In depth:

Sunflower Songs

A Conversation with Haley Heynderickx


words by maria sledmere

photograph by alessandra leimer

There’s a story in Claire Louise-Bennett’s recent collection of domestic tales, Pond, called ‘Morning Noon and Night’. It follows the protagonist’s diurnal ramblings as she makes the rather impulsive decision to start a garden, uprooting memories while reflecting on the progress of her leaves and tubers. She lies beside a lover at night, stretching her palms out into the darkness and thinking of her vegetables, laying their roots in the earth. She recalls a particular memory of a conference in which she delivers a paper on the viciousness of love, its all-consuming brutality. Standing in her ‘new floral chemise’, the heroine feels ‘practically Gothic’ at the paper’s dismal reception. There’s a fine, papery line between prosperity and death—absence itself having a fruitful quality of longing.

2018 still feels a bit shaky and new, like a fresh wet field after the rain. Maybe it’s something of the year’s initiating fragility that makes certain artworks seem all the more flourishing. Haley Heynderickx’s LP, I Need to Start a Garden, has all the sparkle and sway of an assured debut; it feels like the sky opening up, beckoning you to set first foot on a dewy meadow. With roots in both California and the Philippines, Portland-based Heynderickx sews honesty and heartbreak among sunshine and dandelion seeds of whimsical humour. Produced by Zak Kimbal at the (now defunct) Nomah Studios, this is a record that feels utterly unique, but completely familiar. It’s like something you lost awhile and suddenly realised you deeply missed; the perfect record to transition us from winter to spring: “Finally I’m ready for the silence / Finally I’m out of this cloud”.

The nature portrayed in I Need to Start a Garden isn’t exactly the backdrop to human life, but rather firmly embedded in Heynderickx’s kooky metaphoric toolkit for self-expression. She uses insect metaphors with a poet’s abandon, turning over naked centipedes and other creepy crawlies with the loveliest lilt of bluegrass guitar. Muted trombone, soft rising chords and surrealist visions of a “prancing praying mantis” and priests inside jam jars evoke a shimmery, Alice in Wonderland world of the curious. Throughout, space is imbued with a certain mood, as Heynderickx admits, “But I digress / For I must make you a perfect morning”. There’s a sense of music as both personal journey and beautiful gift, some talisman of love or friendship. It’s a debut you could run around, wild if you want; but you’re more likely to fall into it, languidly cherishing the scent of fresh-cut grass: “O I slept like a baby with you in my arms”.

GoldFlakePaint met Haley Heynderickx over a crackly phone line on the first day of February. It might’ve been a bleak Glaswegian evening here, but just one moment with Heynderickx and you’re swept elsewhere: “It’s 9.30 and it’s very peaceful and the sky is free of grey clouds”, she muses as our call connects. I look out into my own somewhat abandoned, darkening garden as I ask her about where the album title, I Need to Start a Garden, came from.

There’s a refreshing precision to Heynderickx’s responses. She takes her time, admitting the title came as somewhat of a surprise: “These songs kinda came individually. I really was searching for a theme, praying for a thread through all these songs which were written in many different time periods. I didn’t realise how many songs had these little allusions to gardening in them. And it was so simple, there are so many incredible gardeners in my life—my mother and my grandparents, many family members just digging in the dirt. And I’d have many summers of helping them pick vegetables in our back yards. So I feel really lucky about that subtle imagery”.

That pastoral vision of childhood summers isn’t a static one, but rather feeds into the record’s unmistakable maturity. I’m reminded of those diagrams we’d do at primary school, charting the height progress of our sunflowers from seed, until they were too tall for the classroom, so we’d take them outside and in the sunlight they’d look ten times more beautiful.

As Heynderickx admits, I Need to Start a Garden is an album “about growth”. There’s a sense of reaching out to the people around you and asking for answers, giving yourself up to fate or the needs of others (“put me in a box boy / put me in a line”) and sometimes just accepting change. But in lieu of adulthood’s cynical resignation, there’s that Alice-like questioning that here becomes the millennial embrace of a fold between worlds, a sincere self-awareness that startles through daydreams and the fug of depression: “I am humbled by breaking down”, she cries on ‘Show You a Body’; “finally I’m ready for the silence / finally I’m out of this cloud / maybe I’ve been selfish all along” on ‘Worth It’. Such subtle profundity recalls early Angel Olsen, warbling her confessional way through the shadows on Half Way Home. Still, on I Need to Start a Garden there’s a constant glance towards sunlight, a bluesy rumble, that feels totally Heynderickx’s own.

