Oregon Music News: Oregon’s all-genre music magazine since 2009

Haley Johnsen / Photo by Katy Weaver
Haley Johnsen / Photo by Katy Weaver

From Idol to Identity

Like her songs, Haley Johnsen's burgeoning career is defined by epic moments

by Ana Ammann

It was a last minute decision to join the thousands of people in line that February 2012 afternoon in Portland, Oregon, when American Idol auditions rolled into town, and then 23 year-old Haley Johnsen knew what a long shot it was. Still, she could afford to roll the dice; she was on the cusp of finishing her degree at Oregon State University where she had spent four years slowly cultivating a discipline for singing and performance through classical vocal training and performing as a hobby alongside her studies, and she really didn’t know what she was going to do after graduation.

Overnight, Johnsen would be cast into the national spotlight when she captivated American Idol Season 11 viewers making it all the way through to the Top 24 semifinals before conceding.

For artists that come through the Idol machine, living through the experience in front of millions of devoted viewers and discriminating judges, like Steven Tyler, Randy Jackson and Jennifer Lopez, can be either a make it or break it one. What it did for Johnsen was confirm that she could – and should – pursue a professional music career based on the response judges and audiences had to her performances.

“Idol was the steppingstone that persuaded me to believe in myself as an artist and performer, and it confirmed that I had the talent to make music my ultimate focus,” Johnsen reflects. “I have always known that I would make singing a part of my life, but it wasn’t until I began to explore and grow in my writing that I realized I had the potential to make music professionally. Being surrounded by so many other gifted and passionate musicians ignited a fire in me to carry out my dream as a singer/songwriter that I hadn’t thought I was capable of before.”

Over the course of the last three years, Johnsen has written and recorded over 100 songs. With the help of Portland-based producer, Rob Daiker (Katy Perry, The Fame Riot, Christian Burghardt), the two began a collaborative process of selecting the ones that would best represent Johnsen’s range and songwriting abilities.

“The songs are mostly about the extremes in life that I was faced with – sort of like a scrapbook of what I was going through: leaving Hollywood to come back home to Oregon; discovering who I was as a person; figuring out what I wanted my life to look like; and finding my own authenticity as a songwriter. My best songs are the blatantly honest ones. Sometimes my lyrics are things that I wanted to say to someone, but couldn’t find the words in the moment. Later those words show up perfectly as the pre- chorus to a song. Other times, I was just trying to work out a problem or express to myself a sense of acceptance of whatever I was going through. They are cathartic that way,” Johnsen revealed.

Johnsen’s influences range from the eccentricities of bands like Radiohead and Pink Floyd; to Classic, Folk and indie-Rock vocalists such as Eva Cassidy, Nicole Atkins, Florence Welch and Brandi Carlile – all artists with a flair for the dramatic in their delivery. “From a melodic standpoint, I have a hard time writing songs that don’t build to an epic moment. As a naturally louder singer, it is really fun for me to play with more intricate melodies that move around a lot and reach a point where I can just belt it out with big lunged choruses, taking the song in a direction the listener won’t expect it to go. I visualize my songs in a linear way when I write them, but imagine the places where the song needs to rest, climb, and then soar – sort of like a journey to a destination.“

The final result of Johnsen and Daiker’s collaboration is a seven song EP Through the Bluewritten by Johnsen, arranged and produced by Daiker, and recorded with guest instrumentalists including drummer Joe Mengis (Priory, Climber, Casey Neill Band). It serves as a personal reflection upon this season in Johnsen’s life – the transitions she faced, the relationships that were impacted, and the lessons that came from her experiences. “What I have discovered in writing these songs is that there is peace in struggle. As I grow, I am learning to accept the ambiguity of life, while discovering who I am.”

Haley Johnsen celebrates the release of her debut EP Through the Blue, Saturday, June 6that the Aladdin Theater, performing with My Brothers and I.  Doors 7 p.m., Show 8 p.m. Tickets $12. Minors allowed when accompanied by parent or legal guardian.

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