Haley lets the music do the talking on the all-instrumental ‘Pleasureland’


Haley Colin Michael Simmons

Haley is all out of words.

That might be sound like bad news for the local singer-songwriter, but it was actually the beginning of something beautiful: Haley’s latest album, Pleasureland, is all instrumentals. Some of the 12 tracks, like “Syrup,” are full-on assaults; others, like “Snake Moon,” trip up the spine and penetrate the heart. Sparse yet saturated with emotion, these tender songs are so intriguing to the ear that you won’t even miss the lyrics.

Haley, who played piano, synth, and lead guitar throughout the album, didn’t create this music in a vacuum. She brought in noted instrumentalists like guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker, bassist Steve Garrington, saxophonist Mike Lewis, and Laurels String Quartet players Erica Burton and Cory Grossman. She further recruited friends and loved ones including Nicole Brending (who did the video for Haley’s “Kismet Kill”) and her sister, Torey Erin, to make the album’s music videos.

Haley will screen 11 music videos at Trylon Cinema tonight ahead of Pleasureland’s release on Oct. 12.

City Pages: What inspired you to make a full album of instrumentals?

Haley: I have a couple of instrumentals on my recorder Golder. It came out in 2011. I’ve always really loved playing those songs live. I wanted to expand that idea, initially just for myself, just to push myself on the piano a little bit more. As I started writing these songs, I realized that I was doing this because I didn’t have anything else to say at this point. I was feeling frustrated and hopeless and angry and sad at the state of our country and the world. I just felt like there was nothing I could say that would portray the feelings that I had that wouldn’t be trite. I love writing and everything, but I felt like this resonated a little bit more, and I feel like that is kind of what people need right now: a little more closeness to feeling rather than being told a story or a narrative. This definitely has a big political push, as far as I’m concerned, but it’s certainly akin to an abstract painting.

CP: The instrumentals on this album are very emotional. What do you think it is about sound that can express emotion better than words?

H: Instrumental music is the first kind of music. Classical music was written hundreds of years ago and is still played today because it means something. Jazz was born out of a movement where black Americans felt like they didn’t have a voice and rock ‘n’ roll was being co-opted by people and jazz was a way of expressing this feeling and this oppression in a free form. It is powerful to hear something like “Clair de Lune” by Debussy. You can’t say it’s beautiful because it has this chord and this chord – no. It’s beautiful because you hear it and it makes you cry. You hear John Coltrane and you hear him crying through that instrument. That is sometimes the most powerful form of protest, in my opinion. I don’t think there are words to describe why instrumental music is powerful, and I think that’s why it’s powerful.

CP: Did you hear the songs in your head before you started playing or did they evolve as you played? Or a combination of both?

H: It was a combination of both. Even when I’m writing songs with lyrics, it starts with a feeling. What I want to do is try to build and paint the atmosphere around that feeling. It’s done when I decide that that comes across in the way that I want. Playing these songs, some of them were written three or four years ago initially and I didn’t play them regularly. Practicing piano and being vigilant about that kind of naturally inspired other songs to come through. Basically, I look at a picture in my mind and say, “I want to make that picture with sound.”

CP: What kind of aesthetic will we see in the music videos at the Trylon screening?

H: I started making videos because I had a bunch of footage that was claimed from my dad’s basement. I’d been asking him for years to get me footage of my sisters and I used to do a movie review show, re-enacting parodies of movie previews. I’d been wanting to transfer that because it was on some archaic ‘90s video camera thing that no one has anymore. They’re unlabeled. I took the footage to Astound and had no clue what I was going to get. What I got was two hours of family footage and like 10 hours of football games, hockey games, “Coach,” and “Roseanne.” I was like, “What the hell am I going to do with all of this?”

I was leafing through this footage and I realized it was from 2001, so it was the summer before 9/11, which is the summer that I moved to Minnesota. I was watching all the news clips and commercials and felt really creeped out, because it was like seeing this piece of time, this pre-9/11, pre-everything changing here. I just thought, “I’m going to cut this up and make something.” So there’s a lot of lo-fi VHS clips that I’ve manipulated and put all together to portray this landscape of consumerism and capitalism and the eeriness of seeing footage of George Bush and Dick Cheney shaking hands with different world leaders in the Middle East and just knowing that all this shit was about to go down. There’s a little bit of that undertone there, especially with “Credit Forever Part 2.” I basically wanted to make videos that were anti-music videos. This is my first foray into video-making. I became obsessed. It was really fun for me to re-express these songs in a different way.

I did five of the 11 videos. And then I just asked my friends that I love and respect their work, “Hey, why don’t you pick a song and do whatever the fuck you want?” They had 100 percent creative control. It was like Christmas receiving these videos. I had no clue what anyone was doing ahead of time and it was just really fascinating to see people’s takes on the songs.

CP: Were any of the takes contrary to what you had envisioned?

H: No, not at all. That’s what I think is cool about the instrumentals. There’s no way you can do it wrong. It’s open interpretation. Whereas if I wrote a song about something specific or there was specific imagery, and then the music video was like chopped up old football games, then it would be like, “Um…that’s a little not on-point.” With this, it’s open-ended. That’s why it was so fun.

Where: Trylon Cinema
When: 7 p.m. Thurs. Oct. 4
Tickets: $8; more info here