Based in Toronto, Ontario, actress and singer-songwriter, Haley Midgette has just released her debut EP, Carlaw Ave.. A storyteller from a young age, it seemed only a matter of time before the Canadian-born artist would find her way either onto the big screen or a stage. Impressively, Haley has managed both, and with the EP now out, we grabbed a chat with Haley to find out more about her fascinating journey. Support Haley by purchasing her EP, Carlaw Ave.
Thanks for your time Haley, how is life treating you at the moment?
Haley Midgette: “Happy to spend the time! Life is treating me really well at the moment. Which feels really great to say, because, pandemic aside, 2020 was a really challenging year for me. It started off with a very jarring and painful life pivot, the kind where you find yourself back with your parents, crying while making watercolours of Rumi quotes, lovingly mocking your hilarious, albeit healthy, methods of coping.
But it ended with me releasing my first EP, setting up a new apartment, it’s pretty cozy, and feeling really grateful for the things I got to create this year. I’m looking back on 2020 as a year where I had a lot of space to reflect and really learn to love my alone time. Right now, I feel pretty full of that feeling.”
Can you tell us a little bit about your musical journey, Haley?
“I grew up in a house with a lot of singing, dancing, and music. We’ve got a lot of home videos of my siblings and me bobbing around to Bonnie Raitt and some truly embarrassing footage of my early living-room performances of Cats The Musical (yes, I like Cats). As long as I can remember, music has always been closely linked to self-expression and a feeling of connection with other people. My favourite songs feel like a window into someone’s heart. I started playing piano when I was around eight, began learning the flute at school in grade four, and eventually started with guitar when I was 16. Singing was only something I did behind the scenes, it just felt too vulnerable.
Throughout school, I was a pretty shy kid with a secret dramatic flare that only came out with close friends and family. I think a lot of artists can probably relate to that. For me, music performance was limited to my high school’s band, which I loved. But in grade 11, I finally worked up the courage to audition for the school’s production of Anything Goes and ended up with a sizable role. Despite what the ‘90s high school comedies I was raised on would have you think, this experience didn’t catalyze a rapid transformation from shy caterpillar to confident, artistically mature, butterfly. It did, however, leave me with a big love for Cole Porter and a really important way into music performance: hiding behind a character.
I began to shed this need to hide behind a character (it’s been a journey) in my final year of high school, which is when I first started performing original songs. I wasn’t brave enough to introduce them as such, but it was still a big win.
In university, I studied classical voice at McMaster University (located in Hamilton, Ontario), but spent more time in rehearsals with the university’s musical theatre troupe (McMaster Musical Theatre), than I did practicing my actual repertoire. Understandably, not all my professors were terribly supportive of this, but my voice instructor, Richard Cunningham recognized how it lit me up. He even suggested I include a Sondheim piece in my graduation recital.
The downside to this laissez-faire approach to my studies was that it, ironically coupled with my tendency to overthink things, did not result in my feeling like a master-of-all-genres vocalist. Instead, I kind of felt like an uptight but mediocre and disingenuous ballerina trying to get out of her head long enough to dance hip hop like she knows she can. By the time I graduated university, I had worked myself to a place where, outside of the classical realm, my singing felt increasingly tentative.
It took me a long time to shake off that stuck feeling, and in some ways I’m still working back to a place where I feel as free in my singing as I did in high school. In my mid-20s, my singer-songwriter stuff took over as my main musical focus. It gave me a place to start to find my voice again, no character required. That involved a lot of just allowing myself to do it badly, sound unpretty, take risks. And here we are in 2020, a year that’s really given me ample space to continue with that work.”
That journey has brought you to the release of your new EP, Carlaw Ave. What can you tell us about the EP?
“It has! Carlaw Ave. is the first EP I’ve recorded, but not the first I’ve written. The songs I wrote in my early 20s tended to be about romantic relationships. Carlaw Ave., on the other hand, is all about my relationship with myself and my family. And I think it was only after writing these songs that I found the freedom to make recording my music a serious priority.”
You describe the EP as exploring tensions between the ties that bind, our perceived obligations, and what we really want. Can you expand on those themes a bit?
“Definitely. The EP is bookended with two songs about my paternal grandfather, a man I saw about once a year from the ages zero to 26, but who had a significant impact on me. I wrote the bulk of Old Man by The Sea the day I learned that he had passed away. The bridge I added in later, some time after returning from attending his funeral in North Carolina. My grandfather’s death hit me as grief for my own loss, but also grief for my dad’s loss. The song is an expression of gratitude for, and a reflection on, that which is passed from one generation to the next.
‘Now That I Know This,’ which when I’m in a critical mindset hits me like an angsty teenage lament, puts to words how I struggled with some of the other things that were passed on, what felt to me like looming expectations and a ‘proper’ code of living. Essentially, I had a long list of ‘shoulds’ in my brain, and in holding myself accountable to these perceived obligations, I created a lot of trouble for myself. Ultimately, my grandfather and I had similar values, and my wants didn’t exist at odds with his or my own, but we are very different people, and we lived out those values in very different ways.
The three tracks in the middle are my attempts to find meaning, growth, and possibility in the confusion, anxiety, pain, and joys of my mid-to-late-20s. I was beginning to realize I didn’t owe anything to anyone after all, and while freeing, it was also hard to accept, really believe, and move forward with: ‘now that I know this, what should I do?.’”
Looking back to your childhood, what was your dream?
“In grade six, my favourite thing in the world was writing stories. But the practical side of me determined I’d be a lawyer. If you had asked me at any age before that, I don’t know what I would have said, but I probably would have replied with a British accent and melodramatic air.”
