“Anyone can do ambient sounds, but it’s all about the feelings. Anybody can throw paint on a huge canvas and call it Jackson Pollock, but there’s a reason why things like that happen.” ~Haley
Since her first full album release in 2003, Haley McCallum has continued to evolve as a prominent songwriter in Minnesota. She’s transitioned from South Dakota to Duluth, spent a year in Oregon, and now is nestled into Saint Paul. Her name has changed from Haley Bonar to just Haley. And although her music has sprouted side projects like Gramma’s Boyfriend and an all-instrumental album, Haley’s core talent has remained steadfast in her storytelling.
Haley started writing when she was a child by making up stories. It was something she just liked to do and didn’t really think much about it. She used to make all these little books filled with stories. Combined with her love of music and playing the piano, getting into songwriting came naturally.
“I think I just told stories and I knew how to do it with real sadness, because I had that. That was the way I could channel it. I wasn’t old enough to have a drinking problem. There’s all these songs on my first records where I’m like, where did this come from? Just making stuff up. That’s all you can do when you’re that young.”
Writing a story and sewing it together with music doesn’t always mean it’s perfect. There are times where the song just doesn’t feel right for her own band. Take “Is The Terrorist” for example. Written as a blistering “fuck you” to pussy Democrats, David Duke, and President Trump, the song is extremely angular and fits the punk rock style of Gramma’s Boyfriend perfectly. These outlets allow Haley to evolve and express herself on different levels. As she shared with me, “The song always turns into what it wants to be.”
Her decision to shorten her name and release a pure instrumental album, Pleasureland, stemmed from earlier endeavors. Two songs on Golder were instrumentals. It was something she always wanted to do but had no clue how to approach. Then 2016 happened. Haley got overwhelmed and deeply involved in the election. She was calling people for Bernie Sanders.
“When that didn’t happen, and then Hillary lost, it really fucked me up. I know it fucked up a lot of people. There were all these other things on top of that and I just felt, what the fuck do I have to say?”
It was really hard and messy for Haley. She felt like she needed space and grew more connected to piano-based albums. Her appreciation of Debussy, Nina Simone, and Joni Mitchell all culminated together. Although releasing a pure instrumental album wasn’t going to land her in the top 40, it got her through a tough time. Haley shares that “if that’s the album I wanted to listen to, then I guess there was probably other people that needed it.”
“Hometown goes wherever you go
Hometown goes wherever you go”
“All grown up, saving up for my exit
Let it burn in the rearview mirror
The folks I know will all go
On their way to staying the same
But the further that I get
The deeper my regrets”
The song also carries her feeling of always wondering what it would be like if she didn’t leave, or if her regrets would have been deeper if she stayed put. The second verse brings about a desire to succeed and prove that the decision to leave was warranted.
“When I come back I’ll be
Something to somebody
Just imagine what they’ll say
I’ll see ’em on my way”
Later on in the interview, Haley jokes about not settling for ‘ghosts’ when it needs to be ‘goes.’ “Hometown ghost, what a dumb lyric,” she jokes. Just that tiny change in a lyric can make all the difference. It also shows Haley’s work ethic and continued skill in identifying how she wants to say something. A good storyteller chooses their words wisely.
Credit Forever Part 2
The album Pleasureland starts off with the first part of “Credit Forever.” Haley was messing around on a Juno keyboard she borrowed and the song started to turn into something. As she played, it continued to morph into something weird and kinda uncomfortable. It reminded her of a slow-motion rollercoaster where she was at the top, waiting to rush down. It starts off the album with energy and anticipation.
The contrast between the opener and part two is unique. Both pieces carry the same manic energy, but the second part is more curated, more developed. The fast, beautiful piano part and light guitar accents give it a feeling of ‘look at me.’
Unlike a non-instrumental album, the flow of the songs becomes more important. Haley would identify certain songs as anchors, and then decide on what should come next. She’d ask, “What am I feeling after this?”
“Next Time (For C)” was designed to be a happy moment, one which has a soundbite of her daughter in it. “Lonely As A Mother” was born on a rainy night. It’s very sad, dark, and deep for her. But there are string moments that provide some light. Haley wanted to create the feeling of walking into different rooms but being in the same house.
Then Haley went and saw jazz trio Happy Apple at the Icehouse. She knew she had to write a song on which Mike Lewis could play saxophone. She’s known him for a very long time and also knew he wouldn’t be practicing. “He’s going to listen to the song in the car on the way over here” she claims. Haley used the very first take as Mike was walking up to the microphone. The instruments are so fragile and intimate together. That song became “Pig Latin,” and exhibited a floaty, jazzy, bluesy feeling.
“Mike (Lewis) gets it because he’s a brilliant musician and his feelings shine through.”
Haley expresses that it’s harder to tell a story without words because with lyrics you can tell somebody what to think. But you have to create a mood in writing songs. Essentially, you’re finding a way to tell somebody how to feel. When you convey something through sound and it does not have a visual or verbal element, to bring people to the space you want to project is not an easy feat.
She enlisted Jeremy Ylvisaker because the two have been playing together forever. She let him try a bunch of things because she knew he wasn’t afraid to explore ideas and be messy. Haley recorded her ideas and passed them over to Laurels String Quartet as well. They knew how to transpose and bring that mood forward, based on how Haley performed the parts.
“I’m so gracious and grateful for people like that in my life and throughout my career because it makes you want to be the same way. You just, like, want to help people out when you can and try to, like, give back to younger people,” Haley says.
Haley is embarking on a different kind of venture with Patreon. Starting October 1st you’ll be able to subscribe to a plethora of her arts. From visual art to comedy to her vast collection of music from the past 18 years, Haley is opening the vault of goodies. There are hundreds of songs and demos that haven’t been heard. She isn’t touring anymore and hopes that her fans participate in this. It allows her to intermingle all the things she wants to do, along with getting fans more invested in supporting local music and art.
As a sneak peek, Haley showed me a large drawer full of paintings she’s been working on. Each one carries a mood and message, conveyed without words. Impressed that she had only been painting for one week, it showed me her dedication to storytelling. Her ability to tell a story has no limits. I believe that is something worth supporting so we don’t lose the ability to dream, imagine, and hope.
If you want to experience Haley’s music in a more traditional way, check out Prairie Burn Music Festival in Hudson, WI on September 14th. Also, keep an ear out for new Gramma’s Boyfriend music as they are set to return to the studio this month. Look for new music from them in early 2020.