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Hayley Reardon: The Popdose Interview

Part of me fears for Hayley Reardon. The 16-year-old singer/songwriter’s voice has the same timbre as Kasey Chambers, or a young Maria McKee, and in that voice I hear the echoes of records I’ve loved for longer than she’s been alive. She employs that voice in the service of self-penned songs whose concerns ping back and forth between empowerment and vulnerability, joy and confusion. They are at once universal and unique to her experience as a young woman—open to interpretation, to the layering on of the listener’s experiences and impressions, as good songs often are.

But they are also the work of a teenager, and that is why part of me fears for her. On her fine debut album, Where the Artists Go (Kingswood), she displays an emotional openness typical of a teen’s diaristic tendencies, but with the musical vocabulary of adult pop, throwing open her candid musings to anyone within earshot. Indeed, the marketing of the album seems to aim it directly at grown-ups, even as Reardon engages her peers in anti-bullying efforts (through her “Find Your Voice” program) and plays coffeehouses (and, recently, a middle school in Alaska).

America has a long history of embracing precocity in its youthful performers before relegating them to has-been status and “Where Are They Now?” features, often before they’ve developed the emotional tools to handle themselves. Should her record find the audience it deserves, Reardon will do a lot of learning in public, and I hope she’s able. Certainly, the songs on Where the Artists Go bode well for her creative development; tracks like “Only Pretending,” “Change” and “Goodbye Song” display maturity and confidence in her craft, while “Tribe,” “There You Are with Me,” and “Music” are full with youthful perspective and contagious energy.

It will be fun to watch Reardon develop her voice and her writing, even as I remain nervous about the other stuff. I recently conducted an email exchange with her, touching on the topics of her album, her collaborators, and her expectations.


Let’s get the age thing out of the way first. I don’t know, at first listen—absent the liner notes or press materials, etc.—that I would have pegged the songs on Where the Artists Go as being those of a 14 or 15-year-old, the age, I’m guessing, you were when you wrote most of them. When you write, is there any friction between expressing yourself as a young woman, still in high school, and expressing concerns that resonate with listeners who are not in your age group?

Not at all actually. I’ve never been in a place (to date, at least) where I’ve felt like I have to write for anyone but myself or appeal to any specific group of people. It’s amazing to be able to write exactly what you feel and have people relate to it. But if I felt inspired to write about something that I didn’t think people would relate to, I’d do it anyway.

Do you think you have a more mature sensibility than others your age?

I wouldn’t call myself any more mature, I have just as much teenager in me as every other 15 year old I know! I’ve always just kind of followed what interests me, some of which is my life as a high school student and some of which is my life as a singer/songwriter.

Are you ever concerned with revealing too much—in your songs, in your liner notes, in your Web or Facebook posts, etc.?

Maybe I should be? But I’m really not. Obviously, I won’t be posting my address on my Facebook or writing a song with my phone number in it anytime soon, but when it comes to expressing myself, this is my outlet and I’m lucky enough to have people listening. So as long as I feel that I’m being true to myself as an artist and a person, I don’t think there’s such a thing as being too honest.

One paragraph from your bio reads: “Due for release this fall, Artists will appeal to traditional folk music aficionados weaned on Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell while also appealing to alt-country stalwarts, Lucinda Williams, Kasey Chambers and Dar Williams, hipster indie icons Connor Oberst, Bon Iver, Neko Case, Anais Mitchell and Meiko and as well as mainstream singer-songwriters such as Taylor Swift, Colbie Caillat, Cady Groves and Jason Mraz.” That’s a lot of ground to cover. How do you feel about how you’re being marketed, or positioned in the marketplace?

Now there’s a list of big shoes to fill. I never really want to be the “next” anybody, so I like that this is a list of completely authentic, original, and very different artists and doesn’t imply that people should expect any certain genre or style of music from me.

Tell me what [producer] Lorne Entress has brought to your music.

