This is one of the most genuine and profound conversations we have had with an artist. Hayley Sales hardly needs an introduction, she made a space for herself in the world of film and music.
She was born into an incredibly artistic family in the heart of Washington D.C. Before the age of seventeen, she’d produced her first demo album, ‘First Flight.’ Following its completion, Sales moved to Los Angeles to pursue her music and acting career.
A year ago when the pandemic started, we were all a little down by the new reality. How did you feel artistically at the time and how do you feel now with a tour going and a new single?
Like the whole world, Covid turned every corner of my life upside down. I had just finished my album RICOCHET that March. Literally, we got the masters back March 8th. For two years, I’d been recording in some quasi-state of self-imposed quarantine, producing, editing, etc., the eighteen-tune album. And that was on the coattails of losing my third record “The Misadventures” to UMG when an unfortunate staff turnover. My life had been on pause for over six years. I was beyond ready to hit the road and make up for lost ground. When the pandemic started, the sadness won. I was so broken-hearted, depleted, hopeless and disillusioned, there wasn’t a single spark left. Perhaps it was the massive pause button COVID placed on my dreams (all our dreams really) or perhaps it was my stolen album haunting me and squeezing all the joy out of my truest love, Art…but the world just felt like a room I didn’t fit in. And I couldn’t seem to rally the romantic optimism into the trenches with me. I’d just reached rock bottom. I realized there were two options…Staying stuck in that story or choosing a new one. And I forced myself to choose a new one. I began to meditate, something I’m terrible at being an incredibly A type, hyper-anxious person with an incredible tendency towards a 48 – hour workday. I began to daydream and visualize the person I wanted to be. I spent hours in my mind sitting at a grand piano on a stage, looking out into the gorgeous sea of eyes in the audience…and would burst into tears of absolute joy and gratitude. I felt such a sense of inner happiness, the state of dreaming became enough. At first, I thought the elation was simply a result of the daydreaming, that I was imagining my dreams finally becoming realities. And then I realized, it was deeper than that. The happiness was coming from within. That state of joy wasn’t outside of myself, it was inside. And the more grateful I felt about the smallest of things, the more elated and inspired I would feel in my core. I’m not entirely sure happiness is the right word…our society has such a strange concept about what happiness is…but a grace, a levity, a deep sense of gratitude, started to bubble inside my heart. The fact that I am now on a tour, seeing those faces in the audience makes me tear up. It brings me more joy than anything else in the world. The stage has always felt like home. And after years, I’m finally able to do what I love.
Tell us about the tour with Rufus Wainwright. How long have you not been performing live? How did you emotionally experience the reconnection with the public?
Too long. Far too long for someone who is happiest performing. I’d spent most of my life living in a suitcase on the road. But when I lost my finished record inside a major label’s graveyard, that all came to a screeching halt. It’s been close to five years since I’ve been able to properly tour. Little shows here and there. But this…I am so grateful to be back. So grateful. My eyes well up every show. I can’t help myself. I look out and see everyone and it hits me. I’m so happy. I’m so at peace. And I know how precious the opportunity is. I know how lucky I am to be able to have the chance to sing, to perform, to get a second chance. Maybe I had success too early to really appreciate it when I was young. Now it all just touches me so deeply. And Rufus Wainwright? He’s a legend. He is by far one of the most brilliant artists alive. To be able to share a stage with him is a dream come true. After practicing for hours on end with little audience save the plants sitting next to my piano, to be back is everything.
“Lifeguard” is a very personal and introspective song that carries a lot of drama and pain. What is the story and more importantly, the learning behind this song?
I wrote Lifeguard inside a tempest. From a place so thick with devastation I could barely breath – a place where the only light I could see was kidnapped by the shards of a very shattered heart…A place beneath the waves. A place where the brutal teeth of a rumor were joyfully ripping up the ground beneath me. A place where that one person who’s supposed to be there for you, that one person who’s loved and cared for you for years, that one person you’ve trusted, turns their back and lets you drown…I know all too many have experienced this… Someone tells a rumor. It spreads with the fierceness of a wildfire and lights up the imagination of the entire city. For me, it’s a painfully true story. I lost my boyfriend of many years. I lost my home. I lost my friends. My reputation. And all of that on-top of having just lost my record and my record deal months before. Lifeguard was a plea from beneath the waves. But no one could hear my voice… I wanted to drown just to escape the searing pain.
