To write “Untitled God Song,” Haley Heynderickx had to get away from God’s creation. “I was living with a friend and very self-conscious because we had very thin walls,” says the Portland singer-songwriter. “I had a feeling with this song that I didn’t want anyone to hear it, so I would run to the basement when no one was home. Sometimes I would be creepy and turn off the lights.” It was an appropriate setting for a song that, as it appears on her upcoming debut album, I Need To Start A Garden, still has no title.
That dark, cramped basement allowed her to allow the song to become whatever it needed to be. And what it needed to be was a deeply contemplative, occasionally hilarious, spiritually provocative meditation into the nature of the Woman Upstairs. “I didn’t know what the lyrics meant until they were done. When it was finished, I was just stunned.” “Untitled God Song” showcases her deft guitar playing as well as her gracefully slurred vocals, which recall Sharon Van Etten at times, Poly Styrene at others, Jeff Buckley elsewhere. In one verse God is wearing bad shoes and carrying a knockoff Coach bag. In another She leaves her high beams on for a particularly blinding sunset. And in the song’s most poignant lines She appears as a woman with “big hips and thick lips, and the button She’s pressing, She speaks every language.” Whatever form She takes, God “spins me around like a marionette.”
Even now Heynderickx isn’t quite sure what it all means; singing the song every night on stage is her way of figuring it all out. “I think it has to do with being born in a religious background. I hope it provokes ideas and conversations about God — some kind of curiosity — whether you believe that It exists or doesn’t. It’s a fun thing to poke around. We’ve got free time.”
Heynderickx doesn’t write songs to present answers or offer confessions. She writes instead to pose puzzling questions: about herself, about her world, about God and reincarnated bugs and someone named Jo. That approach has made her one of the most promising artists to come out of Portland in the last few years, and it makes I Need To Start A Garden one of the most intriguing and immersive debuts of this young year.
The album opens starkly and quietly with the short “No Face,” which sounds like Heynderickx has ventured back down to that dark basement. As Garden builds, however, the rest of her band enters, adding some noise and energy but never diluting her eccentricity. On the eight-minute epic “Worth It,” Heynderickx picks a bluesy, gloomy guitar riff that Jason Molina would have appreciated, toggling the song between a plodding roadtrip clip and a classic rock charge. “Oom Sha La La” uses doo wop syllables as its main hook, but slows them down until they sound perverse. She practically screams the bridge of the song — “I need to start a GARDEN!!” — her voice growing more hysterical as she repeatedly declares the need for some calm in her life.
When she speaks to Stereogum about her new album, Heynderickx is sitting on a beach in Washington State, having just played a residency at a small resort called the Sou’wester the night before. She is holding an old music box, which she bought earlier that day at a local antique store. “It reminded me of an old friend, so that’s the creepy energy I have in front of me. I’m using it to keep myself centered today. I’m so shy to share anything because I feel like my most confident self in the music. Everything behind that is maybe not so much as confident.”
STEREOGUM: Does your shyness make it difficult to get up in front of a crowd and perform?
HALEY HEYNDERICKX: It’s a weird middle ground, I must admit. I have a roommate who is obsessed with personality tests, and every once a while I’ll humor him and take one. Whenever I get the tests back, I notice that I always get this 49% introvert 51% extrovert. I’m always balancing that tension. I feel so nervous in front of crowds, but I realize it’s mostly for the talking parts — the tiny things like setting up your amps and knowing people are staring at you. But actually sharing the songs, that’s the part I like the most. It doesn’t scare me. So maybe I’m just addicted to that tension. Maybe that’s my weird form of dopamine.
STEREOGUM: Was there a moment when you realized music offered something like that?
HEYNDERICKX: I remember in high school, my junior year, there was that weird pressure of, Hey, you’re going to college. I didn’t know exactly what that meant. It meant the pressure of having to apply to colleges and the pressure of finding money for college. It totally floored me, and I didn’t know what I was doing. The teacher said I should apply for this scholarship and that involved being interviewed and sharing a talent. My dad suggested that since I love guitar, I should learn a Leo Kottke song. Who’s Leo Kottke? He played me a few songs, and I thought, Alright, I’m going to learn some Leo Kottke! And for the first time I performed a piece in front of a bunch of strangers on a 12-string guitar. That was the moment when it clicked. I had never performed with that kind of pressure, and it felt really cool.
