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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.

Loren graduated high school at 17 and left for Nashville, bent on honing her writing skills. The town then was full of songwriters and she fell in with them. "I had some incredible experiences... I wrote with a long line of writers who had been making their living doing that for many years. Some of them had been exceptionally successful with all kinds of Grammys, people who wrote for Garth Brooks and had paid off the mortgage on their house," she says with a bright laugh. "Those Nashville success stories are pretty incredible sometimes."

"It was a great learning experience for me. In its own way, the writing that happened in Nashville that I was around was what I could imagine some of the Tin Pan Alley writing to be about, as far as experience. People being so concentrated on the craft of songwriting. It's a business. People make appointments and they have ideas and they bring all these ideas to woodshed, to see what sticks with the other co-writers and feeling what they can latch on to in that moment. It was amazing learning the process of how that works there. For me, someone who'd been writing in her bedroom for a short time. I'd only been writing for four years at that point. It was a great learning experience for me to see just how much attention to detail goes into the crafting of some of these songs that end up."

She formed friendships and writing collaborations still exist today.

"One very important figure in my life, someone I met there, was Larry Wayne Clark who I wrote numerous songs that ended up on my jazz albums," she recalls. "He and I wrote a ton of songs together. He was a huge fan of the American Songbook tradition and it showed in his writing. We connected over that. Unfortunately, he passed away two years ago. We have a big collection of songs I'm still trying to figure out ways to pull from and incorporate into what I do now."

After a few years, Loren returned to Oregon and went to college, but not for music. She had been performing professionally since age 14, and continued to do that in Oregon to help pay for school. She earned a degree in visual arts and has used it to create the artwork for her albums, as well as other graphic design work.

Back home, she was playing piano more. "I had this tenuous relationship with it, because there were piano lessons. I had always been someone who learns very quickly by ear. So piano was always frustrating for me. Teachers that I had off and on wanted me to read. I didn't want to read, I wanted to just hear it and play it and play around. I started to give myself permission to just do that: use it as an instrument of creation rather than emulation. That opened up a whole bunch of songs. they came to me within a year at the most. They all kind of walked in together."

In 2006, she had a collection of originals she decided to record, that became Full Circle. "That was my first foray into album making. It was a steep learning curve, but really satisfying. I was only 19 when I started recording an album. Considering it was totally do-it-yourself, with the help of a friend who knew a little bit more about production later on in the process. It was pretty cool to be able to just do that."

She's been recording steadily since, living in Eugene, Oregon, and occupying herself with west coast tours and forays elsewhere, her work receiving acclaim and drawing more and more fans. She says Portland and Eugene in her home state have strong arts communities.

Portland, considering its not a major city. It's a big city on Oregon's scale. It has a very eclectic and active music scene, for sure. It draws a lot of musicians. I think that's because there's something really attractive about Portland, and really Oregon in general. There are parts of Oregon that are very arts interested. Very accepting and supportive and appreciative of the arts. I think that kind of energy is great to be around. As an artist, it's nice to realize you have a place in this world. Not just in theory, but in your actual community," she says. "Eugene is smaller. For its size, it has a ridiculous number of musicians per capita. Its a thriving arts community with a lot of creative energy."

So in Oregon, she continues to compose songs and melodies. As a writer or poetry and stories, it used to be the lyrics would strike her imagination first. "I would often have to have an entire lyric before I would begin. I've definitely gone away from that now. I have tons of melodic ideas. Not only because of my many, many gigs performing and interpreting melodies on the fly, and improvising. But melodies are stacked up in droves, in my head and in my recorder. I have way more melodies in my trove than words that I could ever possibly come up with. So, I'm in a conundrum," she says chuckling. "I don't know what to do with all these melodies."

She tours Asia, Canada and the U.S. And has other things in development. "I have all of these songs I've been saving up for something a little different. I'm going to start digging into those more now and see what comes of that. I have a feeling that whatever project there is for me right around the bend is going to be quite a new phase for me, artistically. This most recent album, Butterfly Blue, dabbles in some elements I had long been wanting to do, but I hadn't taken the chance on yet. It's a bit of a left turn from where I've been. I think I've been really inspired by that. I think wherever that takes me will be the next step in that journey. But i don't know what it looks like and I won't know until I start getting there. I've got some songs I'm really excited to share with people."

Loren is also in a place vocally where her sound has moved away from influence and is her own. Emulating her favorites, and learning from that in years, are behind. Her phrasing and her presentation are seasoned. They move to unexpected places. It is Halie Loren's voice.

"The voice is the most personal of instruments. I know I've had a long line of influences, musically, that have been varied in their approach. But I feel like in the last five years I've come into my own voice in a way that I don't have to think about it. It just happens that way. It's the natural expression of where it wants to go. Now that I've done this for so long, I've finally come to a place in my life and in my music, where I can feel like what I am is what I'm meant to be," she says with confidence. "The way that I sing is the way I sing at this moment. I can change it later if I want to... but the overthinking thing is like this wall I've come up against at certain times in my life and in my creativity... just letting go and letting what happens naturally be OK is really interesting part of the more recent journey for me. The song becomes an experience rather than a crafted piece. It's like a conversation. You never know where it's going to go. And I like that."

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