To immerse yourself in Haley Blais’ endlessly rewarding sophomore album, Wisecrack, is to conclude the Vancouver DIY queen might be in the process of working through some things.
Want a gold-standard album-opening line? Consider “I'd kill to be a sensitive person” from “Soft Spot for Monarchs”. Ever dreamed of loading all you own into a U-Haul and heading to Los Angeles to chase your dreams? Blais has been there, as evidenced by the “Baby Teeth” lyrics “I used to think that I could live there/Be the next big fucking star.”
But ask Blais if she might have more—or at least as many—dark days as the rest of us, and she suggests that perception isn’t everything.
“I definitely think around my mid-20s, when my parents divorced and I moved out, that big change definitely made me a glass-half-empty person,” she offers thoughtfully. “Now I think that I’m the opposite. I’m kind of an annoying optimist. I definitely get as stressed and anxious as the next person. But I think I bounce back pretty quick with, ‘Everything is just going to be fine!’ ”
Then again, Blais suggests, maybe she’s surprised even herself with Wisecrack. Which perhaps explains why it’s so relatable.
Worried that you’re flailing if your life goals include starting a family, carving out a career, owning a home, or just getting through a day without crying at the futility of it all? Blais suggests that she understands in “Beginner’s Guide to Birdwatching”, where she sings, “Just trying to do the best I can/Still on our parents’ cellphone plan”.
Working through a rough patch that never seems to end? Blais is there for you in “Body” with, “Man this whole year feels like hell/Stuck forever in a reboot of your favourite teenage television show.”
Whether recalling golden childhood memories in “The Cabin”, worrying about kids that have yet to be born in “Matchmaker”, or dealing with a world-shaking divorce in “The Coolest Fucking Bitch in Town”, Blais comes off as, well, the coolest fucking bitch in town. Not to mention clever, genuinely funny, endearingly empathetic, and possibly tormented—although when it comes to that last one, things aren’t always what they seem.
“Nothing ever bad really happened to me—I was a pretty average person, so I didn’t have a lot of trauma growing up or anything,” Blais reveals. “My parents’ divorce was the biggest thing I went through, and I was able to process that all. It was like, ‘Well, that’s life, you know, and things happen.’ But then this album came out of me a couple of years later. And that’s when I went, ‘You know what? I don’t think I ever really processed any of this.’ ”
WEIRDLY, GIVEN THE wealth of often-personal details she packs into her songs, Blais is a little short on stories from her childhood.
“It was so idyllic—very simple and picturesque,” says the 29-year-old, who was raised in Kelowna. “I have not a lot of vivid childhood memories that I can describe to you. I can’t tell you about specific incidents, but I can describe everything, if that makes sense—my childhood home, smells, everything that we did. Because I always have a hard time actually recalling memories that happened, I think I put more a lot of the landscape and feelings and emotions of childhood into my songs. Whether or not they are real, I couldn’t really tell you.”
Raised by a graphic designer/painter dad and an event planner mom, Blais started taking classical voice training at age eight, performing both solo and with choirs and ensembles until she was 18.
“Mozart was my guy!” she exclaims. “He still is my guy.”
Touring the world to locales like New York City and Prague and loving it, Blais initially thought she was meant to become an opera singer. While classical music was a staple on the stereo at home, her dad could often be found cranking the classic rock of AC/DC and Queen, and her mom cueing up Sarah McLachlan and anyone associated with Lilith Fair.
“I could talk about Sarah McLachlan all day,” Blais gushes. “I’ve had a renaissance in my life the last few years where I’ve realized how influential that was. As songwriters, the women of the early ’90s and 2000s have been so formative for me. I think the way that I write music, or digest music, is because that’s all I’ve been listening to the last three years straight.”
If there’s one lightning-bolt artist who changed everything for Blais in her teen years, it was Bob Dylan. As she’s noted in past interviews, she was initially convinced she’d unearthed someone the rest of the world had yet to discover.
“My mom really hated Bob Dylan, so I had to listen to him in my teenage bedroom alone,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘She’ll never understand me!’ I listened to a lot of folk music, and a lot of really DIY indie folk music: Daniel Johnston and Kimya Dawson.”
