An Interview With Haley Johnsen

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Haley Johnsen

28-year-old singer-songwriter Haley Johnsen is a risk-taker. From landing herself a spot in the top 24 of American Idol Season 11, releasing her debut EP Through the Blue in 2015, and playing The Troubadour stage in Los Angeles, Haley refuses to let fear inhibit her success. Haley “is a one-of-a-kind voice with gusto and soul, and mesmerizing presence. One of the Pacific Northwest’s most individual up-and-coming acts,” according to her website. She has toured with Texas-based band The Wind and the Wave, Seattle-based band Gabriel Wolfchild and the Northern Light, Season 8 Winner of The Voice, Sawyer Fredericks, and is good friends with famed American Idol winner, Phillip Phillips.

Despite all of her amazing success over the years, Haley hasn’t always felt as confident in herself as she is today. Haley’s struggle with inner doubt and self-reflection helped her develop into the strong, kick-ass Indie-folk singer we know and love today.

A Perfect Playlist: Tell me a little bit about how you got started. How long have you been singing?

Haley Johnsen: I would say the first official age I began singing was around 3 years old when I first watched The Little Mermaid. Throughout my youth, you might have found me singing in a closet so no one in my house could hear me. I was painfully shy and didn’t want anyone to know I could sing. As I got older and warmed up to the idea, I began singing in my college A Capella group and Chamber Choir, and from that point on, I continued to develop my voice as a professional singer-songwriter.

ppAPP: You were a contestant on American Idol and ended up making it to the top 24! That’s amazing. Tell me a little bit about that experience and how it shaped you as an artist.

HJ: Being on American Idol was a game changer for me. I was so terrified each time I made it through an audition, but the adrenaline was enough to make me realize that I was in it to win it. I had to overcome a lot of inner doubt and I worked as hard as I possibly could to prepare for each performance. Being on the show was one of the most fun, terrifying, and life-changing times in my life. It made me realize how much singing and music means to me, and I began to realize I have a responsibility to myself and the rest of the world to do something with the voice I was given. (Right: Haley and American Idol winner Phillip Phillips.)

Click here to watch a bit of Haley’s American Idol journey!

APP: Who are your influences?

HJ: Brandi Carlile, Bonnie Raitt, Florence and the Machine, Eva Cassidy, Grace Potter, Aretha Franklin…I could name so many more! These are the women who inspired me to sing with power and grace. 

APP: What’s the story behind one of your most popular tunes, “Feel The Water?” 

HJ: “Feel the Water” first came to me during a guitar lesson with my bandmate. I created the chord progression and structure of the song, but it took me almost 3 months to put words to the tune. When I finally did, it’s almost as if it wrote itself. It was as if a voice in my head was telling me to believe in myself, so that’s what I wrote about. I expressed how it feels to be afraid to do something, and how much I had been struggling with being confident in myself. I had been feeling numb, and this song helped pull me out of that. I think now this song could be for others to reflect on what might be going on inside themselves, and what areas they are longing to be more courageous in.

APP: Where do you find inspiration to write music? Do you have a particular place you like to go, or any type of method that helps you think creatively?

HJ: I used to rent this little Airbnb Cabin in Hood River for a weekend at a time. I would go there by myself and just write for hour and hours and demo out my songs. I definitely need to be alone when I first begin to brainstorm ideas for a song.

APP: Do you have a pre-show ritual?

HJ: I always warm up my voice for at least 20 minutes. Sometimes if I really need to pump myself up, I’ll do a few pushups to get the blood flowin’. I always take a moment to breathe, close my eyes, and check in with myself. I give myself a little pep talk and say “Hey, you’re awesome. You got this.” I think centering myself before going on stage always helps me stay grounded during the performance.

    

APP: What has been your favorite venue to perform in?

HJ: My favorite venue I’ve played so far was The Troubadour in Los Angeles. Artists like Elton John and Joni Mitchel got their start in the music industry by playing there, and it was just such an honor to stand where so many other legends had performed.

APP: What do you hope fans will derive from your music?

HJ: I hope that my music speaks to those who need to hear it. A lot of my music is just me working through something, telling myself I just need to take the risk and believe. So many people don’t pursue their passions because they don’t think they can do it or it feels too unfamiliar and scary. I believe that tapping into your creative self, no mater how “successful” you are in it, is the most important thing we can do for ourselves. I want to inspire that.

