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Photo by Jessica Gurewitz
By day, quiet college students; by night, legitimate rock stars ready to take on the world. That’s the world Hello Mary’s Helena Straight (vocals, guitar) and Mikaela Oppenheimer (bass) find themselves in as they look to wrap up their freshman year in college in a few months and then hit the road to tour for their self-titled debut which just came out on Frenchkiss Records. Drummer Stella Wave, who met Straight and Oppenheimer while they were still in high school, is a few years older and in the working world from which she’ll take a hiatus this summer to live out her dreams.
Straight and Oppenheimer admit that their fellow classmates might not realize they’re sitting next to musicians who have been the subject of a Rolling Stone feature, played a memorable live set on influential Seattle radio station KEXP, and earned high praises from Tanya Donelly (Belly), Britta Phillips (Luna) and Julia Cummings (Sunflower Bean). That anonymity might not last as Hello Mary has released one of the best ‘90s-influenced alternative rock records of 2023 and people are definitely starting to take notice.
In the calm before the storm, the members of the NYC-based trio took some time after class and work to share a bit about how they got to where they are today and where they hope to go in the future.
How weird is it that you’re working day jobs, going to college, and, oh yeah, you’ve got a record coming out?
HELENA: It doesn’t feel that weird to me. I don’t work that frequently. Monday through Thursday, I have class. Friday, I work. I do band stuff in between. All the band stuff is fun, it doesn’t feel like work. It’s quite manageable, but I wish I could just do the band.
STELLA: I work at night and it’s a very fun job because I work as a cocktail server and bartender at this burlesque club, The Slipper. It’s so funny when you’re at your job and serving other people, you’re like, “Hey, what’s up?” and they don’t care about you at all. And then we’re playing a sold-out show at the end of this month and it’s like people who I serve at the club would never know that I’m in a band. I enjoy the band work and I look forward to it. I graduated school so I don’t have to worry about that chapter of life.
MIKAELA: I go to school. I’m not super in the school community environment. I don’t have a lot of friends. I’m a Computer Science major so I keep my head down and do my work. It feels very different when I’m in the city and doing band stuff. It’s double-life vibes.
Do you ever think about that while you’re in class? You’re getting a lot of attention, like a feature on the Rolling Stone website, and nobody in your class has any idea.
MIKAELA: Definitely nobody knows. Sometimes I wish they knew. But, I’m fine with it.
Although the record is coming out this week, it’s been done for a while. Is that right?
STELLA: Oh my God. It’s been done for a year. I was trying to figure out a timeline for when we recorded the first song that’s on this record. It was in 2020. We recorded “Evicted,” which has already been released and is on the record. I was like, “That was 3 years ago.”
HELENA: There’s a song on this record that I wrote when I was a freshman in high school and now I’m a freshman in college.
STELLA: There’s a song on this record that we performed at the Ginger release party. That’s insane. “Special Treat” just came out and that was literally performed when Ginger came out in 2019.
Because it’s been done for a while, is there a sense of excitement that it’s finally going to be out there in the world?
HELENA: I guess I’m not as excited as one may expect me to be. I’m just excited to get those songs out so we can release the next record. We already have so many new songs. I’m excited to play the release show and see how people react to the songs on the record.
STELLA: The way that we released this record was unconventional and probably not the best tactic. We released 7 singles. We released a couple songs before we signed to Frenchkiss and then we signed with Frenchkiss and we released “Rabbit” and “Spiral” and then we just released “Special Treat.” The two other songs, we had released before. So, basically, there are 3 songs that people haven’t heard. It feels a little anti-climatic but, like Helena said, it feels so great that there’s going to be a record out, an actual LP. It’s going to feel very good to have that off of our chest.
How did your music education start? Not talking about how you started playing instruments, but, when did you start listening to music and who was responsible for that?
HELENA: Taylor Swift was my first music obsession. We’re sitting on a Taylor Swift blanket right now. There are things that I like that I’m embarrassed to talk about but I’m not embarrassed of Taylor. She was the gateway to music and songwriting. In mid-to-late middle school years, Mikaela and I became friends and started getting super obsessed with rock music, mostly through my dad’s recommendations in the beginning. Then we strayed and found our own stuff.
MIKAELA: My parents were big on Pandora. That was something I used to discover music. You play something and then they play something algorithmically similar.
