Hayley Sabella on New Song 'If I Reach' & Being Drawn to 'Music of the Devastating Variety': Premiere
Billboard unveils a poignant ballad from the New England singer-songwriter's forthcoming album, "Forgive the Birds."
Hayley Sabella may have the power to control the weather.
In early February, the Boston-area singer-songwriter released "Turn Around," a melodic folk-pop song that ponders New England's often seemingly endless winters. Since then, snow was falling as recently as the second week of April in the region, while a cold rain cascaded down upon (still undeterred) Boston Marathoners April 16.
Regardless of the potential perils of tempting temperatures, what's unquestionable is Sabella's songwriting skills and intimate vocal delivery, as evidenced on her second album, Forgive the Birds, a 10-song mix of affecting ballads and hook-heavy uptempo sing-alongs.
Ahead of the set's April 27 release, Sabella -- who played Boston's hallowed Passim folk club in early March -- chatted with Billboard about the album's backstory and offers a premiere of the LP's "joke-song"-turned-touching ninth track, "If I Reach."
First, so sorry to hear that you recently suffered a broken leg – hope you're beginning to feel better?
Thank you. I am feeling much better! The doc says I should be recovered enough to boogie at my album release party April 29, which is all I care about.
You've said that Forgive the Birds was a "long and slow process," and that producer Daniel Radin, of Boston band The Novel Ideas, helped encourage you to record it. I saw The Novel Ideas in concert recently and he said that he heard these songs, "Cape Cod," especially, and felt that they were so good that they had to be recorded. Why was the process of the album so measured, and how does it feel to be so close to release date?
I took my time with Forgive the Birds because I had these new songs that were different from [an earlier] batch, and they were the result of a lot of evolution as a writer. I needed time to allow my vision for how they should be produced to come up to speed, and to discover the best voice to serve these new songs.
Daniel was very helpful in this process. We would make demos of all the songs in a relaxed, low-key environment before we even hit the studio. That gave us plenty of time to sit with various ideas, throw paint at the wall and find out what sounds would stick.
[Engineer] Harris Paseltiner, from Darlingside, also fit in so nicely. He created the space for all of us to explore as much as we wanted to, and comb through each layer as meticulously as we needed to.
Those are a few reasons why I took my time, but there were also restrictions. I funded the production – tracking, mixing, mastering – all by working a full-time insurance gig. It's difficult to move at a swift pace creatively while using most of your time and energy to save money.
Pursuing the lifestyle of a musician comes with built-in hardship. It certainly takes a toll on your finances, potentially your self-esteem, and it's just all-around easy to lose your balance. After the album was mastered, it took me about six months to find my stride and make moves, and I'm so glad I waited.
Any insights you can offer about the meaning of the album's title?
Forgive the Birds is from a line in the opening track. In context, the line is: "I pardon the fish who swim/ I forgive the birds that fly/ It's the people who walk around like me I can't seem to let go."
I was processing some pain at the time, and thinking about how I make exceptions for people when they have a totally different way of moving in the world. I find it harder to cope when you relate to someone who causes you pain. Not only is it a violation of trust, but it also makes you wonder if you're capable of hurting others in that same way. It's like holding up a mirror, and seeing flaws in your reflection.
The rest of the song is a case for mercy. We all need it at some point or another, and reacting to pain by hardening yourself and growing bitter will hurt you more than it will hurt anyone else: "Who are you but a traveler like me / we could burn the place down, but I'd rather wait and see."
While we wait for springtime to emerge fully, what can you share about the album's first track released, "Turn Around"?
"Turn Around" speaks to those cold, wet, windy weeks when you start to doubt mild temperatures will ever come back to New England. It pleads with the New England weather gods to tilt the world's axis and move from winter to spring, begging that they cause the ground to thaw and reveal the "life locked up under the frozen mounds."
I became especially sensitive to seasonal changes while working as a farmer. It fostered in me a strong attachment to the landscape, recognizing it as something continuously evolving. Seasons are very conducive to the rhythms of the creative process. They have taught me that there is space for both pauses and my hardest try.
I'm realizing now that perhaps it is those rhythms that taught me to take my time with this record. Some plants take longer than others to grow, and it's okay to be patient. That attitude may be contrary to what our fast-paced, productivity-addicted culture teaches us, but some things are just worth waiting for; you will thank yourself if you avoid the temptation to harvest before your crop is ripe.
Daniel Radin also told me (as I kept asking him about the album …) that "If I Reach," the song we're premiering, mirrors the evolution of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" in that it was originally written as an uptempo song but was ultimately recorded as a ballad. Why did you decide to rework "Reach" the same way?
