Photo: Taylor James, collage: Darya Kosilova, artwork: The Young Astronauts.
It’s a feeling we know too well—falling asleep with a companion, spending the night sporadically alternating between big spoon and little spoon, only to wake up alone and bewildered, no longer complemented by the comfort of another human’s presence. The slap-to-the-face polarity of sincere intimacy, driven sexually or otherwise, subsiding into early-morning isolation encountered after a deep slumber’s haziness, never sits easy with the romantically analytical.
Canadian pop singer-songwriter W. Darling (Hayley Gene), has experienced the—shall we say detachment anxiety?—of the above experience. Her recent single “Nights Like This,” lifted from her debut EP Lost Girls: Chapter One, aggregates the possible emotional ramifications and ponderings of such situations into musical musings delivered via Darling’s sublimely delicate voice. It’s a voice remarkable in that, although it’s fine like a lace filigree it also carries a raw, emotive crunch, riding over ricocheting percussion and synths. Through the lyrics, we hear traces of Gene’s moniker’s namesake, Wendy Darling of J. J. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, who learns how to mature into an independent adult while Peter Pan, the unreliable youth, refuses to grow up.
With the help of interactive media production company, The Young Astronauts, Darling’s video for “Nights Like This”—premiering below—opens on a once-pristine hotel room turned into an understated mess, the morning’s sky casting a grey-ish blue pal throughout the room’s decadence. Meanwhile our heroine is alone, wandering aimlessly through an eerily empty hotel, draped in a bathrobe and strumming her fingers along the glass of chandeliers as she ponders the previous night. We talked to the rising singer about everything from pulling inspiration from films like Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation to crying during Adam Sandler movies, recognizing patterns in who we gravitate towards, to penning hits for pop’s big hitters. Oh and how her dad is the Canadian version of Mr. Rogers.
Noisey: I know your dad’s a musician. Is that how you got started?
W. Darling: Yeah, I think it kind of was a run in the family kind of thing. My dad [Fred Penner], he’s not really as well known in the US, but he’s like the Canadian Mr. Roger. He had a TV show for 14 years on CBC and I think six years on Nickelodeon in the US. I think I was born the year the show started so as I was growing up his fame was increasing. I really spent sick days in the studio watching him record or on tour with him, or on stage. So it was definitely really natural to me from a young age, I think just being really immersed in the reality of being a performer, not just this idea like, “Everything is great and shiny and beautiful.” I saw it as a job—the like get up, work, get things done—the really practical way.
What were you doing first, singing or learning instruments?
I was definitely singing first—I actually didn’t play guitar until later. I think this is a theme in my life. I say yes first and figure out how I’m going to deliver on something second. I was doing theater with a company and I was like 17 and everybody knew I sang. They said, “Could you perform something at this event we’re doing?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure no problem.” And they were like, “So you’ll accompany yourself? You’ll do a couple songs?” I told them no problem and went to my dad like, “I need you to teach me how to play something on guitar. I lied to my theater company and told them I knew how.” So that’s how I started playing.
I feel like saying yes to things and figuring it out later might make for a really interesting and dynamic life.
I was just asked a week ago to do two seminars for Berklee students on the collaborative process and vocal techniques, and I’ve never done a lecture or seminar before. But I was recommended and this professor from Berklee asked me, so I was like, “Absolutely!”
You started out mostly writing for other artists. Was going solo always the goal or did it just sort of happen?
It did and it didn’t just sort of happen. I was in Toronto and was just on the back of a terrible breakup. I was like, “I need to get out of this city. I have to get out of here.” I have British citizenship because my mother’s Italian, but was born in London. So I just decided to go there and live for a while. It was just random. I met someone in Toronto just before I left who was like, “Oh, you should meet this friend of mine, who’s a songwriter in Stockholm. You should go there for a weekend and see how it goes.” That was the first time I’d done any sort of collaboration with anybody. I was like 23 I think. So I went and did this one session and he was like, “Oh, this is fun. Let me put you in with some other people.”
So I ended up having booked sessions in Stockholm each day. I got back to Toronto and just randomly met this guy Nael Atweh, whose brother is Nazri Atweh and the lead singer of Magic!, as well as half of the production team called The Messengers, who do like Justin Bieber and Chris Brown. They told me to come to LA to see how it goes. They signed me and it was sort of like a boot camp. I was living in a house with the guys from Magic! and writing every day. We did Cody Simpson and Victoria Justice. Like I said before, I kind of fell into it by being a yes man, or a “yes woman” I guess. I was just jumping into things knowing that my competitive nature won’t allow me to flop, or at least not try my hardest.
Upon listening to what will be your debut album, are there any surprising themes you repeatedly hear in your music?
