Heather Fay’s thriller musicWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
As music continues its evolution from melody to rhythm and from organic instruments to computer performance, Heather Fay is at once a revisionist and a visionary. Fay writes and plays a style of folk music that is progressive enough to defy the Americana label but not so experimental as to be truly alternative. She writes about relationships and parenthood with a raw honesty that embraces melancholy over euphoria without sacrificing optimism.
Her latest album, “Cherish the Broken,” provides a snapshot of modern woman at her most conflicted and determined. Vulnerable but not weak, hesitant but not confused, Fay uses her music to examine the crossroads faced by many people who strive to have it all, even as they deal with the dawning suspicion that something important lingers just out of reach.
During a recent telephone interview, Fay discussed her converging roles as mom and artist with the good humor and honesty one might expect from a woman who wrote the lyrics, “If I were to wear my heart on my sleeve, would you say it looks pretty and that it suits me? / Or would you roll your eyes like those other guys do, and tell me to take it off because it embarrasses you?”
Toledo Free Press: Is this the first batch of songs that you’ve written since you became a mom? That has to have a major impact on how you approach your music and your lyrics.
Heather Fay: Yes, it definitely has changed. The first song I wrote on my first album was basically when I was becoming a mom; I was pregnant with my daughter, Ruby. Songs started pouring out of me when I was pregnant with her, so one or two of the songs went on my first album. And then I found when I was pregnant, all this creativity and everything was coming out. It was amazing.
I don’t know — hormones or something — whatever it was, it was such a simple process. And then I had her and became a mom and there were so many different feelings that came into that. And then I had my son and during that time it was like I couldn’t write. I think I was just so enmeshed in being a mom and being present. I was living in every moment as opposed to reflecting on every moment in songwriting.
And more recently, I’d say it was probably not that long ago, when my son had his 1-year birthday and I started getting the itch to write again and perform again and I had come across Google+ and Hangouts, ways to kind of get my music out there without having to leave home and kind of sacrifice being a mom.
I was kind of struggling with, “How do I, now that I’m a mom, am I still a singer-songwriter, am I still a musician? Can I still do this?” Because I don’t want to sacrifice one for the other, I can’t. I’m not gonna leave my kids and just go [laughs]. So I think I was struggling with that a lot and it may have been getting in the way of my songwriting.
TFP: Some of the songs, like “Breaking My Heart” and “I Would For You,” are about vulnerability. Is that something that just came about from being a mom? Talk about the vulnerability that weaves itself through some of the new songs.
Fay: I’m already a sensitive person and I don’t know what it is, I always say I feel things so much more than the average bear, or maybe I show it more. Everyone feels it; I just wear my heart on my sleeve. But definitely (since) becoming a mom, everything is more heightened, more sensitive and I definitely felt more vulnerable. I also think that I found a lot of strength in becoming a mom, a lot of my purpose. Like OK, I get it now. My songwriting was previously all about me, me, me; this is much more about, “God, I’m scared I’m not gonna be there for them or I’m gonna get heartbroken and lose my way.” It all became very much more rooted in vulnerability.
TFP: “Autumn’s Chill” really catches that. You talk about slides and butterflies and grass stains, but you also talk about aches and pains and hide-and-seek from reality.
Fay: As we grow older, we kind of get jaded and lose the wonder of the world, and as children we kind of see the world as amazing and magical and everything is new, bright and colorful. And as we get older everything dampens, gets darker and a little less vibrant. And falling in love with anybody, whether it be a spouse, friend, partner, whatever, can bring me back to that place of just, “Oh my God, everything’s magical.” They say love is a drug and it’s true, and it just heightens everything. I felt that with my children, but I know they’re gonna grow up and I wanna protect that wonder in their eyes. But I know I can’t get lost in that because I have to guide them. Things are gonna happen, life is gonna be hard, they’re gonna scrape their knees.
TFP: When you sit down to write songs, are you writing a poem that’s set to music, or music you match words to?
