Story by Tracey Hammell

Hayley Marsten at Tamworth Country Music Festival 2020 (pic courtesy Brett Clarke Photography).

Hayley Marsten at Tamworth Country Music Festival 2020 (pic courtesy Brett Clarke Photography).

This year’s Golden Guitar Awards at Tamworth in NSW was abuzz with glamour, colour and excitement. Yes, there were cowboy hats and Cuban heeled boots. There were also neon jumpsuits and the highest of stilettos, and a modern take on Linda Ronstadt’s denim cut-offs. The music was fun and vibrant, and everywhere people were just enjoying themselves.

What I noticed most about this town though was its friendliness and warmth. No matter who I spoke with, from the stall holders, to the convenience store keepers, to the people in the restaurants and pubs, to the stars on stage … Country music has a way of bringing people together in a community that is one big happy family. It’s not unlike the Blues music community and indeed there I could pick out many faces in Tamworth that hailed from familiar stomping grounds back home.

Hayley Marsten from Brisbane was nominated for a Golden Guitar Award in the Alt Country category for her album Spectacular Heartbreak. I chatted with Hayley about her album, the festival, and the Country Music scene.

Would you tell me about the award that you’ve been nominated for?

Spectacular Heartbreak has been nominated in the ‘Alt Country Album of the Year’ category at The Golden Guitars, which is I guess the Country Music version of the Arias.

Hayley Marsten from Brisbane, nominated for Alt-Country Album of the Year 2020 in the Golden Guitar Awards for Spectacular Heartbreak’.

Hayley Marsten from Brisbane, nominated for Alt-Country Album of the Year 2020 in the Golden Guitar Awards for Spectacular Heartbreak.

Can you tell me about the album, how long it’s been in the making, if there is a theme to it … the back stories?

Yes, I can tell you all of those things. The album’s called Spectacular Heartbreak. It came out last year on the 30th August and I started working on it in December of 2018. I recorded two singles with Matt Fell, who produced the whole record. Then I just had to figure out how to pay for it because records aren’t cheap to make and I ended up crowd funding it. So almost 300 people pledged to help make the record and basically pre-order an album they’d never heard of before. It’s been stressful and strange, but it worked out to be a really great experience because all these people said, “We really believe in you, we want you to make a record, and we believe it’s good enough to pay for it before we’ve even heard it.” And then we went into the studio in June last year and I released it at the end of August. So it was like a 12-week turnaround, which was not the greatest choice by me for my own stress, but it worked out really well in the end. Obviously with a name like Spectacular Heartbreak it’s not about sunshine and rainbows. There definitely is a theme of heartbreak through it, but it’s not a breakup album about being sad, and wallowing in the pain and sadness of heartbreak, it’s about addressing your pain, and then moving through it, and then moving on.

An approach to letting go of that which no longer serves you?

Yeah. There’s definitely hating things that no longer serve you on there as well (laughs), but it’s not something that you’d listen to the whole way through and think, “Yeah I feel really sad now.” I feel like there is an uplifting element to it as well.

Hayley Marsten 'Spectacular Hearbreak' album.

Hayley Marsten Spectacular Hearbreak album.

How would you describe the music itself?

Dramatic. It’s nominated for Alt Country Album, so that’s like Country Music that takes it’s influence from Blues and Folk and Rock, but you know, I think there’s a lot of stuff on the record that’s quite commercial as well as having that Alt flavour to it. When I went into the studio, I said to Matt Fell that I had a pretty clear vision of what I wanted the album to be like. Matt is an incredible producer … he’s produced records for John Williamson, Sara Storer, Fanny Lumsden, Shane Nicholson … he’s won a swag of Golden Guitars, a few Arias, you know, just a real under achiever (laughs). But he is great to work with. He’s a genius and it’s a real privilege having him in our industry, not just in Country Music, but in the Australian Music Industry, I think.

When we went into the studio, he’d produced my last EP Lone Star, and I sort of just gave him the reins because that’s why you pay an Aria award winning producer … to take over … but for this record I definitely had a lot clearer vision. When I was writing the album, I listened to the Taylor Swift album Red a lot, which is quite an old album, but it is, I think, one of the best albums of the last decade. And the reason I love that album so much is because it covers a very broad emotional spectrum and it’s not a quiet album. It’s big, and dramatic, and theatrical. And there were elements of that that I wanted to emulate in my record. So, I went into the studio and said, “I want this record to sound like my personality. I want it to be dramatic. I want it to be big. I want it to have some fun as well. I don’t want it to be a wallflower, because that is not who I am as a person, or as an artist.” And he really flipped to that. So, we did a lot of dramatic and theatrical things on the record … there’s a string section … the start, the opening track, the heartbreak sounds almost like an overture. So, it definitely has those elements in it. I don’t think there’s a song on the record that isn’t dramatic in its own way.

