MACEY seems a little deflated. We’re chatting over Zoom after the release of his debut album, The Lovers, and he’s just gone back to his job at a small Auckland coffee shop, back to reality. After a whirlwind album rollout that included a hometown show and a mini record store tour around New Zealand, sponsored by JB-HIFI, he has every right to feel dazed by the whiplash of return to quotidian existence.
“It’s kind of back to normal life,” he says flatly. “I actually haven’t stopped since the album was released. I got on a plane and I performed six hours every day. It was a lot!”
Not that MACEY’s in any way complaining: music’s always been in his blood, and he’s been working towards times like these, when a coffee shop job has to compete with his art, for a long time.
Born Harry Parsons, his family moved to Aotearoa from the UK when he was seven (a whiff of an English accent still remains in his voice when we speak), where his father soon began to play for the Auckland Philharmonia and the Waikato Symphony with “his big old bassoon.”
“The earliest memories I have is jazz and classical music blaring out of dad’s little studio,” MACEY recalls. “He led jazz bands and stuff for school. It was quite a blessing in hindsight, but at the time, we all just found it really annoying!” He laughs. “It wasn’t a very big house so you couldn’t escape.”
In 2013, he won Smokefree Rockquest as a solo artist under his real name, a surprise success after years of competing in bands doing poor imitations of screamo (“I couldn’t scream,” he concedes) with names like My Secret Alibi. “It was enough for me to be like, ‘Maybe I could do this thing,’” MACEY remembers. “Then I chose to study [music] from all that support that I got through Rockquest and the school after I won it.”
That Rockquest victory was 10 years ago now. I ask MACEY if he feels like his career has progressed as planned since then. “I guess I’m where that Harry at 17 would want to be at this point,” he replies.
It would have been understandable, though, if MACEY’s career hadn’t progressed to this point just yet, because his last decade has been defined by almost insurmountable loss. “My dad passed and my relationship of nearly six years ended. Both of those things happened at once, and that was a big enough shock in itself,” he tells me.
It’s why The Lovers is an unsparing listen. In chronological order, MACEY’s debut album contends with that first big break-up of six years, the death of his father, and the many highs and lows that followed those life-altering events. “For me, it always has to come from either pain or some emotional experience,” he says of the songwriting on the album. Everything that happened during that period of his life, he adds, “was so visceral.”
“I would go in some of those sessions to write something about a person I knew at work or a character, and then suddenly I’d be writing about standing at Waikato River, singing about my partner leaving me,” he recalls.
“He who shall not be named”: That’s how MACEY refers to his old artist name, his own name, in conversation at one point. He’s being facetious, certainly, a little self-deprecating (something he admits he’s often prone to being), but “Harry Parsons” clearly carries a lot of weight, both as a connection to his late father and in an artistic sense. Flitting between wanting to be a folk troubadour and a pop musician under his real name, he felt lost in his career, still battling the psychic scars of his last few years.
Then he met the producer Ben Malone. “He was like, ‘You keep talking about The Killers and The War on Drugs and The Smiths, why don’t we just try and make something a little more like that instead of all this poppy stuff?’” (Other touchstones abound: The Lovers opens with an intro that sounds like a keen homage to the murky production of Bon Iver and James Blake.)
The transition soon became transformation. “The first time we made it together, it felt so good, so we followed that,” MACEY remembers, beaming. “The music sounded so much different to everything I’d done under Harry, so it felt really right.”
During a filmed visit to Auckland’s Real Groovy a few days before our interview, for a sort of Kiwi version of ‘What’s In My Bag?’ MACEY’s wildly varied music taste was on full show. Records by The War on Drugs, The Smith, A Tribe Called Quest, Yves Tumor, and the late, great MF DOOM were chosen and praised; where guests usually pick just three records, MACEY tells me, he couldn’t stop himself until he had 10-11. “I just owe so much to all genres of music,” he says.
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During his Real Groovy visit, he also namechecked Green Day, and it was in the pop-punk icons’ 2000 song “Macy’s Day Parade” where he first discovered his newfound artistic moniker. “I was a huge Green Day fan when I was a kid,” he reveals. “I haven’t actually listened to a Green Day album in a wee while. Maybe after this interview.”
But it wasn’t until was another rising star of the New Zealand music scene – Foley’s Ash Wallace – gave him a final push that he decided to use his new artist name. “She was like, ‘You’ve been talking about “MACEY”, why don’t you just do it?’ I just took that leap. Your father gives you a lot of who you are, and I think when that was gone, it felt like I could reinvent in both ways.” (He’s not the only recent Kiwi artist to find renewed purpose following a name change: RIIKI REID, Rolling Stone AU/NZ’s Opening Act earlier this year, was also transformed after adopting a new artistic moniker.)
MACEY split The Lovers into Side A and Side B, the former being released in 2022 before both came together to act as his debut album this year. At shows this year, he was pleasantly surprised to hear fans react warmly to older cuts that “didn’t pop off initially” upon release.
“There was a song on there called “Our Last Trip to the Beach”, which is one of my favourites on the album. At the show on Thursday, everyone was singing the words! Like the streaming numbers weren’t telling me that it was people’s favourite.
And that’s what MACEY really cares about as an artist: his vulnerable songwriting reaching someone, anyone who needs it, not chasing streaming success or data points. “I’m seeking connection, especially when I’m performing live. If I’m not connecting with them, and we’re not having this moment, then it’s not it.”
Alongside his full album, MACEY also made waves recently through his collaboration with Molly Payton on the sweet duet “Night Out”, a partnership that came together remarkably easily.
“A team member reached out and set up a group text. I was a little bit nervous to even ask if she’d like to come and sing a verse, but she’s so chill and so lovely,” he says. As soon as the pair got into the room together, his nerves disappeared. “It was just like hanging out with a mate,” he adds. “It was really special because that was someone I’d looked up to from a distance.”
And he’s reticent to give too many details away, but MACEY tells me that he worked on another song with Payton, as yet unreleased. “She’s got [it] on her voice notes,” he furtively reveals. “It’s like a little duet, it’s really good.”
He’s also definitely not curtailing his ambition when it comes to future collaborators. “I would love to write with Mallrat (who’s fond of a Kiwi collaboration), I look up to her. I always have, since I was 18. I’ll keep manifesting that one – I think it will happen. He also wants to work with Julia Michaels and Kacey Musgraves. One day it’ll happen, if I keep believing it!”
The coffee shop won’t have MACEY for much longer. “I’m planning on doing another headline show in the summer, and then another one in Wellington,” he reveals. He’s also already fervently preparing the follow-up to his debut album; almost 30 songs are ready to go, of which he likes “most of them.”
Will we see his second album in 2024? “If I get my way with the label and everything, and if they think it’s ready, I don’t see why not,” is his hopeful answer. “I hope I can be a bit quicker with the process because the last one took so long.”
But maybe the making of his last album needed to last that bit longer. Some people never recover from the loss of a father or the dissolution of a long-term relationship, but Harry Parsons took his time, processed his emotions, and came out the other side rejuvenated, his character formed by his past but not defined by it. Now, as MACEY, his future is his to decide.
MACEY’s The Lovers is out now.