APP: If you could perform a duet with any artist, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

HJ: I would perform a song with Florence and the Machine. She just seems like such a fun and sweet person to be around, but she is also such a force of nature on stage. She’s not afraid to wail. Singing a powerful ballad or something with her would be a dream.

APP: “When You Lit The Sky” is your latest record, as it just came out this August. (Love it, by the way.) Is there a particular track on that album that is close to your heart?

My last track “Carry On.” This song came to me 3 days after the Pulse Night Club Shooting. I was feeling very distraught and just wanted to write something that was comforting to me. I strived to convey the idea and possibility that we are all stronger together when we show empathy. I want everyone to know that they are not alone, and that we need to show our love and compassion for one another now more than ever. 

 

Follow Haley:

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All photos are courtesy of Haley’s website/social media.
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Track-By-Track Review: The 1975’s New Album

IMG_8442Photo by Sophie Cettina

The 1975’s much-anticipated new record, “I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of It,” came out on February 26. I grabbed a copy as soon as possible, and thanks to my amazing boss at the record store I work in back home, I even got a signed booklet from the band! (See at the bottom of the post.)

CGW08WCWoAEqvDiLast summer, The 1975 tweeted a few mysterious, cryptic comic book strips that stirred up controversy. The band seemed to be hinting at an ending of some sort, perhaps even the band’s end. After a few weeks, though, Matty (lead singer) revealed that the band was not breaking up, but instead, redefining their musical style & visual aesthetic. (Concert photos taken by me.)

Before this new record, the band avoided pop-like songs, overlystylized music videos and cheerful themes in their music. Additionally, the band members wore black clothing on stage and tended to post all their photos on social media with an added black and white filter. On the new album, though, each song features a hint of pop, even blues, and numerous other musical styles.

In addition to their new musical style, the band’s stage setup has changed. From dark, gloomy lighting to vibrant pinks, blues, and greens, complete with multi-colored neon rectangles to represent the band’s original trademark, their overall style has completely changed to imitate an 80s-90s aesthetic.

IMG_8410Photo by Sophie Cettina

To be honest, I was skeptical about the news regarding the band’s dramatic change. One of the reasons I love The 1975 is because they are unlike any other band in the music industry today–their lyrics are brilliant, and they certainly don’t look like any other bands to which I listen. Luckily, though, Matty and the boys didn’t disappoint with their new record–their new style is refreshing and still just as good (if not better) than their previous album. Here is my individual review of each track.

CckRhUVW4AAlM0J1. The 1975: The track begins with an slow increase in volume through a flurry of synthesizer and space-like sounds. The song comes to a sudden stop, and then Matty enters, accompanied by a choir. This first song is also the first track on their debut album, and I love the idea of using this song as the opening to their sophomore album, as well. My favorite lines are: “Soft sound. Midnight. Car lights. Playing with the air. Breathing in your hair.” Through headphones, it sounds as if the song itself is drawing closer and closer in its beginning, about to burst your eardrums, until the soft pause in anticipation of Matty and the choir. It’s a perfect introduction to the overall record as it ushers into the wild guitar riffs of “Love Me.”

CckwP8AWAAAZEKn2. Love Me: With stunning guitar solos and fiery synthesizers, this song really strays from the band’s previous style. The guys released this track as a single a few months ago, and eventually paired it with a ground-breaking, style-defining video in which Matty is seen wearing heavy makeup (including lipstick and eye shadow) on an 80s themed, purple-and blue-light-bathed set. Throughout the video, Matty drinks sloppily out of a wine bottle (nothing new here) and proceeds to make out and dance with various celebrity cut-outs. I love the song. At first, I was unsure about it…especially considering the atypical intro. But the song eventually grew on me. By far, my favorite line in the song is: “You look famous, let’s be friends and portray we possess something important…and do the things we like, meaning we’ve just come to represent a decline in the standards are what we accept! Yeah, yeah, Yeah…no.” Matty never ceases to impress me with his witty songwriting as he subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) critiques social issues.

CckzrAnXEAAMQSS3. UGH! I’m obsessed with the intro to this song. The bass and guitar, mixed with Matty’s voice is absolutely perfect. It has an 80s-90s feel to it, which is such a fresh sound right now. The song title is also pretty quirky. Matty doesn’t say “ugh” at any point in the song, but it makes so much sense as the title. The song seems to be about a relationship that has ended, yet Matty can’t help falling in love with the girl a second time–hence the lyric: “and you’re the only thing that’s going on in my mind…taking over my life a second time. I don’t have the capacity for fucking…You’re meant to be helping me.” The word “ugh” pretty much sums up this situation–the phrase could really have either a positive or negative connotation, and it’s up to the listener to define which. “UGH!” is short and sweet, gracing your headphones for a duration of only three minutes.