On opening track, ‘No Face’, she asks: “Is it the bridge between worlds that makes you feel alone?” It’s a song about trying to face someone, asking questions and trying to surface some truth from the mysterious forces that come between two people in a relationship. While this all sounds rather heavy, the song itself balances sorrow with featherweight charm, all plucked guitars and Heynderickx’s soft vibrato: “Is it the weight of the room that you couldn’t hold in?”. Questions of materiality and the physical are woven throughout the album, whose quality of reverie is always stitched with the seams of realism, a still life mise en scene of flowers and food and insects. It’s a record delightfully free of the virtual; there are no explicit references to being hung up on social media, no lustful yearning for consumer symbols. Refreshingly, this is a record about dwelling more than longing. A tapestry you can really absorb yourself in, honing into its compositional intricacies or skimming the whimsy of its surface colours and moods.

I ask Heynderickx whether there’s something about music that offers an alternative to the artificially-smooth, flat temporality of our lives online—whether parallels can be made between the cyclical, rhythmic qualities of music and the natural cycles of elemental time, the time of the garden and seasons. She seems pleased by this question, but shies away from garnishing her work with some grandiose philosophy on life: “I look forward to becoming older and wiser and more articulate about how I feel about it”, she begins modestly, “it’s the tiny details of a person that help us really appreciate them, and I think the imagery I’m really drawn to involves those tiny moments in a day that really make it”. While crystallising the moment is nothing new in a pop song, it’s not so much that Heynderickx freezes these moments but rather puts them into play within the evocative sphere of daily life, conjured in her music. Starting a garden isn’t so much a utopian project, but a process.

There are points in the record that feel like quiet interruptions. ‘No Face’ closes abruptly on a sense of suspension, like a breath you’re about to take but don’t quite dare in case it shatters the moment. The pensive arabesques of ‘Untitled God Song’ could spiral on forever, lifted on epic, Neutral Milk Hotel-style serotonin brass, but suddenly the web vanishes, it’s “still spinning / but you can’t see it yet”. While Heynderickx has a flair for simplicity, many of her lines are cryptic, glittering puzzles that draw you melodically into her singular vision: “The milk is sour / with olives on my thumbs / and all that I’m stuck to and all that I’ve clung to”. I ask her whether the avoidance of closure, both lyrically and musically, is ever deliberate. She admits it’s “a happy accident” but seems content that it’s something you can notice: “it indicates how I battle with images a bit to feel grounded in solidified in making something whole, I guess it just takes me a long time.”

If it’s a battle with images, such a struggle comes across as effortless in her songs. The recurring motifs—wayward domestic insects, sour milk—are lighthearted and funny but acquire their own logic as the album progresses. The whole world is defamiliarised and there’s a lovely enchantment in that estrangement. On the likes of ‘Drinking Song’, Heynderickx’s lyrics tune into the miniature universes of other beings and things and all that kaleidoscope vision refracts its hidden wisdom without really exposing the truth at all: “There’s a light at the end where I know / Where culprits on carpets make sense of it all”.

At the beginning of our interview, Heynderickx admits my call woke her up from the most vivid dream. “I lived”, she explains, “in this house where there were always storms outside, like pouring down rain or snow or sleet and these figures I could just see out in the distance and my gut had to tell me whether or not to let these figures inside and they were all from different generations: like some were from 500BC just knocking at my door and some from the twentieth century and all these different scenarios stretched together, so it was this really emotional dream about three brothers who had lost their home. I could barely talk to some of them because they were so different, dressed different and talking different”. This sleep-roughened shard of lucidity feels like the perfect gift, something handed to a stranger across the Atlantic. There’s that strange vertiginous sense of scale—the intergenerational figures—and then also the weather, set against domestic intimacy. It’s hard not to see Heynderickx as a poet, if she wasn’t writing such breathtaking songs.