Besides Taylor Swift, what other artists led you down the path to where you are today?
MIKAELA: Car Seat Headrest.
HELENA: In between, making our way to rock music, it was pop rock to boy bands. But, then Car Seat Headrest and Jeff Rosenstock and Twin Peaks and Courtney Barnett, those were the four main deep obsessions that Mikaela and I shared. They were the first shows we ever went to.
STELLA: I had a different experience. Helena and Mikaela grew up together but I’m a few years older. My knowledge and discovery of music was on a different timeline. Similar to them, like having Helena’s dad introduce them to music, I had my mom. She has better music tastes than I do and probably will always have better music taste than I do. She is also a drummer and a music lover. She put me onto a lot of really cool stuff. I think the first rock music obsession I had was Nirvana. They are still one of my top bands. That’s how I got into music.
Are there other people, besides the three of you, that have helped get you to where you are today?
STELLA: There have been a lot of people who have helped us. I think, honestly, if we’re really tracing it back to the roots of everything, I feel like all of our families have been extremely supportive and extremely helpful, whether it’s sending our music to friends who they think might enjoy it and have a connection to a venue or traveling with us to help us with merch and tour managing. My mom and Mikaela’s mom came to our KEXP session. They’ve been so incredibly helpful to us and our success. We practice in Helena’s parent’s basement. That’s just the baseline. We’ve been with this woman Karen for a very long time, she gave us a lot of insight. This girl Maggie has helped us. There’s been a lot of people that have been passionate about the music we’re making and love to help out even though they’re not really making money because we’re not making money. It’s been a team, a small family.
Is it annoying at all that your parents are sending music to people their age and my age and that us old people think your music is awesome?
STELLA: No! Because all the bands we like are people your age. We definitely have a lot of older people at our shows, older than our age.
When did you notice a shift in your live audience from playing in front of people you knew and your friends to people you had never met before, who were there to see you as a band, not because they knew you personally?
STELLA: We had a show in February 2022. We played with Waveform and Stella Rose and that was our first headline show at a club. That was the first show we played with a booking agent. It was the first time we had a show that was booked by someone other than the three of us. I remember being like, “Holy shit.” There were people singing along to the songs. For me, that was the moment.
With a booking agent, were there things you learned that you didn’t know before? Like, “We didn’t know we could ask for this on our rider”?
HELENA: Hospitality riders. The first time our booking agent was like, “What’s on your rider?” We were like, “What’s a rider?” We played Brooklyn Made and they basically gave us everything we listed and more. I love hospitality riders so much. Sometimes venues won’t include it but when we have one, nothing can go wrong. It’s amazing.
Do you ever push it to see how far you can take it?
HELENA: Yeah. That’s what we did. But then our agent was like, “You guys have to cut this down. You’re not going to need all of this.”
Was 2022 the first time you played in a club?
STELLA: We had done other club shows. We played at Knitting Factory. A lot of those were opening for other people. Actually, we may have had a headlining show at Knitting Factory but we just didn’t know what we were doing. It was like 5 bands on a bill and we weren’t really thinking about payment that much. That wasn’t the priority. We were just trying to play.
MIKAELA: We played a lot of club shows but we were like the first of 3 for years.
STELLA: You’re so right, Mikaela. We played Mercury Lounge. It was a lot of first of 3 at these clubs. We just played in New York so much that when we got a book agent, she was like, “We can do Baby’s All Right as a headliner with two other acts.” And it sold out. We were like, “Wow, this is incredible.”
Did you have the ‘pinch me’ moment where it was like, ‘Wow. They are here to see us”?
HELENA: Well, a lot of people were there for Waveform too.
STELLA: I was watching Waveform and was standing behind these people. Waveform, on stage, said “Hello Mary’s the best band in the world,” and then these people right in front of me were like, “Waveform’s better.”
HELENA: We definitely wouldn’t have sold that out if it was just us. When people were singing along to our songs, that was the ‘pinch me’ moment.
STELLA: I remember turning to my parents, they were in the front row, and I was like (widens eyes in amazement) and they shrugged their shoulders and smiled.
I hear a growth in your songs between 2019’s Ginger EP and the new self-titled album. What would you attribute that to?
HELENA: Having time during Covid was huge.