STEREOGUM: Did you get the scholarship?
HEYNDERICKX: Not the big one. Someone else got the big scholarship, but I got a small one. It was a little drop in the large well that is the debt that accrues at a four-year university.
STEREOGUM: Did you end up studying music?
HEYNDERICKX: No. With all my heart I wanted to, but I let people’s opinions change my mind. Study music? What does that do? So I thought I should study business instead because it was practical. I’ve never used that business degree.
STEREOGUM: The guitar playing on I Need To Start A Garden is impressive and distinctive. You’ve said before that you were a big Jimi Hendrix fan, but were there other players who inspired you?
HEYNDERICKX: I was definitely fascinated by Jimi Hendrix growing up. It totally could have been the last name, but I love the confidence he exudes when he plays. To be honest, thought, I got way more into the finger style guitar. Once I learned how to play “Blackbird,” I was sold on the Beatles. As a songwriter, I feel like I was more influenced by Dylan than anyone else. And the older I get, the more I find these shy lady songwriters who disappeared for some reason or another and then came back. Like Vashti Bunyan or Connie Converse. They showed me that there are secrets in the way you write and play guitar, when you give listeners just enough. I try to be very secretive and sneaky about what I steal. My favorite type of stealing is when you don’t even know you’re stealing. You just digest your favorite things. If I share something with my band and no one can figure out where it’s from, including me, then we keep going. I just write songs in my bedroom and then throw them at my band the way a little kid throws spaghetti at a wall. I feel very lucky to work with people who are really passionate about music. They kick my butt and teach me a lot.
STEREOGUM: And yet, when you toured Europe recently, you played solo.
HEYNDERICKX: If I had all the money in the world, I’d fly them over and pay for them to join me in Europe. But playing solo seemed more practical for intimate settings. I’ve toured Europe twice now, and I’m still very confused that it actually happened. This second time was 40 shows in two months. The biggest show we played was 300 people tops, but the average was closer to 30. They have a fascination with American songwriters over there. I played a few shows with a German man who would get up onstage and introduce himself in German, and then he would sing a Dylan song with a perfect American accent. Even in the smaller cities, I could have a talk with a 70-year-old man, both of us barely speaking the other’s language, and I could ask his favorite Dylan album. He would say, Blood… Tracks… “That’s mine, too!” And we sang each other Dylan songs. I’d love to spend more time in Europe, because I don’t even know where to begin touring in America. The most east I’ve gone is Arizona.
STEREOGUM: How do you feel about touring I Need To Start A Garden? That should take you well beyond Arizona.
HEYNDERICKX: I’m nervous. I feel very spoiled. I feel like the longest drive I’ve had was seven hours between gigs, but you drove through two different countries. I need to learn new tour life tolerance in order to tour America. But I’m ready. Bring it on. I want to see what the East Coast looks like. And the middle.
STEREOGUM: Tell me about recording this album.
HEYNDERICKX: I just allowed it to be whatever twist of fate brings to me. We actually tried recording it two or three times. Once in a barn, but we all got cold and I stopped feeling confident in the songs. The second time I was trying to do it out of pocket and I lost a lot of money. The band was fighting in the studio. The third time I just met the right people at the right time. There was a new studio opening up called Nomah Studios, and the producer just poured so much love and thoughtfulness into it. I really needed to work with someone with whom I could be really honest, because a record feels like a tattoo. I take it way too seriously. I psyche myself out. Because it feels so permanent.
In the studio I was trying to replicate the feeling of the moment when the song was written, because that seemed like the tattoo I wanted to share with people. It’s a very weird meditative space, because you’re trying to turn back time. And it’s scary, because you have to hold on to that feeling. Three or fours times in the studio, after we had set up the microphones and got the tones just right and after I had finally gotten myself into that space, everything would shut off. The computer would crash and the microphone would shut off. It happened with three or four songs. I would have to start over, but I had to stay in that silence, in that feeling.
STEREOGUM: It sounds like the studio might be haunted.
HEYNDERICKX: Perhaps. Don’t play the record backwards! And Nomah no longer exists. It’s a mystery. I’m heartbroken and I don’t know what to do for the next album. I have a slew of songs and I don’t know where to put them. I feel like I might be starting over after this, but bring it on.