“Sometimes it’s hard to believe in yourself when there are so many people looking at you,” a young woman with a black bob says softly as she tunes her electric guitar. In the glow of aged Christmas lights, in the hot, humid air under a ceiling so low it feels inches away from crushing me, Haley Heynderickx finishes tuning her guitar and plays the most minor of minor chords.
I don’t know who Haley Heynderickx is. It’s Tuesday afternoon, and I’m at Sahara Lounge for the She Shreds SXSW 2018 show, which has quickly relocated after a permitting issue. I’ve shown up seeking some loud rock music courtesy of Shopping and French Vanilla—and I’ll get just that. But, at the moment, I’m enchanted and stilled by this quiet three-piece on stage. There’s a vulnerability in this music and in the singer-guitarist’s between-song banter that creates an intense sense of intimacy across the tightly packed crowd.
The quiver in her voice and the shimmer of her fingerpicked Telecaster strings is chilling. The guitar’s electric hum and her warbly, emotive vibrato strike a nerve in me like no other show I’ll see over the week ahead. It all seems simple enough, but the result feels somewhere between Patsy Cline and Sufjan Stevens.
She plays a song called “No Face” and explains it’s so named after the lonesome black-and-white spirit from Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Spirited Away, a creature who wants to love but doesn’t understand how… so he eats people. It sounds silly on paper, but, like everything I’ll see Heynderickx play, it’s delivered via a medium that feels so genuine as to transplant emotions or experiences you’ve never had—instilling in the listener a ghost of a sad or lovely memory that’s not your own but somehow speaks a truth that is yours.
It’s near what I can only imagine it would have been like to unknowingly see Jeff Buckley or Elliott Smith live—or maybe a living artist. Then again, maybe not. Heynderickx’s haunting voice at times feels like it comes from another world and time.
After the experience, I need more, so I squeeze into The Sidewinder Thursday night for her evening showcase as it’s underway, following a bit of one-in-one-out watching from the sidewalk. Inside is noisy with the clamor of friendly conversation and drink orders and the general persistent din of SXSW—sirens and soundchecks and bass—from all directions. On stage, Heynderickx’s band is now complete. Back again are drummer Phillip Rogers and vocalist/keyboardist Lily Breshears, but this show they’re joined by Denzel Mendoza on trombone. The three musicians’ additions to the music are subtle but perfect: there in all the right places and at a light touch or pulled back to let Heynderickx’s words land alone when needed.
The highlight of both sets proves to be “Worth It,” an 8-minute multi-part epic of yes-and-no uncertainties that twists and tangles, oscillating between peaks and valleys, whispers and near screams, slow twang and almost punk-like cathartic crescendos. “I guess you should know that I don’t need you there… but I need you sometimes. But not all the time. I need you there,” Heynderickx sings as the song takes its first turn. She ends on its closing stretch singing with a growing intensity, “Maybe I’ve been selfish… maybe I’ve been selfless…. maybe I’ve been worthless… maybe I’ve been worth it.”
Even describing the show again now feels like recalling a particularly potent scene from a movie, one hard to describe without feeling a lump form in your throat. Whatever magic Heynderickx and her fellow music-makers have tapped into is real. Or at least it was to me.
It’s over. At The Sidewinder, those to my left and right seem unfazed, but I feel cut in half. I wander out into the night and on to some other thing, but I feel at least temporarily changed—softer and maybe more empathetic, having the residue of callused, indifferent unfeeling washed away by the lovely sound of Haley Heynderickx and her guitar.
Haley Heynderickx plays again tonight at the Toms Austin store on South Congress at 8 p.m. and at 1 p.m. Saturday at Cheer Up Charlie’s indoor stage for Brooklyn Vegan and Margin Walker’s Lost Weekend 2.