STELLA: I feel like there’s a lot of things that started to become important to the three of us, like writing multiple lyrics for the verses. Helena and Mikaela did most of the songwriting for Ginger.
MIKAELA: I think it’s our influences, mostly. Our music tastes changed. Before, our influences were pretty grungy and now it’s more alternative rock.
HELENA: I feel like when we were writing this record, that was our grungiest phase.
STELLA: For the the songs I wrote, I’d been listening to Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith and The Breeders and Pavement and Nirvana. I feel like those influenced my songwriting on this record.
MIKAELA: We were also listening to a lot of the same stuff, definitely listening to Pavement a lot even though we don’t really sound like them.
STELLA: We don’t really sound like any of these bands other than The Breeders. Sometimes I get embarrassed to list certain influences, like Elliott Smith, because he’s so amazing and we sound nothing like him. Nobody would ever listen to our music and be like, “Wow, it really sounds like Elliott Smith.” But, it really is a combination of all these things that I feel like comes together and influences us.
As a parent who has hundreds of videos of his daughters singing songs when they were really little, I have to know, at the beginning of “Rabbit,” which one of you are we hearing singing as a little kid?
HELENA: That’s me. It was a song that I wrote. I was obsessed with the game Candyland and I wrote a song about the evil man. Grumpy Plumpy is what I called him. It’s the first song I ever wrote.
Record releases are a lot different in 2023 than they were in 1993. Release day was Tuesday, not Friday, and there were no streaming services so if you wanted to hear a new record, you went to the store to buy it. And, bands would sometimes go to stores to confirm that the record was on the shelf and that the label had done it’s job. On the eve of your record release, will you refresh Spotify at midnight to make sure the record was uploaded?
STELLA: Definitely going to check Spotify immediately. I’m going to be on Spotify at 11:59 and waiting. We have vinyl and CDs that are going to different record stores and we have our own promo copies and our own stock to sell at shows that are coming. We’ve been in a dilemma because there’s been a backlog for our order. We’re expecting that to come in before our record release show. We definitely want to post about getting physical copies of the record, have a picture of the record, be like, “Go listen to it.”
HELENA: I want to go to a record store. I don’t know which record stores will have them. We all just got record players for Christmas so we’re really pumped to go to record stores when we’re touring. I’m excited to see if they have our record in the stores that we go in to.
STELLA: Sadly, I feel like Spotify numbers and stats are really taking over the music industry which is really depressing. The physical format has really come full circle and is important. The fact that people are even interested in buying records, because people have been asking us for a while for a physical way to listen to our music, is touching because it means they want something to hold on to and have for a long time. With the kind of music we’re making, it’s extremely suitable for vinyl and it makes sense that the people who like our music are looking forward to having a physical record.
Besides actually writing and performing music, what other jobs have you had to fill for the band?
HELENA: We’ve had to fill a lot of them.
STELLA: I was the booking agent for the first two years of our band. We are still, technically, self-managed. The Ginger album cover is my dad’s taxidermy art. It feels cool to represent him. The vinyl design was done by this girl, Clem, who is awesome. She’s also 19 or 20. I did handwrite all the lyrics and the credits. I worked with this guy Tim, who played in the band Les Savy Fav, on designing the vinyl. We had Maggie, she’s not part of an official company or anything, she was working with us for a while, sending our stuff to people, anyone who would listen. It’s been DIY for a while. It feels nice to be in control of the art and production of things.
You’ve been generating quite the buzz. Have you had any guest list requests from any of your heroes or notable musicians?
STELLA: You know who did come to our show and was on our guest list? Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500. That was frickin mindblowing. And we played with him too. Having him come to a show is insane.
Are there tour plans?
STELLA: We’re playing on March 4 in New York for this thing called You Missed It. It’s sold out, that will be awesome. It’s in Brooklyn with Momma and the Taxidermists and Julia Cumming from Sunflower Bean is DJing. Then, at the end of March, we’re playing Connecticut, New York, DC and then in April we’re opening for Deerhoof in Philly and Rhode Island. More dates will be announced soon.
Is the plan to do some touring when it makes sense and working around your school schedules?
STELLA: That’s what it is. But, there are some exceptions. We have an extensive list of bands that, if they asked us to tour, we’d probably be take a break from work and school.
Who are those bands?
STELLA: Veruca Salt. The Breeders. There are a lot of bands on our list.
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