Halie Loren: Butterfly Soaring

R.J. DeLuke By

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Its hard to categorize Halie Loren—for those who feel the need to do so—a singer/songwriter who started performing at age 10 in her native state of Alaska and now, from her home in Oregon, tours jazz clubs and jazz events on a regular basis in different parts of the world and regales audiences with her light, supple and sensual voice.

She's unconcerned with categorization. Loren enjoys singing one of the great standards created before her time, that she listened to on records at home as a girl, on par with presenting her own thoughts and feelings through her original music. Both are presented in a personal style with twists and turns of phrase or melody. Her voice is joyful, but she can portray longing, introspection, discovery.

Loren, an artist through and through, enjoys getting lost in the world of writing. It's all part of the voyage that she has so much of ahead of her.

"The thing about songwriting that I love," she says, "is bringing something entirely new into the world. The blessing and the curse of it. Because there are times when it feels impossible to find the right way to communicate what it is I have churning inside my mind. But there's a feeling of ultimate victory when it's found."

Her new album, Butterfly Blue, is her eighth, including one live recording. They have continued to show over time her progression as an artist. The standards, like Horace Silver's "Peace"—which she gives a sweet new lyric—and "I've Got You Under My Skin," her take away from the usual version. Her vocal and creative abilities call attention in new ways. And there are also new tunes, like the bright "Yellow Bird" and "Butterfly" that move away from jazz, but can be felt just as strongly, musically and lyrically. One could envision Billie Holiday in a smoke-filled nightclub intoning Loren's "Danger of Loving You."

"It's a tension-release kind of exercise," Loren says of her writing. "I have a tendency to overthink a lot. For me, writing is this wonderful way to go all out. I overthink and I overthink and I overthink. It totally satisfies that part of my personality. Whereas in performance, I have to shed that. That's the counterbalance. I can't overthink. Because if i do, that's when you've lost. [laughs] That's what hangs you up as a performer. So it's interesting that I get to satisfy both elements of that artistic battle."

Loren doesn't really place writing in front of performance. It's part of the complete picture of who she is as an artist. She has performed for two-thirds of her life.

"I love so many parts about that experience. I love the spontaneity of it. I love connecting with an audience," she says, noting that as a girl she would be terrified in front of an audience at times. "But now that I've done it for so much of my life, it's like a conversation. The whole show. I love people. So being able to connect musically and just be myself on stage with people who are there to experience that, it's a very fun and beautiful thing. Every single performance is different. Both on the front of the way we do the songs, because with jazz there's that license to interpret things differently every time, which I love. That's one of my favorite things about jazz. And there's also the audience connection part. Every audience is different. Every venue is different. I love to experience the bounty of the human experience in a nutshell with these people I get to share with. The art of live performance is something I love. I love being able to be in my element for that concentrated period of time."

She adds, "I get really different things from both [performing and writing]. They are very different experiences. They're two sides of the same coin but they couldn't be farther apart as far as the way they take place in my life."

The new album is done with a small group including a longtime collaborator, pianist Matt Treder, and guitarist Daniel Gallo, who wrote a couple of the tunes. It was recorded in 2014 in portions, that were interrupted by touring, with most of the work done last fall. It was released in January, followed by a 10-day, 13-concert tour of Japan. She then came back and recorded "Yellow Bird" to add to the North American release. Loren has arrangements in her head when approaching the recording, but some are worked out at the session, going with what feels right.

"If I were really stuck on something [preconceived], some of the beautiful ideas that sort of pop out of the woodwork wouldn't happen. Some arrangements are organic. They have structure. The little details are left to see what happens in the moment. I love that. Some of the arrangements are more tightly constructed. A lot of the arrangements from my more jazz albums, including songs from Butterfly Blue, are a collaboration effort between myself and Matt Treder. We've worked together a long time, 15 years. A lot of the ideas, even sketches of arrangements, even if it's not a full-fledged notated arrangement—which is rare for us—a lot of them are things we work out as a vocal first, then get to where we like it to be."

