Have you seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? When I ask Laura Hickli to compare her life to a movie, she mentions the classic Jim Carrey sad-rom-com without skipping a beat. Apparently, people compare her to Kate Winslet’s character in the film. She giggles, thoughtfully contemplating why.
“How do people like me?”
Laura’s personality might remind some of a blue haired heart-breaker, but her life reads more like a Beethoven biography. She’s a classically trained pianist who began teaching others at age 12. Laura’s been involved in several musical projects including her band Time Boy (“I think somebody called it neo-prog meets math/post-rock”) and she now holds a role as a music educator at the National Music Centre in Calgary.
“[Growing up] I didn’t know the word artist, I was just always philosophical, always thinking, always stuck in my head about things. And I noticed that I experienced things at a very deep level, and I didn’t always understand why I always reacted so strongly to things when, other people, it didn’t seem to bother them at all.”
“Taking piano lessons, I didn’t know that music would become the place where I could go to express those feelings. But once it started happening I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is amazing.’ It’s just so safe. It’s the safest space you could possibly be. It’s just you and an instrument. What could possibly go wrong?”
Laura released her debut solo album, Flowstate, in late 2017. It’s bare-boned, brooding, and it’s beautiful.
“The whole album is just meditative and good to listen to on the bus when you’re staring out the window. Good album for first thing in the morning.”
“A lot of people have been like, ‘I cry to your album all the time.’ The most common feedback I get is; “Thank you for affirming who I am and how I really feel in your songs.”
The album has also received accolades from industry professionals. The video for her single “Midnight”, directed by Doug Cook, won “Best Music Video” at the Edmonton Short Film Festival and the Alberta Media Productions Industries Association and her album ‘Flowstate’ continues to get radio play across Canada.
“It makes me feel like it’s okay to feel my feelings. And to express myself. Like, in my rawest moments. I’m so thankful that people are receptive to it. I’m really proud of it.”
People think it’s weird when someone happy makes sad songs. These people are logically trying to work through an emotional response: why wouldn’t you just write about the good things… right?
“When I’m on stage, or when I’m in the recording studio with my solo stuff or writing my solo stuff, whoever that person is, is 100 percent genuinely me. Whereas when I’m interacting with people or doing something other than that, I always feel like I’m missing something, I always feel just a little bit off or like, ‘Am I being real? Is this who I am?’”
“I’m doing a pretty good job recently with trying to bring out whoever that person is when I’m honest and real by talking about the issues in my life and the depression and the anxiety that I face, just honestly in my music as well in my real life. That’s what I’m trying to get better at. It’s hard. Especially since there’s already so much stigma on talking about that kind of thing in the world.”
She laughs timidly; it’s one of those laughs you give when you’ve started to open up but are still a little unsure of whether or not someone is on your level. She’s a mental health advocate and her music reflects that.
“You never know if you’re gonna be accepted or judged for it. But, then, to know you’re doing it live, or maybe not even live, but you’re recording it and whatever you say is going to be held there for a while…You have to be at a really good place of homeostasis in your own life to be like ‘Yup, I’m ready to share what makes me hurt with a stranger.’”
I totally understand, and I hope my nods come off sincerely. My podcast series Less Depressed Creatives is entirely based around the idea that we all go through the same mental health issues as artists, and that it’s an issue we don’t talk enough about.
“I’m actually kind of scared for that second album, because there’s always that, ‘What if my second album doesn’t impact people as much as that one did?’”
“And that’s my problem, because the second you start thinking about how your album’s going to impact other people you’re no longer writing it for yourself. So, I’m going to make some serious efforts to ensure that when I’m recording these songs that I’ve written for myself, I’m not thinking about other people whatsoever.”
“I’ve got to just be like, ‘no, this is my second album, it’s a completely different ballgame’. Sure, probably lots of the sounds are going to be the same because it’s coming from me and I’m the same artist, but I need to accept the fact that my music needs to grow and change as I get older. I’m hoping to just abolish that instinctual feeling of, ‘oh this has to supersede my last album’, because you can’t compare albums. They’re like two different people. You can’t say ‘I like this person better than this person’. You like them for different reasons.”
