When I think back onto the darkest times in my life, I realize there is a common thread. I had no place to practice. No place to play and sing as loud as I wanted. No place to bounce my sonic joy off another person or wade through distortion completely alone, enraptured in the song building steam under my sweaty chicken scratch.
Luckily, those periods—stuffed into cockroach infested apartments or living under the stairs of party houses—were as fleeting as they were painfully educational.
My first practice space was a two foot radius that surrounded me, as I sat cross-legged on my bed in Atascadero. My dad set up a little recording area in my walk-in closet, which I realize now is absolutely amazing. Thanks, Dad. Not only could I sing my truth in the glow of a dangling neon green bulb, but I could back it up, too. For the first time in my life, I was my own lead singer AND background singer. Suddenly, the world creaked wide open.
Being a 10-year-old has a way of making you feel absolutely insignificant. Looming womanhood filled me with dread. For this reason, I lied to all my friends and told them I hadn't yet gotten my period —the beginning of a larger trend to only reveal half of myself to other girls.
Somewhere, there are scratched CDs and melted tapes from the closet, where I also penned a website religiously (before the word “blog” was out there, I spilled my guts to the world and the entire class). This is not a brag. It just better illustrates my intense desire to be heard. Even if what I had to say was ultimately very ordinary.
I wrote songs about my friends, the boys I liked, and what I wanted life to feel like when I grew up. Sometimes I would just sit in there and read Mad Magazine, eating pickles straight out of the jar.
When my sister moved out at 16, I found a crappy strat left in her room. I was 12 and, naturally, wanted everything to do with it. It had an anarchy sign scratched into the headstock. I had no idea what this symbol was. I played on it for a while, with a tiny practice amp. It sounded scratchy and far away, like a toy guitar played by another, more pathetic girl.
A good trick: During parties or family gatherings, my mom would coax me to play in the living room. The request was always “Foxy Lady” by Hendrix, and I always obliged. She had always been a major fan of Wayne’s World. When I think back on it now, maybe that’s why she gave in so easily when I begged my parents for a better-sounding model AND a larger amp.
With intense, nonstop, ear-splitting noise…and a dose of teenage angst… came a need (for me and my family) to separate my music from the main house. I soon moved into the barn, which had an office attached—used by my parents, who at that time were still married. They worked together as freelance graphic designers, but had since moved down the long winding driveway to a trailer.
I painted the barn room bright red in the scorching summer heat between seventh and eighth grade. That summer, I had also purchased my first Sex Pistols CD during a trip to visit my sister in the Bay Area.
As I marveled at the fact that something that sounded so urgent and important could be created in a time as ancient feeling as the late 70s, I watched the room turn from gray to a deep, bloody hue. It was perfect.
I was always, always alone in the barn, but rarely lonely. I had a CD player with a tape deck, and I would play along to the tapes my guitar teacher gave me. Sometimes it was BB King, and sometimes it was recordings from his own local band. I covered the walls in posters and scribbled lyrics. I sometimes took naps in there, waking up completely drenched in sweat and feeling like I’d been out for a hundred years.
At 16, living in L.A. with my mom, it was all about playing in an all girl band. My parents had divorced and things had changed very suddenly, but there was music, and music was my religion. I had never had faith in any “higher being,” but I had faith in my ability to connect through my ears, my hands, and my voice. I knew that ordinary people could still say something great, as long as they said it loud enough and with enough honesty.
Having an all-girl band was my dream, and I would will it to come true if it killed me. Weirdly, this dream was by far the easiest to attain. My new punked out girlfriends at Redondo Union High School were bored, angry, and antsy too. All we did, every single weekend, was go to shows. They were legit shows but also backyard shows. The kids we saw playing at the backyard shows were our age, but sometimes even younger.
Lindsay rode her bike over to my house one night and we fed off each other’s crazy energy to start a band. She learned how to play bass immediately and wrote most of the songs within a week, in normal Lindsay fashion. I, fancying myself a serious and sensitive writer, was too shy to actually write a single word, in normal Hayley fashion. I mean, I was way too busy working on the zine I would never publish.
With fierce, multi-colored-haired Kerry on the mic and sweet, jovial Titty on drums, the band had a powerful lineup, indeed. We played a few shows: The Teen Center in Redondo Beach, a backyard show in the barrio and at a warehouse in Hollywood. Maybe a few others, but I can’t remember through all the beer and nerves and parties.