Fay: I usually just have a phrase that will pop into my mind and that usually sits with me for a little bit. The funny thing is, these phrases usually come to me in the shower. I’ve heard that that’s the thing that happens with writers. For some reason that’s the place where these ideas come. It can come anywhere but that seems to be the place where it comes. And then I sit down with my guitar and kind of just strum out a few chords and see where the story goes from there.
I write with my guitar. I know a lot of people journal and turn their journal into song and add a melody. I can’t do that; the two go together when I write.
TFP: Your lyrics are very literary, unlike the average modern song where a dozen words are repeated over and over. You’re telling little stories and going through a whole different structure of songwriting, going against the moment.
Fay: A majority of it is just who I am and the music I grew up listening to and my inspirations …
TFP: Who are some of those?
Fay: Tom Waits is probably my No. 1 songwriter. He’s a master songwriter and creates such beautiful music and I love his voice against these beautiful stories, it’s such an amazing thing to me. I grew up with my mom listening to James Taylor and Carole King and I love Jeff Tweedy, Simon and Garfunkel. Colin Hay (from Men at Work) is another one of my favorite songwriters who’s underappreciated.
TFP: I wouldn’t have put Colin Hay anywhere near Tom Waits. The other artists you mentioned are connected; Hay kind of goes against the other ones you mentioned.
Fay: Not so much the Men at Work stuff. They’re fun and were a great band, but I saw him at a venue called Largo in Los Angeles, one of my favorite places to see music, and I didn’t really know who he was. I was like, “Oh, the Men at Work guy,” and he was unbelievable. His songwriting is amazing, his voice is beautiful. Listen to his solo stuff, it’s very poignant.
Another is Elvis Costello. A lot of my therapy when I was young was music, so I really ingested what they were saying. It was the most important thing to me.
TFP: I’m playing your album and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I hear Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” It’s an incredibly creepy version because it’s slow and deliberate compared to the original, which is a campy thing.
Fay: I had been asked to do a Hangout concert for Halloween, and I was like “Oh, I’ve gotta throw a creepy song in there,” so I was like, what song do I wanna do? I wanted to do something unexpected and it just came to me, I’ve gotta do “Thriller.”
I love Michael Jackson, early Michael Jackson was — as much as I say pop wasn’t an influence on me, Madonna, Michael Jackson, all that early pop stuff was an influence and part of my growing up. I picked up my guitar and I just started slowly kind of finger-picking it and I was like, “Oh, this could totally be cool. I play with my bandmates; I play with an upright bassist and a mandolin player and I knew we could do some really cool stuff if we deconstructed a little bit and then kind of take it to a more haunting place and a spooky place.
TFP: In “Life is Beautiful,” you talk about “No Dolce & Gabbana” and eschewing most of the material things. That goes very much against the grain of most popular music these days, the I need, I want, I gotta have-type themes sort of running through current music. Are you taking a stand against that materialism? Is it a reaction to that or is this one of your lifelong philosophies?
Fay: I feel like such an old lady, “Oh, kids these days, they don’t understand what life was,” … and I get it, growing up in the glitz and the glamour of pop music. I’m not a pop artist, obviously, that’s not where my heart is, but I don’t get it. I don’t get the addiction to things and I think a lot of the problems in our society are because we’re just too materialistic and focused on what we have and what we’re wearing and what we’re driving.
It’s addiction. I could easily get sucked into it; I have to fight it every day, when someone shows up with something blingy it’s hard not to get [sucked in]. I’ve seen myself get pulled and I don’t like where it pulls me because it’s not real. Not that people can’t enjoy it, because everyone should, absolutely 100 percent, but when you think that’s what life is about, it’s scary.
TFP: All things in moderation, correct?
Learn more about Heather Fay at her website, www.heatherfay.com.
Tags: Autumn’s Chill, Carole King, Cherish the Broken, Colin Hay, Elvis Costello, folk music, Halloween, Hangout concert, Heather Fay, James Taylor, Jeff Tweedy, Largo, los Angeles, lyrics, Men at Work, No Dolce & Gabbana, organic instruments, Simon and Garfunkel, Thriller, Tom Waits