The thoughts in this review are my own. The album was released today, and I couldn’t wait to write about it, so apologies in advance if some parts aren’t as fleshed out as they could be. I might revise this at some point, but for now, here are my impressions.
Haley Heynderickx’s debut full-length album, I Need to Start a Garden, is one of the most captivating things I’ve listened to in a long while. I first heard “Oom Sha La La” on Spotify and was whisked away by the attentive energy in the song, the way it leapt from simmering confession to cathartic release. Upon listening to the entire album today, I was struck first by the lush instrumentation and rich blend of sounds—“Show You a Body” has magical moments of this where a shimmer of strings, chimes, and piano fills the silent spaces between Heynderickx’s sparse guitar-strumming and deeply inflective voice.
The arrangements, though, are cherries on top of the icing on top of the cake: the real home-hitter is the sparkling humility and affection that saturates the album. (Even though Heynderickx has described her music as “doom folk,” I think it’s never without a tinge of hope or redemption). And I must say, the cohesiveness of these songs is immensely satisfying. Often, and lately, musicians tend to disregard the form of the (LP) album as an opportunity to tell a specific, intimate story, instead using it simply as a means to assemble a handful of loosely related singles. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the latter, it seems that there’s so much more to be gained from inviting the listener along on a coherent, tightly woven journey.
There are garden references sprinkled throughout the album, as suggested by the title. But the album isn’t just about plants and bugs and dirt, though it harnesses that type of imagery for its metaphors—it’s about the cyclical passage of nature that intersects with our linear experience of time. It’s about love and self-love. One may think back to a well-known garden story, Adam and Eve, and draw a few striking connections: the garden is an old tale, one of the first human tales, yet it is deconstructed and reborn with every passing generation. Growth and decay are inseparable in gardens. In “Show You a Body,” Heynderickx sings with her folk-laden voice, “I am humbled by breaking down.” It is only by confronting this inevitable process that one can understand what it means to live.
With discovery comes a sense of loss, but sometimes loss is the first step toward empowerment. “Worth It” is perhaps the most uncertain song on the album, but also the most daring. When Heynderickx sings, “maybe I’ve been selfish all along,” there is a moment of doubt and resignation. But the song builds and builds, and midway, she is daring you to plop her into a box, literal or metaphorical, because no matter how small the space, she will take root anyway. By the end of the song, she concludes, over and over, as if willing herself to believe: “Maybe I, maybe I’ve been worth it.”
“The Bug Collector” is a delightful favorite of the album. It’s subtle and has a soft humor about it. The guitar accompaniment has a witty clarity to its sound, and the trombone warms your heart. It’s such an inane thing to be afraid of bugs, those little fuckers (re: the lyrics), but my god, if someone caught bugs for me, I’d swoon. “And I try my best / To prove that nothing’s out to get you.” That’s like, love right there.
A similar type of fondness is present in “Jo,” which has some of the most tender lyrics in the album: “And you tended your garden / Like heaven and hell / And you built the birds’ houses / To see if it helped at all.” Heynderickx’s voice shines in this one—it’s dynamic, haunting, desperate, and intimate. Here, the garden imagery blooms into bountiful potential, acting as refuge “like honeycomb / holding the bee in the folds.”
But again, the love that tends to I Need to Start a Garden isn’t limited to relationships with other people—it’s also about allowing oneself the space to dream and be a little reckless. “Untitled God Song” plays with imagination, rethinking God as a mother-like figure with “thick hips and big lips.” It’s an introspective, meandering piece that traverses great distances, from those tiny details to unmistakable grandeur: “When you’re drunk near a sunset, look straight in her eyes / She’s the quick glimpse of heaven, / forgetting her headlights are on.” The instruments, a blend of percussion, trombone, and electric guitar, swell into a brief moment of symphonic harmonies, and the effect is kind of breathtaking.
Following this, we arrive at “Oom Sha La La,” the surprising and charming crest of the album. From the lofty, giddy headspace of reimagining God, Heynderickx slips back into a world where milk turns sour and olives get old. While there’s something humorously tragic about the line, “The brink of my existence is essentially a comedy,” there’s also, in a perverse way, an admission of self-acceptance. After Heynderickx sheds her singing voice and belts, “I NEED TO START A GARDEN,” the beat that follows is colored with shock and satisfaction. As listeners, we witness a rare occurrence not only in music, but in life: the revelation of growing into oneself.
The album begins with “No Face,” which is a gorgeous lament on the space between people and the “bridge between worlds” that haunts relationships, no matter how small or brief. It ends with “Drinking Song,” a soft chantey (not in form, but in spirit) tinged with apocalyptic hope. By the last verse, that impenetrable space between people has been reduced: “Yet everyone is singing along, / The good and the bad and the gone.” It’s a soft-spoken conclusion that you don’t want to end, at least not for a little while longer.
There’s a video of Heynderickx performing at Paste Studio, and in it, she spontaneously invites people to sing along to the chorus of “Oom Sha La La.” In between verses, she says, “Luckily the whole point of this song is to be embarrassed, and to see how much you can get away with being embarrassed.” Similarly, if you’ve never done it before, starting a garden is a clunky and awkward process. Once you accept the initial disappointment and potential for failure, though, you are gifted with the opportunity to make something beautiful, and to share that beauty with others.
In many ways, I Need to Start a Garden is a strange album, filled with strange characters and even stranger landscapes. Heynderickx’s quiet triumph, then, is in making these songs familiar to us, and imbuing them with enough sincerity and grace to make it seem as though we’ve known them, in our hearts, all along.