What do I remember most? The practice space. We practiced at an $8 a hour joint next to a liquor store. All the amps and PA were provided, which was good, because the employees at our local Guitar Center were catching on to us in a major way. I think we might even have gotten kicked out for taking advantage of their “try before you buy” policy. That was OK. We would meander down the street and hang out at the train tracks next to the Weinderschnitzel.
Maybe it was because we were away from our respective lives: School, parents, expectations. Maybe it just felt grown up to play on (what we then assumed was super good) professional gear. Maybe it was the volume we cranked it up to. Yes, that volume was 11.
I just remember thinking the world was creaking open again. None of us could have guessed who we would become, but we knew who we were at that moment. We were BALLROOM BURLESQUE. We were a gang, a family, a sisterhood. I didn’t want to share half-truths about myself with these girls. I would be honest. I wanted to make honest music.
It would be more than ten years before I formed my next all girl band, and it all came together and dissolved in much the same way that Ballroom Burlesque did: With intense emotion and drive at the outset and staggering confusion and hurt feelings at the finish.
This, perhaps, is the magic and tragedy of working with passionate, sensitive, talented women. I have since abandoned any dream of playing with one gender over another. In my now defunct bluegrass band Hayburner, which I formed in 2011 with my guy friend/fiddle player Scott and multi-instrumentalist pal Jared (who we found thanks to a magical craigslist post), I loved the dynamics. Our bassist and now Jared’s wife, Katelen, has the most angelic voice in the entire world. I loved the way our harmonies, both male and female, came together to create something larger and more complete than any one of our voices alone.
I have fond memories of practicing our massive, three hour set: me on banjo, Katelen on standup bass and Jared switching between guitar and mandolin. We practiced in their shared trailer out in the sticks of Paso Robles. It felt like we were playing on a ship floating out to sea. Nothing could touch us.
The house I share with my husband Reid (and whoever we are renting to at the time) is also a practice space. We record, re-cut, lay out scratch tracks, and sing takes unabashedly. Before he was my husband, he was my bandmate. In Red Eye Junction, and then Tarweed Two, I sang into the microphone, just like I did when I was a kid in my closet.
This time, adult insecurities and fear made me aggressive toward the little red light. It mocked me. I could always do better. I demanded to re-cut the same tracks over and over again, despite the fact that my husband always says, “it sounds the same as the last. You are making yourself crazy.”
Perhaps this is why he gave me a gift certificate for three hours of vocal recording at Certain Sparks Studio…miles away from our tiny recording space…for Christmas. Thank you, honey. You know me too well. And I also know that this is a major gift for you and your sanity, too.
Our shared punk band Magazine Dirty has also recorded quite a bit in our bedroom, but we've also done some recording at a friend’s studio, the locally-famous Cock’s Lodge.
For the past few months, we've been using the lodge as a practice space, meeting up ever Wednesday night at 7:30, although Reid and I are always late on account of our grumbling stomachs.
We used to practice in our bass player, Greg’s, garage in Atascadero. It was a tiny room with a tiny window and the sound was concentrated into a face-melting syrup. Sweat was everywhere. In the air, on the strings, dripping down the walls it seemed. But I liked it, with it's poster of acrobatic Iggy Pop hung upside down, making him look like a spider crawling toward us. Then the ere was the forced closeness, also good. When you practice in a very small space, you are inclined to look at each other, share mics, and notice the little things. A band is so many tiny gestures coming together, like a school of weird fish that swims together.
Practice at the Cock’s Lodge feels luxurious by comparison. The bathroom is disgusting with no lock on the door and no light (you have to guess where the stream goes) and no toilet paper, ever. But the lodge itself is three or four times as big as our old space, moodier, and delightfully slightly sour-smelling, as a practice space should be.
The other day, we recorded our first ever “music video” in that dimly-lit, sacred space. With the use of a Go Pro, boom box, some toilet paper and two rubber Ape masks, we were able to put something together that marks this time and place in our lives exquisitely and without apology.
I tried not to laugh the entire time, evident through much of the video.
Last night, after looking at the video our singer, Curtis, had just edited for the millionth time, Reid informed me that I "obviously turn to pick my nose” immediately after the song is over.
Glad that this has made its way onto the internet.
If anything, picking one's nose is an extremely ordinary thing.
At least I can say I did it with style.