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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Facing The Light: A Wildy's World interview with Halie Loren

Halie Loren is one of the most promising young voices in vocal jazz these days. Her Just Plain Folks Best Vocal Jazz Album win for They Oughta Write A Song catapulted her into the international spotlight. The album was recently released in Japan on the JVC label and spent some time in Amazon Japan’s top-20 album list. With a new live album, Stages out, and a new studio album in the works, the future looks bright for Loren. We recently had a chance to chat via email with Halie Loren, who was Wildy’s World’s Artist Of The Month for June. While we couldn’t quite get this interview in during the month of June, we thought it interesting enough to run now.

First off, thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Ms. Loren.

Thank you as well! It's my pleasure.

You’ve come a long way, both physically and vocationally. What impact do you think growing up in Alaska had on your early development as an artist?

I think that my living in Alaska during the majority of my young life had a profound influence on who I was and who I am today as an artist. I wasn't living in an environment that was super-saturated with current pop-culture, for one--the majority of what I would listen to music-wise was whatever my parents had in their music collections. In my family's case, that meant a lot of jazz, blues, classic country, classical, and AAA artists that most kids wouldn't really get a lot of exposure to typically. It wasn't as if I didn't have any clue about current music--I had a TV, after all--but I definitely didn't experience the kind of bombardment of top-40 radio that I later experienced when I moved to the "lower 48" when I was a young teen.

Growing up in that kind of relative isolation and surrounding myself with lots of classic music and then-current music by artists that generally appeal mainly to adult listeners gave me an entirely different musical education, and made me develop my ear differently as a singer/musical stylist than I think I would have if I hadn't lived in that environment. It helped that Sitka, my hometown, was a very artsy community that had some cool opportunities for kids interested in the arts to get involved with activities and gain some skills and experience with their artistic crafts... for example, the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, which I attended at ages 10 and 11, gave me my first opportunity to take a class on jazz vocals, and culminated in my first solo performance of jazz live on stage with a band for the camp's finale concert. It lit a fire under me, for sure. If I hadn't had experiences like that at that age, I'm not sure whether I would have pursued music as a career so confidently as such a young person.

What brought you to the lower 48?

There were multiple reasons, as there are with any move. My siblings both lived in the lower 48, and my parents wanted to be closer to them again. I was only 13 at the time, but another reason my family decided to move was for me--so that I could have more opportunities to pursue my musical passions. Though where we'd lived in Alaska was a wonderful place to grow up, it definitely had limited options for gaining performance experience -- after all, Sitka is an island and travel to other communities was by ferry or plane. . Moving to Oregon gave me seemingly endless opportunities to perform, and an immense number of talented people to sing with and learn from musically. The very first week we moved to Oregon, I signed up for a talent show at the county fair, and through that performance, I ended up meeting a family of musicians/entertainers that later (besides becoming dear friends of mine) had me perform at a series of sizable concerts all over Oregon, which exponentially expanded the circle of musicians I knew and then went on to play other shows with... and I still see evidence of that ripple effect to this day as far as who I meet in music circles and who I consider part of my musical "family".

….and then Nashville?

I moved to Nashville when I was 17, after graduating from high school a semester early. The main reason was to get involved with the Nashville songwriting scene, and to co-write with the writers in that community, which I ended up doing a lot of... most of the material that I co-wrote there was more in line with the music market of Nashville, namely contemporary country, but with a bit of a twist. And I was delighted to find kindred songwriting spirits who also had a love of jazz, which, of course, is what I have come back around to as my primary music style (if I had to label myself as primarily one thing, that is). Though writing jazz material wasn't what I moved to Nashville to write, or so I thought at the time, the jazz songs that I wrote while living there have really been the main songs that have stuck with me and become highlights in my albums, shows, and known to fans of my music. Who would have thought?

So essentially, you’ve always known you wanted to be a performer?

I have wanted to be a singer for as long as I can remember... so, in short, yes. Although there was a period of time when I was 7 or 8 that I was quite sure I wanted to be a singer AND a whale trainer. That would indeed be the ideal combination... :).

What’s more gratifying to you? Writing a great song or giving a great performance?

That is a difficult question to answer--the two are very different. Giving a great performance (one that the audience deems as a great performance that is) is a very immediate kind of satisfaction. Instant positive feedback, riding on the adrenaline high of live performance, feelings of confidence in the moment and in the short-period following the show... it's a short-term but intense feeling of accomplishment. The gratification that comes from writing a great song, however, develops much more slowly. For one, I am usually unsure as to whether it's truly a great song--to listeners--or whether it's just my personal bias because I have an attachment to the song. I'm my own worst critic, and I sometimes question the "great"-ness of even my best ideas once the song is ready to be shared... it's always a little bit daunting to unveil these products of my creative mind, even now. It's only once one of my songs gets out there--in the "public ear", so to speak--and is well-received over a number of shows, or elicits good comments from listeners who own the album the song is on, that I start to allow myself to feel the warm glow of satisfaction from a job well-done. And it's the kind of satisfaction that wells up again each time people tell me how much they love the song.

