Middle Kids On The Enduring Mystery Of Music
Music is mysterious.
When I first discovered Chopin as a young pianist, I became obsessed with his Nocturnes and every time I played them I felt deep sorrow. Later, as a too-cool-for-school 16 year old, I performed 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' with my high school choir and burst into tears mid-performance because of the sheer triumphant joy I felt as our 100 voices sang together.
And anytime I hear any LCD Soundsystem song, my body is filled with a supernatural energy that allows me to dance for hours.
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Middle Kids exists because the three of us were touched by music in a similar time and in a similar way. The first few songs I wrote for this project (particularly Edge of Town) felt so powerful to Tim and I that we asked Harry to join us and soon we had all quit what we were doing to form a band. Tim was producing on the side and studying medicine, Harry was finishing up music college, I was teaching piano. We all decided that the next season of our lives was going to be shaped by this music. We didn’t have that many songs, but it felt like maybe we had tapped into a well. Songs must be powerful if they can bring three extremely different people such as Tim, Harry and I into a band.
For me, music feels very closely linked to my soul. And it also feels very closely linked to my family. My grandmother on my mother’s side is a wonderful pianist. She grew up playing in church in South Africa and learned mainly by ear. Still to this day she plays beautifully. She has perfect red fingernails and every time she runs up those keys, it is accompanied by the tap of her fingernails as they hit each note.
Nanna had a baby grand piano in her old house and sitting atop was a bowl full of chocolates wrapped in foil. Every Monday I would go over there after school and see how many chocolates I could eat in one sitting while I practiced my scales. She also had a west terrier named Bonnie, who would come and sit on the armchair next to the piano whenever I played. I really think she was listening.
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My grandmother on my father’s side is a wonderful pianist too. She grew up in the rural town of Gunnedah, Australia and learned piano in the classical tradition. She has an agile mind and can pretty much play anything by sight reading. Gran used to let me go through all her sheet music and let me pick out the pieces that I liked the look of. I could hear the music as I looked at each manuscript and would be able to discern which piece I would enjoy playing after one page in. She had an old walnut upright piano that we would all gather round and sing hymns in four part harmony.
Looking back, music has always been about these familial, communal, and confessional spaces. So much of the songwriting in Middle Kids comes from this. Being around gifted musicians like my grandmothers enabled me to engage with the beauty of sound from an early age. They gave me keys that allowed me to open doors into that mysterious temple. Another wonderful woman who helped me on this journey was my piano teacher, who when I was 8 taught me how to notate my compositions. I compiled a body of work that consisted of 5 songs; one for my mum, my dad, my brothers, my grandparents and lastly, a song for music itself.
Part of the mystery of music is why it matters so much, why it carries so much emotion and how it touches our hearts. When we were in L.A. recording Today We’re the Greatest, we talked about making sure every sound related to an emotion. We didn’t want distorted guitars to be ‘guitars’, we wanted them to be wailing voices - to go along with the words and to be deeper than the words. Like the guitars in ‘Disorder’ by Joy Division, which sound like some pain that even Ian Curtis couldn’t express with words.
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I used to hide from music, as strange as that sounds. At one point in my late teens it became so uncomfortable that I stopped playing altogether. The intimacy and emotion can feel like a burden. So to make albums isn’t that easy for me, it means I have to sit uncomfortably in emotions and lyrics that feel vulnerable, and commit to seeing the songs through until they are completed works.
The more I make music the more I realise there is a lot to learn. But it creates a wonderful hunger, a desire to know more because I now know there is so much more to know. I can really see that in the way we made this album. There was a real seeking in it. We wanted to go to new places in ourselves and with each other. And I love that about music, that when you engage with it you are changed. We are on a journey - not to define the music of a generation, but to allow ourselves to be defined by the sounds we encounter.
And at the end of the songwriting and recording process, I always find that we have somehow passed through the mystery. It is simple again, for these songs - we love them because we loved making them together and love playing them together.
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'Today We're The Greatest' is out now.
Words: Hannah Joy
Photo Credit: Daphne Nguyen
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