New England’s jam band scene is chock full of talent and one of those jewels within the community’s crown is Hayley Jane & The Primates. The act started out in Boston in the early part of the current decade and over time their infectious blend of soul and Americana has put them in the region’s high echelon and beyond. Hayley Jane has charisma flowing through her when she takes the stage while The Primates consisting of guitarists Justin Hancock and Greg Smith, Josh Carter on bass and Ryan Clausen on drums provide musical excellence. The band will be making their presence felt at The Knickerbocker Café in Westerly Saturday evening. Opening up the night will be local funky groove rock masters Jabbawaukee.
Hayley Jane and I had a conversation about her journey from California to Boston, starting out in ska, reggae and punk, her folk duo with Ryan Montbleau and her plans for the holidays.
Rob Duguay: You’re from California and you started a band with The Primates in Boston. What initially made you want you to come to Boston rather than stay on the west coast?
Hayley Jane: I had moved down to Los Angeles when I was 17 after I graduated high school because I got a job with Disney performing at Disneyland. I was down in L.A. for about two years and it was a very formative time in my life. L.A. was very intense for me and I was a very sensitive person, I just realized how competitive it is and it kicked my butt. I then went back home to Atascadero, California where I grew up and I was working at a Starbucks there kind of feeling a little defeated. I thought I was going to go to L.A. just like everybody does and get the big break.
Instead I kept working and my friend was telling me about this band that was playing in town called Westbound Train from Boston and she wanted me to come and meet them. I was tired after work and finally on the last day that they were there, she convinced me to go and talk to them. That decision changed the course of my entire life and I went and I met with these really awesome guys. They’re like this soul ska band.
RD: Yeah, I know who they are. I’m a fan.
HJ: My high school band director, Brian Wallace, was the baritone sax player on Sublime’s album 40 oz. To Freedom and he built a record studio. He was recording with Westbound Train so I met these guys and I told them about L.A. and they asked me what I was doing with my music because I played guitar and sang a little back then. Brian had played with them on a couple of tunes and they were like, “You can’t just sit on this, you gotta keep moving.” Then they told me that I should come out and try Boston with it being a big city with a smaller town feel. I then decided to come out and visit for five days and a month later Starbucks let me transfer and I moved to live in Boston full-time at 19 years old in 2005.
It was a crazy leap to move across the country with no real plan but I loved that kind of stuff. Who am I kidding? I still do. I really like big jolts of change and changes of scenery, that’s why I love traveling so much. Those guys helped jump start my career, I sang in their side project The Void Union which they’re still playing around in. You can catch them in Boston a lot. A few of them helped me start what became The Primates.
Jesse Hayes on drums, Rich Graiko on trumpet and Thaddeus Merritt on bass. It was a bunch of them, a rotating cast of characters, which is why we landed on the band name of Hayley Jane & The Primates. They each had their own project and I was kind of borrowing musicians for a while until I found my steady group of guys. Big D & The Kids Table then scooped me up as a backup singer and I was in the ska and reggae scene for a while in the beginning, which is a funny jump from musical theater.
RD: It’s interesting how you’ve made this seamless progression while shifting from different realms of performance art.
HJ: I had to do some serious homework. I remember when Rich left me the box set from Trojan Records and all that rocksteady stuff. I didn’t know a lot of that music, I grew up watching old movies and I was a big Dean Martin fan.
HJ: Yeah, so diving into this very authentic Jamaican rocksteady, reggae and ska music was extremely intimidating. They were opening for people like The Skatalites and this was no joke so I had to learn very quickly. They even challenged me to write a song, I wrote a song called “Plain Jane” and then I wrote another one called “Garden Of Eden,” which were more uptempo reggae sounding tunes. It was a beautiful challenge and I’m very grateful for that experience. When I joined Big D & The Kids Table and helped them make demos with these new female backup singers, that was ska-punk so I was learning how it all evolved and it was really fascinating to me.
Two-tone ska, ska-punk and everything. Then I went on Warped Tour with Big D back in ’08 or ’09 and that was even crazier. Then you’re getting into the punk scene and we were on tour with NOFX and the Bouncing Souls and it was really cool. I was 22 at this time and I was in heaven.
RD: It’s awesome that your musical voyage started that way. As a musician for yourself, what do you consider to be your main influences when it comes to writing music? Are you influenced by contemporary artists or do you always find inspiration in the old school stuff?
