Interview: Hayley Marsten on her songwriting influences and process behind new single “Bittersweet At Best”

Hayley Marsten

Central Queensland’s indie-country singer/songwriter Hayley Marsten is very much an artist on the rise. She burst out of the blocks in 2019 with her debut album, Spectacular Heartbreak, and since then has been winning over audiences with her poignant songs showcasing heartache, growth and discovery.

Earlier this year she released “I’m Fine, Thanks”, a stunning riposte to those that think they know your story. Today, she has released the gorgeous “Bittersweet At Best”. This is a song that tracks a relationship that has transitioned from bright and rosy, to one that is failing. It’s tinged with melancholy, as she accepts the relationship has ended. “Please don’t call my name again”, are the final words.

The track was recorded at Brisbane’s Hunting Ground Studios. Hayley worked with Cody McWaters (King Stingray, The Chats), Kieran Stevenson, Michael Moko and Dan Sugars, who helped out on production duties.

We caught up with Hayley, to discover the process behind “Bittersweet At Best”, and to dive into her influences and what is looming for 2022 and beyond.

Hi Hayley, Congrats on the tune. Let’s go back. Where were your early songwriting memories formed?

I think my very early songwriting influence was boredom, sitting in my room with my tape recorder as a 7 year old. To be honest I can’t quite remember a time when I wasn’t making up songs or jingles or silly things like that, I have always been a show pony. I was exposed to a lot of pop music when I was growing up; Kylie Minogue, ABBA, Transvision Vamp and Robbie Williams were big hits in our house so I learned pretty subconsciously what makes something catchy. I just loved music and I loved putting on ‘shows’ for my family and friends and I thought it was so exciting to try and write my own songs.

What type of music got you hooked as a music fan?

The first time I heard ‘Tim McGraw’ by Taylor Swift, I was instantly hooked. It felt like I was listening to a story so detailed and special that it had to be real.

That was also my first real introduction to country music which, when it comes down to it, is all about storytelling and that’s why I fell in love with it. I had been writing songs since I was 7 and hearing this song at 13 was me realising why my songs never worked in my friends’ rock band… because I was a country writer.

What memories do you have of the first song you wrote?

Oh god, I wrote my first song at 7 so thankfully it doesn’t represent me as a songwriter now! Because it sounded like a rip-off of the Shrek soundtrack and was about having annoying siblings. Which is bizarre because I am an only child.

But I think the first time I wrote a song I was really proud of and sang in public was when I was about 16. I wrote it about the boy I had a crush on and how we danced together at my year 10 formal. I think that writing about what I know has been the connecting thread between then and now.

And country music still has a hold over you now?

Being introduced to country music through Taylor Swift felt like a homecoming of sorts. I had been writing for all this time and all my friends were in rock bands and I felt so out of place bringing my songs there. I love that country music gives you free rein on being honest and telling stories, even the ugly parts.

I think the crossover and pop influences in country music have been a part of the genre for decades. It’s always been a genre that splinters off into hundreds of different sub-genres but when you boil it down they all have the same key elements at the heart. I think right now, it’s particularly exciting to hear the amount of amazing female songwriters making amazing music right now; like Margo Price, Brandi Carlile and here in Australia Melody Moko & Fanny Lumsden. I’m really a fan of women in the genre, pushing the boundaries on what we sing about because for so long it felt like it was either ‘I’m in love’ or ‘I’m heartbroken’ and that’s hardly a well-rounded look at the complexities of being a woman.

Tell us about the songwriting process behind ‘Bittersweet At Best’. How has your approach to the craft changed from the early days through to now?

Earlier on in my career, I was very impatient with myself and my writing. If I didn’t get it right the first time I sat down with the song then it was dead to me. But that is a very extreme way of thinking and I also think there’s a lot of merit in looking back on things with hindsight and picking them up. I certainly don’t have the same time crunch on myself anymore.

I’ll usually start with a line or a hook or a title and sit down with my guitar and see what I come up with. I think as I’ve gotten older as well, I feel more confident in trusting myself in knowing whether or not I need to come back to a song or if it would be better served to go to a co-write with it.

But writing this single was so easy, I just sat down with my guitar in 2020 with no agenda and it just fell out. I think throughout my career that’s only happened a few times, once was a song ‘Wendy’ from my last record where I just opened my mouth and the chorus flew out. That doesn’t happen very often but it’s always so exciting when it does!

That’s why I never get sick of songwriting because it’s different every time and I never know how it’s going to happen or when you’ll get that lightning bolt idea.

Was there a particular highlight of writing “Bittersweet At Best”?

Funny enough after I wrote ‘Bittersweet at Best’, I kinda shelved it because I didn’t think it was any good, a bad habit of mine when I write something solo. But in 2020 I was recording a bunch of demos with my long-time co-writer Kieran Stevenson and my partner and a co-producer on this single, Dan Sugars.

We had done all the other songs we had intended and we had a bit of time and I said let me just smash this one out by myself quickly. I finished the take and turned around and they were both about to cry so I realised that perhaps it was something special!

Getting into the studio with this one and building it out was so special, I always feel songs have their own colours and I explained to my production team that this was like a golden brown of an old upright piano. Thankfully the co-producers on this song are some of my oldest friends and closest people in my life so they understood me and totally welcomed my absurd ways of describing how this song should sound as we made it.

What doe you have planned music-wise for the rest of 2022 and moving forward?

I have always been a fan of the “write what you know” idea and I’ve certainly focussed on that with this new album we’re making. I have always written about what’s going on with me but I feel like in the last few years in writing it I have explored subject matter that I would never have dreamed to touch before, like my own mental health struggles.

I think moving forward, I might revisit things I’ve felt in the past in a new lens, like the way that Taylor Swift wrote on Folklore. Which was largely fictional stories and characters, but were situations and emotions that she had experienced in the past but with a different perspective. Or maybe I’ll throw it way back to the beginning and write a new soundtrack for Shrek.

Thanks for your time Hayley, and good luck with the rest of 2022.

Justin Stewart Cotta

You can keep up to date with Hayley Marsten  on her website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube

Bruce Baker

Probably riding my bike, taking photos and/or at a gig. Insta: @bruce_a_baker