BY PARKER KLYN
I could’ve sworn it was a harp. The deft string-plucking of Portland folk singer-songwriter Haley Heynderickx is heavenly, almost to the point that we can imagine her as an old-fashioned Greek painting of a woman with a lyre or an Egyptian carving of the town lutist.
In reality, the instrument is simple classical guitar, but it’s played with such elegance that the listener is transported to an Enlightenment tavern or a Rocky Mountain campground, depending on the song.
Heynderickx’s debut album, “I Need To Start A Garden,” is filled with moments of such intense beauty that it can be almost difficult to listen to. The instrumentals are spare, as Heynderickx finds power in the negative space between guitar and vocals.
She calls it doom folk, which is interesting, because I don’t hear much despondence or despair in her songs. I believe she gets that term from the fact that these songs aren’t here to necessarily comfort the listener with accessible chord progressions and sticky hooks; they are meant to challenge the listener with music that is meant to be focused on.
Opener “No Face” is a track with palpable vulnerability. “Face me entirely, tell me what’s wrong here,” Heynderickx pleads; she wonders if it’s the “bridge of her nose,” the “backs of her skin,” or the “pull of her hips” that’s causing a disconnect with someone she cares about. This cut, and many others on the album, are reminiscent of some of the more grounded moments in seminal singer-songwriter Bat For Lashes’ discography.
Others evoke early Bon Iver, with their mix of organic and synthetic instrumentation coupled with impressionistic, curious lyrics. “The Bug Collector” has these beautiful, tangible horn passages and rubbery string bass, and Heynderickx is deft with her songwriting on this track; blissful harmonies happen, but only for one word at a time (“morning,” “evening”). By resisting a potential urge to spread those harmonies out, the chorus becomes much more rewarding.
Heynderickx even deals with modern classical and ambient vocal music. “Show You a Body,” a particular highlight, glides along with ethereal piano arpeggios that remind me of recent Brian Eno. In contrast, “Untitled God Song” is very tangible and grounded; it sounds like Heynderickx is closing down a bar with her somber tale. It’s a bona fide torch song, complete with a pained instrumental breakdown reflecting her inner conflicts in trying to identify who her god really is.
Occasionally, the sparseness of the music makes engagement difficult. “Jo” meanders along with an almost emo-style guitar line, but it only really sticks when the bass and percussion is inserted into the mix. Album centerpiece “Worth It,” an eight-minute double track, took a few listens to really apply itself, especially after the up-tempo first half is replaced by a much more low-key instrumental passage that takes over five minutes to resolve itself.
It almost feels as if Heynderickx gains musical confidence as the album moves forward. Doo-wop throwback “Oom Sha La La” sticks out from her usual composed nature. The chorus is pure soul bliss, as the four-part harmonies remind me of early Fleet Foxes. Heynderickx has been very open with her struggles in finishing this album, and when that anxiety comes to a head, she finds another solution. “I need to start a garden!” she screams at the album’s climax, giving the record its title, “because making this song up is just as hard.”
That’s funny, because aside from that moment, the album’s unassuming eight-track, 31-minute runtime and Heynderickx’s elegance in her vocals and arrangements would make the listener believe that this was a record that required decision-making on cut tracks, not extra effort to fill out the tracklist.
It’s clear that she is a perfectionist, but not in the way that we might think singer-songwriters would be. Instead of paining over the perfect lyric or the prettiest chord, Heynderickx focuses on evoking a feeling, a mood, a place. That’s what folk music is about.