The past year has been quite a whirlwind for you, from becoming an award-winning artist to inking a major label deal (in Japan). What was it like winning the Just Plain Folks Award?

Being nominated for Best Vocal Jazz Album at the JPF Awards was in itself a thrill. Attending the awards show last August, and then hearing my name and the album announced as the winner of the category was almost an out-of-body experience... I remember thinking "did they just say my name, or did I just imagine that they announced me? There's no way they just said my name...", but then looked around and realized that all of my friends sitting at my table with me heard the same thing, and before I could even think, I jumped up out of my chair with excitement. I'm pretty sure I shrieked a little bit, too. There's really never been anything quite like that moment for me. I imagine it's sort of the same feeling that lottery winners get when they hear the winning ticket numbers announced, and have to check their tickets again to make sure they aren't being duped by their own eyes, and then the elation sets in... I can't lie--it was an awesome day for me! The ripple effect that has happened from winning the award has definitely helped to make this past year a great one for me with regard to my career. I am so glad it happened the way that it did, and I am very thankful to Just Plain Folks for all the great support they have given to me and to all the other artists from around the world.

Your last two albums have been more Jazz oriented, but your previous album, Full Circle, was more of a singer-songwriter affair. Do you have a preference between the two styles?

I have to say, I really can't choose easily. I like to do it all, and I hope that I'll continue to be able to do so... though jazz is definitely where I'm at most of the time these days, writing and performing my singer-songwriter material fulfills me in its own unique way, and gives me an outlet for musical and lyrical/thematic ideas that don't really work well in a jazz format. I also often find that immersing myself in one of the styles gives me inspiration for ways to approach the other style. Keeping a balance between the two seems to be really healthy for me, creatively.
You’re gaining a reputation as one of the top young female vocalists in Jazz today, but you’re also rather talented as a songwriter. Can you tell our readers a bit about the songwriting process for Halie Loren?

Songs work themselves out in very different ways for me. Sometimes, songs just seem to pour out of me as I sit in front of the piano... I wish that it happened this way more often! It certainly does make less "work" for me as a writer. More often, however, I will come up with some kind of inspired idea that only spans part of, or even just a single line or melodic riff from a song, and then I will either start working on it then and there and finish a section, or finish the whole thing if I'm really on a roll, or I will let it sit until I feel inspired to pick it up again or my creative subconscious dredges it up again and plants it in my brain and won't let me ignore it. I have songs that I've been chiseling away at for years and years, just coming back to them every once and a while when I start thinking about them again--hundreds of unfinished songs, some of which I still have plans to someday return to and form into actual songs rather than isolated ideas or a single promising verse. I can be very patient with the process. I am usually of the mind that a song will find its way out of my brain when its time has come.

Everyone has a back story of course. Your album, Full Circle, and in particular the song “Empty” detail your personal struggles with an eating disorder. Would you be willing to share a bit of your story with us?

Well, the story behind that song is one that many girls can relate to... it's, I think, a pretty self-explanatory tale of self-loathing and self-abuse through denial of basic needs in order to achieve impossible goals for one's self--namely, starving in order to be something I wasn't and which I thought I wanted to be. I realized how negatively I was impacting my life with my actions and my attitude as I grew out of my teen years, and did a major self-overhaul in many ways. I put a lot of effort into re-claiming myself from my perceived expectations from society and my unreasonable expectations of myself, and trying to correct the skewed vision of who I thought I should be. I think that many women are so hard on themselves in many ways, and I was certainly no exception, and I didn't want to live like that--I didn't want to be an enemy of myself forever. I wanted to be able to love and respect myself just as I was. The entire album Full Circle, really, was a kind of process that was inspired by and even instigated reclamation of self... it wasn't autobiographical in every song, certainly, but each song had pieces of me and my experiences during a very transformational time in my life. It's dark, in many ways, but I can now see it like someone in shadow but turning around to face the light. It's angst laced with hope.
Ironic question, this: Do you find, as a performer, that it's difficult to have a private life? Is it worth the trade?

The main thing that affects my life outside of my career is that I don't have much of a life outside my career these days... particularly over this past year I just don't have time--at least, most of the time. There are a few lulls here and there, but even those are lulls I kind of have to plan for. Otherwise, I find so much to do that I could work every day for 16 hour days (which I sometimes do, anyway) and never get to all of the things on my list. Being an indie artist and doing pretty much everything DIY is a seemingly endless number of jobs combined into one: musician, composer, band leader, producer, sound engineer, publicist, manager, booking agent, graphic designer, webmaster... the list goes on. Luckily, I have wonderful family and friends that support me and understand, and who I can spend time with when I'm able to find some time. Because of their willingness to adapt to my schedule from time to time these days, I have enough of a private life to sustain me, at least at this point in my life.

Okay, let’s lighten the tone for a moment. Of all the songs you’ve performed over the years, your own or someone else’s, what’s your favorite?

That is an impossible question for me. My favorite song changes from day to day, from mood to mood... for me, it's like choosing a favorite food--there are so many wonderful flavors to experience and enjoy, and I couldn't possibly choose just one.