HJ: Oh my gosh, both. I love Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald but I’m also a huge Sia fan. I take inspiration from all sorts of places. When people ask who my favorites are I’m a big David Bowie fan, I love Queen, I love Fleetwood Mac. I’m really into late-‘90s hip hop, I’m an easily influenced person. I know that can sound like a bad thing and sometimes it is I suppose but it also means that if something is good, it’s going to penetrate me for sure.
If I hear good music and I hear something new and exciting, or old and exciting, it’s going to be inspirational no matter what. You can walk down the street in New Orleans and you’re going to get inspired. The street music down there is overwhelming, you can walk 50 feet and there will be something new. Then you can walk another 50 feet and there will be something new down there. That’s why I picked up a washboard a few years ago, there’s so much inspiration in the world.
You can get inspired by a painting. There’s numerous ways to channel inspiration from one piece of art into your art, whatever that might be. For me, it’s music.
RD: I can totally see where you’re coming from with that. Outside of you and The Primates, you and Ryan Montbleau have a duo called Yes Darling. The both of you have a lot of chemistry on stage, so how did this project come together?
HJ: Well, that’s a fun one. I’ve been seeing Ryan for a while and we both came up in the Boston scene. He kind of knew who I was when I started getting involved. We hung out after one of his shows once and became friends. One time we hung out and we started to mess around with some writing and what came out of that was “So Wrong.”
We didn’t think that this would evolve into an entire project but this song is about when you’re in a difficult time and you’re having a hard time, it’s best not to dive into anything with somebody else until you’re stable and strong and a whole person. “So Wrong” is basically about the wrong time to start having a relationship with someone. On the total flipside of that, the same day we wrote a song called “Misplaced Anger” which has the chorus of “I love you but I want to kiss your lips and punch you in the face.”
RD: Yep. I love that song.
HJ: Everybody does (laughs). I think everybody can relate to that song but in the end we’re just talking about that little primal thought you have when you’re upset. You know you’d never do it, or hopefully you wouldn’t, but it’s there. It doesn’t change the fact that the thought crosses your mind from time to time. We were laughing after we wrote that one because the first song we wrote together was so heavy and so beautiful.
It felt so good to write this hysterical song. We were talking about messing around with candle wax and sexy references mixed in with this big fight. After we wrote those songs it was kind of it and we went about our separate tours and the next thing I know, I’m standing up watching a Grateful Dead cover band called Dead Set at Nectar’s in Burlington, Vermont because I just moved there. All of a sudden, somebody is next to me, I look over and it’s Ryan. I was like “What are you doing here?” and he said “I live here, what are you doing here?” and I said “I live here.”
It turns out that we both moved to Burlington and didn’t even know it. That’s when we knew that the universe can only give you so many nudges, then you have to wake up and see. We both realized that now we’re in the same town so when we’re off the road, it’ll be very, very easy for us to make this project happen. We started writing like crazy, I would go to his house and we would pump out these songs. Each one was funnier or more beautiful than the next and we really poured ourselves into it because we were passionate about the honesty of it all.
He really helped me let go of the fear of writing extremely honest stuff about relationships and love and loss and jealousy and insecurities that you don’t want to talk about. You start to realize that once you put them out there, there’s a million other people feeling them and if you can have the bravery to sing about these things then people are going to feel better about these flaws. It’s so very special and I’m very proud of it because it was a big step for me and it was very therapeutic for me and Ryan has been an amazing friend through it all. We’re talking about writing some more but that’s how it all happened.
RD: That’s great how from writing music with Ryan lifts you up above the awkwardness of singing about honest and personal struggles. Also, when you look at a lot of different duos, that’s how a lot of the best songs happen and it’s a beautiful thing.
RD: Do you have any plans for Christmas and next year already set?
HJ: Oh yeah, you gotta book well in advance. I’m excited because we have an extremely Vermont heavy New Year’s run. For Christmas, I go and see my family after the holidays in California. I’m taking a three day train trip across the country because I love trains.
RD: That’s very cool.
HJ: I go by myself and I get on a train and I spend three days traveling and meeting cool people on the train. I usually start writing and it’s a very special trip. That’s what I’m excited for but before that, our New Year’s run we’re in Killington at The Pickle Barrel on the 27th, The Cutting Room in New York City on the 28th, The Acoustic in Bridgeport, Connecticut on the 29th, The Rusty Nail in Stowe on the 30th and we’ll be finishing it off with a show at The Snow Barn in West Dover on New Year’s Eve and that usually sells out so get your tickets now.