The song itself was written a day after the rumor exploded. I wrote it with two very dear songwriter friends, ESCQ, with whom I had a songwriting session scheduled. As badly as I wanted to back out of it, the idea of sitting alone was more terrifying. I pulled up to their small studio apartment in Echo Park, barely able to breathe through the shock. My Dad called. I don’t think I’d stopped crying for twenty-four hours and could barely think straight. Somehow my dad managed to talk me into getting out of the car and walking the block or so to the studio. Love those guys so much. I told them what had happened. We wrote the song in a couple of hours, recording the main vocal and all the harmonies into a tiny mic they had squished next to the refrigerator. I never did wind up replacing that vocal. There was something I couldn’t replicate when I tried again. There wasn’t any veneer.
As time has gone by, however, the gorgeous aftermath of the tragic experience continues to amaze me. I didn’t just turn a page. I switched novels entirely. Within months, I came to all sorts of revelations about myself, about my art, my life – I literally stepped into a whole new world. As painful as the experience was, I wouldn’t go back and change anything. I guess I’m saying all this because I want any of you out there who feel beneath the waves to know…It’s going to be okay. Don’t give up. Even if you lose everything, you’ll find something even more beautiful once the waves settle. Let time be your lifeguard. The break will come.
How do you evaluate the spaces that exist for your musical style within the industry? Do you feel that we are moving towards diversity?
I genuinely feel like we’re heading towards an artist renaissance. I think we are moving towards a time when there can be a variety of different styles of music on the charts again…it might take a moment, but I can see sparks of the change here and there throughout the music industry. In many ways, music right now is perfect. Perhaps too perfect…I’m craving music that feels human, real, radically unique. I don’t think I’m alone. I want songs that are written by the artist… not perfectly crafted hits written by ten incredibly talented songwriters. I want lyrics that slip you up into the deepest parts of an artist’s heart…I’m over words that say the skim the surface. I love such a variety of music. It really has nothing to do with genre or style…it has everything to do with the boldness of the art and the artist. And I’m seeing it bubble beneath the surface. I couldn’t be more excited. I hope to be a part of it and do my part in paving the way for new, genuine, and unique artists to have it a little bit easier to have their voices heard. I want more messy hearts holding nothing back, singing because there’s something inside of you that simply must get out. We’re all flawed. No one wants to hear perfect.
You have had personal inconveniences that have affected your career, for example, you were without a voice for about one year, but nothing seems to stop you. How do you handle the challenges of this career?
My first official performance was a talent show when I was five. I remember it so clearly…the smell of the old curtains hanging in the theatre, the creaking chairs. I was clinging to the back of my mom’s shirt, hiding behind her. Then they called my name. It was my turn. I walked on stage, the heat of the lights hit my cheeks, and began to sing Dreams to Dream (Linda Ronstadt). I was home. The stage was home. I fell head over heels in love with performing…like I’d always been meant to be there. It’s funny to say, but I feel more comfortable on a stage than anywhere else in the world. Not because I’m escaping myself or my world, but more because singing and performing is the language that’s easiest for my heart to speak. From that moment on, I had to perform. That fire has kept me going when everything else fell apart. I just love it. That moment when you look out into the audience and see the stage lights reflecting off the eyes of the people there with me, that’s kept me going. I close my eyes and remember that feeling when everything else is falling apart. I’ll never give that up that love, no matter how hard things get. It’s worth it.
But it’s hard. It’s so hard. I’d be lying to say I haven’t spent a good solid portion of my life curled up in a ball in the bathroom bawling my eyes out, screaming at the top of my lungs, wanting to give up, wanting to not care, wanting just one thing to be easy for once…wanting to just slip out of my own hurt and into some other life. But then I’d pull myself out of it. I’d dig into the music. I’d focus on it like my life depended on it. I’d keep going. I’d remind myself of all the little things to be grateful for. Slowly those things would add up, and I’d feel better. I’m a hopeless romantic. Maybe a hopeful romantic. I find a romance in the ups and downs somehow. I love the entire spectrum of emotions. I don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing, but whenever something heartbreaking happens, I cast myself in the movie of my life. I fast-forward to the part I’m at…you know, that terribly sad part? And then imagine that part where I’m running through the rain with my arms in the air crying with gratitude because some magical turn of events has changed everything? Yeah…as I write this I realize how hilarious it all sounds, but it’s what I do. And it seems to keep me going. And make even the worst of days relatively bearable.