Dreams, of course, bridge that fissure between normality and the weird, between everyday life and what might lurk outside. I Need to Start a Garden balances that line between abstract musings and ordinary details, drawn to “the edge of the world” and places where reality presses and quivers with secret beauty. I ask Heynderickx about her writing process, whether she keeps a journal or diary, where she gets her ideas from. “I am a collector of words, most definitely. I love my journals and notebooks and always try to have one on me, even if it’s just going to be alone on a walk. I really advocate that people write down their dreams, it’s the power of writing and the music of writing for yourself. It’s helped me over many leaps and bounds to be able to get to know myself and get to really analyse future conflicts much better. I love journalling. I advocate everyone should do it. To not care if someone actually reads it, just deal with those consequences in getting those thoughts out in a more grounded way. It can really help you acknowledge what you’ve been working to”.

This process definitely pays off in her music, with 8-minute meanderer ‘Worth It’ following an upward turn of emotion—the careful, cathartic untangling of pain. The generosity of her response speaks to an admirably mature approach to artistic method, as well as self-healing. Commit to your ideas, your daily life. Write things down, trust that voice. “Each song kind of comes out in its own weird way. I guess I’m a sucker for melody now. Some of the songs grew from a melody then the words came along”. The process of writing, it seems, is symbiotic with Heynderickx’s daily life—the songs taking root in routine like a seed. She doesn’t have any eccentric writing rituals, but rather writes spontaneously out of dreams and feelings: whether that’s the “indigo sky” netted with words so seamlessly on ‘Drinking Song’, or the “post-college depression of what am I doing with my life?” that became the cathartic whimsy of ‘Oom Sha La La’: “I’ve barely been to college / And I’ve been doubtful / The brink of my existence essentially is a comedy / the gap in my teeth / and all that I can cling to”.

We talk about how some people use social media as a diary. Heynderickx seems surprised when I compliment her Instagram (an aesthetically-pleasing mix of travel diary, tour dates, flowers, crystals and sun-drenched bedrooms), lamenting, “I feel like I epically fail at social media”. She admits there’s always a struggle to decide what “feeling of sharing” is “a healthy amount”. “Media is so chained to when that attention feels right or not, what I want to put out in the world”. When much of the music industry remains poised on self-promotion, Heynderickx seems to have struck the right balance. Just like her songs, these photographs are glimpses into her life—projected more through natural light, the captured mood of original moment—than one of many preset filters.

When I mention recent comparisons made between her music and that of Sharon Van Etten and Jeff Buckley, Heynderickx admits “that’s a huge compliment”, but that she’s “just trying to stay as grounded as possible through the next album…Nothing’s really set for the future quite yet. I’m just trying to hold onto a really healthy space to let the next round of songs come in…I try to be immune to it”. Amidst the hype, there are always kernels of truth, however. It’s not just the musical diversity within Heynderickx’s album that recalls those artists, but also a certain haunting romance, a sense of timelessness or being out of time. The liminal zone between dream and reality, recognised in Buckley’s inimitable howls and croons, the skeletal luxury of Van Etten’s voice, pulled across a lamenting melody. What strikes about Heynderickx, though, is a particular lightness of touch.

All warm acoustic twang, languid backing vocals and motifs of trombone, I Need to Start a Garden is rich with personality, but still feels utterly welcoming. When asked if her music speaks to a particular place and time, Heynderickx points out how all the musicians she worked with on the record are “all from different times, different lives”. Somehow these songs are a web where they all work their way to the middle, and the arrangement comes out shimmering, fresh and beautiful. Referring to her bandmates, Heynderickx is clearly a proud front-woman: being “classically trained on harp and piano” doesn’t mean you can’t “shred”; along with Tim Sweeney (upright bass) and Lily Breshears (of Shears, on keys and backing vocals), there’s the jazz background of her trombonist (Denzel Mendoza) and drummer (Phillip Rogers, of Alexander Savior), but then there’s also a shared love of indie rock. Referring to her own tastes and talents, Heynderickx says earnestly, “I’m just a person who writes songs in bedrooms. Sometimes it feels like a little kid showing up like, ‘hey do you wanna work with this three-chord song structure, I know that you guys can handle something more complex!’”.

