Since 2003, Haley McCallum has put dozens of releases out into the world as Haley Bonar – most of them with a folk rock bent and a focus on her clever lyricism and yearning vocals. That focus shifts with Pleasureland, released simply under the mononymous moniker HALEY. It’s a collection of instrumental only tracks, written in a time so bleak that Haley says she literally had no words to describe what she was feeling. An earlier single, “Infinite Pleasure Part 2,” featured ragged guitar layered with distortion; now, HALEY shares roiling piano ditty “Credit Forever Part 2,” accompanied by an eerie video montage of every day American television from the early 2000s.
By their nature, instrumental songs afford listeners something of a gift: the meaning is theirs to interpret, the melody a journey for the taking. Juxtaposing the lilting arpeggios of HALEY’s lively playing with a collage of cataclysmic natural events, absurd infomercials, and gooey sandwich fillings reveals the singer’s trademark wit in a new art form. Like so many of her songs, “Credit Forever Part 2” is more than meets the ear – it guilds this surreal imagery with nostalgic importance, almost as if we’re opening a time capsule. But inside, there are only meaningless artifacts, and yet HALEY’s majestic piano meditation swirls on, accompanied sporadically by restless, fuzzy guitar.
We spoke with Haley McCallum about tackling tough subject matter and how she’s navigated an industry that’s quick to pigeonhole female musicians.
Watch “Credit Forever Part 2” below:
AF: You’re a north country native, born in Canada, raised in Rapid City, South Dakota and currently residing in St. Paul, Minnesota. Do those north country winters affect the subject matter / mood of your music?
HALEY: I am a moody person, and weather definitely effects that. The winter is tough sometimes, but man can you get a lot of work done.
AF: What kind of music did you grow up listening to?
HM: I was obsessed with girl bands of the early 1960s like The Crystals and I loved the Beatles. That was not considered ‘cool’ but I felt like I was born in the wrong time. That being said, I also loved TLC, Green Day, The Cranberries, Enya, and Wilson Phillips.
AF: At what age did you start writing your own music?
HM: I was about 14.
AF: What were those first songs about?
HM: Oh, about being a sad sack.
AF: Traditional boys + blues? Or about living in the Midwest?
HM: The first song I ever wrote on guitar was literally called “Depression.” I guess I wrote piano songs when I was much younger. I started playing piano around age five.
AF: Wikipedia classifies your sound as “folk, slowcore, indie rock” – are those definitions on point or off base?
HM: Slow core – what a name! I don’t know, I am really bad at defining my own music because it isn’t defined in my brain when I write it. I just write it, and sometimes the songs are more rock, some ballads, some classical/jazz influenced. I think my goal is to bypass all the labels and be my own style, which is many.
AF: Your new album Pleasureland is instrumental. Was that a conscious decision or did it come from a more organic place initially?
HM: I started writing piano songs initially, just to play around with composition. After I wrote a few, the idea became solidified. I honestly was so blown away with the state of everything that I said, “What can I possibly have to say?” I’d rather convey a feeling. I needed to take a break from telling stories about myself that way.
AF: The state of the world?
HM: Yes. Election, MeToo, Black Lives Matter, immigration. So much negativity and violence, so many people crying out. It was overwhelming, and I found solace in playing piano and pushing myself in a new direction musically.
AF: Were you visualizing anything in particular when you wrote it? Was there a specific movement or subject on your mind?
HM: I envisioned destruction, chaos, a feeling of being out of control. But there is hope that comes through despite all of this. Beautiful parts of humanity and the planet we dwell upon, almost like a requiem for goodness.
AF: Have you had a chance to play this album live? Do you plan on touring with a focus just on Pleasureland as a stand alone piece? Or will you mix in some old favorites?
HM: We will be performing Pleasureland live when we’re in the UK in November. I’ll be playing other songs as well, but more stripped down versions.
AF: What feeling or emotion or vibe do you hope to convey during a Haley show? How do you want people to feel when they step out into that Minnesota cold?
HM: I suppose it would be nice to have folks walk away from the show thinking, “There is more to this artist than I thought.” People tend to pigeonhole, label, or be reductive in women’s capabilities as artists. It’s not intentional, just the way it is.
AF: Do you feel like you’ve been pigeonholed in the industry?
HM: Definitely. I have a lot of music, and it’s kind of all over the place. In my other band, Gramma’s Boyfriend, I write the lyrics/melody and sing my ass off – but the band is consistently panned as my “side project” and any review mostly references what I’m wearing on stage. They don’t understand that comprehensively, I’m a pretty versatile musician. I’ve always felt like the “biz” doesn’t quite know what to do with me. And that’s okay!
AF: What music are you into right now? What do you have spinning on the regular?
HM: Teyana Taylor’s new record has some serious tracks on it. Also really digging this Brit band Sleaford Mods. Oh, and Cardi B’s “Be Careful” is my JAM.
AF: There’s a young musician in St. Paul, she’s thinking of dropping out of college to go on tour. What advice would you give her?
HM: I’d say go for it. I learned a hell of a lot about life by doing that.
Pleasureland is out October 12 (preorder HERE) via Memphis Industries. Check out the band’s tour dates below.