Since the Greenwich Village folkies put the aesthetics of beat literature to music in the early ‘60s, a cavalcade of singer-songwriter successors has followed. Stylistically, little has changed. Limiting oneself to guitar and voice challenges as much as it rewards, which is why so many who follow that path languish, and the ones that succeed become icons.
While the formula doesn’t change, the times and the listener do. Everyone needs to hear themselves in music, and while a millennial could relate to Dylan and Mitchell, every generation needs one of its own. One who relates the same existential and personal worries as all writers have, but who experiences such worries in these modern times.
At Martyrs’ on Thursday night, Haley Heynderickx brought those timeless consternations, sharing them with a group of people desperate for commiseration. She expressed doubt and joy, reminding the crowd that it is a thin line which separates the two.
Heynderickx’s only album, I Need to Start a Garden, dropped in March through Mama Bird Recording Co. It is a sparse but overwhelming record, captivating in the sense that when it’s playing there is nothing one can do but listen. Since then she has been on tour with fellow Portlanders Denzel Mendoza, Phillip Rogers and Lily Breshears, a group that has maintained easy camaraderie and genuine friendship while spending most of the last four months in a van—no easy task.
Mendoza played a trombone and Breshears a keyboard, with Rogers behind the drums. The unfamiliar horn addition and absence of a bass bolstered Heynderickx’s songs, many of which were recorded without additional instrumentation beyond guitar.
The crowd was large, though not big enough to make moving around impossible. The audience was comfortable, which the band encouraged, chatting idly with each other and the crowd as Heynderickx alternated guitar tunings by the song.
It was a show of vacillating emotions. Along with older folk singers, her style has a father in Nick Drake, the writer of brutally bleak yet lovely songs. Heynderickx’s work doesn’t fixate as much on darkness, instead focusing on the dual nature of life in which bleakness is unavoidable, but is never far from beauty.
She wasn’t apprehensive about either side of the coin. She introduced “Drinking Song” as being about “drinking…but also about how we’re all going die,” and chuckled. It was a moment typical of a show preoccupied with balance. That morbid reminder was compounded by the beauty of Heynderickx’s voice and writing, a give and take on a night when beauty won out.
The set leaned heavily on “Garden,” including “The Bug Collector,” an eerie tune that tells of removing unwanted insects to assure someone that “nothing’s out to get you.” “Oom Sha La La,” a song which got some play on college and independent radio, is an homage to ‘60s pop—an infectious chorus, divided by derision of spoiled milk and an existence that is “essentially a comedy.” She waded into religious territory on “Untitled God Song,” and got a breakup off her chest in “Show You a Body.”
Gardening is a meditative hobby, and Heynderickx’s music expresses a search for something as pure and natural. The act of that search in 2018, when earnesty is sneered at by our collective cynicism, is an unfamiliar and desperately needed activity. When the whirlwind of existence becomes impossible to put into words, hearing someone with the eloquence of Heynderickx express the same problem can be the vessel that breaks through the bullshit. Heynderickx and her band’s live show was an moment of recovery, a reminder that the reason to start a garden isn’t the bloom or death of the flower, but its growth.