In the studio, the process of developing her songs from spindly bedroom recordings to fleshed-out band tracks was pretty “natural”—only one song really changed from its original version. On ‘Show You a Body’, “Lily [Breshears] really brought a lot of life to that—I feel like Lily’s voice really gets to shine a lot”. ‘Show You a Body’ feels like a new tone, an interlude of sorts which quietly blossoms into something quite mesmerising. Opening with dreamy piano flutters and adorned with minimal acoustic strums, Breshears’ ethereal harmonies and muted chimes, its emotional complexities are at once intimate and distant: “swarmed by the hornets’ nest to cover my eyes”, “it was more a mirage”.

Her knack for a lush and surreal turn of phrase feels like Cate Le Bon with her quirky edges musically smoothed: “I showed you a body / like a clattered garage”. The rest of the songs, Heynderickx says, remained in the “pretty and southern” atmosphere in which she first conjured them: “I got to have my way and have the compositions relatively stay the same. Each of these songs has an acoustic and a band version, so I think navigating that took a minute”.

This opens up a certain freedom for Heynderickx’s live show. She admits “a lot of touring will be a surprise, it’s kind of a mixed bag”, with plans to bring Lily and Phillip on tour for a three-piece setup. “Unfortunately, economics determine more than anything whether I can bring a band with me. It’ll be random!” There’s something exciting about this; you can’t help but think 2018 is the year of opportunity for Haley Heynderickx. Enthusiasm for her record feels totally earned, and it’s infectious; there’s clearly a lot of good vibes floating around Heynderickx’s town right now, as she professes, “I love my label!” What’s more, come autumn she’ll be releasing a new EP with Spanish record label Son Canciones for their Among Horses project. Like the first Among Horses EP, recorded by Withered Hand and A Singer of Songs, Heynderickx’s tunes were all written on a farm over the course of a week, surrounded by 60 horses and in collaboration with fellow songwriter Max García Conover.

In the meantime, Heynderickx is more than happy to share music recommendations from back home in Portland. I’m struck by how her attitude to the city feels equally appropriate to Glasgow: “Portland is a grey puddle and so people either get into long-term relationships to cope with the cold or they become creators and producers to cope with the dark outside”. She mentions the city’s “hip hop scene”, but also hones in on her favourite local country/folk and indie performers, including Tre Burt, Little Star, Luz Mendoza, Blackbelt Eagle Scout, Sheers, Johanna Warren, Barna Howard and her old drummer’s jazzy art-punk outfit, Kulululu. “The Portland crew”, she says, are “very passionate in performing and sharing”. Heynderickx developed her own vocal style from “going to a lot of open mics and hearing everyone singing, so many people from different walks of life just letting their voices come out”. What results is a voice that’s deliciously old-time but also elastic, unique and exciting.

Like Alice’s rabbit, it’s a runaway cat that leads Bennett’s narrator, finally, to the ‘idyllic piece of land’ that is to become her garden. ‘Landlocked and enticing’, that little green island becomes a tangible place where things can grow. Discovering the garden isn’t the end of the story—rather, it blossoms as a tale of plotting and thinking and making, the endless carry-on of daily existence. It’s this that you think of when listening to I Need to Start a Garden: that urge to start something, to wrench one’s hands through the soil and feel gritty and real again. It’s hardly a Walden-esque flurry into self-indulgent wandering wilderness, however, and more of a playful reimagining of the domestic. Gardens are bounded, after all. There’s a coherence of atmosphere, even as the mood of each song bears its own special weather. Not one track feels out of place or unnecessary. The record helps you fall in love with your day again, to embrace the strange sway of the hours and maybe the colour of the sky at dusk or the way that insect looks, jewel-like on the bathtub. It’s a beautiful archive of all the detritus we might leave behind, pushing up to the surface the way curious worms will mulch through compost. Free-associative, dreamlike but also pleasantly odd and comic, Heynderickx’s first album sets the tone for wherever she wants to go.

‘I Need To Start A Garden’ is out now, via Mama Bird Recording

You can buy it here


Haley tours the UK with both The Low Anthem and Nap Eyes over the next month

Find full details of both tours here



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