While we recently interviewed singer Heather Valley on the debut EP release from her alt–rock band Another Crush, the story of the singer and songwriter's journey to Hamilton and to even making music goes much deeper than the average rock band. Valley would form the band while simultaneously continuing her work as a solo artist and this weekend offers up her debut solo full-length Desert Message.
“The Heather Valley project has existed ever since I picked up a guitar but I’ve officially focused my life on music to make it as a career for the last two years,” confides Valley.
The story of her debut album really is the story of Valley’s life — at least the last couple of years — the full details of which she is prepared to discuss however difficult to tell perhaps finding solace, comfort or catharsis in some way. Heather Valley would have different focuses on her life all the while searching for joy — and that journey has found that joy comes from making music.
“The whole story of how I began does provide some context for where this record came from and the shift that I made in my life from something very not related to music to going all in on music,” concurs Valley. “Looking back over my life, I continuously chose paths that I thought would make other people happy so this is probably the third life I’ve had. I was a national level cross country skier in high school in the top ten in Canada. But it wasn’t enough to make the olympics, but I got a guitar at a pawn shop and taught myself to play when I went to university. I was shy and my music would stay in my bedroom mostly through that phase of life because there was a strong focus on academics and I thought law school would be my life’s path.
“At the end of a three year process and articling, I started working in civil litigation in Brantford and I was working every waking hour of my life,” continues Valley. “I thought I had done everything I needed to do to be happy and I wasn’t. I put a huge value on romantic love for happiness and after a few failed relationships, I had put some covers up on YouTube and this guy found me on my music page. I got this direct message and that’s how we struck up a friendship that very quickly turned into love. I thought it was fate but in retrospective I realized it was simply a love bombing, telling me everything I want to hear.”
The relationship was difficult and dark and the story wasn’t about love as much as it was about multiple lives, jail time and more tragic events.
“The first single from this album, “Lovejoy”, was about me going down to see him and all the hope that I had but what eventually ended with him getting arrested at the border,” says Valley. “The end result of it all was he went to jail for nine months and when he got out, he incessantly contacted me. I wanted to believe in true love but after he cheated I cut him out. I had this person create this perfect fantasy person for me and constantly told me he loved me, he broke my heart and he broke my brain. Whatever had happened with my snap, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Really, I didn’t leave law to become a musician, it was that in those initial weeks of trying to recover from this breakdown, the only thing that gave me any sense of purpose or joy was playing songs on my guitar.”
The skier cum lawyer cum songwriter’s journey to music fuels the subject matter on Desert Message in a theraputic way for both artist and audience.
“I was finally able to write the songs and perform because I took that time to look back over my life, take stock of the wrong paths I had taken and process the pain of my experience,” says Valley. “The album not only talks about this person but also things I needed to wrap my mind around in respect to my whole life. The record encapsulates where my head was at at that time. It does depict getting through this heartache but it also touches upon wider things in my life as well.
“When I started writing these songs, I was in a fairly safe place because the person that had such a negative effect on my life was in jail for a second time,” adds Valley. “I had a year or so where I could pick myself up. I had a break or at least I thought I did but then I started receiving letters from jail. I was in the studio recording with Another Crush and it was a lot of fun and I rediscovered a lot of other parts of myself that I hadn’t nurtured in law. Then December of last year, I started getting phone calls and I can’t tell you how strange it is to have the call display say ‘Inmate Call from Louisiana’. He’d send text messages and contact me on Facebook with different alias even after I blocked him. This continues into June and July of this year. In the midst of that darkness, I screwed up and responded to him for the first time in two years. The end result was I found out that he had married a girl that looked like me, went to the same school as me and even had the same name. This summer when he was reaching out to me and he told me he was still in love with me. But he had started a relationship with ‘the Other Heather’ and gotten married. The fact that I wasn’t given peace for years made it really difficult because I wish I could say these songs represent the healing process. They do to some extent but when I play the songs now, I do feel an element of the process but it continues to be a daily thing that I work with. It is a lot more recent than I ever would have wanted. I tell parts of the story when I play shows and the reality for me is that I spent a very long time in my life trying to project that I was wholly independent and an island without showing any weakness. The reality made it harder dealing with life. This story is so insane, I’m aware of that and it put me in a very dark place. I promised that I would be honest about my story and what I experienced. What has happened is that people come to me with their vulnerabilities. It's an affirmation that what I experienced was real and taking back power from one specific person from a year long personal torture at the hand of someone who said they loved you.”
The story is ongoing and the struggle for Valley is daily but one she seems equipped to take on. With a collection of winsome roots and pop songs in an alt–country style, Valley bares all on Desert Message reflecting on her own darkness but perhaps offering it to provide hope for listeners.
“Art and music is everything for me and I find the greatest joy in creating as Another Crush or Heather Valley or even the photographic projects I’m in,” explains Valley. “There is a huge part of me that is positive and excited that rocks out with Another Crush. That person shows up at Heather Valley shows but there is another shade of my personality that deals with darkness and it’s all bound up in one that isn’t easy to break apart from one another. I make sad songs as Heather Valley and I rock out to different sad songs with Another Crush. They both come from the same life experience. You can take power over dark subjects by harnessing it in that way with a four piece rock band and getting crazy and bringing people to that same energy level. Whereas with Heather Valley, when I’m singing those songs, which tell stories in a deeper way focusing on the lyric and vocal melody, I’m able to connect with in more of a poetic and intimate sense even though they come from the same experience. The Americana genre is probably take most influence — from Jason Molina’s work with Songs:Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. to Cat Power, Wilco, Richard Buckner, Gillian Welch — it’s a mixture of country, alt–country and indie. Art comes form a human place that is so multifaceted there is not just one Heather Valley.
“But these songs felt like dispatches from the desert,” adds Valley on the album title. “The journey I went through was an isolating one for five years before I quit my job and refocused my life. These songs come from the precipice where I looked back at all the decisions I made and where they’d gotten me. Each song seems like from that desert valley space so they’re all desert messages to me.”
While she’s entrenched herself in the local scene over the last two years, Valley has fostered her connections across Ontario and will be doing a release tour for Desert Message. The shows will reflect the songs and her musical intent.
“I’ve tried to call it a quiet show not because it’s going to be super quiet music throughout but because all of the artists on the bill are very thoughtful, singer songwriters at the core,” says Valley on this Sunday’s Casbah release party. “They don’t just make music, they make music with the intention of being listened to in a certain context and that’s what I’m trying to cultivate with this show. I’m hoping the crowd that comes is ready to really connect on a deep level with what’s being said and with what’s being shared with them.
“My own performance will include solo and with a full band which is a first for me with a band,” adds Valley. “I’ll be giving more of a background that links the songs and telling them more in a narrative way. I'm really excited to share these songs in a bit more of a story telling context. My overarching mantra since I’ve focused my life on music has been — when I’ve experienced the darkest nights for me, I turned to the songs I was attracted to to feel like I wasn’t alone. When I heard someone singing in a way that connected with my heart, I felt someone else got it as I did and I wanted to do that for other people. If I’m writing something that I’m being touched by in the same way that some of my musical influences have touched me, then my hope is my honesty will connect with other people.”
Heather Valley plays this Sunday November 24 at the Casbah with Jacob Bihun, Brennagh Burns Band, and CQ (formerly Cosmos Quartette). Doors open at 8 pm and tickets are $10 in advance
or $15 at the door. Click on heathervalleymusic.com