The age of reality television has distorted all sense of reality, the phrase itself becoming an oxymoron. Nothing on television is real. All of it is an illusion—manufactured, manicured, pruned and polished for delivery into a living room. This distortion of reality not only affects those who watch and yearn for that life, but those who lived through it.
Portland’s Haley Johnsen has come a long way since her American Idol days in 2012, but her time on the show did just this: Distort her view of what it meant to be an artist. The long-running series painted a picture of glamor, of instant superstardom in the wake of the exposure it bestowed. Though she made it far in the series’ 11th season, she was eliminated during the semifinals. Still, her time spent being beamed into the TV sets and hearts of America surely must have given her a step up. As she admits though, her ego born from Idol then faced a stark truth.
“This isn’t a business where just because you’ve written a good song, people are gonna give a shit,” she says. “I don’t think I fully realized what it really meant to be a musician.”
Though Johnsen’s Idol days may have warped her understanding of what it means to be a musician, her time spent since has allowed her to grow, learn and separate from that part of her story. She has been plenty busy in the years since and, in the past few months alone, wrapped a European tour with Rola Music, toured with Big Wild as a bassist and backing vocalist, and went on the road opening for Portland’s own Joseph.
To continue her 2019 hot streak, Johnsen is set to release her debut full-length album, Golden Days, in May. Recorded in NE Portland at Flora Recording & Playback with producer Gus Berry, the record took only five days to lay down; however, the lyrical heart of the album took Johnsen over a year and a half to work through and put to paper.
“It wasn’t inspired by one event or one person,” Johnsen says. “It’s just kind of inspired by me navigating through life.”
In its 12 tracks, Johnsen uses a soundscape of rock, folk and pop to come to terms with her own place in the industry, providing snapshots of her growth not just as an artist but as a human being. For her, the record represents that time in between then and now, between the life she thought was laid out for her and the true journey she was thrust into.
On the album’s lead single “Everything Comes Back Again,” she sings: “I’m driving on a spare tire once again, got enough gas just to make amends.”
With this first line, Johnsen captures the true reality of life as an artist. It brings her down from the pedestal of TV star and into a brazenly candid moment: driving across the Marquam Bridge in a car she’s owned since she was 16, sporting its second spare tire that month.
This new image that Johnsen paints covers up whatever expectations may have come with the Idol experience. Golden Days presents Johnsen with a new maturity, fully coming into her own as someone who has grown and become confident in her place in life.
“I’ve met so many musicians who are playing almost every night just because they love it. They might have a goal in mind, but just because that’s not exactly where they’re at now doesn’t mean they’re gonna be walking around every day with a stick up their ass because they’re not where they wanna be,” Johnsen says.
“That’s the most toxic place to be: feeling like you’re owed something. Just because you’ve worked hard doesn’t mean anybody owes you anything. And I think that was a big wake-up call for me in coming out of [Idol], learning how to enjoy music just for loving music.”
UPCOMING RELEASE: Golden Days out May 24