Cck0eUdW0AIiK-i4. A Change of Heart: This echoey ballad  always makes me visualize the color purple, for some odd reason. A deep, rich purple. Through out the song, there are many references to The 1975’s previous record, and they even seem to continue the story of “Robbers,” my favorite track off their first album. The song surveys the story of a man who loves woman so much that he can barely function without her, even if the relationship is seemingly toxic. As a “A Change Of Heart” progresses, however, Matty does just that…he realizes that doesn’t love the girl anymore…and for no particular reason, really. “You used to have a face straight out of a magazine, now you just look like anyone.” (In contrast to the lyrics of “Robbers:” “She had a face straight outta magazine. God only knows but you’ll never leave her.”) This song really depicts a modern relationship–there is no sugar-coating, and it’s all very realistic.

she's american5. She’s American: This track starts off calm and dreamy, and then immediately leads in with intense drums, guitars, and synthesizers. Out of all the tracks on the new record, this one sounds the most like the band’s previous, classic style. The guitar in this song is truly the best addition, fading in and out with the song to emphasize each lyric. My favorite lines in the song are: “She’s inducing sleep to avoid pain,”and “Don’t fall in love with the moment, and think you’re in love with the girl.” The song seems to follow the band’s relationship with their fans, especially since American girls adore Matty, a man from Manchester. The lyrics, “If she likes it ’cause we just don’t eat, and we’re so intelligent, she’s American. If she says I’ve got to fix my teeth, then she’s so American. And if she likes it ’cause we just don’t eat, and we’re socially relevant, she’s American,” seems to point out the stereotypes often associated with British and American people–Americans tend to eat larger amounts, and English people are sometimes viewed to be seemingly more “intelligent” due to their accents. Additionally, Matty emphasizes that the British are “socially relevant” right now, with so many girls falling in love British boy bands. (Very relatable to me!)

if i believe you6. If I Believe You: This track is the most notable on the album. The 1975 have completely outdone themselves with this song–with an amazing backup choir that belts out tight, sharp choruses to emphasize particular lines, the track is heavily influenced by gospel music. Lyrically, the song is fascinating as well. It seems to represent Matty’s inner monologue surrounding his opinions and beliefs on religion. Matty sings: “And if I believe you…will that make it stop? If I told you I need you…is that what you want? And I’m broken and bleeding. And begging for help. And I’m asking you Jesus, show yourself.” In the song, he expresses his struggle to find God (or some sort of higher power) in order to stop the pain going through his mind. He wonders if admitting to God that he needs Him is the key to receiving His help. The song really marks a new style for the band…it features a trumpet, which is the last thing you’d expect to hear on a 1975 record.

Cck30mBWwAA21XF7. Please Be Naked: This is another one of The 1975’s dreamy, lengthy songs in which they  manage to convey emotion and ideas mostly through noise and various instruments. It is entirely instrumental, and seems to rise in sound and intensity as the song progresses as if depicting the image of passion and love. The piano on this track is beautiful–the intro to the song which features a swirl of soft keys is breathtaking. Eventually, the keys lead into a sort of spacey, bell-like chorus.

Cck47Q-XEAAHZTR8. Lostmyhead: Matty writes quite a few songs about the inner workings of his brain, as well as instances where he’s felt he’s “lost his head.” This is a common theme in The 1975’s music–Matty always seems to be trying to find himself, his purpose, or his “brain” through music. “Lostmyhead” is probably my least favorite song on the record, though. It’s a bit of sensory overload. There is a lot of static and loud blares on the track, which is probably meant to predict and portray the sounds of the inner ramblings of someone’s (perhaps Matty’s) brain.

Cck6KEOXIAAG8v_9. The Ballad Of Me and My Brain: This track is truly a lovely mix of the old and new 1975. The song begins with the oohs and ahhs of the choir, and leads into Matty screaming at the top of his lungs about going mad. This track follows the continued theme of Matty losing his brain, but in this song, his brain is personified: “And what a shame you’ve lost a brain that you never had. Oh mum check the car, it can’t have gone far. I must have left it on a train or lost in a bar. It’s likely in a Sainsbury’s, flirting with the girls and waiting for me. I jumped on a bus, declared my name, and asked if anybody’s seen my brain.” The song seems to suggest Matty’s loss of control over his brain and his actions as his band continues to grow in popularity. This song is really well written, and Matty’s emotion, frustration, and sense of deliriousness really comes through.

