“I’m just getting over a gnarly cold,” says the pixelated four-inch-tall musician on my laptop. She’s just sniffly, she says, and it’s assuredly not COVID. Haley Blais, mug in hand, has had quite a year. Her debut album, Below the Salt, christened airwaves in August, and her latest single—a silky rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”—dropped just in time for the holidays. Produced by indie-pop duo Tennis and singer-songwriter Louise Burns, Below the Salt marks a departure from Blais’ earnest bedroom pop. Here, we get an artist whose emotional growth foregrounds her sound and whose lyrics feel like a plushy duvet. Blais is also a YouTuber, having amassed a following of 172,000 subscribers to date. Her content can be best described as wine-aunt-vlogging meets sisterly advice with a healthy dollop of millennial cusp crises. Naturally, I had to talk to her.
Lithium Magazine: Your Spotify page describes Below the Salt as “a coming-of-age story that recognizes that there is no real coming of age.” Why was that important for you to include?
Haley Blais: The music I write tends to gravitate toward coming-of-age themes. Any song I write is with the backstory of a Stand By Me scene—I’m 12 and it’s 1988. But really, who am I to say who’s coming of age? Even though I’m 26, my writing is still coming out as if I was 13.
Lithium: How does nostalgia influence your music?
Haley: I feel like I’m always writing about what was, rather than the present. I love looking back with [rose-tinted] glasses. I love yearning for something, I love being tortured, and I love the pain. (Laughs) I think there’s something about nostalgia that can be sweet but really painful.
Lithium: That middle ground where you can hit both the dread and promise of being young and having your whole life ahead of you.
Haley: Totally! Then having this musical swell that is similar to a John Williams score—just a hint of a soundtrack. I’m really trying to make my life feel like a movie, I guess.
Lithium: When writing songs, are you someone who’s able to put your head down and get it done in one sitting or is your process more fragmented?
Definitely fragmented since it comes in spurts. I can’t really force myself to write a song. That’s something I’m trying to teach myself to do because sometimes there are deadlines to meet and you want to be disciplined. You don’t want to wait for it to be 10 PM when you’re in the shower and you have to run out to try and write something. It’s always ebbing and flowing.
Lithium: There’s a storybook quality to your songs that I really love. When putting an album together, do you have an idea of how it’s going to start and end?
Haley: In terms of album flow, that just happened pretty serendipitously. I didn’t necessarily plan it, but I do definitely want listeners to have learned something by the end of a song.
Lithium: Do you find that being a musician and a YouTuber occupy different spheres in your life?
Haley: They’re definitely two different entities in my mind, and I am two different people. I always forget that they’re good platforms to intersect—I don’t use that as much as I should. With YouTube, it’s a very carefree, weird place where I can be super quirky. But I try to make myself feel more professional with music. Me trying to be serious without music just doesn’t translate as well. There’s something Freudian there.
Lithium: Maybe Nietzschean too? His philosophy “Become who you are” reminds me of the line “Can I become what I think I am?” from “Someone Called While You Were Out.”
Haley: I love that. Someone get that guy to analyze me.
Lithium: You’ve been on so many people’s quarantine soundtracks. Which artists are on yours?
Haley: There’s this Toronto artist, Leith Ross—they’re amazing, I’ve been loving every song they’ve put out. Sam Lynch dropped an album that’s gorgeous. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Samia. And I’ve been obsessively listening to my fall playlist. It’s pretty much Harry Nilsson and Cocteau Twins. It’s the season to be angsty, I think.
Lithium: You’ve also listed Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Sufjan Stevens, and Talking Heads as some of your musical influences for Below the Salt. Is there an artist in particular that inspired you to become a musician?
Haley: It was more of a huge assortment, like a cornucopia of artists. I recently wrote an essay for Talkhouse about how I never had huge obsessions or influences growing up. I was never like “I need their discography” or “I need to be like them.” For Phoebe Bridgers it was Elliott Smith, but for me, it wasn’t anyone in particular. It wasn’t until I became a more well-rounded adult that I could curate my music taste better. I had shitty taste when I was a teenager.
Lithium: Is your album informed by non-musical art forms as well?
Haley: There are little things sprinkled throughout the whole album. E.T. is also a huge heavy-hitter for me, no matter what. It’s that coming-of-age, nostalgic ‘80s mindset I’m obsessed with. I’m always going to find a way to sprinkle little things that I like in. They’re little Easter eggs for myself or people who know me. I did a reading list on my Instagram of the books that influenced the album. Books are also a way for me to think of cool song titles, so I look at my shelf like… Firestarter? Don’t come for me, Stephen King.
Lithium: Your album grapples with self-worth and identity, “Be Your Own Muse” especially. I’m curious as to what being your own muse means to you.
Haley: Being your own muse is just the simplest mantra. “Be Your Own Muse” is probably one of the oldest songs on the album. I wrote it in 2017, so this album is kind of a time capsule of the last few years. It really stemmed from a lot of loneliness and trying to be okay with that. Also, not having the drive to change. Just feeding off of that pain. Everyone’s tortured and you write your best songs in that state. Because I’ve been content for the last six months, I haven’t written anything new.
Lithium: How have you grown in making and releasing Below the Salt?
Haley: I’ve grown exponentially in my technical knowledge of making albums. I had a huge case of demo-itis, where I just wanted to release the demos without redoing them. Seeing the album being produced—not by me or my friends—was really humbling. I had to take a step back creatively and let my songs be opened up to criticism. I’m glad that I let myself be open to change from people that I trust. And I’m happy that Below the Salt is in the world, like a mother who just dropped her kid off at college. I have no regrets and I’m ready to move on.
By Saffron Maeve