This week Portland singer/songwriter Haley Heynderickx is finally releasing her long-awaited debut LP, I Need to Start a Garden, via Mama Bird Recording Co. Heynderickx seems excited, but also a little shocked by the buzz its singles have already generated at national outlets like NPR, Pitchfork, and the New York Times: “I feel very confused and spoiled by the attention,” she says. “I feel like that guy who’s been writing a book for 10 years.”
Heynderickx didn’t spend that long working on her debut, but laying down its eight tracks posed a challenge for the thoughtful songwriter, who says she was thrown off by the tattoo-like permanence of recordings. It took three attempts—the first in a barn at Pendarvis Farm—before Heynderickx and her band were able to capture those elusive tracks with producer Zak Kimball at the now-defunct Nomah Studios.
“Finally those songs have lived enough times and died enough times that everything was ready,” she says. “I think some musicians are so primed and they love the recording process so much that they’re just ready to hop in there, but I feel like I’ve been really allergic to it and it just took me a long time.”
Many wonder if there’s a connection between Heynderickx’s last name and that of Jimi Hendrix—there’s not—though she was infatuated with the Pacific Northwest guitar hero growing up. These days her self-described “doom folk” more closely resembles the music of Joan Baez, Connie Converse, and Vashti Bunyan.
“I’m realizing I’m somehow drawn to this demographic of lady songwriters who disappear, either for a while or permanently,” she muses.
I Need to Start a Garden feels similarly mysterious; its songs play like a radio transmission from some otherworldly ether on the brink of fuzzing into cosmic static. Heyderickx sings with just her acoustic guitar on “No Face” and “Jo,” but anyone who’s seen her live knows that’s a formidable combination—her voice is sweet as wildflower honey, but it’s also powerful enough to leave you slack-jawed and covered with goosebumps.
The album also includes a sparsely re- recorded version of “Drinking Song” (from her 2016 debut EP Fish Eyes), which she had submitted to NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest in 2015. It didn’t win, but three years later, Heynderickx can now count herself as one of NPR Music’s 2018 Slingshot Artists.
“It’s haunting how circular it feels. I guess it’s proof I need to retire after this,” she jokes. “That song has changed so much of how I perceive music. That felt like someone helped give me a little ticket to experience all of this—getting to tour, getting to share music... I wanted to just do the most simple, honest version of it one more time.”
On “The Bug Collector,” each insect co- inhabiting Heynderickx’s room is personified with trombone, upright bass, and percussion that sounds like 100 tiny centipede legs skittering across a hardwood floor. By the end of the song, her band—which includes Phillip Rogers (drums), Lily Breshears (bass), Denzel Mendoza (trombone), and Tim Sweeney (upright bass)—has created a symphony of bug sounds.
The record’s standouts include “Untitled God Song”—which imagines the almighty creator as a woman with “big lips and thick hips” wearing a knockoff Coach bag—and the eight-minute centerpiece “Worth It,” which transforms hesitation into thundering empowerment as Heynderickx dares listeners to “put me in a box and call me anything you want.”
“I just felt like I was trying to understand a new time period for myself, where I loved music so much and I wanted to pursue it,” she explains. “But I was too scared, and I felt guilty for not even knowing what I should do or what I want to do, am I good enough for this? ‘Worth It’ was the beginning of surrendering to doing music.”
Though the beguiling doo-wop chorus of “Oom Sha La La” is the record’s most upbeat moment, it’s also the most anxious; Heynderickx catalogs the decay in her refrigerator—the milk is sour, the olives are old—while having miniature existential meltdowns and yelling the bridge, “I need to start a garden!”
The whole record is peppered with images of bees and honeycomb, which Heynderickx was worried might seem too cliché.
“But I sincerely love bees, because my grandmother had this huge garden growing up,” she explains. “Some of my early memories are of scooping honeybees out of her fountains when they would go to get drinks in the summer. I would try to rescue as many honeybees as I could that accidentally got stuck in fountains.”
Heynderickx did start her own garden. “It was pretty tiny. I did my best,” she says. “Ironically, a lot of it died when I went on tour.” But the desire to plant things seems to reflect a deeper need to redirect one’s faith and energy toward things that will grow, like a sunflower turning to follow the sun across the sky.
When I ask Heynderickx what her future holds, aside from a busy touring schedule, she admits, “I have no idea,” and then pauses, remembering the artist residency she spent at the Sou’Wester Lodge at the beginning of the year.
“When I went to the coast and when I screamed on the bridge on the way out of Washington and into Oregon, it felt really cathartic, because it was pouring down rain, and I was just feeling like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing!’ But something just told me, trust. If a word has been blaring into my mind, it’s ‘trust.’”