If there was a punk rock-like message binding those artists together—early Dylan and the offbeat, underground brilliance of Johnson and Dawson—it was that anyone really can do it with enough attitude and determination. Putting her opera aspirations on the backburner, Blais began building a devoted YouTube following, sometimes armed with a ukulele doing downbeat covers of songs ranging from Beyoncé’s “Halo” to Tom Waits’ “Chocolate Jesus” to Big Thief’s “Paul”—and sometimes showing herself as a self-deprecating comic by riffing on everything from Canada’s most awkward person to S.A.D. morning routines.
And then she started making records of original material, starting out simple and stripped-down with a 2016 uke-centred EP Late Bloomer, and emerging as something of an overnight critical darling four years later with the endearingly confessional full-length Below the Salt.
THE TERM NOSTALGIA-POP gets thrown around a lot with Blais, the singer having built a 166,000-strong YouTube following with songs that capture the painful beauty of adolescence, and the confusing challenges that come with navigating adulthood. Bonus points have been earned for obsessions ranging from E.T. to Stephen King’s Firestarter to Paul Zindel’s essential ’70s novel The Pigman. And—who gives a shit if it’s not good for you or your stupid blood pressure—delicious, delicious salt.
On Wisecrack the singer again had no shortage of experiences to draw from, the last few years being nothing if not interesting.
“I think I was looking back a lot, but also coming from a place of present processing,” Blais says. “It was this kind of weird, delusional space. I don’t know if I can answer the question of what kind of place I was in truly. As I’ve said before, when I write a song, I try and learn something about myself by the end. So I have to be present, and talk about the present, at least a little bit, for that to happen. Or at least think I’m writing about the present.
“Sometimes I find that I’m being vague,” she continues. “I’ll write something hyper-specific, but then reading it back I’ll find it’s so vague and strange. But what I love about releasing music is that you can be so vague and specific and write things that are personal to you. Then you put something out into the world, and it’s so vague to someone else that they have to assign their own meaning to it. That meaning might not be true, but it’s true to them. And that makes the song important to them about a certain thing in their life. It might not be what I was talking about, but it works for them.”
That’s another way of saying that, if you can relate to “All I wanna do is drink around you you’re so boring/But I don’t really wanna feel like shit in the morning” from “Winner”, then Blais has done her job.
Wisecrack finds Blais winningly pushing herself into new territory on the music side of things. Working with producers David Vertesi and Jonathan Anderson, her vocals are often multitracked and manipulated, her songs spiked with left-field moments of jagged majesty. While soft-jangle acoustic guitar operates as the original touchstone on “Soft Spot for Monarchs”, space-shimmer organ runs through as an undercurrent, the back half of the song marked by a wraith-like (and admittedly cryptic) repetition of “And the only mercy that I give is for the bugs”.
“The Coolest Fucking Bitch in Town” begins as a melancholy, beautiful lament and then goes ghostly with soft-swirl horns and skittering percussion; and “Winner” plays out like a sun-flooded-Sunday tribute to the Carpenters—until, that is, the daydream-nation distortion flares up and the cathartic screaming takes over.
The only thing preventing “The Cabin” from being a perfect chillout soundtrack for the lake are the occasional metal-machine-music squalls, while “Body” quietly transitions from a coffee-house stage to a stadium-size symphonic guitar-hero celebration.
But for all of its thrilling twists and turns, there’s a definite through line on Wisecrack. Flash back to that album opening line, “I'd kill to be a sensitive person”, in “Soft Spot for Monarchs”. And then contrast it with the insanely lovely “Beginner’s Guide to Birdwatching”, in which Blais pays tribute to the birth of her brother’s first child with a family sing-along repetition of “One minute she wasn’t there/And then the next minute there she was” that suggests, in the end, everything is indeed going to fine.
Does it all make sense? Absolutely. Sometimes you end up working things out, even if you’re not aware of it.
“There’s a jaded aspect to ‘Soft Spot for Monarchs’, so I really wanted that song to be the first song,” Blais says. “The opening line is someone that I was at the beginning of the record. And then, at the end with ‘Beginner’s Guide to Birdwatching’, it’s all so hopeful and full of love. There’s a story from the beginning to the end of who I am. And I really like that.”
Hailey Blais’ Wisecrack is out on Arts & Crafts on September 15.