I remember I started dating somebody not that recently, maybe a year ago, and just one minute I was looking at him and realized, “Oh my gosh, you’re just a new version of that other guy.” I think we end up dating the same people over and over again unless we really try not to. I always thought growing up too that the person who ends up being your best friend, the person who’s the love of your life in high school, the person who’s the love of your life after high school…if I happened to have been born in a different city, all those roles would have still been filled but just by other people. Especially by moving cities so often and going to London or Stockholm or LA, you meet all the people who would’ve filled those roles. In writing, I’m trying to really analyze what it is that drives you to certain people and what the satisfaction is in destructive relationships. It’s such a common thing that you’re with somebody that doesn’t make you happy and joyful and fulfilled, especially when you’re really young. You date people that challenge you and really upset you or know how to trigger you, and you can’t eat and you can’t sleep. It’s these sort of tragic young romances, or maybe that’s just my love life.
At least you have a creative outlet to unleash some of this stuff!
It’s the most therapeutic thing in the world for me, more than actual therapy—just sitting down and singing. I have a piano at the foot of my bed, so when I’m going through something messed up I’ll just sit at the piano. I have so many ridiculous voice notes—sometimes I’ll stumble over it and be like, playing a chord and just start crying into my stupid iPhone voice notes. It really is just such an amazing way to digest what you’re going through, and I often wonder like, “How does a banker release that stuff? How does somebody who doesn’t have this creative release at their fingertips… how do they digest it?” I know for everybody it’s different things, like people drink, or like I’m also a bit of a fitness junky so I do Krav Maga for two hours a day because it’s just a release.
It sounds like you’re just emotionally intelligent!
I’m very in touch with my emotional side. Have you seen The Cobbler? It’s a B, maybe C movie with Adam Sandler that just came out. He’s a shoe cobbler but when he puts on somebody else’s shoes he actually becomes that person. But I was watching that in my room and I just started crying. I was like, “No, no, this is not OK. You should not be crying watching The Cobbler.”
Do you ever find yourself to be emotionally stuck on something while writing?
There was one point where The Young Astronauts (which is this great company that I partnered with for all my visuals) called me and were like, “Hayley, we love the record. Can you just write one happy song?” I was like, “I will not write one happy song! That’s not where I am in my life right now.” So they were like, “Um OK it’s fine. Just write what you need to write.” So this record sort of corresponded with a dark time in my life and trying to figure out why I’m drawn to the toxic relationships that I’m often drawn to.
When I write I find myself talking about repeating mistakes. And maybe it’s a good exercise, although it’s possible that I’m wrong, but when I’m writing something and it feels like something else that I’ve already written, I always follow through. Because you don’t have to release everything. Just the process of singing through the words, out into the space, it’s that internal dialogue that’s so difficult to get out of. You don’t even realize these damaging flows you start getting into until you actually sing it out loud. And then it becomes so much easier to actually deal with something when you’re speaking into a space and you’re hearing the sound of your voice. It just changes everything for me.
What was going on emotionally when you wrote “Nights Like This?”
For “Nights Like This,” I was in my room on the piano, and I hit those first few chords and sang the first lyrics and just started crying. I always know when I start crying immediately that, at the very least, I’m being totally honest in what I’m singing. It took a while for the song to develop further, but it felt significant and familiar to me in a way that was really intimate and honest.
And then how did you form the concept for the music video?
Ally Pankiw, who is one of the Young Astronauts, she had this idea for the video and it was just the concept of feeling lost and lonely in this place that should be so full. It should have hundreds of people running through it doing hundreds of different things coming from a hundred different places, but instead it’s just abandoned, and I’m looking around trying to find this person that I spent the night with, and he’s nowhere. It becomes a self-exploration but also seeing how I fit into the world, going through the hotel alone.
There was no way for me to know that this could possibly happen, but before we shot the video I had that same experience, not with being abandoned because I knew where the person went in the morning [laughs], but going to sleep besides somebody in a hotel and waking up alone and just digesting the night, and walking through the hotel like. It almost becomes easier to jump back into the arms of someone toxic rather than handling the loss of something, even though it may not have been a good thing.
Where did you shoot it?
We shot it at what I think is the oldest hotel in Toronto. We shot all through the nights so that there wouldn’t be people around. That was really cool because there are a lot of stories about it being haunted. We had this incredible coordinator who was like, “Oh, there was a doorman that a lot of guests have seen who hasn’t worked here now in 50 years.” A lot of cool stuff like that.
It reminded me a bit of Lost in Translation.
We referenced that a lot actually—we were thinking it’s Lost In Translation meets Home Alone. It was trying to keep from being bored and depressed in this potentially boring and depressing scenario.
I don’t know. I just noticed that “Learn To Love” has like 680,000 listens on Spotify and I’m like, “Who the hell are these people?” I really am not sure. I guess I hope that it’s just people who are going through a hard time or relationships that make them feel confused or overpowered. I’ve always been fascinated by love and hard love, or tragic love, I’d hope that a kid sitting at home sobbing and unable to sleep would find some shared space with me.
So it’s not as simple as just young people, or old people. You’re hoping anyone could connect. Yeah. I think that’s why the W. Darling title was so important to me, because it’s sort of ageless. The Wendy Darling character is all these female roles—she’s like a mother but a daughter and a friend and a sister and a lover.
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