She notes, "On Butterfly Blue there were a few I brought in as arrangements, but developed in the studio as well. It varies. There are a couple songs that are more bass-centric, we worked out on the fly with the bassist and created something that sounded like a constructed arrangement but was sort of last-minute inspiration on his part."

It rose to the Billboard #1 jazz album, the third time one her recordings achieved that status.

How people put things in musical genres "is an interesting dynamic," says Loren. "In my personal journey I've done all kinds of music as long as I can remember. It has all influenced what I do. I've listened to classic jazz artists, jazz vocalists. It was a huge part of my development both as a music fan and also as an artist. I think there are some things I do that can be considered well within the parameters of jazz. I don't really know what the parameters are, to be honest. I feel it when I hear it. But jazz in itself is such an expansive and expressive art form, it invites all kinds of influence from other forms of music. Some of my music is accurately categorized within the jazz realm and other parts of my music feels like its categorized that way because of the other thing. It's tricky. I consider myself a singer/songwriter foremost. Everything else is secondary to that. Whatever people classify it as is beside the point. I just love making the music that I make... That's their business, in a way. I do like a lot of different things that are genre classified as jazz. If there has to be a label on a lot of music that I make, I feel like that may be the most accurate for a lot of it. But a lot of it, in my new album in particular, forays into a sort of soulful pop jazz territory, where I'm not sure jazz is always at the forefront."

Her varied influences began seeping in as she grew up on the small island town Sitka, Alaska. The Great American Songbook was a companion and has never stopped influencing her.

"For one thing, it is has a wonderful nostalgic familiarity to me, because I grew up listening to so many of those songs. I connect those songs with a wonderful time in my life. Other songs I can so appreciate the richness of the writing. There's such a craftsmanship to the way they're written. They feel timeless, but really personal and intimate. They connect in a poetic and melodic way that so few things in however many decades," she says with a passionate glee. "It was an era of song that was so concentrated on the craftsmanship element. I love how there are so many different life experiences in a lot of those songs. The emotional content of them is, for me as a singer, really great to dig into. Often times there is humor included in a lot of the balladry, a lot of the more serious songs, that can really create these interesting twists you can put into it as a performer."

"For me, my greatest love is melody. There's just no better era of song in terms of incredible melody writing than when the American Songbook was written," she says. "I strive all the time to try to say something in as few words as possible," something she gets from the classic songwriters. "My instinct is to say more than the thing I want to say. But figuring out how to strip things down to the most essential element is a real art. And its incredibly challenging."

In Alaska, Loren was isolated in some ways from the experiences of most Americans. She listened to her mother's record collection, which included records from many jazz singers. "Etta James was one of my mom's favorites. I loved her. Patsy Cline I loved. I liked all these voices that I could emulate. I grew up mimicking the vocalizations of all these singers who were pretty awesome teachers."

There was one radio station in the town, but it did play a lot of jazz and blues. An older sister traveled to mainland U.S. and returned with songs played on pop music stations in the "Lower 48" states. "But most of my influence was what we had at home already. I'm really glad for that. When I got a little older I started developing my individual music taste a little more. I got into Annie Lennox and singer/songwriters who were starting to become popular around that time, like Sarah McLaughlin. Then I discovered Joni Mitchell through Sarah McLaughlin, because somebody very wise said 'If you like Sarah, you should definitely check out Joni Mitchell.' So that became a big thing for me."

As a child, she was frequently writing, but mostly short stories and poetry in the early years. "I didn't know how to express it through song. I think I was afraid to because, for one thing, I was raised on all these songs that were so impeccably crafted it just seemed impossible. It was only once I began to hear singer/songwriters of that day, the '90s, that I realized they don't have to be exactly like that. I had some room to create poetry to song and that's how it started. Applying some of the poems I'd already written to melodies. So it began"

By then she had moved to Oregon. She was 13 and writing songs, not stories. She hasn't stopped. She won awards including a Billboard World Song Contest honor at age 18, among others.
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