So much. Lorne has brought my songs to life and introduced me to a side of my music that I didn’t even know was there. He is so passionate about what he does and puts so much thought and heart into every record he produces. He gave me the opportunity to really grow and experiment with new sounds at the same time as creating a very honest and real sounding CD that I feel perfectly represents me and a very passionate, inspired, and explosively creative time in my life.

The first verse of “Where the Artists Go”—a song about the creative urge—is so striking, and so true—about being alive inside, with an explosion of creative energy trying desperately to get out. Your notes on the song mention a classmate being your inspiration, but is that suppressed urge something that you yourself have experienced?

Yes, I think it’s probably something that every creative person feels at one point. Creativity and expression are really powerful forces, and I think if everybody, even the self-proclaimed non-creative looked a little deeper for their “explosion” whatever that might mean for them, the world would be a very different place.

The opening lines of the chorus—”You see the beauty / With one hand open and one clasped tight / Society don’t know a damn about this life”—almost sound angry to me. Am I reading that wrong, or is there tension you’re expressing there?

There definitely is tension. That song was inspired by an artist that helped me to realize just how wrong we are to let others define what “beauty” means for us. Take a look at the cover art of this album, nobody with that kind of brilliant light and color inside them should ever have to live as a black and white stick figure.

I have no idea what makes a song a hit these days (whatever hit means anymore), but “Only Pretending” certainly sounds like one; the melody is perfect, there’s a real bite in your voice, and the production is gorgeous. It’s also one of only two tracks on the album for which there isn’t an epigram or a story attached to it. Tell me a little bit about that song.

I actually wrote “Only Pretending” the night before one of our last days in the studio with the full band. I’m pretty wordy, so “Only Pretending” was an experiment for me to see if I could take a feeling and express it in the most simple way possible. I’m not sure if I really succeed at that, but I sent the song to Lorne that night and we recorded it the next day. It’s simply about not wanting to admit to yourself that you miss someone.

How did you get hooked up with [rapper] PZed for “Music?”

When I was twelve years old, I played a Culture Fest in Salem, MA, where PZed’s manager was DJing. She came up to me after my set and told me all about this reggae artist she managed back home in Jamaica and how she thought our voices would sound great together. I happened to have just discovered reggae and been listening to about 17 straight hours of Bob Marley a day that week so she caught me at the right time. I went home, listened to PZed, fell in love with his songs and his voice, and we began looking for some kind of common theme that we could write a song about together. That got kind of hard with him in Jamaica and me in the U.S. so I decided to just email him a song that I had written when I was twelve about discovering my love for music … something I was sure he’d connect with. At the time, I called it “Crossroads” which was the first verse and chorus of “Music.” PZed wrote a second verse, came up with some of his famous harmonies, and just added his own style to it. We recorded an acoustic version the next time he was in Boston, then a year or two later when Lorne and I got to work on this record, we decided to add the song to our list and re-make it with a more electric feel. So the next time PZed was in town, he came into the studio and did his thing. I think he contributes so much to this album. He took a song that I probably would have never ended up doing anything with and turned it into something really different and special.

In “Scribbles,” you talk about how much you learn about yourself from your writing—”I’ll never know myself like my scribbles seem to know me.” Tell me about how you use writing for self-discovery.

This is kind of one of those things that’s hard to explain and just sounds beyond lame when one tries … but I truly feel like I put a new piece of myself into place with every song I write. There will be times when I feel something but just can’t quite put my finger on what it is, until I sit down to write and all of a sudden my feelings are spelled out on the paper in front of me better than I ever could have said them out loud.

“Seattle” is one of those restless, “gotta get out of this town”-type songs, with Seattle as the place you’re aiming to escape to. Why Seattle?

Good question! I’ve never actually been to Seattle (I’m actually headed over there in October on my way to do some school shows in Alaska), but I’m really inspired by the music scene there and spend a lot of time streaming KEXP (University of Washington’s independent radio station) from my computer and getting introduced to a lot of Seattle’s current artists. Two of my absolute favorites from out there are Macklemore and The Head and the Heart.