What is your favourite memory of your childhood?
“My favourite childhood memory is more a montage of feelings. The feeling of Christmas-in-summer as we piled into our Chrysler minivan at 5 am to make the 14-hour drive to Emerald Isle, North Carolina. The excitement of traveling to a magically familiar, but decidedly other, world. A sense of safety and timelessness, running along the Atlantic shore.”
Can you tell us a bit about the title of the EP, Carlaw Ave. Does the street hold some specific importance to you?
“It’s a pretty lazy title, really. But I liked it for that reason. It’s the (Toronto) street I lived on when I wrote most of the album. I really came into my own while living there. So much of the EP is tied to my American family and my unofficial second home in North Carolina. It felt balanced to name it after a place in Toronto.”
As well as a singer-songwriter, can you tell us about your acting?
“For sure, thanks for asking. I mentioned I entered acting through musical theatre, but as of late, I’ve been in the film and commercial world. I’ve been lucky to have a fairly busy year despite COVID-19.
It included a few short films that are coming out in 2021: Amidst, Astroman, and Heavy Petting, which was funded by the Ontario Arts Council. I really love doing indie shorts, and with these three films, I was lucky to get to play a wide range of characters, and collaborate with some talented and passionate actors and directors.
Next year will also see the release of A Song for Us, which is my first lead in a feature film! This was a rare opportunity where acting and music collided for me. Actually, my childhood dream to be British, too. I play a folk singer who migrates to Toronto in the 1960s, settling in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood. I wrote a few songs for the film, got to learn about the Yorkville music scene from folks who were an active part of it, including director Peter Hitchcock and actor Keith McKie of The Kensington Market Band, who just had a song of his inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame earlier this year.”
Which gives you the bigger thrill, seeing your ideas come to life on screen or through music?
“Oh wow, I like this question a lot. The two experiences feel quite different to me, though in both the thrill comes from making something out of an authentic impulse and the vulnerability that requires.
As a film actor, you’re a small but important part of something bigger, and often you don’t have a ton of control in the final outcome, other than being present and giving a truthful performance. And don’t get me wrong, that’s a powerful role to have! But it’s still an exercise in surrender, and I honestly really love that about it. There is the initial thrill of having an authentic exchange with your scene partner(s), or sometimes just yourself, and then the final thrill of seeing how the world and story you all created together came to life. Ultimately, you’re there to bring to life the vision of the director, and that’s really rewarding. My favourite experiences have been marked by collaboration and exploration, where it’s important to the director that you find an authentic way into the character.
With songwriting, you’re in the director’s chair. And for me, at least for this EP, you’re not diving into a character, but inviting listeners into your own inner world. There’s something so uniquely cool about dreaming up a sonic world and having it come to life. A big part of the thrill in that process is seeing how other people add to and transform it. Guillermo Subauste, who produced and engineered the EP took the lead on creating (and actually played) all the percussion, which is obviously a foundational element. I’m also so grateful to (trumpeter) Declan Scott, who took a melodic bit that had been repeating in my head and spun it into a playful trumpet solo for ‘No Show.’ Sonically, that’s my favourite part of the EP.
Maybe, right now, music’s the bigger thrill cause it feels a teensy bit more vulnerable.”
Going back to your childhood, what can you remember about the music or film that made the biggest impact on you as a child?
“If I’m being totally honest, Disney movies probably had the greatest impact on me growing up. Which is not a bad thing! It gave me a real love for character, great lyrics, and melody. Mary Poppins is one of my favourites to this day. ‘Oh, Bert’ is actually in part inspired by Dick Van Dyke’s character in the film.
I also remember being very drawn to lyrics. I can’t remember my postal code, but my brain is an encyclopedia of song lyrics from my childhood. And I think my parents had a real appreciation for great lyrics as well. I remember listening to a lot of Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, and Leonard Cohen as a kid. Leonard Cohen remains my favourite.”
Going forward then, what are your ambitions as a songwriter and an actress?
“As a songwriter, I’d like to put something out, either an EP or LP, every year moving forward. As an actor who, at least at present, is not looking to produce her own stuff, I have a little less control. But I’m confident there’ll be some cool opportunities.”
Now the EP is out, how do you plan to promote it?
“That’s a really good question. Help me! I’m kidding, but I’m being honest when I say the process of promoting your music is about one thousand times more difficult than creating it, at least for me as a novice.
Social media has never been a point of focus for me, but I’m trying to embrace it as a necessary tool and find ways to promote my music that feel authentic to me. Typically, my initial impulses are dorky and terribly unscalable: I’m writing a personalized limerick for all the folks that bought my album on Bandcamp, or pinged me to say they’ve followed me on Spotify, etc..
I’ve also got a music video concept for ‘No Show,’ which reimagines the muse as our true self, the creative, passionate force within us that often exists at odds with convention. I’m excited to bring that to life.
And, it’s a ways off, I know, but I’m really looking forward to doing live shows. My music is really personal, and I love sharing it with people in intimate settings. It’s an exercise in vulnerability and the actor in me really enjoys it. But, I’ve got some ideas percolating on how to translate that experience for our current virtual world.”
Thanks for your time and good luck with everything. Just to finish, what does 2021 hold in store for you?
“Thanks, I appreciate that. And in 2021, I’ll be releasing another EP! It’s a collection of songs I wrote in my late teens to mid-20s, and it’s going to have a more experimental sound. And involve bigger risks, vocally.”