Haley Heynderickx sings with warped-wood strength and radical tenderness. On her debut LP, released in March, she used that voice to give 2018 the war cry it needed, first singing, then howling, a statement that doubles as the album’s title: “I NEED TO START A GARDEN!”
During a recent concert in Chicago, one of more than a hundred she’s played so far this year, Heynderickx shows us what she means. While she’s tuning (which is often, due to her unusual finger-picking guitar style), the singer-songwriter asks us to “Say hi to a stranger for 15 seconds!” The people in the room are shy sorts, mostly, but soon they start chattering. She then puts herself on the line, telling us about her “weird Belgian ancestor” who fell into a family scandal that resulted in a boat escape that got him to Chicago eventually. “I’m trying to practice more open small talk,” she says.
This is how she approaches the world: open, hesitant and thoughtful. On “Untitled God Song,” another highlight from her album, she tests out the idea of a divine presence by guessing, “Maybe my god has a trot in her walk/And her Coach bags are knock-off/Her shoes are all dressed up.”)
“I grew up singing just in choir, in the church, nothing too wild,” says Heynderickx, who was raised in Portland, Oregon, in a religious Filipino-American family. In person, her speaking voice has a hesitant lilt, as strange as her singing voice but not as strong. “My parents bought me an American Idol ‘how to sing’ DVD package my freshman year of high school. I never used it. They couldn’t stand me howling at night, trying to sing. I’m still very offended they did that,” she adds, winkingly.
Two years ago, Heynderickx started teaching music classes, many of which were spent convincing kids they could sing. “I think everyone can sing,” she says, “I really do. It just requires a lot of patience and willingness to be embarrassed with yourself. Some people can’t handle it. I didn’t know if was good or bad, I just kept singing.”
On her Chicago stop, Heynderickx and I are supposed to meet at a conservatory, but there’s awful traffic coming from St. Louis, so she agrees to join me at a plant store instead. This is generous, especially because she’s mourning the death of her own garden after she left for tour. The owner of the store keeps wanting to know if we need help. He asks her about where her accent is from and she says, “Anxiety.” With a slightly different tone, she would be a comic.
In her lyrics, Heynderickx has a sui generis way of thinking and joking. “Fish Eyes,” also the title of her first EP, is about her parents’ first date in Hong Kong. Her songs are filled with pearls of dissatisfaction (“The milk is sour/I’ve barely been to college/And I’ve been doubtful/Of all that I’ve dreamed of”). They seem dropped from a daydream, a fairytale out of time, about small bugs and bees and specters and olives.
In order to write, Heynderickx tells me that she needs absolute silence. “Not even roommates,” she says. “Hearing the sound of someone else is dangerous. I need to reflect as a creator. There’s too much noise, and I mean media noise too.”
The road is also getting to her. “I do love playing shows. But sometimes you feel like a marionette of your own songs and you just want to create new songs,” she says. “It broke my heart the first two months,” she adds, when she realized she couldn’t really write on tour. The high demand for her shows seems like it was a bit of a surprise, and she and her team over-committed: “We said yes to too many things, we didn’t expect any of this attention.”
I Need to Start a Garden came out on a small, local label, Mama Bird Recording Co. “Following the traditional music business route is just not important to them or me,” she says. “Working with talented and passionate friends in my backyard feels really natural.”
As July headed into August, Heynderickx was planning to spend some time back home before heading out on tour again. She was returning to an increasingly expensive city, with new artist anxieties about where the money is coming next. “I’m terrified of being home,” she says. “Despite all the things that may look good in the media, I’m looking for trailers I can live in when I get back to Portland.”
Talking about her album, Heynderickx says, just makes her miss writing new songs. “I feel like I’m talking about a lady from two years ago, and this lady,” she says – referring to herself at this very present moment – “is frustrated that she’s not really creating something she’s really proud of.”
She hopes she will write new songs soon, she says, “but maybe this is it. I hope it’s not it.” To that end, she’s begun getting up early before the band for a self-imposed challenge of writing a song every single day. “Just really playful songs,” she says.
For now, she has this sublime and intimate album. Its centerpiece is “Oom Sha La La,” the one about starting our gardens. “Our pop hit,” Heynderickx jokes at the concert. “Our club banger,” her Moog player, Lily Breshears, adds. It feels sensitive and wild to scream about a garden in a time of heartlessness.
Before we say goodbye, Heynderickx helps me select a small cactus for a friend. I’m reminded that what kills most houseplants is over-watering. Heynderickx nods wisely. “So many people – it’s too much love,” she says. “They don’t know what to do with it.”