Is there anything that surprised you that came out of working with him?

Oh definitely. When we recorded the first two singles, they ended up being the first two that we released as well. One was called ‘Wendy’ and the other one was called ‘Red Wine White Dress’. ‘Red Wine White Dress’, when I wrote it was a ballad. It was pretty slow in my mind. I imagined it to be that way when it was recorded but when we got into the studio and we started tracking the drums, Matt said to the drummer, who is another amazing musician, Josh Schuberth, he said, “You just have a play with it.” And so, Josh played this really rocky, intense beat behind it which changed the whole song completely. So there was definitely stuff that we tweaked, and because I already know these guys, and because we’ve made a record together before and I trust them, it’s really easy to try stuff that I don’t think is what I want, and then we try it and I think, “I actually do really like that”. So it’s nice to have people you can rely on so you can go to the extreme and then if it’s too much you can pull it back, but you know that you’re not going to be wasting your time by putting in all of these weird EBow sounds.

Did that change the way that you sang it … the way that you approached the song yourself?

I guess a little bit, because it wasn’t so quiet, and I hadn’t really fully formed the record in my mind, or even written it at that point, so I think it set the tone, because it wasn’t this sad, broken-sounding song, it was more powerful. I guess it probably did change the way I sang it.

You mentioned Blues influences before … where might have those influences come from?

I think they come from artists I’ve seen at Bluesfest in Byron Bay. I’m a huge fan of Brandi Carlisle, who I guess is a very Alt Country artist. She has a lot of different things going on. I’ve always just been drawn to women who have a lot to say. There’s a real stereotype, especially in Country Music that women are supposed to sing about being in love, or going through breakup. I love women like Sheryl Crow and Bonnie Raitt. There’s a lot of women like that I think who tow the line between two genres and a lot of them may be in Country, and they make it more accessible to people. I find that really inspiring because I love being a Country Music artist but I would like to expand in a similar way that they’ve done.

Hayley Marsten glamming it up at Tamworth (pic courtesy Captain’s Eye Photography)

Hayley Marsten glamming it up at Tamworth (pic courtesy Captain’s Eye Photography)

Country Music has changed a lot over the years … even the fashion that everyone’s wearing … it’s very glam and very colourful isn’t it.

Yeah, I think the great thing about Country Music, especially in Australia is that there is a sub-genre of Country for everyone. There are people that say they don’t like Country Music who probably haven’t listened to that much of it, because there is literally every kind of Country mixed with this or that under the sun. And there’s not really any rules as to what you can and can’t do, I think.

The Country Music scene seems to be a very welcoming and family atmosphere here at Tamworth … everyone seems to know each other and be friends and very supportive. Is that a theme throughout all the Country Music festivals, or is that more prolific in Tamworth?

Tamworth is a Country Music festival on steroids. It’s the most intense ten days, for the best reasons, and I honestly haven’t had any interactions with people in Country Music anywhere, even people who are quite successful, that I’ve walked away from them and thought, “What a jerk.”

A lot of people want to give you their time and their knowledge. They want to help you succeed. It’s not like they don’t want to see you do well because it takes away from their own success. It’s a very welcoming industry. Also, I think it’s just too small to be mean.

And it’s growing, isn’t it? Especially at a time when the music industry is suffering in some ways.

It is growing, definitely. I think the Country Music Industry is really thriving right now. There’s a lot of artists who are doing really great things in carving out their own path to try and make some money when the whole Music Industry seems to be saying, “Well we don’t want to pay you anything.” And there’s not really any rules any more … you don’t have to have a record label to make a record or to put out music, you can just do whatever you want.

That’s something that Country Music does really well. It doesn’t just tolerate the fact that there’s a lot of independent artists, it accelerates it. There’s five people nominated for a Golden Guitar in my category, and I think that four out of the five are independent artists.

Tamworth 2020 Alt-Country Album Nominees

Tamworth 2020 Alt-Country Album Nominees

Which artists are in the Alt Country Album of the Year Category?

