It never occurred to Hayley Thompson-King that she shouldn’t do most of the things she did on her recent solo debut, that maybe common sense dictates that she shouldn’t have set a slow-burn country torch song like “Dopesick” next to a Sonic Youth-esque fuzz rocker like “No Room for Jesus” next to an operatic vocal showcase like “Mondacht.”
Or, for that matter, that maybe it might not have been the best route to the hearts and minds of some of country music’s more tradition-minded fans, writing songs that call the Good Lord Himself onto the carpet, songs like the aforementioned “No Room for Jesus,” and the similarly fuzzed-out “Lot’s Wife.” Or that maybe she ought not have ventured so brash and unfiltered into the sort of seamy territory where normies fear to follow, as on the aforementioned “Dopesick.”
In fact, it seems very much as if HTK let her id run wild in laying down the tracks for 2017’s aptly titled “Psychotic Melanchoia,” satisfying her every base desire and reflexive impulse with little thought to consequence. And Moloch be praised that it happened that way, because had Thompson-King paused but once for a moment’s reflection, she might not have released what is arguably the most jaw-droppingly diverse and gorgeously, weirdly memorable psychedelic trad-country-by-way-of-indie-rock debut record by a classically trained vocalist you’re ever liable to hear.
“We were putting down the tracks, and in my mind, it was ‘this seems very normal,'” HTK says with a sheepish chuckle. “And then when other people started hearing it, it was like, woah. Okay, maybe this was a little more, um, diverse than we realized.”
Hearing HTK’s background helps makes some sense of it all. She grew up in Sebastian, Fla., a small surfing hub south of Orlando where ’90s-style cowboy hat country mingled freely with surf culture and punk rock.
“We had this great scene where all the punk rock kids would make fliers and play shows together in the old schoolhouse,” she says. “At the same time, I was into riding horses, so I listened to stuff like Garth Brooks and Clint Black with all the cowboy kids. And I played in a lot of punk rock bands.”
But Thompson-King had yet another musical life, as well. At an early age, her parents realized that was possessed of a beautiful, powerful voice, the kind shatters windows. They paired her with a personal coach — the only one available in small-town Sebastian at the time — and her subsequent classical studies would eventually carry her through college at New York University and on to the New England Conservatory of Music, and then back to New York and private lessons with a former Metropolitan Opera performer.
At that point in her life, HTK believed she would have a career in opera and musical theater. “I sang professionally for a while, with several opera companies,” she says. “But one thing I learned about that business is that most of the performers are considered replaceable, by design. There aren’t a lot of stars, and the opera companies don’t really want stars. If someone drops out, they want to be able to stick the next person up into the role, and no one knows the difference.
“That bothered me. So I started going back to writing my own songs. Because if you sing and write for yourself, you are not replaceable.”
It’s worth telling that Thompson-King also toiled for a while as leader singer for drone-y Boston-based psyche-rock outfit Major Stars, an experience which shaped her vision for her own future recording efforts, and nurtured in her a love of cantankerous lo-fi guitars. “We had one guitarist who did nothing but feedback all of the time,” she says. “It definitely influenced me in terms of guitar sound.
“I’ve come to believe that production and the sounds you get in the studio are as important as songwriting itself. I really like bands like (Memphis garage-rock outfit) the Oblivans, especially the sound of their records. The production is super-fuzzy, but you still have a lot of vocal quality.”
But when asked for her proper songwriting influences, and HTK strays all over the map, mentioning girl groups of yesteryear, Waylon and Willie, her penchant for stream-of-consciousness lyrical flow and non-standard song structures all within the space of the same extended breath. “I guess it’s funny, but a lot of the people I credit as my influences are my influences more for the way they interpret songs than for the way they wrote songs. George Jones, Loretta Lynn — they didn’t always write the songs they sang, but they were great interpreters. When I’m writing, I like to put on Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson. They’re the same way. Great songwriters, but also greater interpreters. There was an honesty and a simplicity in the way they came across.”
Strangely enough, though, the best window onto HTK’s shall-we-say-unusual creative process is perhaps provided by considering her current self-professed struggles. Though “Psychotic Melancholia” is scarcely three months old, she’s already begun writing songs for a follow-up release. And suffice to say, the process isn’t going well.
“What’s challenging is that I want people to like me,” she says. “So I’m trying to write things I think people will like, and it just doesn’t feel authentic. It feels like I can’t get to the heart of what I’m trying to say. So I’m writing a lot of shitty songs right now, terrible songs that I will probably eventually tear up and rework into something that is more ‘me.'”
Haley Thompson-King will play Preservation Pub Thursday, Dec. 7 at 10 p.m.