Even Lewis Carroll couldn’t have dreamt up the surreal, real-life wonderland that Australian artist Hayley Mary of the Jezabels tumbled into at 5 years old.
In the tiny surfing community of Byron Bay, her father — a harp-plucking street performer attired in witch’s garb — rechristened her as a play on “Hail Mary,” then dressed her up as a gossamer-winged fairy to accompany him on vocals.
“As a kid, I had hair down to my knees, so this was why I looked like a fairy,” recalls the singer, who emerged from the rabbit hole with the dark, dreamy quartet, which plays San Francisco this week, backing “Prisoner,” its great debut CD.
Back then, Mary, 24, was embarrassed by her abnormal upbringing, which also included impromptu witch or fairy bar gigs.
“But now I think it might have been character-building,” she says. Naturally, as a teenager, she rebelled by smoking pot, chopping her tresses off and writing songs with her keyboardist chum (and future bandmate) Heather Shannon.
“We got out of there as soon as school was finished, and went to university in Sydney,” she adds. “I studied art — just a general humanities degree with English and history majors. But I actually use my degree, strangely enough, in the Jezabels.”
Mary isn’t kidding. On “Prisoner” — which just won the $30,000 Australian Music Prize — her Sharleen-Spiteri-smoky warble serpentines through social commentaries like “City Girl,” “Peace of Mind” and the title track.
“With regard to my lyrics, I found that what I read in college, and some of the topics and themes, really colored my world — things I wouldn’t have had any access to had I not done an arts degree,” she says. “Even reading poetry helped me learn to write.”
The band name is a statement in itself. Upset that the biblical Jezebel is still stigmatized as a harlot, Mary wanted to reclaim the name for feminism and stress a more modern reinterpretation — that the outcast donned makeup to disguise herself before falling from a window to her death.
“Hence the ‘fallen woman’ trope,” Mary says. “So lyrically, I’m looking at life from a gender perspective, but I’m fascinated with the individual’s role in their own oppression.” This fairy has definitely flown the provincial coop.
When a men’s magazine recently complimented the singer’s beauty — and short, asymmetrical hairstyle — she felt conflicted.
“There are feminists who would be really angry with us about that,” she says. “Then there’s lipstick feminism and female pride, where sexuality is actually liberating. It’s very complicated, but these are the things that I want to explore in Jezabels songs
Where: The Independent, 628 Divisadero St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Contact: (415) 771-1421; www.ticketfly.com.