When competing in Belgium for the American Juniors team, once-professional cyclist Gavin Haley suffered a major accident, resulting in a collapsed lung, several broken ribs, and a swollen back. It was 2013, and the idea of songwriting hadn’t quite wormed into his head. The cycling season was winding down, as he documents in this diary entry, and he readied to fly back home the coming January. However, doctors worried flying so soon could re-collapse his lung.
So, Haley, stuck in Belgium for three more months, picked up the guitar. He’d grown up in the church, loving the intense, unbridled emotions music could bring, and it was only a matter of time before he made his own. At 16, and bedridden, he tinkered on an acoustic guitar to pass the time and eventually stumbled upon a new avenue of expression.
“I didn’t have another outlet, so music became that for me. I started writing basic stories, like riding into town or missing my friends back home,” Haley tells American Songwriter over a phone call earlier this week. His creative floodgates burst open, and he hasn’t stopped since.
The Kentucky native didn’t start to take songwriting seriously until 2016, leading into two independently-released singles “Fades Away” and “Picture Me Now.” Two years later, he caught the attention of Red Bull Records, home to The Aces, Flawes, and others, and signed a deal. More singles arrived in the coming months and culminated with 2019’s debut, Long Game, an impressively high-sugar pop set that’s turned more than a few heads.
A year later, Haley continues etching his name in the pop pantheon with the follow-up. His Unfolding EP strips away the gooey, delicious outer coating for more hip-hop-infused flavor, with his trusty guitar still in tow. “I took more chances with this project, for sure,” he offers.
“It was really important that I chased what was more authentic to me,” continues Haley, who reaches new pinnacles on tracks like “2FU,” “Self Control,” and “Love That’s Left.” He’s more brooding and tender, working together identifiable mainstream flows and indie melodies, while bringing a fresher, more succinct voice to his writing.
The EP’s barebones began when a breakup left him lonely and drained. A tour with Ashe was coming to an end, and before he knew it, his heart was shattered on the floor. “Self Control” (written with Steven Colyer and Tony Esterly), starring collaborator Izzy Bizu, emerged from that initial shock. “I had just gotten out of a terrible breakup, whatever, and I was just writing what my life was like. I wasn’t taking things too seriously,” he says.
Still feeling every ounce of pain, he jotted down the song. “I didn’t even think about it. I freestyled the hook maybe in a couple minutes. The song came together so quickly,” he notes. Originally containing three verses, the song ached for something a little bit more, prompting Haley to search for a collaborator. A bit self-deprecating, he recalls, “I was like, ‘Man, people don’t want to hear my freaking voice singing three verses.’”
He toyed with various other female vocalists, and when Bizu came into the picture, it was an immediate hit. “She slapped her verse on it, and she hit it out of the park. Her tone is really beautiful.”
The accompanying visual, directed by Ian Dooley (Emily Vu, Conrad Jon), immerses in the song’s innately cool tone. The famous Pink Motel as the backdrop, its vintage appeal serves to keep the lyrics and story pinned back and chill. “It’s honestly the most fun I’ve had on a shoot. I didn’t want it to be anything serious. Sometimes, my visuals in the past have been pretty dark or cinematic. I wanted the video to mirror how the song makes you feel.”
“This year was the first year I started writing out and pitching my own ideas” for videos, he continues. “More than anything, it’s been about finding someone you’re comfortable sharing your ideas with and can expand your vision to create something even better.”
Later, Haley throws up his hands on EP closer “Love That’s Left,” co-written with Andy Schmidt and Cole Cintrenbaum. “Took our love off life support / Can’t believe you cut the cord,” he laments, writhing in the wreckage. “I got hung up on one person. It was really heavy last year. It led me to writing some incredibly dark music, which will never see the light of day. With this song, I was over it, and it was more of a question,” he explains. “Sometimes, I feel like you can’t ask the important questions about things that matter when you’re in that feeling.”
“It’s the emo side of me coming out. I’m always trying to be more visual. That’s a goal of mine when I’m writing lyrics,” he adds.
Now 23, Haley continues carving out his place in the pop landscape, even though he’s not too keen on that distinction. “Genres scare me. I think music is a reflection of what you’re feeling, and you’re not always going to be feeling the same thing every day,” he remarks. Instead, he prefers for his work to speak for itself, free of such constraints.
What’s most important, and undeniable on the record, is his growth, personally and creatively. “Each individual song is about a theme of something I had to get over to become a better person or the person I’m supposed to be. I ultimately feel like everyone has their own best self,” he says. “I didn’t realize for a long time that the same things were happening over and over again. I’d learn the same lessons through different people.”
Across seven songs, Haley mingles confessions about mental health (“2FU”), falling in love (“Tati,” with Yung Pinch), and exasperation (“So Sick of Love”). Its raw introspection stands in contrast to many of the year’s biggest, boldest pop records, from Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia to Lady Gaga’s Chromatica. Where there is certainly room for getty freaky, Haley desires “to ask some deeper questions.”
And he clearly takes full advantage of this strategy through a three-course meal of his most earnest songwriting to-date ─ even though bridges remain elusive creatures. “I have not really learned how to write a bridge. I tend to stay away from bridges. It’s not because I don’t like them, but they can make or break a song. People have made some beautiful bridges, and it’s not something I’ve [conquered] yet.”
With his songwriting reaching new heights, he is in the throes of coming to understand himself as a human being ─ and that includes deconstructing his faith. “It’s really about spending a lot of time alone. I’m still figuring it out,” he says of young adulthood. “I feel like I have a hold on something one day, and the next, my world is upside down. I guess that’s just part of growing up.”
“God used to be a man in the sky to me. Now, I see God in everything. I don’t think just one thing is God. Beauty is in everything,” he says. “And it’s the ability to stop and appreciate the beauty in everything. There is a Creator, but I don’t necessarily know what that is.”
For now, Gavin Haley invites you to bask in life’s beauty, and maybe groove a little, too.