If you could share a stage with any performer for one night, living or dead, who would it be and why?

Oh, that's another tough one... but I think I might have to go with Nat King Cole. He has been such a huge influence on me as a singer, and he had the kind of voice and way of phrasing that approached total perfection to my ears... it would be a dream to duet with him. Though I might not be able to get through the song, because I would be so enamored with his voice. :)

What’s the worst song you’ve ever written, even if no one else has ever heard it?

I don't generally take the time to finish a song that I feel is really not up to par, but there was a time when I was learning the ropes of songwriting that I penned a few things that will never EVER see the light of day. I do remember one of my first songs being exceptionally awful--awful enough that I sometimes think of parodies of the song in my head, and even the ridiculous parody versions are a hundred times better than the original. It was a country-pop-ish ditty about wanting to rush through being a teenager and into adulthood, and the title was "Hurry Up and Live"... I couldn't have been more than 14 when I wrote it. It was the second song I'd ever written. Interestingly enough, my very first song and my third song are both good enough, even to my current standards, that I sometimes perform them live at my shows. That one well, I just think of it as an experiment now--a failed experiment. :) And Matt Treder, my steady collaborator in both live performances and in the studio, and I often come up with parody versions of some of my songs that are pretty terrible (in an entertaining way, of course). Who knows? Maybe I'll put out an album of these self-mockeries one of these days. :)

Who are your musical heroes?

Well, I already named off one in an above question... Nat King Cole. Others include Cassandra Wilson, who is so distinctive and creative with her stylistic interpretations of songs, and weaves some great rhythms and soundscapes, Sarah McLachlan, who was a huge influence on me, particularly as a teenage singer/songwriter, and an inspiration in my pursuing the piano as my performance and songwriting instrument when I was 20). Diana Krall, whose music I discovered just as I was finding my own vocal jazz style -- her artistry influenced me a lot in my early days, especially the way she took the standards and made them her own, and I appreciated that ability even as a young performer. Though I didn't discover Joni Mitchell--who I think is one of the most amazing songwriters of all times--until I was in my mid-teens, I realized how much influence she had on my music indirectly, by way of others that I listened to who had been hugely influenced by her. I have to also add my pianist/collaborator, Matt Treder, to the list-- he's not only one of the most talented pianist I know, but our musical collaboration has inspired me to grow musically in so many ways.

Name one thing that your fans would be surprised to know about you.

Let's see...not sure if I can name just one, because different groups of fans know different things. Some may not know that I'm also a painter...I sometimes sell my paintings at my live shows, right alongside my CDs. Not much time to paint these days, but it's still a passion of mine. Another random factoid is that I was a competitive swimmer from age 7 until age 15 (when I sustained irreparable shoulder injuries and had to quit). I lived my first year of life on a boat in Alaska, and would love to do that again someday! I catch spiders and bugs (and snakes, mice, etc. that the cats happen to catch) that show up in the house and let them go free outside. Hey, we're all sharing this beautiful world together.

So what’s next for Halie Loren?

Signing with JVC/Victor in March has certainly created an interesting new twist in my musical journey. After re-releasing They Oughta Write a Song in Japan, it appears my music has picked up a nice following there. As I already stated, I'm working on my next album, which will again be jazz influenced, including classic jazz songs, some original material, and jazzified songs from other genres, along with a couple of surprises and more musical layers than the past two releases have had. In the upcoming months, I'll be traveling, along with my pianist/collaborator Matt Treder, to Canada in August to do some promo work there in conjunction with Burnside Distribution, my US distributor. Then I'll be traveling to Japan in September to work with JVC/Victor in promoting the new album, and will be stopping over in Hawaii on the way back to perform several shows there...yes, I know, it's going to be a tough job, but I think I can do it! I will then travel back to Japan again at the end of October to prepare for the launch of the new CD in November and to perform in the Ginza Jazz Festival. And, of course, I'll be performing in the Northwest at summer festivals and many other shows as well. There's a lot in store.

Okay, last chance. Anything else you want to say to our readers?

A huge part of what drives me, besides my love of music, is knowing that there are people out there who honestly like and appreciate my music. That makes it worth all the work it takes to make it happen. I am thankful for each and every one of them for their support, in all ways, whether it's coming out to live shows, buying a CD, writing a nice review (you know who you are), emailing me or coming up and sharing kind words of encouragement.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
And thank you, Wildy, for all you do for musicians at all levels. Thank you for taking the time to really listen to the music we send you, and for giving your honest feedback... and for giving us Wildy's World, a place to come and read about musicians and their new music. It is, indeed, a gift to us all.

Halie Loren is a name you're likely to become much more familiar with over the next few years. Hers is a voice with the potential to stand the test of time; the kind of vocalist you could drop into almost any era of popular and/or jazz music and expect that she'd find success. Do yourself a favor and check out some of Loren's music. It won't be long before up-and-coming vocalists are being compared to Halie Loren. (Photo credits: Sally Yaich, Adrian James and Halie Loren).

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