Cck66FKW8AAAUNi10. Somebody Else: This is one of those songs that really tugs at your heartstrings. It’s about painful feelings and thoughts after going through a breakup: you don’t want the person anymore, but it kills you to see them with someone else once they’ve moved on. This is an extremely emotional ballad, which features great electric keyboard, guitar, and synthesizer. The majority of the track is somber, slow and melancholy, but eventually ends in Matty singing angrily: “Get someone you love? Get someone you need? Fuck that, get money. I can’t give you my soul cause we’re never alone!” The repetitive line that is interwoven through out the entire track, “I don’t want your body…but I hate to think about you with somebody else,” is so simple yet so powerful.

Cck7x7EXIAAG3l-11. Loving Someone: This is one track on the album that disappointed me a bit–it’s too electric-pop for my taste. Although I may not love the song, the spoken word which is featured in the middle of the track is brilliantly written, and truly thought-provoking: “She blazed about how cultural language is an operation system. A simple interface rendered feeble and listless. When tested with a divinity or a true understanding of the human condition I never did understand – the duality of art and reality – living life and treating it as such but with a certain disconnect.” It’s definitely worth your time to stop and listen to this one for it’s spoken word addition.

Cck8scsW4AAtjS-12. I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It:  In a recent interview, Matty explained that this phrase was something he whispered to an ex-girlfriend one morning. He thought it was an interesting concept, so he wrote it down, then used it as a song title. He explained that the phrase makes him feel a little uneasy, which he believes is a good thing, explains why he decided to make it the name of the overall record. You can’t always be 100% sure about everything when it comes to writing music. This song is another completely instrumental track on the record, and definitely imitates sleep, dreaming, and love with its ambient noises and instruments. The ending of this song is heartbreakingly beautiful. Matty sings: “Before you go, (please don’t go) turn the big light off.”

the sound13. The Sound: Initially released as a single before the band’s album release, this song is a declaration of the band’s separation from their previous style. In a recent BBC 1 interview, Matty said: “It wears its pop on its sleeve and it’s kind of unabashed. There hasn’t been a vehicle yet for us to do that. This album is perfect [for the song] because it’s juxtaposed with everything the album is.”  This song includes a killer guitar solo from lead guitarist Adam Hann, and and intro that builds up into a burst of piano, quick guitar, drums, and Matty’s brilliant voice. My favorite line is: “It’s not about reciprocation, it’s just all about me: a sycophantic, prophetic, Socratic junkie wannabe. There’s so much skin to see…a simple Epicurean philosophy. And you say I’m such a cliché. I can’t see the difference in it either way.”

Cck_ZYgW8AARxR014. This Must Be My Dream: I love the guitar in this track, as well as the strong chorus that brings the choir back in. The song seems to illustrate a relationship that is too good to be true–it must be a dream. As the song progresses, it becomes clear that it is, in fact, too good to be true. Matty sings: “Pipe down, you’re no lover. It’s failing cos’ you want it to. Well, I thought it was love but I guess I must be dreaming ’bout feeling something instead of you.” I was so excited to find that this song features The 1975’s brilliantly talented saxophone player, John Waugh, whom I met in April 2014.

CclAXBCWAAAXUae15. Paris: It took Matty about a year to write this song, which is fascinating to me, since it’s not a song about complex breakup or relationship, but rather about a city with which he’s fallen in love. And no, it was not written during the time of the attacks on Paris. Matty wrote this song because of his adoration for Paris, and in a recent interview he said: “I’m writing about a city I love, and that’s what I’m going to remember, I won’t let Paris be defined by that (the attacks).”

