HALEY has successfully maintained indie darling status. Big enough for Pitchfork but small enough to keep her street cred, she has spent 15 years mastering her craft.
Born in Canada, raised in South Dakota and then ultimately spending her collegiate years and beyond in Minnesota, we claim her as our local. With six albums under her belt as Haley Bonar and one as the reclaimed HALEY, she basks in the light of self-assurance. A person who thrives on creating with a talent for moving down multiple artistic avenues, we sat down with her to talk new Gramma’s Boyfriend music, what it was like to open for Lana Del Rey and why performing presents her greatest challenge.
Tell me what drew you to music
I started playing guitar when I was 14. I played piano as a kid. I moved to Minnesota and started playing open mics and that led to playing more weekly gigs and started making a little bit of money on the side. I was going to college. I went to UMD. But it never really felt like it was my “calling”.
It was something that I really liked, that was important to me and was really personal to me. It wasn’t something that I started out to be a rockstar musician at all. I was like ‘I’m going to be a teacher’. And then one thing led to another, literally, and I’ve been self-employed for 15 years.
National publications love to tell the tale of Haley being discovered by Alan Sparhawk (of Low) at an open mic. Is the Alan Sparhawk discovery narrative true?
Yeah, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for a man! Just kidding. You know, everybody is at the mercy of whoever sort of helps them along, and that is something that I am very grateful for but it wasn’t like I wasn’t writing and performing my own work. I just roll my eyes at the word “discover”. It’s just, “Oh my God, I wasn’t on f*ckin’ American Idol,” like DISCOVER!
Here I was, and I didn’t know what to do, and he was like, “I think you have talent, kid!”
I was asked by Low to open for them when I was 19 or 20, and I had my first record and they put it out on their small label called Chairkickers, and that’s kinda how I started touring, releasing records outside of my own small town.
You’ve been making music for almost 20 years – how have you changed in that time? How has your music, your songwriting changed? Have things changed since you’ve been sober?
I don’t really like talking about sobriety just because it means so many things to different people. I feel like to normalize sobriety is to not acknowledge if you are or not. For me! That’s my personal thing.
As far as developing as a songwriter, I was a baby when I started writing. So it’s come a long way, yet hundreds of songs later I’m still making music which is surprising to me sometimes. But I feel like I started out like everybody does; you sort of emulate the music you listen to. I was covering a lot of Ani DiFranco, Elliot Smith and The Cars, all kinds of music that I like to listen to.
From there I was finding my own voice as a songwriter and that’s constantly developing and changing. I like to continue to challenge myself. I don’t want to be pigeonholed into one kind of artist. I feel like it’s developing in many ways that I never would have imagined, which I am grateful for.
Tell me about Pleasureland (HALEY’s 2018 instrumental album) – how did it come about?
I love that record. I feel like it’s the record I always wanted to make.
I’ve always loved classical piano. As a kid I’ve always loved classical piano. That’s all I wanted to do, play fake classical music. I did put out some instrumental music on my record Golder that came out in 2011 and a couple EPs that have had instrumental tracks and also I’ve done that for pitches for my publishing agency if whatever commercial is looking for this type of song blah blah blah. But I had never devoted myself to making an entire album. I just sort of built off a couple pieces that I already had and felt really connected to finding those feelings and describing those feelings in a different way rather than using words.
It was just a really heavy time everywhere and for me personally. I was going through a lot of personal growth, feeling upset and powerless I guess, just because of the political climate, since 2016, that’s when I did most of the writing for this. I didn’t want to make a political record that was a political record talking about all my fuckin beliefs. This is a statement because I feel all of these things and like most people I don’t even know where to start. I don’t even know how to explain this. I don’t know what’s up and down and this is all so weird. To me that was like a peaceful place and it was a good way to explore those feelings without putting a name on them.
What are your future plans? I heard something about a book of short stories? Did that ever happen?
I don’t know if you read that I started a Patreon. I don’t know how much you know about Patreon, but it’s the wave of the future, it really is. Basically you get to build your own subscriptions with different artists, podcasts, film companies, illustrators, painters, every kind of media and artistic form and you support them directly with your membership.
It’s a bit more of a personal way to see what people are working on in between releases or in between shows. I feel like it’s the kind of platform that I need for me as an artist, because I don’t just do music. I also started painting. I’ve been doing that a lot lately. I do have a lot of short stories.
