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“I think it was one of those things where you’re doing something without realizing you don’t want to do it,” the Vancouver singer-songwriter recently told me over the phone. “You were doing it because it was the only thing you knew you were good at. Being so involved with those lessons and the community and the group I was like, ‘It just makes sense for me to do it.’ Then when I graduated high school I got a little bit of independence and I was like, ‘I don’t relate to this Italian aria written in the 1400s about this 13-year-old girl anymore…’”
Blais may have ditched her opera dreams, but the nine songs on her gorgeous debut album, Below the Salt—out today—prove that her voice remains her most potent and exacting instrument. The real difference between Below the Salt and Blais’ previous efforts, such as 2018’s Let Yourself Go, lies in the dreamy, soaring production of Tennis’ Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore and Louise Burns.
“We were really channeling Carole King with Tennis,” says Blais. “Alaina gave me the motto, ‘Carole King, bitch. What would Carole do?’ and that’s really exemplified in ‘Be Your Own Muse.’ We really jazzed it up with clunky piano, singer-songwriter vibes. With Louise, she’s a lot darker. A lot of her influences are more shoegaze-y, so there’s this weird, eclectic mix of influences on the album that I’m really excited about.”
Blais spoke to American Songwriter from her new digs in Vancouver about opera, nostalgia, “demo-itis,” Nickelback, and more. Check out the full interview and listen to Below the Salt below.
American Songwriter: Where are you right now?
Haley Blais: I am at home in Vancouver, Canada. You just caught me finding out that my fridge is broken and there’s not enough coffee in the world and everything is mushy. At least there are only like three oranges and two things of tofu. I just moved in so it was a clean fridge.
When did Below the Salt start to take shape? Can you tell us a little bit about your songwriting process?
I’ve been sitting on these songs for a couple of years. A lot of them—I’d say 90% of them—were written over the last three years with the exception of the title track and another one, which were written like two weeks before we went to the studio.
[The] recording [process] was really sporadic. I think we did three different studios. A lot of the vocals you hear on the album were intentionally the demo vocals. I got a little bit of demo-itis and decided I didn’t want to redo them. It was cool having actual, legit producers come in on this. I had Pat and Alaina from Tennis on a couple tracks, which was so fun. I’m a huge fan of theirs. I felt like a little baby and they were taking me under their wing. It was very special for me.
We also [worked with] Louise Burns, who’s a Vancouver musician and producer. It was so refreshing to have that authority. I think I bow to authority and I liked being told something didn’t sound great, or “Let’s try something else,” while my past releases were just me and my bandmates flailing around, which was still very fun. I like a little bit of boss, and they kind of taught me how to be a boss as well.
How did you get connected to them in the first place?
Louise just through mutual friends. My manager knows her really well and the studio that we worked at was a big, kinda classic studio you go to in Vancouver and that’s where she works.
604. Ever heard of Nickelback?
I’ve heard of Nickelback!
Nice indie band from Vancouver. That’s their hub. And [I met] Pat and Alaina through my manager again. She gave me all the hookups. It was destiny for us to meet I think, so I’m glad it was because they were making my music sound good!
When were those introductions made?
All the songs were basically written. It was last summer when Tennis came in, and then Louise and I worked on the rest of the songs in the winter. Spacing it out so much was kind of disorienting. There was too much mental vacation for me, which I might not do again.
A lot of the vocals were recorded in March in Ladysmith on Vancouver Island, which was really peaceful and serene. It was just me and my band there in a little studio cabin.
How would you compare your debut full-length to your last EP, Let Yourself Go, either musically or thematically?
I think it’s a really nice cap to all the past releases. This era of music has this twinge of nostalgia that I can’t escape. Anytime I’m writing a song and I want to do it from a past experience or a memory or an anecdote, I always find myself looking through it with, like, a vignette of a scene from “Stand By Me.” It’s like, ‘We’re just 12-year-old boys in the summertime and it was the best time of our lives!’ I feel like I’ve kind of said sayonara to that vibe. I’m doing it unintentionally, but now that I’m aware of it I’m trying not to write so many coming-of-age nostalgia songs even though I love ‘em.
Are there any tracks on the record that exemplify that approach?
“Firestarter” is a lot about myself—coming into myself. “Firestarter” is a huge one. I’m really excited for people to hear that. I really wanted it to be a single.
What are some recent influences? Can you hear any of them on the record?
We were really channeling Carole King with Tennis. Alaina gave me the motto, “Carole King, bitch. What would Carole do?” and that’s really exemplified in “Be Your Own Muse.” We really jazzed it up with clunky piano, singer-songwriter vibes.
With Louise, she’s a lot darker. A lot of her influences are more shoegaze-y, so there’s this weird, eclectic mix of influences on the album that I’m really excited about.
I read that you’re a classically trained vocalist.
I sang opera for ten years, from age eight to eighteen. I try to carry—“try” being the operative word there—the technique with me now, but I don’t know how long it will last since I haven’t been in training for so long. It was really awesome. We toured Europe and America. I did solo, but I was also in a girl group called Candesca. I’m pretty sure Candesca means “beginning to shine.”
Did you ever consider pursuing opera?
I definitely thought I was going to be an opera singer up until I graduated high school.
I think it was one of those things where you’re doing something without realizing you don’t want to do it. You were doing it because it was the only thing you knew you were good at. Being so involved with those lessons and the community and the group I was like, ‘It just makes sense for me to do it.’ Then when I graduated high school I got a little bit of independence and I was like, ‘I don’t relate to this Italian aria written in the 1400s about this 13-year-old girl anymore…’ But I cherished the times that I was doing it, and I still know a lot of people from it. [I met] all my closest friends touring Europe.
How long have you been in Vancouver? What brought you there?
I’ve been here since 2015. I moved from Kelowna, which is like four hours outside of Vancouver in the Okanagan Valley. I think it’s just the inevitable step if you’re from Kelowna or from the Lower Mainland surrounding Vancouver—you’re gonna end up in Vancouver when you get older. And my brother was here at the time. It just seems like the big city, really interesting and cool and scary. Now that I’m here it’s not that big. It’s pretty cozy, especially this neighborhood [Strathcona] that I’m in, which smells like fall no matter where you go.
Have you found much of a music community there?
There’s a great indie scene here. I’m in another band called Babe Corner where I play bass. That’s been really fun. Lindsay [Sjoberg] who fronts that band also plays in my live band on guitar, so there’s this crossover. And Alli [Deleo] from Babe Corner [is] also in another band with her partner. Everyone’s sprinkled throughout, and we all help each other out. It’s really great.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about Below the Salt?
I’m really excited to finally have it off my chest. Not in a negative way, but I feel like it’s a weight I’ve been carrying. It’s going to be freeing to let other people listen to it.
What do you think an album release celebration will look like during this strange time?
Very small! Maybe just me in my living room with the lights off with one candle lit. It drops on my birthday, so it’s kind of like my birthday gift to myself.
Below the Salt is out now via Tiny Kingdom Music.