maybe for some sort of anniversary tour, I don’t know. We’d love to do that.

HAPPY: As someone who’s dipped their toe into that world, would you feel confident adapting Jezabels songs to that level of production?

HEATHER: I think a lot of Jezabels songs would lend themselves to that kind of environment, for sure. Just to heighten the melodrama and the epicness.

HAPPY: I’ve always wondered how closely the original composers are involved in those kind of shows, and how much just gets handed off to the orchestra. I guess it depends on the band.

HEATHER: I think… with Jezabels stuff it is really difficult to write string and orchestral arrangements for pop music. It’s like that electro-acoustic vibe, it’s a bit of a challenge to get all the layers sitting properly and enough of a balance. That would definitely be something that we would have to put a lot of thought into, and figure out how, you know, how the woodwinds fit in this soundscape. How to make The Jezabels still sound like The Jezabels, like… where does the bassoon go?

HAPPY: Nice.

HEATHER: But when I did my piece, they’re such skilled players, and really innovative in the way they approach music. Basically their specialty is interpreting music so they add so much, if you give them a piece of paper they’ll bring it to life.

HAPPY: That’s really interesting. A bit of a Sydney question, since you’ve been playing here for more than a decade now – is there a venue that’s not around anymore that you wish you could drop into modern Sydney?

HEATHER: Oh, there’s so many, it’s really sad. I don’t know how bands do it these days, I really don’t. Going on a tangent, I had to get my synthesizers fixed the other day and Steve Jones, who’s a bit of a synth god and can fix anything, he’s moving to Melbourne and when people like that are moving away, things are extremely dire. So I guess bands, engineers, and pretty much everyone is going to Melbourne, Melbourne’s going to be booming. But I miss the Hopetoun, we pretty much cut our teeth at the Hopetoun and they pretty much had live music every night. We supported all these bands and met heaps of people. The Annandale. The Newtown Social Club.

HAPPY: Now a putt-putt golf venue.

HEATHER: Yeah… so there’s three.

HAPPY: The free tour you have coming up with Corona is all RSLs and surf clubs, which is a nice return to those kind of shows. Pretty rigorous scheduled though, are you looking forward to it?

HEATHER: It’s really good. It’s a really great opportunity because it’s super hard to do regional touring in Australia, and this gives us a really good chance to get out there and play in some places that we’ve never been to before. It’s quite expensive you know, and it’s over all the states. And RSL shows and pubs, they’re always super fun, especially when they’re free. It’s a different vibe.

HAPPY: I also saw you’re playing Bad Friday for the second time this year.

HEATHER: Yeah, we’ve played it once before. Sam and I live just up the road from there, so playing locally is always fun. I love Marrickville and I love that part of Sydney.

HAPPY: Like, carry your gear down the street close?

HEATHER: Yeah almost! We’ll just roll it down the hill.

HAPPY: Were these kind of single day festivals that happening much in Sydney when you were playing shows at the Annandale or Hopetoun? There seems to be a real influx of them lately, despite the naysaying.

HEATHER: Totally. We lived just up the road from The Factory Theatre, and they seemed to have a fair bit of stuff on all the time which was awesome. We’d go down there and watch a few bands… but people do what they can in Sydney. People are constantly trying. I think one of the things that appealed to us as a band back in the day was that it always felt like a bit of a struggle in Sydney and you were fighting the good fight, that there was a bit of a culture war going on. But I think we’ve been well and truly defeated (laughs), which is sad but I don’t know, there still something to say about that striving to keep something alive. It gives people fire.

HAPPY: Do you still see some old familiar faces when you play Sydney these days?

HEATHER: Definitely, for sure, and we love that. The nicest people come to our shows, and it’s always really nice to say hi to the familiar faces, it makes you feel really humble just to know that they’re still coming to the shows and enjoying our songs.

HAPPY: Are any of them playing alongside you now?

HEATHER: Ooh, let me think. Because we haven’t been playing for so long I feel a bit out of touch with the new up and coming bands, sadly. They probably are, though.

HAPPY: I reckon they may not tell you that they saw you in 2008 if they saw you now…

HEATHER: Oh there are a few bands like that, Dande And The Lion are a band that we’ve seen a few times and had chats, they’ve got some really cool music out, I think I met them back in the day.

HAPPY: Well that’s about all I had. Thanks for the chat.

HEATHER: Thanks for the interview!


The Jezabels’ Corona Sunsets tour is currently under way – check out the full set of dates here. You can also catch the band at Bad Friday 2019, taking place on April 19th – tickets are here.