Hazel English Illustrated FHHazel English (Illustration: Rob Goodman)

I first saw Hazel English when she performed a stripped-down set this past spring opening up for Thao Nguyen at Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma. I hadn’t heard her records yet, so I got to know her music right there, live in the moment, one hauntingly raw melody at a time. I was so moved by her performance that when her new album, a double EP amalgam Just Give In/Never Going Home, was released on Polyvinyl earlier this year, I dove into her studio work full force. The album, produced by friend and collaborator Jackson Phillips of Day Wave, feels like a nearly perfect, wistful summer day, but one enjoyed through the haze of an occupied mind and heavy heart.

I recently met up with Hazel English at Beauty’s Bagel Shop for Favorite Haunts, my series where the people shaping the Bay Area music scene share their favorite places. We spoke about her love for her adopted hometown of Oakland, the Bay Area artists that inspire her, songwriting and performing, and some of the places she adores most in the East Bay.

Hazel English Beauty's 1(photos: Rob Goodman)

When Hazel arrived at Beauty’s Bagel Shop at 3838 Telegraph Avenue in Oakland (via that most popular mode of Bay Area transit, the bicycle), we quickly shared our love of bagels, brunch, and Beauty’s. Hazel ordered one of her favorites, the lox omelet with caramelized onions, along with a fresh orange juice. Going for the full meal is a great move, since when you order one of the restaurants’ free range egg dishes, you also get a bagel and a side of greens. I followed suit, grabbing a mushroom omelet with caramelized onions, spinach, and Swiss cheese.

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Beauty’s Bagel Shop opened in 2009, after Amy Remsen and Blake Joffe moved from Philadelphia to Oakland and yearned to bring their love of Montreal bagels — hand-rolled, boiled in honey-sweetened water, and wood-fired — to the masses. Beauty’s was my first encounter with Montreal-style bagels, though Hazel had enjoyed some on location during a trip to Canada a while back. As a born-and-bred New Yorker, I pride myself on my bagel love, and Beauty’s does not disappoint. The bagels are not too doughy and have great texture with a sharp, delicious crunch to every bite. I chose an everything bagel toasted with cream cheese, and Hazel went for sesame.

Though Beauty’s is one of Hazel’s favorite haunts, it’s a special, rather than an everyday, outing, since she also “really likes making breakfast” herself. “But,” she told me, “it’s a nice thing to do with friends” — even though “it’s actually not very easy to find brunch in Oakland.” The shop is right in Hazel’s neck of the woods, so I asked her about some of the other spots she frequents in Oakland. One of her favorites is Timeless Coffee Roasters on Piedmont Avenue, a “really cool little café, where they do all vegan baked goods.” Timeless has been in the area since 2012 and prides themselves on small-roast batches, ethically sourced beans, and yes, that expansive display of cakes, cookies, and breads — all sans any egg, milk, or other animal products. There’s also Issues magazine shop, home to nearly every magazine under the sun both from the states and abroad, and Mercy Vintage, one of Hazel’s favorite vintage shops. Run by Karen Anderson and Rachel Cubra, who cheekily dub themselves “professional treasure hunters,” the store carries a wealth of items that span styles and decades.

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Hazel’s musical destiny began to unfold further here in Oakland too, while she was working at the aptly-named bookstore Bookshop. She began chatting with a customer who was waiting for his synth to get fixed down the street at Waveformless Synthesizer Shop, in Temescal Alley. Eventually, he let on that he was a musician. Hazel told him, "‘I’m a musician too...We should collaborate sometime.’” That customer turned out to be Day Wave’s Jackson Phillips, who later invited Hazel to his home studio, where the two quickly began cooking up what would become Just Give In/Never Going Home.

Hazel wrote the songs for her album both in Phillips’ studio and on her own. I was curious about that process of studio writing and the pressure, good or bad, it applies to the creative process. She explained, “I really enjoyed writing in the studio, but it’s more of a challenge. You’re there, and you’re expected to come up with something on the spot. I think it helps me, because if you have to come up with something very quickly, you can’t overthink it. It’s more of a less thinking, more intuitive process...more of a stream of consciousness.”

But sometimes a song can arrive so quickly that catching it with a fast home recording does just the trick. She explained, “‘I’m Fine’ was like that. I just recorded it on my phone, at home on my acoustic guitar. Then we redid it in the studio. But [the album version of the] song was pretty similar to the demo. All the lyrics were exactly the same and the melody was the same.”

It wasn’t Hazel’s game plan to record an album, tour, and make a big splash on the music scene. And that focus on the songs rather than what can be distractions off in the distance is core to her writing process. Hazel tries to write and record songs without “getting too caught up in the end product or how are people going to receive it...and without those expectations or ideas of how people might think about it.”

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Once Hazel put that focus into making music, it wasn’t long before the world began to notice. She’s been performing consistently since the release of her first EP, Never Going Home, last year. Hazel had just returned from a successful European tour when I met her for brunch at Beauty’s on a warm Friday morning at the end of June. Among the clattering of plates and sounds of talkative patrons devouring some of the Bay Area’s best bagels, we continued to chat about what it’s been like to leave the studio and start her journey as a touring musician. She shared, “I think it takes a good amount of time to feel really confident playing [the songs live] and feel like you know how its going to go and you are in sync with the band and everyone knows how it should sound. It takes a while to get to that point. So it’s kind of nice to now feel like we are in a groove and we know what we should be playing and how the dynamics should be.” This tight live show is one of the reasons Hazel’s upcoming concert at the Independent on Monday, July 17, will be a must-see gathering.

Check out Hazel English's just released Twin Peaks-inspired video for "That Thing."

Hazel’s performances are so beautifully crafted and her debut album so fully realized, it’s easy to forget that she’s still new to all of this. That’s one of many reasons she finds her support system of neighborhood artists so incredible. As she glanced at a copy of East Bay Express on a nearby newspaper stand in the restaurant, she told me about one of the local artists she admires. “There’s Melina [Duterte], Jay Som. I saw Jay Som in London, which was really fun...It was really cool to hang out with her there. I’m really good friends with her and the band. She’s really inspiring to me, because she’s been doing so well and she’s so humble. And she does everything herself, which is amazing to me. I think it’s great, especially here in Oakland, to have a really strong female role model here in the music scene.” And Hazel notes, having friends like Jay Som who are experiencing similar paths “definitely helps, because sometimes you can feel a little uncertain of things when you are still kind of new to it...It’s nice to feel like I have friends I can talk to about it.”

If you haven’t had a chance to listen to Hazel English’s album Just Give In/ Never Going Home, I’m a little jealous. You get to experience her chilled-out, lyrically exposed, sonically arresting tunes for the first time. So grab a sunset fire pit on Ocean Beach or take a long drive down Highway 1 and turn these sullen summer jams up loud. Or even better, hop on your bike, and take a ride over to Beauty’s Bagel Shop with Hazel English’s new album in your earbuds for some of the very best bagels and brunch the Bay Area has to offer. And don’t forget to cheer Hazel on next week at the Independent at a “welcome home” show that is not to be missed.

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