Hearing Aubrey Haddard’s music feels like you’re being washed over with nothing but pure sunshine. The 24-year-old soul singer-songwriter writes songs that are bursting with life, the kind that boast a radiant warmth, in a way that feels, simply put, just right. There’s a visceral rawness in her voice. It’s crisp and loud, like she has the lungs of a whole choir, but flexible in its perfectionism by way of emotion. Hearing her sing makes you wonder how much of this sound is studio trickery and how much is live energy captured in a moment, a lightning bug bottled in a glass jar.
But more than that, you wonder what it is that makes someone glow the way Haddard does. She doesn’t always sing about perfect scenarios or romanticized gestures, but that doesn’t stop her voice from filling you with the optimism that would come with had she been. How do you sing like you’ve been filled with the spirit of springtime itself? How do you insert a coy wink into a visual-free medium like music? How do you sing like Aubrey Haddard?
Meeting her in person, those questions answer themselves. Haddard greets you with a hug and gentle eyes, even if you’ve never met. Freckles sparkle every inch of her skin, a jovial look even if it’s inescapable genetics. Her voice, unlike the cooing her in her songs, is easygoing, comfortable, and, if you listen closely, has a soft rasp hidden deep underneath. She fills the room with warmth. It’s tempting to assume Haddard’s traits come from an encouraging environment and well-off upbringing, but it’s clear her confidence is the aftereffect of growing up with an inherent, assured type of determination that is hers and hers alone.
Growing up in the Hudson Valley, Haddard found her way to music almost immediately. Though she played in a handful of bands, including a Red Hot Chili Peppers cover band and her school’s choir, she credits her distinct drive to a special afterschool music group called Rock and Soul Review that her middle school teacher Charlie Seymour founded. In it, Mr. Seymour played guitar, her social studies teacher played drums, her science teacher played bass, and a handful of students joined in on other instruments. The group performed three times a year. Haddard joined as a vocalist and quickly learned how to set up a microphone, lead a band, and be part of a contemporary ensemble. “He definitely made everything possible from the start,” she says. “It was the highlight of my young life.” While it put her ahead of the game technically speaking, it also instilled the quiet lessons of humanizing teachers beyond the classroom, creating cross-generational bonds, and letting students break down the barriers of what, when, and how to be a musician.
Hudson Valley hid a blues scene of its own beyond the middle school walls, too. Haddard’s parents encouraged her to sing, and she slowly found herself wanting to pursue it seriously. Her mother brought her to neighboring towns to sit in with the old blues jazz guys. At the time, Haddard was 15 years old—too young to go by herself, much less drive. “I realized I knew I wanted to do this, but I didn’t know how to make a career out of it,” she says. “It wasn’t until I started applying to colleges for chemistry and engineering that I realized I didn’t want to pursue academics. I spent a gap year in Senegal instead, and that’s when my priorities made themselves known.” When she returned in 2013, Haddard took another year to figure out what she wanted to do before applying to, and entering, Berklee School of Music.
For all of these opportunities, it feels somewhat surprising to learn Haddard never dealt with stage fright—or at least not until she began playing guitar. It’s been nearly a decade since she first learned open chords, but it’s only recently that she’s been able to feel more comfortable with her skills on the instrument. A comically accessible yet difficult instrument, the guitar posed a handful of problems, most of them small, if she wanted to become a dynamic player. Once she broke the seal on diligence, the result of equal parts practice and patience, she became more comfortable as a songwriter, intentionally breaking her musical habits: neo-soul syncopated strumming patterns, using the same melodies, creating nearly identical arcs.
The real joy in Haddard’s music is her voice, that ability to belt not just a string of words at high volume, but singing with tangible energy, a slice of joy that slides right out of her ribcage in one piece. Honing it has been a gradual process. Like any singer, Haddard has her fair share of musical idols and the obsessions that follow suit trying to become them—the sheer power of Susan Tedeschi, the gentle cadance of Bonnie Raitt, the wild madman style of Jeff Buckley—by transcribing their vocal parts. Perhaps the most essential work done to her voice is the act of listening to it. As a musician who has recorded on albums, projects, and singles for other artists, Haddard observes the way she sounds and, subconsciously and sometimes intentionally, modifies her voice. But for the most part, it’s a natural instrument, one she’s whittled without much, if any, pushback.
“Not to sound snooty, but I feel like I had this voice for a long time,” says Haddard, lowering her voice as if ashamed to hear the words out loud. “I remember being in choir and hesitating because I had a strong voice. It was hard to meld with other voices even though I loved singing with other people. In a choir setting, things are different. It wasn’t until my mom took me to see Susan Tedeschi live that I realized that’s okay. Here was this woman with this huge, powerhouse voice, and she was killing it. I saw someone who had a similar type of voice as mine and she was totally celebrated for it. It changed the way I saw my voice and how to utilize it.”