Tell me what you think about the album as an art form. These days, it seems like single tracks are what people are interested in, yet, from what I read in your “Desert Island” list, you seem to appreciate albums as a form unto themselves.

Definitely. As much as it’s about the music, there’s more to it. It’s reading the liner notes, the lyrics, and actually hearing the songs in the order and way the artist intended for you to hear them.

The album packaging is gorgeous, something that happens ever more rarely these days, when digital is king. What kind of input did you have on that? How did it all come together?

I felt really strongly that an album with a name and a theme like “Where the Artists Go” should physically be a work of art when you hold it in your hands as well as put it in your CD player. In a lot of ways, I looked at it as almost a concept album in the sense that it all followed the theme of my own exploration for what it means to be an artist as well as bringing in the influence other artists who have inspired and helped me to answer that question along the way. Not just musicians. In addition to PZed, who brings a whole different genre from a whole different country, I asked Sterling Higa, a Hawaiian slam poet to contribute some poetry to a song I had written after first being infected and inspired by the art of slam.

The cover art is designed after a drawing drawn by a boy in my eighth grade social studies class who inspired me to write the title track, “Where the Artists Go.” Instead of having some fancy looking photo shoot, I opted to only include personal photos of myself and the people behind the songs. Some talented photographers worked their magic and produced some really beautiful, raw, real-looking pictures. Lastly, I collected hand-sketched drawings that I felt related to individual songs.

With physical CDs becoming a thing of the past, I racked my brain for some incentive that might entice people, especially young people, to actually choose the real thing over a download. I wanted them to experience my whole vision, and all of the artistry that went into this beyond just the music. So I decided I wanted to create what I call an “artist’s scrapbook” which ended up being a 20-page booklet inserted on the inside cover with the lyrics and stories behind each song, as well as each of the pictures, drawings, etc. mentioned above. This was ambitious but I was lucky enough to find an incredible Boston area graphic artist (Tatiana Marcussian) who totally got what I was going for and put her own brilliant artistic spin on the whole thing. Overall though, we wouldn’t have been able to create something like that if it weren’t for my record label, Kingswood Records, whole-heartedly supporting all my crazy ideas.

What are your expectations for the album? What will constitute a success to you?

I’m really not sure. All I know is that this is my first time looking at a piece of my own work and feeling like it fully represents me and my vision. I feel like I’ve woven a lot of myself into this thing and I couldn’t be more excited to share it with as many people as I can.

Tell me about your “Find Your Voice” program. What’s it all about?

A few years back, I began working with PACER Teens Against Bullying as a peer spokesperson. Teachers from all across the country started reaching out and asking me if I would be willing to come perform in their schools. My immediate answer was “No,” because I only had two real “bullying” songs and there was nothing I could tell these students that they didn’t already know … I’m just one of them. The more I thought about it though, I would ask myself, “If you had an hour up on stage in a room full of your peers, what would you say?” I got thinking about all the things my music has allowed me to do and, in the end, that list always boiled down to one thing: it allowed me to find my voice. And so, I created a class-length performance program that is simply me singing my songs and telling my stories about the passion I’ve found and the way it has helped me uncover and be proud of myself and what I have to say. The goal of the program is not to convince kids that picking up a guitar and writing songs is the only way to find yourself, it’s to get them thinking about what matters to them, realize that individuality is something to embrace and wear proudly, and most of all, to be bold, speak up, and express themselves.

Are you a reader? If so, who do you like to read?

I do love reading! If there’s one thing I wish I had more time for, it’s books. I’d say recently, the majority of my reading time has gone into books I am assigned for school just because things have gotten pretty busy. John Green, however, is one of my favorite authors. I love his quirky style of writing. I actually wrote a song about one of his novels, Looking for Alaska, last year.

What are you listening to these days?

I listen to music in a very obsessive way. It’s usually one artist and one artist only nonstop for about a week until I’m on to the next. So, this week has been a whole lot of Ed Sheeran. But the weeks before that consisted of some Patty Griffin, The Wood Brothers, and The Lumineers.