Hearing her classic voice for the first time, you can tell she has paved her own way; through the velvety hints of Motown and the bold romance of early jazz, the music of Hayley Sales breathes new life into the vintage sounds of the 1950s and 60s. An artist through and through, she has had to take the long way; carefully crafting her songs to match the unabashed honesty of a born performer. It’s as if you’re peering into the most intimate corners of her heart, unguarded. There’s an elegance to her that is hard to come by in 2021. You hear it immediately on her latest record, ‘Ricochet,’ the first she’s been allowed to release in a decade, and her most exposing, genuine collection of songs to date. As her voice introduces the opening piano chords of ‘Never Let You Go,’ you feel transported into a realm of timeless romance, emboldened by lessons in overcoming adversity. For Sales, ‘Ricochet’ was born from a mess of mishaps and searing heartbreaks that tested every fiber of her being. It took a long, long time to get here.
Sales was born into an incredibly artistic family in the heart of Washington D.C. Her mother a writer, an activist. Her father, an acclaimed musician and producer who ran GlassWing Studios out of the basement of their small, Victorian house. Sales would sit for hours on the mixer, letting the R&B beats and soul melodies rock her to sleep. “Once I was able to talk, I couldn’t stop singing. I spent hours running around outside, escaping evil witches and saving princesses, serenading the trees,” Sales laughs. Before turning three, the whole family including her paralyzed grandmother, packed their belongings into a van and moved across the country to Portland, Oregon where Sales quickly dove into theatre, dance, and piano lessons. “I was a shy kid, but the second the stages lights were on, every inch of panic dissolved. I fell in love with it,” she says.
When a childhood friend played her an old recording of Judy Garland, the flame burned even more fervently. It was love at first listen as an already alighted yearning to perform became her torch. “In many ways, I climbed into a time machine that day and didn’t resurface until I realized wearing my older brother’s green sweatpants and baggy t-shirts wasn’t the best way to go to the theater to watch Titanic. For the fourteenth time. While other kids my age grew up with the Simpsons, I grew up with Gene Kelly,” Sales remarks playfully. She was the kid who didn’t pay attention to the trends of the time. She’d fall in love with the boy next door and write him a book of sonnets, “I wish you could have seen his reaction,” she says, a contagious sense of humor lilting between the words. If Sales wasn’t rehearsing for a theatrical production, she was sitting at the upright piano practicing Gershwin, singing backup vocals on tour with a Hindu Saint from India, interviewing the Dalai Lama, performing at the WWII Ace Pilots convention at the Pentagon, singing at protests, stealing the role of Juliet in a college production, lying about her age so she could perform because she was only twelve. “In a lot of ways, I touched the bottom edges of being a child star without ever reaching the stardom. But I came just close enough to its glow that I managed to grab a lot of the baggage on my way out of adolescence.” By sixteen, Sales graduated with honors a year early from the prestigious performing arts school, The Northwest Academy, and reluctantly followed her parents on yet another move. This time to an organic blueberry farm on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
The move was a shock, and topographically the complete opposite direction of where she wanted to be heading. But she burrowed into the recording studio and began learning the technical side of music. Before the age of seventeen, she’d produced her first demo album, ‘First Flight.’ Following its completion, Sales moved to Los Angeles to pursue her music and acting career, raising the money by shoveling sawdust onto 670 blueberry bushes. After a series of close encounters with success, Sales lost her voice from an eating disorder and had to move back to the blueberry farm. “I couldn’t talk for a year. Couldn’t sing a note. My voice had been my confidence. My one passion and with it gone…” Sales admits with a shrug, then continues, “I had to dig deep to find a spark that could keep me going.” When her voice finally did return, though still quite damaged, she dove into the studio, completing a fifteen-song debut album, ‘Drifter,’ the record which ultimately led to her first major label deal. ‘Drifter’ reflected newer influences that Sales had picked up during a time when she wanted desperately to be happier. “When I lost my voice, there was a deep void. All the chinks in my armor were prodded open. It made me terrified of failure. And when you’re afraid to fail, you do what’s safe.” As a result, she focused on her lighter side and shelved her more dramatic and romantic nature. While on tour, Sales caught the attention of Universal Canada Music and signed with them, making two Top 40 LPs of similarly sun-drenched songs (‘Sunseed’, ‘When The Bird Became A Book’).
When it came to her third record, she wanted to re-introduce her emotionally hefty, piano driven songs, but Universal disagreed. So, she decided to go independent, using every last penny to produce her next record. After working on it for four years, Sales signed with Verve Music Group. Unfortunately, a week after she finished and delivered the masters, her label experienced an untimely turnover. ‘The Misadventures’ was never released. In addition to the heartbreak of losing her record deal, Universal refused to let her buy back the rights to her album. “When I lost it, the walls of my soul collapsed. I became an empty shell of a person...jaded and resentful,” she recalls as her eyes search the floor. To this day, “The Misadventures” remains lost in oblivion, shelved in the major label's archives, making the album title heartbreakingly apt and ironically accurate.
After two years and a pile of legal bills later, Sales gave up her battle for “The Misadventures.” As she let it go, a silver lining emerged out of the heap of devastation. “You see through the bullshit,” she says now, frankly. “I leaned into the muck of pain and fear and pulled out whatever tiny, dirty gems of inspiration I could find. Dusting off a chest of abandoned songs, I began shining up the ones that stirred my heart. I was determined. I had to record an album. I had to move forward. And this time I needed to do the record that I’d be happy to have as my last; a record that me and my 12-year-old, sonnet writing self would approve of. Whenever I became overwhelmed by hopelessness,” she pauses and says with a smile, “which was often, I turned to these tunes as medicine.”
Sales climbed out of her own misery and returned to the blueberry farm from Los Angeles. She headed into the studio and got to work spending every hour of the day recording and editing. “It didn’t come easily,” she laughs. “Letting go of my perfectionism was hard. My dad, co-producer and Santa Clause look alike, often looked like he was half asleep on the black leather couch in the control room. I’d finish singing a vocal, hate it, and have my pointer finger hovered over the delete button when all of a sudden, he’d yell ‘don’t delete,’ throwing a pencil or piece of paper my direction. I spent two months edited the entire album to a click track. Then I listened. It was perfect. I hated it. I undid every edit and started over without any edits. Keeping it live. Real. Avoiding my own instinct to cover up the imperfection. I battled my insecurity at every step. Many vocal takes had me on the edge of tears. But I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted each melody to battle hopelessness with romance; each lyric to combat apathy with determination; every instrument to resonate with the resilience of love; and every song to reflect the beauty in brokenness.” Any veneer is stripped bare here.
This is why the album title – 'Ricochet' – is so significant. It summarizes all that Sales has been through to get here. “When you throw a ricochet, it comes back and sometimes it come back with more power,” she says. “After decades of being told to find my voice, to change this or that about myself, I finally realized that I didn’t have to change anything,” she says. “My voice? Is my voice. Who I am? It’s who I am. My style? Is whatever I am moved to write, to sing, to wear. And even more importantly, I never needed to change anything or do anything to become myself. Because I am myself. I am fiery. I’m vulnerable. I’m confident. I’m broken. I’m hopeless and I’m hopeful. I am a woman. I am a girl. And above all else, I’m a romantic. And I’m not referring to romance solely in terms of falling in love. I’m talking about romance as a way of life. A way of seeing the world.”
If you need the inspiration to never surrender, 'Ricochet' is the record to do it, one crafted out of the ashes of setbacks. It is a masterful record because of that adversity. “Music has kept me alive,” she says.