Haley: No More Fear
Photos by Tj Turner
Minnesota singer-songwriter Haley is always transforming. She has released 11 albums since 2001 while still finding the time to finesse her sound and hone her glowing, whimsical storytelling ability. All the while, she’s maintained her drive for putting on bold live shows, offering fans dynamic experiences. Moving away from her initial folk-driven sound, Haley currently expresses a more electronic-based indie soundscape with her work.
Haley took a break from her busy schedule to discuss how she got her start, her evolving story of self, and what made her decide to talk about her queerness more publicly.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Growing up in Rapid City, South Dakota, how did you figure out that you wanted to pursue music?
As soon as I started seeing live music, I said to myself that I need to do that, and that needs to be a part of my life in more than a listening sort of way. I just started doing it. I went to lessons for a little bit for guitar and piano and learned some basic chords—I still don’t read music—but it was a good thing for me to have in South Dakota.
Did your community support your artistic aspirations?
I was a choir nerd and did all of the choirs and the talent shows. I felt really supported by the underground community that was there [in Rapid City], which included people of all ages and all sorts of different bands coming through. My parents for my graduation gift paid for a CD to be printed, so I recorded a CD at a friend’s house with just a guitar, some piano, and me. I made a thousand copies of it.
Who did you listen to when you were younger?
I was into Ace of Bass, Wilson Phillips, Mariah Carey, The Cranberries, Nirvana, Radiohead, Green Day, Billie Holiday, Johnny Cash, and anything else that I could buy. I’m not picky—I don’t love one kind of music more than the other.
What are you listening to now?
If I had to say what I listen to the most, I’d probably say pop because my daughter likes that and I love studying it. I think it’s fascinating what the trends are for pop music—Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop The Feeling” from the “Trolls” soundtrack is one of the best pop songs I’ve ever heard. It’s just really good to listen to things that are so far outside of what you do because it can be peripherally inspiring in some way.
What should people be listening to?
I feel like I’m a broken record with Big Black Delta. [Their self-titled album] is the best record and no one knows about it! Check it out right now. It’s just good, dark, synth-pop with super good melodies. It’s right in my wheelhouse and everybody I’ve played it for is like, ‘How did I not know about this record?!’
You’ve done quite a bit of touring in the past and are doing less of that recently. Any reason for this change?
I’ve definitely put my hours in touring in the United States. I just had to get really honest with myself about what it was doing to me financially and emotionally to continue touring and just kind of breaking even. I like playing shows, but I don’t like playing a lot [of them]. I’m just a lot more of a behind-the-scenes kind of artist. I like playing with performance art with Gramma’s Boyfriend, but my other [solo] stuff is very intensely personal. I’m a very introverted person in my personal life.
What led you to want to perform in tandem with Pride?
I haven’t really been involved in Pride at all because I was pretty private about my queerness for a long time. I came out when I was a teenager, but the idea of my sexuality was dismissed by my family, which caused me to hide my identity for a very long time [and go back] into the closet for another 15 years. Now, I’m just so beyond that and I just feel so honored. That was one of the events for me where I went out and said to myself, ‘Oh my, this is fine! This is great! Embrace this. This is a powerful thing.’ I feel like I’m in the right place in my life where I’m excited about that and don’t have any fear around it.
What has led you to speak about your queerness more openly recently?
It really ate away at me for a very long time and I had to work hard to climb out of that. As private as I am, it’s inspiring for anybody to see an artist who is like, ‘Hey, I’m just me and I’m just being this and this and this and you can’t box me up.’ I feel so much happier and so much freer.
It is really beautiful to see people being their authentic selves. Are there queer artists that you have looked up to?
John Waters is my fave. I saw him speak at the Walker years ago and he was so brilliant, strange, weird, and wonderful—and you can be all of those things. You can make these movies that are horrific to most people and still have heart and be conscious of what you are doing. His complexity is really inspiring to me.
You recently changed your last name from Bonar to McCollum and rebranded yourself professionally as Haley. How did that come about?
I wanted to deconstruct my own involvement in patriarchal structures and part of that, to me, was embracing my mother’s family name. I just didn’t think that it made sense for me to change my last name out loud and expect people to call me Haley McCollum; I thought that it would be easier for people to call me just Haley. I also just needed to shed all of the grief that came with having the last name Bonar. It was a lifetime of bullying and it was awful to have to deal with that all the time. I feel like it took away from my art and my time, and I wanted to take the power back from that.
Of all the things you’ve done or created, what are you most proud of?
I really loved ‘Pleasureland.’ I really liked ‘Golder,’ which I released in 2011. I’m really proud that I won a McKnight Fellowship in 2013, and I’m proud that I’ve gotten to meet some pretty awesome famous people like Sarah Silverman, John C. Reilly, and Thom Yorke. I got to meet the Temptations because we did the same Jools Holland show in Europe and that was just surreal.
What projects do you have coming up that you are excited about?
I have top-secret stuff! I’ll just say that I’m moving more in the performance art and comedy direction and I’m not sure how that’s going to look yet. I did my first stand-up a few weeks ago at The Terminal Bar. I’ve always loved comedy and I’ve wanted to intrude into that world in some way. I’m hopefully going to be doing some writing and acting with some stuff.