We are sure that “Never Before” marked a milestone in your career because of the collaboration with Sharon Stone and the emotional depth of the song. But what has been the artistic project that involves the closest meaning for you, whether in music or television/film?
This entire album…And the last four years spent locked away in a recording studio, producing these songs with my dad and co-producer, on my parents’ organic blueberry farm on Vancouver Island. After losing the last record, it took everything in me to not drown in self-doubt. There was nobody asking for the album. And in fact, most people were asking me to adjust my goal post. But I just couldn’t seem to give up. This album is so much more than a labor of love for me. It is me. It’s my sweat and tears and laughs. It’s every second of every day…It’s truly a microscope into my heart. If this was the last album I made, at least I’d know I made something that really, really tells my story. I guess there’s something about the adversity and pushing through it that makes this one so special to me. With nothing left to lose, I was forced to take a massive risk. But you know? I’m doing the music I love, the music I need and as terrifying as it is, it’s fulfilling on a whole new level. For years I dabbled with doing what I thought I should do, creating music that I thought would get me where I wanted to go.
As a teen I was told over and over again that my sound wasn’t relevant, my songs were too passionate, too emotive. Being incredibly driven and incredibly insecure, I chose to focus on songs I believed people wanted to hear. Then I lost it all. Somehow all that loss, all those setbacks and failures, stripped away the minutiae. There was nothing to lose. I couldn’t give up and I knew I had to make music, but I had to make the music that I needed to make, the music that was pressing out the edges of my heart begging to get out. I was terrified the entire time we were producing the record. The songs were so exposing and stripped down… at times my voice teetered on the edge of tears. I definitely battled my perfectionism and doubt at every turn; a battle I very nearly lost over and over again. My Dad and co-producer literally taped a piece of paper to the computer screen in the studio that said “No, it doesn’t suck you idiot.” I guess I’d asked him a couple times. But deep down, for the first time in my life, I knew I was headed in the right direction because it wasn’t comfortable. I had to sing the songs most important to me. I had to sing to get it out. I had to keep it vulnerable, raw and honest. I had to make the music that moved me. And I hoped, in being as transparent as possible, someone out there would listen and feel understood, comforted.
What is currently on your playlist?
A whole bunch of vinyl. I’ve found I listen to music entirely differently. It becomes physical rather than passive! I’ve been digging into my dad’s truly incredible, expansive record collection from the 60s and 70s. Can’t stop listening to Nina at the Village Gate (Nina Simone), Piano and Microphone (Prince) and Monks Dream (Thelonius Monk), David Bowie, Queen, Love Country Style (Ray Charles), Cheap Thrills (Janis Joplin), People (Barbra Streisand), All Things Must Pass (George Harrison), In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning (Frank Sinatra) and A Star is Born (Judy Garland). Honestly, grab yourself a record player if you don’t have one. You won’t regret it. I’m clearly slightly obsessed if you can’t tell. I think I stole…I mean permanently borrowed…about 300 records from my dad.
When can we have an EP or LP from you?
Soon! I have a thirty-song record RICOCHET mixed and mastered and ready to go. We are going to start releasing singles over the next couples months followed by an EP. The full album will come out sometime Spring or Summer 2022. I can’t wait. It feels so good to be able to release these songs. It’s been too long and for reasons out of my hands.
What causes moves you besides music?
Romance. That may not sound like a cause, but it is. I’m over the apathy. And I mean romance as a way of life, a way of seeing the world. It breaks my heart to see how drained our world is of it and I hope to add just a tint of it back into the veins of society; Art in all forms. Making sure that education includes art. I think art is most important than we, as a society, realize. It isn’t just an elective. It’s a guide to our own self-expression, to our ability to relate and communicate on a level that requires no words; Womens’ rights. I can’t believe this is still an issue we’re talking about, but here it is. And it’s time to truly address it. I want to be able to walk through the world and not have to excuse myself for being bold or being strong. I’m over men in powerful places hindering my ability to do what I love because I’m not willing to make love to them. I’m over being told I’m too old to be successful being a woman and all – I’ve been told that since I was nineteen. And last but definitely not least, environmental preservation. There isn’t a plan b. Our planet is gorgeous. It shouldn’t be a political issue. It is THE issue for us to be discussing and addressing now while we can. I don’t personally want to live on Mars unless it’s with David Bowie.
CONNECT WITH HAYLEY SALES
photos / Dove Shore
story / Mariana Gonzalez