Eventually, Haddard reached a crossroads in her life. Working full time at a restaurant, attending school full time, and trying to perform as often as she could in between, she found herself losing music opportunities because her schedule simply didn’t have enough time. After turning down a string of gigs, she finally decided to bite the bullet. In 2015, she dropped out of Berklee to pursue music as a full-time job.
What she learned along the way, though, helped her become a more astute writer. Haddard wrote for a funk group, was in a jazzy soul project, and sang in a rock band, using each outlet as a way to figure out how to serve songs in different genre settings. Perhaps the most helpful outlets were a collaborative band she helped form back home, the blue-turned-neo-soul-turned-prog group Breakfast for the Boys, and the New Review, a funk-bent group with its roots in Berklee’s scene where she gets to be a self-proclaimed diva onstage.
If it wasn’t for sound engineer Matt Peiffer, Haddard wouldn’t have jump-started her solo career so quickly either. After finishing a Breakfast for the Boys record early with him, she demoed her debut EP last minute, utilizing the excess studio time. Afterwards, Peiffer approached her once more, eager to record a “passion project” of Haddard’s choosing. Naturally, she decided to record her debut solo album, Blue Part, a longtime goal that was bound to happen sooner or later.
Of course, this wouldn’t happen without the help of her bandmates, bassist Charley Ruddell and drummer Josh Strmic. Both members add an instrumental energy to her music, likely the result of how eager they were to jam with her. In March of 2016, Haddard performed one of her first solo shows opening for the band Strmic was in at the time. Throughout her set, he was dancing in the front row, cheering her on and filming videos. He approached her afterward and asked if he could work with her in some capacity. Around the same time, she met Ruddell in New York City when they shared a bill together. The two hit it off so well that they started dating long distance. Though she was hesitant to work with him, as she didn’t want to damage their budding relationship, Haddard eventually caved. The trio share an easygoing ability to perform as a unit. Ruddell and Strmic call her out all the time, offering gentle suggestions on how to change the music, ultimately pushing her abilities to the next level.
You can hear that on the record. Blue Part takes much of its inspiration from shared energy, specifically the romance between Ruddell and Haddard. The title refers to the hottest part of the flame, an analogy for the person who ignites the best part of herself, burning at the hottest she possibly could while creating a captivating look. In short, it’s a love concept album. Though that may seem like an exaggeration, it’s obvious when you lean in close to the lyrics, as each song follows its own single-word theme. It starts with “Seaweed & Sand,” a slow dance opener that centers around longing. “Charley” deals with the confusion of not knowing if your love is rational. The melancholic “Lullaby” deals with the loneliness of distance. “I Should Know Better” dismisses her past “bullshit” to embrace her new love life. “Blue Part” dives into the deeper love of a relationship. “What I Need Now” tracks the desperation of needing to be closer to your partner. “Take Me Under” is the extremely sensual indulgent track, channeling its own sexy narrative. Then the album wraps up with “Save Me,” an outburst of devotion.
“Everybody runs on love,” says Haddard. “It’s nice having a record with a coherent theme [like that]. Right now, I’m working on new songs about death and stuff, so having a string of songs that make sense together is so exciting.”
Blue Part is a mesmerizing listen, especially when keeping an eye out for the details. There are Greek mythology allusions (“Did I fly too close to the sun? / A love Promethean / Will you bring me back when I come undone?”), deceptively dirty spoken word (“Honey drip, passion pit / I twist against your tightened grip / Wet, thick / Muffled screams, hold me down”), and scaling guitar lines (“Charley”). A traditional hybrid of folk rock and neo-soul will be found side by side along a dark Latin bossa song. It’s an album bursting with life as it capture a year in the life of a couple. While Haddard’s remarkable vocals steal the show, her commitment to improving on guitar—halfway through the recording process, she bought a new guitar and pedal to encourage herself to get better—and patience with mixing show how much additional effort pays off on the album.
We’re proud to premiere Blue Part in full this week. The solo debut from Aubrey Haddard has been a long time coming, and yet it sounds so natural. There’s a whole lot of heart to soak in, and talking with Haddard makes it impossible to imagine the record being any other way. She’s friendly and inviting, calm and energetic, the type of musician who you want to hang out with offstage as a friend. So when she gets up from our table at Lamplighter Brewery midconversation because she sees a family she knows across the street, it feels like a musical moment happening in real time. The children’s faces crack into wide smiles, as does the mother’s, and Haddard reaches out to give them all a hug. It’s the type of immediate happiness Haddard brings to life, the kind you feel just being in her presence—perhaps the most clear-cut mirror image of what listening to Blue Part feels like, on record and off.
AUBREY HADDARD (ALBUM RELEASE SHOW), FLOYD FUJI, SOULELUJAH. THU 7.19. LIZARD LOUNGE CAMBRIDGE, 1667 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. 8PM/21+/$8. LIZARDLOUNGECLUB.COM