The song is a dreamy ballad with echoing choruses, and repetitive guitar riffs that flow through the entire song. The track seems to follow the story of a girl who is abusing drugs: “you’re a walking overdose in a great coat…” The song truly tells a story, and there are a few incredible lines that made me actually stop to Google a few of the words used. For example, Matty sings: “There was a party that you had to miss because your friend kept cutting her wrists. Hyper-politicized sexual trysts. ‘Oh, I think my boyfriend’s a nihilist.’ I said ‘Hey kids we’re all just the same…what a shame.'” Thanks to the Internet, I discovered that “nihilists” believe that all values are baseless, and nothing in the world can truly be known. Nihilism is often associated with extreme pessimism. It is fascinating to me that Matty embedded this word in the story of the song…perhaps he is struggling with a bit of nihilism himself–pessimistic views commonly come through his music. Next to “If I Believe You,” this is one of my absolute favorites off the record.

be0b1a6e0b9b1b58ef035e966c352277.1000x666x116. Nana: This is the most heart-wrenching track on the record. Matty was extremely close to his Nana, (Annie) and still struggles in coping with her death, which is why he wrote this song. The track is simple, but conveys so much emotion. Matty doesn’t dance around the concept of death in his music–he flat out acknowledges it, as painful as it may be. After all, death is unapologetic in itself. In “Nana,” he sings: “Oh sleepless nights, a grown up man dressed in white, who I thought might just save your life…but he couldn’t, so you died.” In the very last few lines of the song in which Matty sings: “But I’m bereft you see. I think you can tell…I haven’t been doing too well,” the singer’s voice cracks with emotion, as if on the brink of tears. This song is so moving, touching, and in the end, simply gut-wrenching.

CclCm4bW4AAro5Q17. She Lays Down: This track is entirely acoustic, complete with chatterings from the band before/after the song finishes. The song is intriguing; it seems to highlight the story of a young woman who so desperately wants to love a man…but just can’t bring herself to. He’s everything she wants, but she simply doesn’t love him in the same way he loves her. Just like most typical 1975 songs, the track touches on the negative effects of drugs and the part they play in relationships. This track is completely stripped, exclusively featuring acoustic guitar and Matty’s raw singing voice. (Update 1/13/17: Matty has disclosed that this song is about his mother and her struggle to raise him.)

Thanks for reading this far. Hope you enjoyed my review! Please feel free to tweet me your thoughts and opinions on the record as well. 🙂

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LISTEN UP: Leon Bridges

Leon Bridges

Leon Bridges in concert

When I first heard “Coming Home” by Leon Bridges, I assumed he was a 50’s singer. His smooth, Sam Cooke-esque vocals mixed with some killer guitar riffs, doo-wopping backup singers and sprinkled-in saxophone solos make his debut album sound like something straight out of a 1950’s diner jukebox. (Photo on the left by: digboston)

26-year-old soul singer Leon Bridges burst onto the music scene after signing with Columbia Records in December of last year. Before that point, he worked as a dishwasher in Fort Worth, Texas, while occasionally performing at small, open-mic gigs around his city. Things have only gotten crazier for Leon since being discovered last year. After signing with Columbia, Leon played gigs all over Texas, supported singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten in NYC, received the award for Top 10 Most Viral Track on Spotify for his debut single, “Coming Home” (which is amazing, by the way), and he is planning to continue playing numerous shows around the world over the next few months.

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Photo by Julio Enriquez

It’s so refreshing to see artists like Leon succeeding in the music industry today. With a truly retro voice and style, Leon sings straight from the heart. I love that he’s reviving a nostalgic genre of music in a way that’s captivated a young audience–teenagers (as well as adults) all around the world are swooning over Leon’s silky-smooth harmonies, vintage-inspired Instagram posts, and dance-worthy choruses.

Leon’s beautiful song “Lisa Sawyer,” which he wrote about his mother and her life story, was key in jumpstarting his music career. After its release on SoundCloud last year, the song hit 800,000 views and sparked the interest of more than 40 record labels.

With influences like Arthur Alexander, Sam Cooke, & Otis Redding inspiring him everyday, Leon’s songwriting centers around personal experience. I love this quote from  from his recent chat with interviewmagazine.com: “In the beginning, I was so inspired by the music. I had the option to make something modern with classic undertones, but I wanted to make something that was exactly like that old sound. Of course, it’s going to come out in my own way because I have R&B influences, but it’s cool how my songwriting works out; a lot of the time, I’m not writing just classic-sounding songs, but songs that come from experience. Look at “Brown Skin Girl,” a song I wrote about my ex-girlfriend, or “Twistin’ & Groovin,'” which is about my grandparents. I love the pioneers like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, but when I write music, it comes out in my own way. ”

(Make sure to check out the full interview here!leon-album-cover)

My favorite tracks on Coming Home are “River” (the guitar intro & chorus are so lovely), “Coming Home” (Leon nails the perfect retro music video with this one) & “Better Man.”

Find Leon Bridges below, and make sure to get yourself a copy of his debut album, “Coming Home.”

 

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