Haeli Allen: Making Sweet Music in the Pandemic Age
An up-and-coming performing artist may talk about how committed she or he is to dealing with the rigors of the musician’s life: endless days of driving, playing to empty rooms, working even when discouraged and tired.
Lewistown singer-songwriter Haeli Allen is not such a musician. While committed to the craft, that commitment needs these days to be balanced with a similar allegiance to her husband, their four children, and the family’s cattle ranch.
“The kids come to band practice and to the local stuff,” says Allen. “My 10-year-old plays harmonica in the band and is learning the guitar. For me to feel healthy and whole, I need my family life. And I’m lucky, because I get to play to my heart’s content, usually close to home. And I’m not missing anything. I don’t have the emptiness or the void of the road that others seem to have. My husband, Jaxon, (who often serves as her bassist or front man in a band setting) is usually along, and the kids (ages 10, 8, 5, and 2) can come along, too.”
Allen was born and raised in Stevensville, in the Bitterroot Valley, and she trained in vocal performance in college as part of her minor in music. A couple of years ago she released her debut recording, The Gilt Edge Collection, a snug, enjoyable selection of original country-bluesy numbers that takes its title from a nearby gold mining encampment that reached the peak of its prosperity in the early 1910s.
Allen’s debut recording clips along crisply with smart, well-enunciated lyrics and enough energy to keep it intriguing. As a result, she had been adding live gigs to her calendar. Momentum hummed. Then world affairs crashed the door closed.
“I was riding a good wave and my husband and I were playing two to three shows a week last summer. We played a New Year’s show in 2020, and we had quite a few shows to look forward to opening in the spring. We were scheduled to open for Ned Ledoux at the Central Montana Fair, and we had lots of cool names to open for.”
Prior to COVID 19, Lewistown’s local music scene was developing a vim and vigor of its own.
“At Big Spring Brewing, it was really growing and there were some fun opportunities. They were having quite a few bigger names, carrying off of the people who were coming to the Live from the Divide. We opened for Elizabeth Cook last fall. There were good opportunities to open right here in Lewistown. I was thrilled to see this kind of growth in the arts in this community. Then the coronavirus started to lock down everything, and that pretty much cancelled everything.”
Busy on the Ranch
Despite the current unpleasant state of angst, Allen has learned that lockdown frustrations can offer a unique chance to practice patience.
“I’ve been busy on the ranch and I haven’t hopped on the streaming,” says Allen. “I’m saving myself for live music again. Not having an audience was very humbling to me, and it really took a lot of the joy out of performing. I didn’t realize how important and intimate that relationship had felt for me. Having real people to look at and draw energy from in a really personal exchange. Things were booked and then bookings starting dropping like flies, and that took the wind out of my sail on the performing end. So, I’ve been really writing a lot.”
The Allens run approximately 300 pair of cattle and operate a livestock feedlot. Jaxon is a livestock trucker who hauls the cattle to transport locations countrywide.
“I’ve been milking a cow every day since the lockdown. So, I’m plenty busy. The pandemic is not apparent to us until we try to go out. I’m really blessed that it hasn’t changed a lot on my home front. The blessing is that ranch life is a huge distraction from everything else that’s out there.”
The artist in Allen understands that we create the experience of boredom, burden, and difficulty. That’s our decision. In this, the pandemic has provided Allen the time to focus on the need to be writing things that are meaningful.
“At first, I didn’t want to go there (writing new material), because I am in the middle of two recording projects. But it is just who I am, and I’ve always been a writer, and I can’t stifle that part for too long, especially if I don’t have an outlet.
“Songwriting has been a productive way for me to heal and work through things, not just out in the world, but close to home stuff too that we’ve struggled with. A cousin taking his own life. We have a relative with cancer. Heaviness. I can’t just have it on my mind and not write about it. It would be detrimental to my health to suppress that side of myself.”
While Allen’s debut album could be considered a solo offering, she has since grown increasingly comfortable cushioned by a family of musicians; Allen, her husband and two of his siblings form The Sightliners.
“I love the relationship, the dynamic and the chemistry with different musicians. I feel very complete when I am performing with my husband. At one point my sister-in-law (Kenzie) and I had a little girl band, and we’d sing with a sweet girl country vibe. The band is so varied, originals, outlaw country, rock covers; my sister-in-law has a folky, country sound, and we’ve got all different backgrounds and styles, but something makes it cohesive and fresh.”
One of the standout tracks on The Gilt Edge Collection is “Gypsy Woman,” a familiar feeling ballad shrouded in gorgeous, lush hooks and levity in Allen’s inflection. The musician took a big leap out of her comfort zone when she recorded the song’s accompanying video, which intersperses footage taken at the ranch with that of a live show on Main Street in Lewistown at the coffee shop.
“I’m not a fancy dress and do a music video type of girl,” says Allen. “I want to be very real. It’s a different mixed example of what I am, where I am, and what I’m all about. It was totally the vibe I was going for – relaxed and down home… I love that something that I enjoy is enjoyable to others.”
In The Gilt Edge Collection, Allen channeled her experience into song. At the core of everything is her voice: like a dagger swathed in silk, it pokes and slices at the most unexpected of moments. Songs are packaged in a way that capture the complexity of human emotion, with plenty of appreciation for the infectious nature of a swaggering, bluesy-country refrain.
“The road we live on is called Gilt Edge and it leads to a ghost town. Gilt Edge is where they mined gold. It was short-lived because there was some money skimming going on. It was the first place they used cyanide in the mining process. It had a huge allure and a lot of people moved there. I took Gilt Edge to be a part of my home, my roots, and my family, and my cattle ranch. It’s all about here. What we are building here as a family. I wanted it to be clear, pure, and true to who I was when I created it.”
Indeed, the songs, the arrangements, and the lyrics chime sincere. There is nothing overwrought. Allen sings about love and satisfaction and also the underpinnings of hankering and wanderlust. And some of its beauty is its mystery: a little bit like the vocal work itself.
“I wanted it to reflect the music I was playing at the time, when I was performing mostly solo acoustic. It’s a live cut. No separate tracks.
“In the band, I like to hit the high notes. But by myself, I shy away from the soprano. At 32, I like to have a little edge in my voice. I feel like what you are hearing in my first album is me bridging my being a trained vocal soprano and my ranching girl background, and my comfort zone.”
Hindsight can create a peculiar kind of dysfunction, an especially tough emotion for an artist to face. “Once the hindsight starts to set in, I instantly want to make it better, remix it, to add more instruments. But I remind myself that that wasn’t the initial vision for the project. Go put that energy now into the next project. When I was creating it, it fulfilled my vision. To go back, I realized, would defeat the whole purpose of creating it all.”
In a world where tempers flame easily, Allen’s mantras are a comforting reminder for the listener to pay attention to poise and composure and gratitude. Though perhaps inconceivable at the moment, live music will in time return with its full dignity, and Allen will be a part of the Big Sky post-pandemic revival.
“I’m lowering my expectations, and I’m going to be really grateful for what comes along. The big opener with Ned Ledoux at the Central Montana Fair was canceled (on July 24, 2020), but we are doing the night show with a full band. It’s something we need as a community.
“Of course, I would love to have everything like it was last summer. But the world now is nothing like it was last summer. My gratitude is exponentially higher for anything that comes along.”
Haeli Allen is scheduled to play shows in 2021on June 24 at the Red Lodge Singer Songwriter Festival and July 22 at the Lewistown Municipal Airport with The Steel Wheels.
Find out more about this Montana singer/songwriter and hear tracks off of The Gilt Edge Collection at haeliallenmusic.com.