The first time Hayley Thompson-King moved to Boston, she got lost on the one-way streets. Trapped in the brooding awkwardness of a U-Haul in a then-ungentrified corner of Cambridge, she wasn’t sure where to turn in the pre-smartphone era, yet somehow she already felt charmed by the city. It was 2002. The alt-country singer-songwriter and classically trained musician had moved here for the first time. Born and raised in Florida, she left her hometown to study classical music at New York University. When that wrapped, she left for grad school at New England Conservatory. Like most Boston transplants, she left for New York City once more and then dipped her toes in Los Angeles, but eventually she made her way back in 2008, unable to deny the city caught her heart for good.
Thompson-King sits across from me at Loyal 9 Cafe in East Cambridge, a hideaway breakfast joint that’s surprisingly modest for the area but full of charisma. She seems to mirror both, even when she explains her love for the city. “Boston really supports music,” she says, hands moving with excitement. “You don’t have to play with bands who sound like you or are in the same realm as you. That may be because, while we have a wonderful music scene, we don’t have music of a music industry, which preserves this youthful passion. The way I learned about record labels was through friends running their own. It shaped me as an artist, and when I then go to places like Los Angeles or Nashville, I feel like I’m unique in a very positive way—and people there tell me that, too.”
Thompson-King’s love of the city is crucial to her narrative. After all, she’s got a fuzzy, country-rooted heart that manages to sound at home in the corner of New England. She makes it work. Being a country musician in Boston isn’t the easiest, unless you’re pursuing folk punk à la Dropkick Murphys, but she found her home in offshoot genres. She ruled guitar in lo-fi trio Banditas and joined psych-rock icons Major Stars as a singer. In mere months, she was solidifying her place in the music scene, including behind an apron at the Middle East as a bartender.
Several years back, though, Thompson-King decided to look inward. She kicked off her solo career and found it suited her better than expected. Chances are that’s because she floats freely between influences, dubbing her sound as “alt-classical” rather than traditional Americana or country. Her past bands’ influences can be felt on her new LP, Psychotic Melancholia. On single “Teratoma,” she sways through a blues rock fire. Elsewhere, like on “Large Hall, Slow Decay,” she embraces honky-tonk Southern stomping, and she warps her voice to enter a range comparable to Nikki Lane or late-night country stars. It makes sense she can flex it that easily: She majored in opera performance during grad school and spends most of her days teaching private voice lessons to students in high school.
Psychotic Melancholia sounds like a record that poured out of Thompson-King’s soul because that’s exactly what happened. That’s where it gets its name. Thompson-King grew up fawning over 19th-century German composer Robert Schumann, a so-called punk rocker of the classical world. He died of psychotic melancholia. When she discovered that, Thompson-King connected with the phrase on a higher level.
“We all have it, or so I think, being driven mad by this waiting,” she says of Psychotic Melancholia. “The Germans have so many words for tiny variants of emotions, and some people say melancholia is the time where you’re waiting for inspiration. The idea of being driven mad by that? It’s funny, but it’s real. You are full of an idea—you’re not waiting for it to come to you, because you definitely know what the idea is—but the issue is that you can’t get it out of you when you want to. Artists and non-artists have this feeling, it’s universal, and I feel like it’s allowed people to relate to the title.”
Waiting for inspiration to leave your body and take shape in the form it’s meant to is best described as vomiting, or at least that’s the case in her eyes. Thompson-King starts describing an old David Lynch installation, Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times), that illustrates her point of view. “I tell my students that singing is like throwing up, because it is,” she says. “You have to wait for it to come to you, and when it does, you have to let it out—out of everything: your mouth, your nose, just all of the air. You get out of the way, release all your muscles, and allow this thing to let it escape without being choked. And suddenly, everything feels better. You feel healthy.”
So that’s what she did on Psychotic Melancholia—and that’s why it sounds so damn good. Thompson-King had her own life stories that took shape as bile. These songs are her way to turn experiences, thoughts, and emotions—all of which had been prominent in her life but otherwise glossed over in regard to coming to terms with them or wringing them for their worth—into tangible ways to understand her own past.
