Hayley Heyndrickx looks slightly to her right, wearing a brown shirt, and stands in the middle of a yellow circle, surrounded by trees.
Photo and design credit Jeff Andersen, courtesy of Lucky Bird Media

Seeing Haley Heynderickx perform live will change your conception of her music. You will realize that, all this time, she has not been trying to give you the answers: she is trying to ask the right questions. Even her tone — lilting, light, turning the ends of her phrases up in a comedic manner — often implies uncertainty. Heynderickx’s music allows listeners to be confidently uncertain, resting in a place of comfort with the unknown. This open-hearted approach and the honesty with which her songs flow in performance remove some of the mysterious sheen that accompanies only listening to an artist through earbuds. This connective experience can also be painfully stripping for the artist. In a phone interview with The Michigan Daily, Heynderickx spoke on this experience. “Music has always been a therapy for me, which is why touring through 2018 to 2020 was pretty difficult for me because it’s kind of like putting my therapy on display every night,” Heynderickx said. “And now, writing comes from a place of meditation and gratitude.”

On a cold April night at the Ark, fans watching these raw songs performed were able to join together in this gratitude. It is not at all lost on Heynderickx how her music, written as an extension of herself and her emotions, sometimes paradoxically changes the honesty with which people see her. “Sometimes, I feel (the audience) talking to me,” Heynderickx said. “They have more of an idea of me than noticing the person that’s in front of them.” Her music is clearly written from a place deep inside of her, one that she sees connecting to the very cores of other people. “I guess I’m beginning to see the changes (in) perception (of me by my audience) over time, but I also know it’s just reflections of how they’ve experienced music,” Heynderickx said. “Honestly, when people come up to me, I see them talking to themselves, talking to ideas that they’ve had with music, and I get to view a weird medium vehicle of them reflecting back to themselves.”

She spoke with the audience in a friendly, shy, slightly practiced manner, watching their faces sitting in the dark just outside her stage circle of light. Accompanied by her band of friends, with Abbey Blackwell on upright bass and Haley Freedlund on trombone, she seemed more at ease with herself and the crowd. “I don’t know how to write a love song, yet,” she joked at one point. She’s right — there is no way to always know how to write about love. But the way she writes and plays often feels naturally imbued with love — love for the subjects of her songs, love for the writing process, love for her guitar. Her songs are full of seemingly little things: pomegranates, park benches, bugs. This collection creates an image of attention to and care for the world. Her advice for musicians falls in line with this, as she finds wonder in “draw(ing) in as much as one can from the present and (from) the lessons at hand that kind of peek out towards you.” Indeed, her biggest joys in music come from these small moments. “My favorite part of being a musician is when I somehow end up on a friend’s porch, and we are jamming,” Heynderickx said. “Drinking a beverage that matches the weather. We are getting to stare at nature and make music at the same time.”

This side of music-making is one she is slowly returning to. “Music was the only thing that made me feel sane,” Heynderickx said. “So I’ve just been following that ever since. But now it’s made an ironic turn of sometimes, music has been the thing that has not made me feel sane. And I’ve had to now turn again to other sources, and it’s kind of a relief to catch myself in the cycle of life. Life requires so many different types of balancing, tending to relationships and home and your body. I think I’ve just loved music so much. I wanted to pour my whole life into it, and it hurt me in many different realms outside of it. So now I turn again.” Her speaking voice has a lilt to it; no matter the gravity of what she is telling you, there is always an undercurrent of hope. 

This healing seems to be coming to her in the form of more communal music-making, as per her wish. “I’ve been a little too self-isolating over the last few years,” Heynderickx said. “Sometimes by force of nature, which happens to all of us, but I feel like I’m coming out from the rock I put myself under, and I’m excited to collaborate with more people in the future.” This community she found in music is present in her newest project. “I’m very lucky that my friends of the Westerlies and I had a little writing residency in January of this year, and we were in Northampton, Massachusetts. They’re a brilliant four-piece horn section, and the four of them dissected some of my songs and transposed them. We worked on them for a couple of days and recorded them live to an audience, and I’m excited to have those songs be put out in the world later this year. I’ve been quite tired of myself. I was just singing too long with a guitar by myself. So to have four talented horn players around me that are also my friends has been very healing and makes me excited for more collaboration stations in the future.” The joy with which she spoke was palpable.

The comedy of her voice, speaking and singing, is instantly apparent — Heynderickx understands how funny the saddest things in life can be. And when she sings about them, causing your insides twist in deep and bittersweet understanding, you can’t help but laugh. In her everyday manner of speaking, she finds this same humor with which to portray big ideas. “I’m the type of songwriter where I’m still trying to connect from songs from two to four years ago, and it’s a relief when they finally decide that they’re done,” Heynderickx said. “I feel like I’m constantly turning and tossing things over until it tells me that it’s ready to enter the field and be shared. Sometimes songs feel like kindergarteners that you’re just ready to drop off at school and see how they fare out in the world.” She quickly followed this by saying, “I’m just trying to be honest with myself and my changing seasons.” 

The presence of change is evident in her songs, even in seemingly silly lyrics like, “The milk is sour,” from “Oom Sha La La,” a song she wrote somewhat as a joke. Hearing her perform it live, you realize that yes, the milk is sour, but this means a lot of things beyond just dairy. Things are changing and not always for the better; you can’t dictate the rate of change, even of the objects in your refrigerator. The song is not at all trying to command change — perhaps not even trying to understand it — but simply taking a step back from it and laughing at it. And we all felt it at the Ark — sitting in her circle of stage light, her music easily extended outward until it had filled the room.

Daily Arts Writer Rosa Sofia Kaminski can be reached at fiakamin@umich.edu