By Tara Bursey
Our IWD artist profiles continue with this moving interview with Toronto-based singer/songwriter Piper Hayes. Learn about how Piper came to be a musician, and how music for her is an important agent for personal change, self-empowerment and transcendence.
Come see Piper perform at this Saturday’s International Women’s Day Sing-A-Long at Worker’s Arts and Heritage Centre.
Young women are rarely encouraged to pick up a guitar. How did you first start playing one? Who were the earliest women singers/songwriters to inspire you?
I started playing guitar when I was 12 and 13. It was one of the instruments offered up for us to learn at my alternative middle school in downtown Toronto. I remember learning the basic chords and tons of songs from my parent’s generation. The first song I learned in fact was “Leaving On a Jet Plane.” Once high school hit, I didn’t pick up the guitar again really until I was 23.
I had taken violin as a kid and studied music theory on and off throughout my life and always sang, so my understanding of music was more solid than I realized. When I brought my guitar down to Manhattan, I was completing my last semester of a two-year musical theatre program. I had trouble learning other people’s songs as I only remembered how to play a few chords, so I took it upon myself to write my own. I still had no intention of being a singer-songwriter much less a musician at that point. I had no idea that I might actually be good. For me, at the time, it was therapy.
I soon started sharing my work with friends and family, and the response was overwhelming. I quickly became aware that writing and performing my own work was the direction I needed to head in. I was tired of what was being produced in the world of musical theatre and suddenly music allowed me to govern what, how and where I play and ultimately what I want to say as an artist. It gives me complete creative control and is teaching me how to stand in my own power. Over the past 6 years I slowly taught myself how to play guitar more proficiently, and in many ways I would call myself a self-taught guitar player.
I grew up on good music. My parents were the Baby Boomer hippy generation and they have always had excellent taste. They grew up on music that was held to a different standard. I remember always being really fantastic at memorizing lyrics and learning melodies and even harmonies very easily. Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Tina Turner, Cat Stevens, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Aaron Neville, and Paul Simon were all on regular rotation in our house. I remember one summer I just couldn’t get enough Tracy Chapman. I played her albums on repeat one summer, and without knowing it she heavily influenced my own writing. I would also say Alanis Morrisette and The Be Good Tanyas where huge influences as well.
I find myself less influenced by ‘good musicians’ or song-writers, but rather by artistic warriors who use their art as a way to effect change. People who take the way they experience and see the world, and create something that makes them and those around them better. For what is art without consciousness? Is it art at all?
How does the music you make contribute to dialogue about work and labour, feminism or social justice?
It is questions like this that bring tears to my eyes. I’ve always felt incredibly interested in raising up the voices of women, including my own. From a young age I was often told I was ‘too loud’. My exuberant, booming voice and persona always seemed as if they were too much for the rest of the world. So in my life I sought out destructive ways to tone myself down.
I dealt with a ten year-long eating disorder, on and off depression and suicidal thoughts. It took me a lot of time and support to make myself healthy again. On my road to recovery I saw many therapists, psychologists, nutritionists, doctors, went to group therapy and eventually a two month day program at Toronto General Hospital (TGH). One of the last things that helped me kick the can was my voice teacher. She is trained in something called laryngal posturing, where she messages the muscles surrounding the larynx and voice box in order to free the voice and retrain our bodies to engage the right muscles while using our voice. I shared everything with her. She became my teacher, my mother, my therapist and my support. She understood me.
One day she said to me “Piper, isn’t it interesting that the very things you chose to engage in (bulimia), subconsciously or otherwise, not only made you physically smaller, but also reduced your ability to make sound?” See when you throw up all the time, your tongue and muscles in your throat get very tight. If the tongue is very tight than we are limited as to what sounds we can produce. She followed up with “Piper you always felt you were too much, this was your way of making yourself safe. You were young and you didn’t feel safe. Your decision (conscious or not) to be bulimic was a smart one, it was your way of protecting yourself. Eventually the negative detriment of such acts outweighed the positive, and that is where we are now, figuring out healthy ways to feel safe.” I had never thought I was smart for being bulimic, I always wondered what was wrong with me. I came from a loving family and always had ‘enough’, so this information gave me a new framework for my illness. It allowed me to fully explore the reclaiming of myself and in turn my voice became something to live for.
To me this was the revelation I needed and as a result I want to spread it far and wide. I want to empower women, men, and trans alike. Misogyny affects us all negatively. I want to share my story and create opportunity for others to share theirs. Music has the power to heal. Learning how to use our voices in a healthy way is probably one of the most positive things we can do for ourselves. Communication and connection are basic needs for humans.
The music industry, like all industries I imagine, is a place where I constantly have to prove myself because I am a woman. I won’t take that lying down anymore, and I want to support whoever else out there needs it. The only way to create change is through unity. I will always use my music as a way to connect and create awareness.
I used to run competitively, people would ask me about who inspired me, when I studied musical theatre people would ask who would you like to emulate, and now I’m a musician and people ask me who where your influences…Well for me it’s always been simple, I am inspired by healers, not professions. I am inspired by those who take their platform and spread light, and now I aspire to be this person.
Did you make an interesting discoveries in the process of learning a historic labour song to cover for WAHC’s IWD Singalong Event? How can historic folk songs be related to contemporary struggles around labour and feminism?
Oh yes, I sure did. I had many tears and love and sadness and feelings of pride. There’s so much history. There’s so much music. There are so many women and men fighting and working for a better place here on Earth. This is such a positive thing and makes me feel less alone.
I found many songs about unions, which seem to be less relevant today, except somehow the words of the songs still ring very true. Lyrics and melody have power, they move us in ways that maybe we are even unaware of. The songs I chose to share moved me from the minute they started, so I investigated further. I didn’t realize how emotional I would get in my research. Sometimes when we feel sadness we feel the years and history too, we don’t just feel sad or get angry for ourselves, but all who’s ever faced the same struggles and oppression.
I was so honoured to be included in this event, as its intentions are right up my alley. I love the idea of people coming together to sing. Then you add direction, and a focus on women, and I light right up. I think that the songs being shared at this event are relevant today, because some things have changed, but we still have a long way to go in terms of providing equal opportunities for all humans. We live in a time when women are still facing repression. I want to be a part of reclaiming our bodies, our thoughts, and our actions. There are many tasks that go unaccounted for and many expectations placed on us that go unrewarded. It is time to change this. And what better way to do so then looking at and immersing ourselves in song.