I’m nominated alongside Brad Butcher, Kevin Bennett & The Flood, Michael Waugh, and Jenny Mitchel. Some really incredible artists. It’s really nice to be in the same category, and the same sentence as them.

What are your goals in music? What’s your vision?

I just want to keep making music that is true for me, that I believe in, and that I can stand behind, and that people can relate to. And I want to keep playing shows that entertain people and maybe for a second, take them away from any kind of crappy thing that’s going on in their life. Obviously, it would be great to sell a million records and have all of this money, but that’s not the reason I started playing music or writing songs.

Would you like to tour overseas?

Yeah, I definitely would like to get over to the US in the next few years, and maybe even Europe. But I’m still pretty focused on building a fan base here in Australia first.

Is there anyone you would like to collaborate with?

Are we talking like Dreamland, or …?

Whatever you dream of …

I’m a huge fan of Kasey Musgraves and what she’s done for Country Music in the US as well as worldwide. She has taken her brand of Country Music and still remained Country, and still remained accessible to people … she’s played at Coachella, Glastonbury, Bonnaroo … all of these amazing music festivals … and she is unapologisingly Country in her own way. I would love to collaborate with her and I would like to emulate her career.

Are there any artists here or indeed the world that you would absolutely love to be on stage with and performing?

Paul Kelly. I mean, who wouldn’t want to sing with Paul Kelly. That would be incredible. I think he is one of the most amazing songwriters of all time.

What could people look forward to experiencing at your live shows? Why should they come see you?

I want to do a lot more band shows, especially this year. I’m not just going to sing what’s on the record. I really pride myself on making a show that has moments that you can’t record and you can’t put on an album. I think the live show really is part Country Music and part comedy, in some ways.

Is there a story that you could relate? … one of those special live moments?

Well, I don’t know about that … I have a tendency to say things I didn’t plan to say sometimes, but it works out well and it gets a laugh. I think one of my favourite memories is from my album launch in Brisbane at The Zoo … we had the Hayley Marsten twirling ribbon merch for the first time and when we finished the show and I could just see so many ribbons being flung around the audience for our last song, so we definitely encourage some terrible dancing and some ribbon twirling. I just want people to have fun and laugh with me, or at me, and just forget everything else in their life that might not be so great.

What’s next for you?

Well, I’m going to be doing a little bit more touring this year. Hopefully later on in the year with the band, and then I’m going to be taking some time off so I can write a new album.

Where are you going to be touring?

I’d like to go to places I haven’t been yet. I did a twenty-date tour last year that was just me and it was great … New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania. And I also opened for Fanny Lumsden on some of those shows as well. It was a really big year of touring in that second half.

I’d really like to do fewer shows this year, but a bit bigger, and with a band. I still can’t twirl a ribbon with my guitar in my hand … and play (laughs).

How many albums do you have?

Spectacular Heartbreak is my first album and I released two EPs before that.

Do you have the concept for the new one yet that you could share with us?

I’m not working on anything specific right now. I’d like to not be thinking too much about doing the next thing, and just enjoying what’s happening with this era. I’m obviously still putting ideas down, and then later I’ll be taking some time to be with my feelings and write.

Do you have a particular process for your writing that works for you?

Being alone. Be alone and just shutting myself off from the world for a little bit. I usually can tell if I have an idea if I can write a really good song around it. And I actually thought of the album title Spectacular Heartbreak before I’d even written the song. So, I can usually tell if it’s going to be something or not. But I like to just get a bunch of ideas on my phone, on my voice memos, or in my notes and then sit down by myself, or book a co-writing session and say, “These are three ideas that I’ve worked up, do you like any of them?” And then work on one of them with somebody.

And you write on guitar?

Yes, but I am trying to learn piano so I can write on that for the next record.


Hayley just missed out on the Gold Guitar Award which was picked up by Brad Butcher. She later said on social media, “Not winning a Golden Guitar has never made me feel more like a winner! I am so proud of the album I got to make with so many people I love that I recorded and released in 12 weeks! Thanks to Country Music Association of Australia for a great night, congrats to everyone who took home awards last night, especially Brad Butcher winning Alt-Country Album, everyone who was nominated and all the people making kick ass Country Music. I’m very chuffed to be a part of this industry.”

You can check out Hayley’s music at

More on Tamworth Country Music Festival here

Golden Guitar Awards