By Johnny Papan
When Hey Ocean! released their sophomore record, It’s Easier to Be Somebody Else, in 2008, they were thrusted into the limelight as Vancouver’s indie-pop darlings. Their happy-go-lucky, summer-beach vibes gave listeners a hip new artist to groove to when they wanted to wiggle their woes away. Hey Ocean! had a positive and upbeat aura about them, and that’s what people adored.
Frontwoman Ashleigh Ball certainly fits this mould. Her down-to-earth, free spirited nature pumped our conversation with an open energy, turning what was meant to be a 45 minute formal interview into a two hour chill-sesh that hopscotched from stories regarding the band, to a wild L.S.D. influenced strip-down at her sister’s wedding, to bizarre and otherworldly topics such as boofing, bronies, and Burning Man. Even outside of Hey Ocean!, her day job as a voice actor for animated franchises like Tom and Jerry, Bratz, Care Bears and My Little Pony is enough to crack a smirk upon your face.
But not everything is rainbows and sunshine all the time for anyone, no matter who you are. The proverbial black cloud is a natural necessity in human evolution, it’s the mud that nourishes the blossoming flower that is our soul. We all face valleys and pitfalls, even bands like Hey Ocean! After a grinding several years escalating from a local Vancouver act to a full-fledged touring and recording artist, 2015 found the band corroding as internal struggles began to arise.
“We broke up in a sense,” Ball explains. “We had that dramatic sort of breakup, like a couple in a restaurant. It was this weird fallout, but we still had all these open ended things, like gig obligations, so we kinda had to keep that going. There’s this kind of face that you have to put on as a band. No matter what, you have to go out and perform every night pretending like everything is fine, but deep down there’s a pain. We were playing all these shows, trying to be this super positive indie-pop band, but we were falling apart on the inside, to be honest. We were crumbling.”
The members of Hey Ocean! found themselves becoming a facade, plastering porcelain smiles to mask the thick fog of dismay. It felt as if the band that had once brought them so much connection, love and fulfilment, was slowly washing away. Each member became a caricature of the public’s expectation, their true selves getting lost in the dust kicked up by the tires of their tour van.
“We were putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to take on every single show that came our way,” Ball explains. “We did Warped Tour and it’s like… ‘what the fuck were we doing on Warped Tour?’ We weren’t paying attention to what our bodies wanted or what our minds needed. We were getting pressured by our label at the time to record and write new music. When you’re so exhausted and at each other’s throats all the time, then put in a position where you’re forced to write music, it’s not coming out of a place of love or joy. It didn’t feel right. It wasn’t coming from the right place.“
Time spent apart saw each member release their own solo records. Guitarist/vocalist David Beckingham released Just When the Light in 2016 and bassist/vocalist David Vertesi dropped Sad Dad Cruise Ship that same year. Ball, the band’s lead vocalist, released her solo EP, Gold In You, in 2017. Hey Ocean! spent three years apart. Now the band has returned with a darker edge and an evolved sound with their newest album, The Hurt of Happiness.
The album’s title track is one of the most interesting of the release. It’s an atmospheric offering that, though musically angelic, lyrically feels like a drawing of emotional desperation.
“I think it was a fitting title for us in a lot ways.” Ball says. “That was one of those songs that we just sat at my place and worked out. It definitely has dark undertones. I think it’s about just being a bit broken and trying to fix things. For some people… it hurts to try and find happiness. It’s not an easy thing for a lot of people.” Ball continues: “There have been bouts of depression within the band, it hasn’t all been easy, especially when you’re throwing yourself into this very uncertain musical path. You’re super vulnerable, you’re putting yourself out there time after time, but it’s all you really know how to do, or all you really want to do. I think [the song] definitely stems from the hurt we were feeling and masking it with this happy-go-lucky vibe that people knew and loved us by. Being this quintessential indie-pop band that people want us to be. It all extended from this baggage that we were carrying and needed to clean out.”
After three years apart, three solo albums, and three individual efforts to cut their own paths along this topsy-turvy landscape we call the music industry, what exactly inspired this reunion? Ball explains:
“I think we all just felt drawn back together,” she says. “We love each other, we have so much history. The Daves are like brothers to me. You become a family when you’ve been in a band together for 10 years. I dunno, we just kinda talked about it. We had some of these unfinished songs and we thought ‘Hey, what would it be like if we got together for a weekend and tried writing?’ So the guys came over to my apartment and we just sort of spent a weekend hanging out and smoking weed and singing together for the first time in three years. It was an organic experience, it felt really good.”
Though a deviation from their old style, it’s clear that Hey Ocean! still wants to make you dance. If sound was the sky, the bright sun of Hey Ocean! has set, and their audio waves have turned into a celestial roof of blackened-blue complemented by sprinkles of stars and a disco-ball moon. There were no pressures from labels, no touring obligations, no need to wear a mask. It’s music they wanted to make, a direct representation of who they are as they stand in this moment in time.The album may be different, but it’s honest. And that’s what’s most beautiful about The Hurt of Happiness.
Ball concludes: “You have to kinda recreate yourself when you’re trying to make art and trying to be a band. You can’t just write the same thing all the time or always try to be this entity that people think you are. You have to shake things up a bit and challenge people. I think I’m ready to do more of that. I’m more comfortable in my skin, we’re less worried about being a certain thing people expect us to be.”
Hey Ocean! play the Vogue Theatre (Vancouver) on December 8.Ashleigh Ball, David Vertesi, Hey Ocean!, Vogue Theatre