From YouTube to songwriting, Haley Blais is creating her own creative world
The Vancouver-based pop artist says her professions often feel like 'two different people'
"Oh, it definitely feels like I'm screaming into the void."
In some ways, this can describe a myriad of things that Haley Blais does for a living: uploading YouTube videos of herself documenting her day-to-day life; crafting "bedroom pop" tunes from, well, her actual bedroom; performing and releasing said music online.
But on this summer afternoon, the Vancouver-based singer-songwriter is talking specifically about her debut full-length album, Below the Salt (out today), which is coming out in the middle of a worldwide pandemic where touring behind these new songs IRL is near impossible.
"The only concrete anchor I have to hold on to is the fact that the album is being released," Blais says, when asked about the immediate future. But she also tries to look on the bright side of things, often navigating life with a sense of humour, as she concedes, "I've been appreciating this government-issued time off," which has also allowed for her to move homes seamlessly and look ahead as she writes new songs while in lockdown.
"I used to brag that I couldn't finish a song if it took me longer than 20 minutes," she says of her once-speedy songwriting pace. But being forced to stay indoors has also helped her take her time when it comes to producing music. "In hindsight, that was just a bullshit cop-out of, like, not trying hard enough," she admits. "So now I'm trying to take my time and write over the course of a couple of months. It's been hard, but good. It's interesting to know that, when you take a break, there's still something there."
Part of that fast-paced mindset can be attributed to growing up in the age of the internet. The now 26-year-old (Below the Salt was released on her 26th birthday), who grew up on '70s dad-rock and took up classical music from the ages of eight to 18, first started posting videos on YouTube after graduating from high school, around 2013. As her classmates moved on to university, Blais says she "had nothing else to do." So, inspired by female comedians she'd watch on the platform such as Grace Helbig, Blais gave vlogging a shot.
Blais's early videos followed typical YouTube templates: monthly favourites, clothing hauls, impulsive hair dying adventures. Her quirky humour — a vivacious mix of Helbig and Greta Gerwig's Frances Ha — drew in thousands of viewers. "It was mostly for myself," she says, of her videos. "I just wanted to make it as authentic as possible. It's a safe space for me to be creative and weird."
Meanwhile, Blais had a second YouTube channel where she posted song covers. Some of her most popular posts have been a ukulele version of Beyoncé's "Halo" and an acoustic take of Sia's "Elastic Heart," where Blais builds layers of vocals using a recording software program.
Anytime I do anything on YouTube, I completely forget that I'm a musician. It feels like two different people.- Haley Blais, on balancing a YouTube and music career
A few years in, she merged both channels but for Blais, music and YouTube have often operated as separate jobs. Even though she says she wouldn't have a music career without the audience she built on YouTube (now closing in on 175,000 subscribers), promoting her music isn't a priority in her videos. "Anytime I do anything on YouTube, I completely forget I'm a musician," she admits. "It feels like two different people."
By 2016, Blais began putting out original music, first with her Late Bloomer EP, still utilizing the ukulele as her instrument of choice to deliver tender pop melodies over a quiet, folkier soundscape. In 2018, she followed up with another EP, Let Yourself Go. Music-wise, she turns to artists like Jenny Lewis, Phoebe Bridgers and Andy Shauf as inspirations, especially when it comes to their storytelling abilities.
Blais has learned to transform her storytelling into a more personal practice, with songs off Below the Salt being her most confessional yet. "It's an exercise in taking yourself more seriously," she argues, "and looking at your experiences through a wider lens and being like, it's OK that this happened. You can write about it."
On the '80s-inspired ballad "Firestarter," Blais opens up about taking accountability in a relationship ("I carefully conducted a plan to leave me faultless," she sings softly, before explosively belting it out in the climax). Elsewhere, she sings of FOMO (fear of missing out) in the prescient "On a Weekend." "Do what you wanna do/ without me there with you," she coos over a buoyant guitar riff. "That was a bit fateful," she says in retrospect. Denver indie-pop duo Tennis as well as Vancouver artist Louise Burns stepped in to produce songs on this album, creating what Blais says is a perfect blend of "'80s shoegaze grunge vibes and Carole King '70s folk rock — a dynamic of the darkness and the light."
Below the Salt is what Blais says is a coming-of-age account that "recognizes there is no real 'coming-of-age.'" And it's a sentiment that can be felt throughout all of Blais's work. From the self-documentation on YouTube, which has incorporated more aspects of her life as a musician such as the thick piles of paperwork that's required to tour the U.S. or packaging records for her fans, to the evolution of her music, viewers and fans have grown up with Blais over the course of the past seven years.
"Yeah, because all we can do is just keep growing," she says. "I don't think I'm going to stop at any point! I'm always learning and making mistakes."