We talk a little about the process for her solo work.
“This is my solo project, so it means a hell of a lot more, right? Cause it’s like, hey everything here is 100% me. There’s nobody else I can blame for this shit. If this sucks: it’s all me.”
“I write the music, I record it all live myself …and then send it to Sacha Lascow [from Perfect Filth Productions].”
“I’m pretty sure I’m not that talented with the actual logistics of recording because I’m pretty DIY about it haha” (Laura records under her bunk bed at home).”
“Sacha typically produces metal, which I love because he knows the darker elements that I want to bring to light. He just really knows what I want to hear. I typically mix [my recordings] by ear, send it to him and he fixes all my mixing mistakes and masters it as well.”
The Banff Center for Arts and Creativity is giving her a chance to finish her second album with a 14-day artist residency in October.
“I get my own private studio space where I have a grand piano, any instruments that I want in there to use for recording. I’ll set up my entire recording studio. I can literally borrow and use any instruments that I want from their plethora of instruments that are incredibly rare, and I’m really excited to use some of the synthesizers that they have there.”
“You got a job, you’ve got friends, social obligations you’ve got shows you want to attend, all of these things going on all the time that it’s so hard to find that time to just be like ‘okay, breathe, be in the moment, do what I love.'”
Laura will continue with her mental health advocacy on the new album.
“I’m excited about one of the singles that’s going to be on [the second album]. It’s called ‘Chemicals’. And in this song, I’m VERY bluntly describing depression, and exactly what it feels like to have these chemicals in your head that you can’t take out. They’re stuck in you, there’s nothing you can do about it. So, you gotta learn how to live with these. And it talks about coping mechanisms, and ‘what am I doing to try and get over this?’ It’s just a very emotional and passionate song and it’s got great harmonies.”
“I don’t know a single artist that doesn’t struggle with mental illness. Artists get so much shit. You get called immature because you voice your deep feelings about things instead of trying to suck it up and be strong about everything.”
“You get called weak, though you’re totally the opposite of weak, to be that brave to talk about how you feel. You get people like, ‘You’re negative’ or ‘You’re miserable’, but that’s totally not the case. I feel like I’m quite positive in general as a person but when negative things happen to me, I respond, you know? I’m not going to just let it die when I see it, and just leave it at my feet. No, I’m going to take it with me and I’m going to try and make something out of it. And I’m thankful, SO thankful, that I’m an artist.”
Her sincerity gives me fuzzy feelings inside, but she also recognizes that it’s not always sunshine and roses.
“Some days you wake up and you forget about these fantastic things that are happening in your life, because you’re busy, maybe your horse blinders are on and you’re just stuck on the fact that you need to go grocery shopping, and you still need to shower, and you need to be there by a certain time… just the presence of time is what ruins artists. We need to have more flow state. We need to chill out and leave…”
But, like every other time Laura seems to start down a negative path, she gets a look of resolve on her face and she launches into a heartfelt outburst. It’s like watching a fluttering light in a gust of wind that suddenly finds the stillness to shine.
“Then you have little moments. Like, one of my moments today. Honestly, I’m going to go have an interview with someone and I’m wearing a frickin’ self-painted jean vest, that’s so awesome, you know what I mean? I could just – I’m a rockstar, I’m living a rockstar life, based on the choices that I’ve made for myself, and I’m actually living a life that a lot of adults told me would not do it for me. Like “don’t be an artist you’re not going to make money. You’re gonna get sick of it. Go get a real job, go to university, it’s not really going to get you anywhere.’”
“And you know what? Maybe it won’t get me anywhere, but right now it’s gotten me here. And that’s cool. I’m stoked on my life, so frick them. You know?”
I’m not sure I do, but Laura makes me believe I do. Laura might remind people of Eternal Sunshine, but there’s something much more exuberant about her. Being around Laura, someone who is so obviously passionate about her musical craft and her ability to share real moments with listeners, makes me feel like the world is truly open, as long as you have the bravery to open up enough to let the good in. Sitting in the greenery in Bowness Park with her, doing this interview, makes everything feel completely at ease.