I don’t have the time to devote what I need to make that happen so it’s fun to release those as I feel comfortable. It’s a neat way to gauge interest in whatever I’m doing before I make any big decisions that cost money. It feels good to have people that are interested in you as a human with a creative outlet versus just someone that you see on Instagram. I feel like that kind of got off topic but to answer your question about the stories, that is sort of the way I’ve been culminating all of the things into this one platform.
Do you think you’ll record more music with Gramma’s Boyfriend?
Uh-huh! I just had a meeting with them today, because we’re putting out an EP, and we’re going to try to get some cassettes printed. We’ll do a digital release, too, but for our artifact, we decided to do tapes and hand-make the covers. That will be done in April. We’ve got a bunch of shows coming up in April and May, which I am very happy about. I’m excited for our new record. It’s called “Bozo.”
Exactly. That’s it. That’s why. Bozo. Every time I tell somebody, it’s because of that, because you laugh.
How would you describe Gramma’s Boyfriend’s music to an outsider? Best band name ever by the way
Thank you! The band name came before the band. I decided I wanted to have a band called Gramma’s Boyfriend, first it was Teenage Grandpa. [Gramma’s Boyfriend is] if Devo and Missing Persons and Suburban Lawns had a party and one of them was on acid, and one was drunk and the other one was just sad and they were all dancing together. It’s kind of a you-have-to-see-it-to-experience-it thing I think.
This [new] record I can’t WAIT to play it for people. It’s so fun and dancey.
Do you already have it all put together?
We’re going to go mix it in two weeks.
Cool! So the First Ave show will be all new stuff?
Yes. We are psyched to do that show. We have a substitute drummer and it’s Jendeen from All The Pretty Horses. We’ll have two trans people for the First Ave show, and it’s gonna be baller. And Sean’s band is so great too.
Will you be doing another album under HALEY? Do you foresee that music being similar to your last album?
Yes and yes … yes and no. I’m not going to be releasing an album. I’ll be releasing songs individually over the next year and then depending on how that shakes out, eventually put something out in physical format. I just feel like, at this point, it doesn’t make sense to do that anymore. People are always just putting out singles and it saves so much money to do one song at a time.
I really like to work with different people on every song, just so I can combine my voice with different people’s, like as a producer, or, literally, I’m going out to New York in April and I’m going to work with this woman, Vanessa Silverman, who’s an engineer I met at Dave Grohl’s studio. She’s a super badass producer and engineer. I love her and then there are two women – drummer and bass player.
I’m excited to go to a new place and to be doing music that I’m used to doing with my band of mostly dudes and kind of re-owning it I guess. We’re going to reconstruct the song a little bit. I’m just excited to have new energy in it. New femme energy. Fresh ears, not be in Minneapolis and surrounded by magnetic New York City energy.
How does your writing process work? Do you hear melody, lyrics first, write on piano, guitar?
Sometimes it’s one and sometimes it’s a combination of those, but I feel like everything has to start with melody somehow. Even if it’s building a progression, I think that could be a melody, too, and I’ll put something over top of that.
Sometimes I’ll sit there and play the same two chords for 20 minutes, just make words up, make melodies up. I always have my voice memo on. It’s like catching fish! You just hold your net and wait and something, like “Whoa, OK,” even if it’s one little thing. I really love that. The rest of it was total bullshit. That one little second is something I can build on.
It’s different for me every time. I feel like I’m most inspired after seeing other people’s art. Anything that inspires me, I just want to put that inspiration into something. It seems really easy when it’s like that. But when it’s not, it’s like sit down, buckle your seatbelt and play some fuckin arpeggios. I feel like meandering is just as valuable as rehearsing the same song 50 times.
Tell me about opening for Lana Del Rey. It was two shows? And she wanted local openers and was a fan?
Yeah, so her brother Charlie lived here and he just moved back to LA to live with her and their sister. But he had sent her my music and she was like, “Oh my God, you should play Madison.” She Instagram messaged me and I was like, “Is this fake?” I didn’t believe it. I was like, “Who is this asshole?” I screenshotted it and sent it to my sister, “Is this real?” And she was like, “Yeah, if it’s a verified account.” I wrote back, “Yeah.” And she wrote back and said, “If you want to sing one of your songs or we can do a cover.” And we went back and forth about that and then she found out I was from South Dakota and she was like, “We have not been able to find anyone to play there!”
