Hailing from New England, Hayley Sabella found a sense of belonging through music while growing up as the daughter of missionaries and musicians. Her second full-length studio album, Forgive the Birds, due April 27, is both earthbound and ethereal, revealing gripping melodies and intimate lyrics dealing with vulnerability and strength, death and rebirth, and pain and love presented by Sabella's earnest delivery. In advance of the album's release, Sabella thoughtfully answered her Essential 8 and talked about her album's title, offered insight into drinking at gigs, her favorite concert, and much more!
What is the best advice you have gotten from another musician?
The best advice I have ever gotten from another musician is actually more of an illuminating observation: Most musicians who appear to “succeed overnight” did not in fact “succeed overnight.”. There are so many gruelling hours that are not accounted for in a so-called overnight success -- writing, rehearsing, finding your voice, and then touring, building a team, either with other musicians, or press & management, etc -- and all of that doesn’t even touch on the life experience that is often needed to write anything of substance. It all takes time, and trial and error. This goes hand in hand with recognizing that especially in the folk world, being a musician is a lifelong vocation, not simply an experiment for your twenties. And if you don’t love it, if it isn’t the air that you breathe, another career will likely bring you more money, stability, the ability to pay off your student debt or put a down payment on a house… and with way less effort!
And I actually got some astonishingly good advice I got from a fortune cookie once: “Success is never final, and failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”
What's the story behind your album's title?
“Forgive the Birds” is named after the title track. I thought it was appropriate, because as a songwriter, I tend to hold uncomfortable honesty in one hand, and nurturing optimism in the other. “Forgive the Birds” kind of breaks your heart, then gives you a hug, which made it seem appropriate as both the opening and title track. It begins lonesome & melancholic, and ends inviting the listener into my house for a cup of tea (which may or may not have whiskey in it.)
When/Where do you do your best writing?
Alone in a room with good acoustics. Most of “Forgive the Birds” was written in my parent’s stairwell… on Sunday morning, when my parents were at church & my brothers were asleep. I’d grab some coffee, a notebook (or back of some old mail if a notebook wasn’t handy) and my phone to make recordings, and hope that the muse was willing to meet me there in that moment.
Do you write from personal experience, the experience of others, observations, made up stories, something else, or a combination?
Personal experience feels really good to write about,- but there’s a fine line between catharsis and making your audience a voyeur in uncomfortable ways. It’s not so much the vulnerability that bothers me about that, but the impact a strong personal lens can have on the quality of your writing. I have written from the perspective of others -- one example is the song “Maria” off of “Forgive the Birds.” Even though the process felt more cerebral than heartfelt, it is easily my most relatable song in a live setting. A certain level of detachment can help improve your craft.
Processing angst through writing is really satisfying, but lately, I’ve been pretty happy… A friend of mine was talking about how he sometimes writes from the perspective of a friend who is struggling if he himself was doing well. I’d like to try my hand at that.
What’s your favorite food on the road?
After being stuffed in a van with packaged snacks, anything light & fresh hits the spot. And burritos. And kombucha, if I can find it.
What do you love most about being on the road?
I did a lot of car travel growing up, and I have never minded the long hours. I love looking out the window -- we have a heck of a lot to marvel at & so many landscape changes in the US. And stripmalls… those aren’t too fun to look at, but a good album or podcast can cover a mutlitude of stripmall towns.
Is drinking at gigs positive or negative?
I have been running a test on my body and alcohol over the last year. Deep in my heart, I am a wine and whiskey lover, but I gave up booze for January as an experiment. After a dry January, my answer to whether drinking at gigs is positive or negative is that it depends entirely on performer. Alcohol itself is neutral. How the individual interacts with it varies widely. I was happy to discover that I don’t depend on alcohol to have fun at a gig, but I do love at least one drink. I tend to depend on it when I’m drained to help me socialize. And it can help with nerves and bring you to the moment, but there’s a fine line between being relaxed and being sloppy. I wouldn’t have more than 2 drinks before a set, but that’s just what works for me!
Do you have a favorite thing to do on a day off?
I love getting outside -- going for a walk, working in the garden, going to the woods or the beach… I find a day off feels most like a day off if it involves fresh air, no matter what season it is. Oh and eating a good meal. A day that involves a hike and a homemade meal is a happy day.
Favorite (or first) concert you have ever attended?
This is a tough one! I’ve seen Sufjan Stevens 3 times and had a near transcendent experience each of the 3 times, but if I HAD to pick just one, I would probably choose seeing Bon Iver summer of 2008. I was working in a coffee shop, and some of my regulars who owned a tattoo parlor next door had caught them onin the night before. These big, seemingly tough, tattooed people were raving about “Bon eye-ver,” who I had never heard of, and wrote their name on a coffee sleeve. Bon Iver had another set on Cape Cod that night and they insisted that I MUST go, so I gathered a few friends after work and we checked them out. He was touring For Emma Forever Ago. Bowerbirds opened. It was a magical night, in this amazing little theater that has an enormous fresco painting on the ceiling. That album wound up being extremely formative for lots of people, including 18 year old me. It was raw, vulnerable & honest, and so special to witness in an intimate setting. I can’t afford tickets to see Justin Vernon these days…haha!