I presented "If I Reach" as an upbeat, quickly finger-picked, joke-song. I was on the fence about even showing it to Daniel. The only thing that I even liked about it was one particular guitar voicing. Upon hearing it, Daniel recommended we slow down the tempo, and move it from guitar to pump organ. Immediately, it transitioned from being a lighthearted, sarcastic country tune to a devastating, lilting ballad. We both happen to be partial to music of the devastating variety, so we stuck with it.
The previous arrangement allowed me to handle the topic of the song with distance. As we tracked the final vocals, I decided to bravely lean in close; I wanted to make use of the new emotional footholds we had carved into the song. It was almost there, but I kept stumbling on one line – a timing issue – and my brain was just not cooperating. We ran it again and again, and amid all the frustration, I started to fall apart, which took me completely by surprise. It was really humbling to be working with a song that made me lose control.
As you mentioned, that's a similar process that Bonnie Raitt went through, moving from fast to slow, as her producer suggested. It flatters me to no end to think I have anything in common with her or that song, although, admittedly, the two sound nothing alike.
How did the "If I Reach" video originate?
The vision for it came about when Kenna Hynes and I met by chance. Her band, Blue Ranger, was added last-minute to a show I was also playing in Troy, New York, and we hit it off right away. Upon finding out that she makes videos, we exchanged information, and it all fell into place.
It was her idea to highlight the cheeky aspect of the lyrics. Sonically, I leaned in to the more self-serious, sincere aspects of the song. But when drama and sincerity are met with more drama and sincerity, a project can have the tendency to become too heavy and collapse inward. So, visually, we decided to show a person lifting out of the all-too-common narrative that a single person is incomplete. We accomplished this by showing somebody [Allison Akeley], who happens to be my best friend, in an elaborate display of self-love.
As Kenna puts it, "This is a pretty dramatic song with a dramatic narrative, but it also takes place after the fact, with a hint of reflectiveness to it, and strength from having gotten through it. The woman in the song is able to look back with a bit of cheekiness, with a feeling of, 'You can't bring me down.' "
In concert, you cover Fleetwood Mac's "Everywhere." Late-'80s-era Fleetwood Mac, and that song, doesn't often get the spotlight that the band's '70s classics do. Why do you like to perform that song live? Does it speak to your talent for melody?
I am a sucker for a well-constructed pop song. "Everywhere" is pop music at its best. It totally doesn't get the same attention as the songs from their earlier catalog, but whenever that song comes on, it just makes me feel good. For a sad-music junkie like me, I need these kinds of songs as palate cleansers in my aural diet.
Lyrically, it frames falling in love with giddiness, but also with a degree of anxiety and discomfort. "Something's happening, happening to me / My friends say I'm acting peculiarly / Come along, baby, you better make a start / You better make it soon before you break my heart." She doesn't want to have these feelings, but they're happening to her anyways, and she's struggling with losing control.
As sweet as the sentiment is, "I want to be with you everywhere" is more of a nervous confession than a bold proclamation. I love that. It's very human, very believable.
Overall, how do you write? Do you sit down to write and/or does inspiration hit you randomly? And how do you know when you've written a song that's the next great addition to your catalog?
I'd say I'm a combination writer. Sometimes inspiration strikes, and I wake up dreaming of a new song. Other times, I show up with my guitar and a pad of paper, and just do it, even if I'm not in the mood, because you don't get better at writing by not writing. The results for each approach are mixed, but I love engaging with the mystery of what makes a good song. I love that every time I try to pin down a characteristic that is concrete and consistent, something new gets revealed to me.
I write more when I have access to a space with beautiful acoustics; I write more when I have alone time; I tend to feel more inspired if I'm reading a great book, but nothing is a guarantee. I feel as though most writers struggle with wondering if they're ever going to write anything worthwhile ever again, and I'm no exception.
As far as judging whether or not a song will stick, I honestly rely on the reactions of other people. Sometimes a song is satisfying to play, sometimes it's fun to listen to, and, if you're lucky, the two will cross.
Bonus question: "If I Reach" has such an insightful, descriptive lyric, about love: "Some people have it down like the steps of a dance / Sure-footed as a mountain goat, tracking down their romance." Do you remember the origin of that line? There aren't too many (any?) mountain goats in New England, are there?
Sadly, New England is not a habitat for mountain goats. I have witnessed sure-footed climbing goats elsewhere, but I'm ashamed to admit that I don't even know what kind those goats were.
I suppose the line you referenced came from a place of comparison. I felt like other people had skills I was missing, like the ability to scale walls like a mountain goat, or dance gracefully and commit to a relationship as if they had access to an ingredient that I was missing – perhaps better self-esteem or adequate footwear.