She’s amazing. She’s really nice and genuine and down to earth. She’s had the same people in her band and crew for almost 10 years, so she treats everyone well. Happy crew, happy band. I really respect her a lot.
We ended up doing a song I wrote called “Eat For Free,” and I am hoping we can get a legit recording of it. It was amazing! It was amazing if I don’t say so myself, which I do!
What would you say brings you the most joy as a musician and what is the most challenging?
I think the most joy is finishing something and sharing it with people. Like sending it to my friends and family. Even just demos. That’s why I do what I do. I just want to share. I want to make things and show people. That makes me happy. I like giving gifts. It’s the same kind of chemistry in my brain. I get this endorphin, this rush from sharing things and that’s the way that I show love.
The most challenging thing is performing. That’s something that I have always struggled with. I had horrible horrible stage fright and anxiety for years and years and years. I used to not even be able to face people. I would tour and I had a wurlitzer that I brought with me and I would set it to face the wall so the audience was here and I would play like this (gestures away from them), so I wouldn’t have to face people.
I see that kid and I’m like, “Oh my God! Poor baby!” I just needed therapy really bad. Now I’m way better about it. I was just such a … in the beginning, it was such a personal thing that I liked to do on my own time, share the songs I wrote with people that I trusted. But getting in front of a bunch of people that I didn’t know, it’s never something that has been easy. But I felt compelled to do it, nonetheless.
I feel like, as time has gone on, I’ve been able to hone into what I love best about making music and creating art. That does not include the performance element of it as much anymore. I love performing with Gramma’s Boyfriend, because that is more like performance art for me. It’s a different kind of … I don’t know, I feel like I’m a different person. I get to emulate something outside myself. The funny me, the goofy me. People that know me say the Gramma’s Boyfriend you is the most you. I’m an introvert, like 1000%! It’s the one thing where I feel like I don’t get nervous, because it’s such an in-your-face performance.
You’ve mentioned that you paint, and I know you love visual art as well, has that always been important to you?
With Pleasureland, when I first started doing that, I was thinking this is the closest I can get to painting. And now I am [painting]. It’s another thing. It’s challenging to try something new.
I really love video editing, and I’ve been working with some other artists. I’m working with this rapper D Mills, and I’m producing her track next week, which is cool, because I’ve never worked on hip hop before. It’s cool; we already did a session.
There are a lot of things that are kind of going on, and this is the most fulfilled that I’ve ever been in my life. I know who I am. I know what makes me happy. I know what I am capable of, and I am not really scared to try things anymore and be my best weirdest self.
For me, it feels like you weren’t ever scared, everything you put out feels really personal. Your musical choices have always felt fearless.
I feel like anybody that is choosing to build a business or anything out of what they make and what’s close to them, it takes guts. You have to be able to be bold but it’s also you know, releasing that record kind of blew up a lot of things in a really good way for me. It shook up the people that I was working with who were interested and invested in me as an artist versus the people that were interested in making money off of me as an artist. I’m completely aware that not every suit is going to be behind you doing an instrumental record after doing 10 records where my voice was on.
And I expected that. But it was also the extremeness of all of that sort of and falling away in front of my eyes and needing to re-navigate and re-center myself and who was there to really support, that wanted me to be something I wasn’t. It was a good thing for me to do regardless and the joke is on whoever. Letting go of other people’s expectations of you and just holding yourself accountable and having high expectations of yourself, I think that’s what serves you the best.
Was it difficult to navigate through all that? Did you question yourself during that process?
Oh yeah, it was very tumultuous. It’s not easy to be the only one in the room who thinks you have a good idea, no matter what it is. Even if you’re strong and standing there taking all of that wind, do you want to be doing that? F*ck no! But I was there, and I took it, and I had to defend it. It’s not easy to take risks but if you don’t take risks, then nothing happens.
Haley plays with her band Gramma’s Boyfriend April 2 in the First Avenue main room, supporting Heart Bones as a part of First Avenue’s 50th Anniversary celebration. They also play April 23 at the Uptown VFW.
By Sarah Osterbauer