Interview: Hayley Marsten on Her Songwriting Influences and the Process Behind New Single “Bittersweet At Best”

Central Queensland indie-country singer-songwriter Hayley Marsten is truly an artist on the rise. She broke blocks in 2019 with her debut album, Spectacular crushand since then has won over audiences with his poignant songs featuring heartache, growth and discovery.

Earlier this year, she released “I’m Fine, Thank You,” a stunning response to those who think they know your story. Today she released the beautiful “Bittersweet At Best”. It’s a song that traces a relationship that went from bright and rosy to a relationship that failed. It’s tinged with melancholy, as she accepts that the relationship is over. “Please don’t call my name again,” are the last words.

The track was recorded in Brisbane Hunting Ground Studios. Hayley work with Cody McWaters (King Stingray, Cats), Kieran Stevenson, Michael Moko and Dan Sugars, who helped with production tasks.

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

Hi Hayley, Congratulations on the melody. Let’s go back. Where were your earliest songwriting memories formed?

I think my very first influence in songwriting was boredom, sitting in my bedroom with my tape recorder when I was 7 years old. To be honest, I can’t quite remember a time when I wasn’t making up songs or jingles or silly stuff like that, I was always a show pony. I was exposed to a lot of pop music when I was little. Kylie Minogue, ABBA, Transvision Vamp and Robbie Williams have been big hits in our house, so I’ve learned quite subconsciously what makes something catchy. I loved music and I loved doing “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 addicted as a music fan?

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

It was also my first real introduction to country music which ultimately 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 made me realize why my songs never worked out in my friends rock band…because I was a country writer.

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

Oh my god, I wrote my first song at 7 so luckily it doesn’t represent me as a songwriter anymore! Because it felt like a rip off of the Shrek soundtrack and it was about having annoying siblings. Which is weird because I’m an only child.

But I think the first time I wrote a song that 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 10th grade ceremony. I think writing about what I know has been the common thread between then and now.

And country music still has a hold on you now?

Learn about country music through Taylor Swift felt like a homecoming in a way. I had been writing all this time and all my friends were in rock bands and I felt so uncomfortable bringing my songs there. I love that country music gives you free rein to be honest and tell stories, even the ugly parts.

I think the cross and pop influences of country music have been part of the genre for decades. It’s always been a genre that splits into hundreds of different subgenres, but when you boil it down, they all have the same key elements at their core. I think right now it’s especially exciting to hear how many amazing female songwriters are making amazing music right now; As 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 of what we sing about because for so long I felt like it was either “I’m in love” or “I’m heartbroken” and it’s not a well-rounded look at the complexities of being a woman.

Tell us about the writing process behind “Bittersweet At Best.” How has your approach to the business changed from the early days to today?

Earlier 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’s a very extreme way of thinking and I also think there’s a lot of merit in looking back and picking things up. I certainly don’t have the same lack of time on myself anymore.

I usually start with a line or a hook or a title and sit down with my guitar and see what I find. I think as I get older, too, I feel more confident trusting myself as to whether or not I should come back to a song or if it would be better served to go to a co-write with her.

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

That’s why I never get tired of writing songs because it’s different every time and I never know how it’s going to turn out or when you’ll get that whim.

Was there a particular high point in writing “Bittersweet At Best”?

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

We had done all the other songs that we had planned and we had some time and I said, let me just smash this one on my own quickly. I finished the take and I turned around and they were both about to cry so I realized maybe it was something special!

Going into the studio with this and building it was so special, I always feel like the songs have their own colors and I explained to my production team that it was like the golden brown of an old upright piano. Fortunately, the co-producers of this song are some of my oldest friends and closest people in my life, so they understood me and totally embraced my nonsensical way of describing how this song should sound as we have done.

What do you have planned musically for the rest of 2022 and moving forward?

I’ve always been a fan of the “write what you know” idea and I’ve certainly focused on that with this new album we’re preparing. I’ve always written about what’s going on with me, but I feel like over the past few years, while writing it, I’ve explored things I never would have dreamed of before. , like my own mental health issues.

I think in the future I might revisit things I’ve felt in the past in a new lens, like how Taylor Swift wrote about Folklore. Which were largely fictional stories and characters, but situations and emotions she had experienced in the past but with a different perspective. Or maybe I’ll go back to the beginning and write a new soundtrack for Shrek.

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

Justin Stewart Cotta

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

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