Big in Japan
Eugene singer Halie Loren prepares, cautiously, to go global
by rick levin
When Halie Loren grabs hold of the opening lines of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” on her new live album, there’s something crucial at stake. It’s a risky move. Her interpretation of the U2 classic is retooled as an intimate love letter, one that tones down and jazzes a signature anthem by a globetrotting arena rock band. This is the musical equivalent of refiguring Anna Karenina as a haiku, but Loren and band pull it off. Actually, they nail it.
|Photo by trask bedortha|
Loren’s version — whispery and yearning where the original is soaring and seeking — siphons off none of the original’s emotional oomph or poetic power. With the subtlest nudges of voice and phrasing, she transforms the song from quasi-religious ballad into a seared, sepia-toned snapshot of midnight solitude, full of smoldering vocal turns and subtle chromatic runs. It’s gutsy but eminently tasteful gambits like this — trimming Joshua Tree into a weeping willow — that qualify Loren as something more than another golden-throated chanteuse.
She is, in every sense of the word, an artist. At just 25 years of age and with four albums under her belt, she reveals an almost auteur-like level of involvement in every aspect of her craft.
The idea of recording a live album, Loren says, struck her as a logical step in her development, and one fully in keeping with her stubborn ethic of maintaining control over her music and her career.
“There’s just a different sort of energy and a different tension that comes through,” she says of Stages, which documents a pair of live performances at small venues in Pacific City and Gleneden Beach. “It just shows a different aspect of my art at the point it was last year. For me, it’s not a huge directional shift — but it could be the start of a shift,” she adds with a smile.
For Loren, an Alaskan native who moved to Eugene a decade ago, the past year has proven as fulfilling as it has frantic. Everything Loren does these days is in high gear. This past August, she made a trip back to Nashville, where as a teenager she cut her teeth as a songwriter. While there, she hooked up with old friends and collaborated on new material. She also performed at the prestigious Just Plain Folks music conference, where to her surprise she also garnered multiple awards, including Best Vocal Jazz Album for her 2008 release, They Oughta Write a Song. Then, back home in Eugene, Loren and longtime friend and frequent collaborator Matt Treder began the exacting, time-consuming work of co-producing Stages, which along with Treder and Loren features bassist Mark Schneider, drummer Brian West and trumpeter Tim McLaughlin. She mixed a lot of the material herself, which is similar to an architect moving from blueprint to hammer and nails.
“It took more intensive work than any other project I’ve done before,” says Loren, who mixed a lot of the album herself. “I was just manic with stress.” She credits Treder, who assisted in mixing, with keeping her on an even keel. “It was so nice to have that second set of ears that I trust,” Loren says. “We were really thrilled when we heard the results.”
More recently, Loren received simultaneous offers from dueling companies looking to distribute her work overseas. “It was really hard,” she says of deciding between the two bids. “I agonized over it.” Ultimately, she decided to go with JVC/Victor Entertainment, and the company now markets and distributes her albums throughout Japan and surrounding Asian markets. Almost immediately, Stages shot up several Japanese charts, hitting the coveted #1 position on HMV. The album currently sits at #2, above Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson and Mose Allison.
So, OK, let’s get that old insider joke out of the way right now: Halie Loren is huge in Japan. The singer herself is equal parts amused and bewildered by this, and though she says she’s humbled by and grateful for her good fortune, she scarcely has time to dwell on it, much less bask in the glow. Between planning and preparing for her CD release show this weekend, and gearing up to get yet another album in the can by summer’s end, Loren’s waking life zips somewhere between light and warp speed.
She spent part of last week (when she wasn’t rehearsing, making phone calls, getting photographed, etc.) designing her own merchandise, from stickers to T-shirts. Nope — no diva here. Loren’s work ethic more closely resembles the D.I.Y. of punk rock than the pamper-me-pretty posturing of a star about to supernova.
The dual meaning and personal subtext of Stages is evident from the first song, “Danger in Loving You,” a whispery, shadowy confessional that Loren co-wrote with Nashville-based collaborator Larry Wayne Clark. If her previous album, They Oughta Write a Song, was downright clinical in the way it offered indubitable evidence of her range and ability, Stages is a more ragged, roughed-up but no less accomplished piece of modern jazz noir. Loren’s voice is more nuanced and enchanting than ever. It’s not that her tone or delivery has changed; it’s more that her singing, always pitch-perfect, has evolved as a sort of emotional barometer, registering the slightest disturbances in the atmosphere.
Stages — which flows organically between Loren originals, jazz standards, intriguingly arranged oddities and moments of leavening humor — offers proof of an artist alive to the tumult of life’s sad/happy, tragic/comic pageant, and to the bumps and bruises the world daily administers. Loren’s singing conveys the wonders of the invisible world: wounded defiance, stubborn love, hard-earned hopefulness. She sounds like someone who knows a thing or two about a thing or two, and has the chops to make that knowledge a thing of beauty.
When it comes to predicting the course her career will take, Loren appears to be as curious, excited and open to possibilities as her most faithful fans. She’s more than happy to set her sights on the here and now, and to continue struggling for a “grounded existence” while also protecting the sources of her creativity. “You have to do it for the sake of what you’re doing,” Loren says. “If you’re doing it for other reasons, it’s probably a mistake.”
Surviving as a full-time musician may be no cakewalk, but Loren says she wouldn’t — couldn’t — trade it for anything. “I want to be happy and make my music, and be able to live while doing that,” she says. “That’s my dream.” And if at least part of that dream seems to be coming true of late, Loren remains cautiously optimistic, chalking up her success to a kind of karma that “reinforces my sometimes shaky belief that what you put out, you get back, and sometimes in unexpected ways,” she says. “I’m surprised on an everyday basis.”
Halie Loren. 7:30 pm Saturday, April 17. Wildish Theater, Springfield. $10, $5 kids.