One of the most recurrent examples is “Dopesick,” a slow-burning number that allowed her to tap into her parents and grandparents’ sorrow. While her family raised her well—Thompson-King recounts times her father roped cattle and then tossed her atop a horse—there was an unspoken pain they had in their past that they sheltered her from. In some deep sense, she needed to address what was withheld. “Living with you / living so blue / is like being dopesick,” she sings during the chorus. It’s a simplistic phrase, but to her it takes on much deeper meaning, and replaying it live is a cathartic way experience the sentiment as if in hypnotherapy.
Then comes “Melancholia 1,” which gets its name from an old etching of the same title. In it, a woman sits amongst dozens of tools, chin atop her hand, staring upward mid-thought. Thompson-King wrote about Lot’s wife, one of the characters in the Bible, at several times during the album—she even named a song after her, which discusses how she was defiant and didn’t obey God. On this track, Thompson-King decides to capture the moment where Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt. She’s not dead. Her heart’s just beating incredibly slowly. In Thompson-King’s mind, that means God didn’t kill Lot’s wife. Rather, he saved her. And it turned out that tale from the Bible had more to do with an uncovered moment from her own life than she ever expected.
“This guy Lot was terrible by all accounts—he fathered children with their daughters!—yet his wife is considered the villain in the story. She stands there to watch the city burn for all eternity because his true love was this city. After I wrote the song, I took a step back and realized: Holy shit, this is about my life,” says Thompson-King. “When 9/11 happened, I not only lived in Brooklyn, but I watched it. I stood on top of a roof where my friends were standing, and I literally saw bodies. It was hard. I never talked about it, even in therapy, and I pretty much decided it was time for me to leave New York. Obviously I left for grad school, but I felt ripped from the city, and after I wrote this song I realized this was the first time I addressed that.”
Psychotic Melancholia has several ties to the Bible, but it’s not all about religion. It’s about storytelling, legends, and debunking the two. After all, Thompson-King was raised Episcopalian. She just obsessed over these stories as a kid because they left so much uncovered.
“The Bible is endlessly fascinating to me,” she says. “I never understood what was right and what was wrong. Did Judas go to hell? Questions like that, which were never met with an answer, I now can return to so I can point out what’s odd, questions I had, and to accept that I don’t have the definitive answers. I didn’t intend for [these biblical references] to be a feminist statement, but these are characters, almost always female, who were doomed as being totally wrong and bad even though they didn’t go against God any more so than the men around them.”
It’s the type of zoned-in obsession that drives any artist to create a large body of work. Fittingly enough, when she was at the start of plotting this album, Thompson-King found herself with an incredible opportunity, one that only Boston could have granted her. Though, if we’re being specific, it’s Somerville she should thank.
Somerville started a new artist-in-residence program, and Thompson-King is one of the first recipients to be chosen. Five artists of varying backgrounds were picked for the first installment of this residency. Somerville put them up in brand-new, beautiful, discounted housing with the intent of that space being used to help them further their creative endeavors. Thompson-King is the only musician of the bunch. Instead of pressuring her, it opened up new floodways, and now she’s quickly learning how this style of live-work life can propel her career forward. The most obvious example of such is Psychotic Melancholia, which she finished while living in the residence housing.
“I don’t know if I could do what I do or have done what I’ve done if I was anywhere else,” she says earnestly. “When you’re making something truly different, when it’s in that embryo stage, Boston won’t crush it. The scene at large will help it grow. I can point to so many people who supported me, including DigBoston about my EP a few years ago. When people are interested in what you’re doing, they support it, and that allows for so much to happen, even for someone doing something as nontraditional as weird country music like I am.”
HAYLEY THOMPSON-KING, THESE WILD PLAINS. THU 8.31. LORETTA’S LAST CALL, 1 LANSDOWNE ST., BOSTON. 9PM/21+/FREE. LORETTASLASTCALL.COM