At the photoshoot, Hayley Jordanna opens up a black garbage bag and lays out her outfits on the floor. One by one, she pulls a few choice options that catered to her style.
Her silky green robe complemented a canary yellow halter top, while her blueberry satin bomber jacket matched a crushed velvet ensemble. As for her cherry red tracksuit, that could only be worn with her white FILA sneakers.
The Chicago singer-songwriter – who performs under her last name – made it clear these items were essential to her overall brand, a healthy balance between being fun and flirty. In fact, her Twitter bio – which reads like a smooth pickup line – perfectly sums up her persona: “just tryna make u feel sexy and liberated.”
Jordanna lugged this bag with her to an apartment in Forest Park, the last stop on the Blue Line. She would rather “look like a grandma on the train” than take the chance of forgetting something.
She comes to the set with her makeup already done: a swipe of red lipstick, a little blue liner around the eyes and a touch of mascara. Her large silver hoops, thin gold chain, and flashy rings play accessory to her larger-than-life personality.
“I’ve let myself dress a certain way and be confident,” she says. “I don’t have to deal with people looking at me a certain way, like I can tell people to ‘fuck off’. Like I definitely dress like sexy, and it is for myself all the time. I’ve had friends be like, ‘Really? You’re going to wear that?’ And I’m like, ‘Hell yeah, like I feel good. I feel so good.’”
I started following Jordanna on social media way before this shoot. Her online presence isn’t plagued by selfies or stained by self-loathing. More often than not, she keeps it real, spilling parts of her past and sealing posts with a double-heart or sunflower emoji.
In photos, Jordanna tells a similar story. While her go-to pose is a masterful side-eye and a smirk, she yearns for the moments where she can stretch her arms out wide, twirl in a dress or sink into a wicker chair.
There’s something charming about the not-so-polished Jordanna that appears during the wee hours of the night. She comes alive through a series of Instagram stories, mostly fighting creative slumps in her blue bathrobe, with her hair tied up and her guitar slung over her shoulder.
Jordanna tells me that this version of her – someone who is honest and open – didn’t exist a couple years ago.
Back then, she was committed to converting her curly locks into a straight strands. Her razor-sharp bangs and dark attire locked into a lock that read “don’t come any closer.”
She dove head first into Chicago’s punk scene and created Glamour Hotline, a three-piece band built on the back of riot grrrl culture. Jordanna explains she absorbed a “form of punk that was like ‘don’t touch me’, like ‘this is my body.’ It was never ‘I love my body. My body is beautiful.’ It was just like ‘don’t touch me.’”
It’s hard to imagine this side of her, especially as I watch her settle into a ballet pose in front of the white backdrop during outtakes, exposing another version of herself that existed even way before her punk phase.
And it becomes even more difficult to picture Jordanna as someone who was so closed off.
In between shots, she and I would curl up on the opposite ends of the couch and trade hair care and self-care routines. We’d trail off into a conversation on vintage fashion or Disney pop princesses like Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato or Selena Gomez.
“The music was extremely angry,” she says of Glamour Hotline. “I mean, it took a toll on me. … When I play the music, there’s no separation between me, the music [and] me, the musician. It’s just me.
“So, I became a very angry person and couldn’t accept love or vulnerability because I thought that would make me look weak, and the whole point of the band was for me to be strong and stand up for everybody and not let anything go. But you can’t live like that. I think, maybe, if I had stuck around, we could have maybe made kind of a division between [the] music and me, but I don’t think that that’s how I’d work. I don’t work that way. So, the band ended.”
Each outfit change leads Jordanna into another confessional. She could no longer hide behind the bold prints.
Jordanna is a Jewish girl who grew up in Philadelphia and was raised by a single mom. She danced ballet at a pre-professional company up until she was 15, realizing she was too short and “definitely curvaceous and that was just not happening.”
She moved to Chicago four years ago for college and hasn’t looked back since. She goes as far to say that she feels like she’s from Chicago; only when pressed does she admit to still having pride for her East Coast roots. She’s also got a habit for ending nearly every serious note with a little laugh.
“It’s scary to admit to say, ‘No, I’m not OK,’ and ultimately, that’s something else that I’ve been very afraid of doing in fear of looking weak. And so, every Jordanna song I write, every performance is like I make a point of being the most honest and vulnerable onstage to show I can be a strong, powerful woman and also want to be taken care of, and want somebody to like hug me at the end of the day and say, ‘It’s going to be OK.’”
Leaving Glamour Hotline behind forced Jordanna to cast a spotlight on herself. She “entered a great depression” and started to write about “being hurt, about being in love [and] being in love with somebody who doesn’t love you back.”
Slowly, a new Jordanna emerged, and her voice was just as loud and as bold as her fabric selections.
“My first performances as Jordanna were by myself and a looper pedal, and I would create guitar loops and sing over them. I would do kind of performance art – like I would get up and do movements – which goes back to my roots of dance and music. I would do movements corresponding with the loops, ask the audience questions like, ‘What’s the most important thing in your life right now?’ I just wanted us all to create a space together, like audience and performer, that was vulnerable for all of us, that we could feel safe in.”
Jordanna started to accept herself, and she grew into the limelight as a solo artist. Last October, she released, “Lucky For You,” a teaser for her recently released EP Sweet Tooth. At that point, Jordanna shed her punk skin and coated herself in R&B swag, embracing her sultry vibes and sassiness.
What she didn’t expect was the backlash that came when she swapped identities.
“I actually lost a lot of relationships when I made that shift,” she says. “There were certain people in the punk scene, who did not get on board with me deciding to write about love and wanting to be loved and wanting to be taken care of.
“A lot of people were not receptive to that and thought I was kind of selling out, which was a bummer. And still to this day, they still don’t come to the shows. It’s like, ‘Wow. I’m still the same person. I still have the same beliefs, but I’ve opened up.’”
I’d like to think that if the old Jordanna had experienced something like this, she would have easily gave the finger to the haters and stormed out.
But this version of her needed love. So, she leaned on Etta James, Solange and Kali Uchis and curled up next to SZA. She turned to Kehlani to heal her heartbreak and clung onto Beyonce for lessons on femininity and empowerment.
“If you want to be a strong woman in the industry, I think there’s a lot of stigma and admitting to being in love or being hurt, and as soon as you admit to those things, you’re no longer like a powerful bad bitch or whatever. But that’s not true. … Being vulnerable, for me, meant admitting to those things, and that absolutely doesn’t make you weak or less. It means you’re even stronger, and you can feel those things and be independent, but also, it’s OK to want somebody to love you, you know. For a long time, I was stuck in a feminist brain that was like, ‘I don’t need anybody.’ That’s not how it has to be.”
The more Jordanna surrounded herself with positivity – whether that’s meditating in the morning or filling her newsfeed with influential role models – the more she became comfortable with herself, as an artist and an individual.
The very last track of Sweet Tooth, titled “Outro”, is a ballad and brings Jordanna’s journey full circle.
Her quivering voice stretches over the soft sound of a piano. She sounds exhausted, almost like she’s been up all night on the phone, fearing what could be the end: “Don’t break my heart / Don’t leave me behind / Don’t tell me you’re gone / I thought you were mine.”
For more: Catch Jordanna at Candyland this Saturday, Feb. 17, at Rutcorp. Candyland is a showcase featuring women and non-binary artists from Chicago. Tickets are still on sale.