PREMIERE: HALEY “Credit Forever Part 2”

Haley by Colin Michael Simmons

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.

October 4 – Minneapolis, MN @ Trylon Cinema (Video Screening Party)
November 3 – Glasgow, UK @ Stereo Cafe Bar
November 4 – Chester, UK @ St Mary’s Creative Space
November 5 – Newcastle, UK @ The Cluny
November 6 – Birmingham, UK @ Glee Club Birmingham
November 8 – London, UK @ St Pancras Old Church
November 9 – Cambridge, UK @ Storey’s Field Centre
November 10 – Manchester, UK @ St Michael’s
November 11 – Brighton, UK @ Rialto Theatre
November 12 – Amsterdam, NL @ Tolhuistuin
December 8 – Minneapolis MN @ Cedar Cultural Center

ALBUM REVIEW: Haley Bonar “Last War”

Last War is immediately, unmistakably different than any record Haley Bonar‘s made before. Her catalogue is impressive: with ten releases in just ten years, and four full-lengths excluding the newest one, Bonar, pronounced bawn-er, has put a solid stake into her style of dark, quiet, vocal-heavy folk music. Her voice is cradle-rocking singalong, and she tends to end verses in extremely sad-sounding sustained notes that back the bleak lyrics of the lines she’s singing. On her sparsest album, 2006’s Lure The Fox, Bonar’s minimalism crosses over into what feels more like a live recording than anything laid down in a studio. String squeaks and between-verse breath exhalations creep onto the tracks; listening to it is like sitting in Bonar’s lap. That kind of microscopic access to Bonar’s vocal acrobatics is a treat, but interior minimalism piled on  top of grim lyrics makes for a bit much of a muchness, and sometimes the bleaker extremes of Bonar’s early stuff drag her voice from prettily sorrowful into dour and self-indulgent.

Simply put, Last War is Bonar’s scuzziest record. In the pros column, the greater dose of reverb and percussion here rescues the album from any danger of turning weepy. In fact, she sounds sadder than she does pissed off, especially on early single “No Sensitive Man.” For them that would complain that her most acoustic stuff gets boring, Last War offers a more twisted take on Bonar’s alt-country licks and lullaby lonesomeness. On the other hand, I’m inclined to argue that shaking up the style comes at the expense of her voice, which still paints broad-brush singalong arcs and still hovers in a held note over the emotionally ripe ends of each verse, but is on this album less of a focal point. Bonar’s vocal line gets swept up along with the larger machine of grit and distortion on this album, and that really saps the liveliness that made her folk persona so remarkable in the first place.

Now, that isn’t true from cover to cover. Last week I criticized Bonar’s disparaging vocals on “No Sensitive Man” as bored-sounding: I really struggled with the way she brought lyrical themes of exasperation into her vocal lines, which ultimately weren’t any more likable than the feelings the song describes. But other tracks, like “Bad Reputation,” display a lot more complexity on both lyrical and musical fronts without letting go of Bonar’s large, flexible vocal range. “I got a bad reputation,” she sings on that track, “I probably need medication.” Baldly delivering grim sentiments in a pretty voice, Bonar finally seems to hit the right balance between showcasing her vocals and showing us her teeth.

Still, she’s ultimately a singer best appreciated under a microscope. This album represents several steps in the hookier direction for Bonar, but it’s still not a record that will necessarily grab you if you’re hearing it passively. That’s why I’m puzzled by so much of the noisier parts on this album, which aren’t as rewarding to an intimate listen as Bonar’s voice would be unadorned. She proves on this album that she can turn out a decent rocker, but with a songwriterly vision like the one she showed us on Golder in 2011, or the Sing With Me EP the year before that, why would Bonar want to? Compared to the intricacy of those albums, the reverb-y sections on Last War seem to water down the album more than they enhance it.

Last War comes out May 20th.  Preorder here via Graveface. Til then, try “Bad Reputation” on for size! You can also listen to “No Sensitive Man” and spend more time with Haley Bonar on Facebook.

TRACK REVIEW: Haley Bonar’s “Kill the Fun”

All great stories often start with an open mic; Haley Bonar‘s included. What’s more inspiring than a nineteen year-old on a quest for musical discovery? One who actually finds it. Haley is here years later, with an eagerly awaited album, Last War (via Graveface Records), set for May 20th. With a solid band by her side I expect Last War to be every bit as poetic as her previous albums. And by the sound of “Kill the Fun,” the album’s first release, I can tell it will be the perfect summer soundtrack. The track is opposite to the title, in it’s actually lively and enjoyable. It’s structure is carefree, and  contains visually evocative phrases like “laughing at the future that was hanging from the trees.” Despite darker its darker lyrics, the synths and melodic guitar are exceptionally breezy. This uninterrupted ditty is going to be perfect when I can finally lay outside, over a quilt, and staring into the sky of nothingness.
Listen to “Kill The Fun” here via Soundcloud:

TRACK REVIEW: Haley Bonar “No Sensitive Man”

Eight years ago, Alan Sparhawk of Low spotted twenty-year-old Haley Bonar performing at an open mic and invited her and her drummer on tour with his band. Since then, Bonar’s been busy: she’s put out five solo studio albums and started a punk side project called Gramma’s Boyfriend, which we hear involves performing in eighties figure skating outfits. Bringing anxious bass lines together with elegant vocal harmony, Bonar brings a songwriting style to each of her albums that’s appealing and complex, with a way of cloaking grisly lyrics in catchy hooks.

“No Sensitive Man” opens with a rousing drum line and dreamy, smeared vocals that seem draped over the music. “Shut your eyes and play me something good,” Bonar sings, sounding exasperated. “I don’t wanna talk. We can get away with anything these days.” It’s a flat, unsentimental meditation with a choppy bass line that sprawls over the track. This is Bonar at her most disaffected– “No Sensitive Man” bristles in a way that’s new for Bonar’s solo material, and though it’s exciting to see her snarl, the self-isolation of the vocals on this track ultimately sound lazy, and disengaged from the rest of the music. In the absence of the sweet, story-telling style that have made her albums so good up to this point, the flat disappointment and dismissiveness that colors this track feels kind of unengaging, especially since the instrumental lines don’t fill out to take over the spotlight from Bonar’s narrative persona. While I like the idea of Bonar taking the thematic bleakness her music has always had and drawing it into the music’s aesthetic a bit more, “No Sensitive Man” lacked focus without Bonar’s vocals front and center.

Bonar’s new album, Last War, will be in stores May 20th via Graveface. Until then, check out “No Sensitive Man” below and let us know what you think!