They Happen to Be Girls: An Interview with Uh Huh Her
PopMatters talks with L Word star Leisha Hailey and her musical cohort Camila Grey about feminism, how storms make for a great concert, and how candlelit bathrooms are the best place to record vocals for an album.
Yes, I watch The L Word. But when I interviewed Uh Huh Her with Leisha Hailey and Camila Grey at their May 10 concert in Miami Florida, I didn't even mention Hailey's role as Alice Pieszecki on the Showtime lesbian-themed drama. I didn't ask how she balances her acting with her work as a musician. There are already a lot of these interviews with Hailey.
The success of Uh Huh Her's first musical effort, I See Red, an EP released in 2007, has led to this year's nearly sold out summer concert tour as well as to their full-length album, Common Reaction, due August 19.
YouTube reminded me of Hailey's previous musical success with the '90s bands the Murmurs and Gush and I had a flashback of sitting in a college dorm and listening to "You Suck". Camila Grey also has an extensive musical background playing bass and keyboards with the indie band Mellowdrone, and producing with people as diverse as Busta Rhymes and Kelly Osbourne.
Uh Huh Her call themselves "indie electro-pop". They mix ethereal vocals and synthesizers with an insouciant yet contemplative bass and guitar. But they also know how to rock out. Hailey on-stage is a blond frenzy as she shakes her head over her bass. There's also a come hither, confessional quality to the lyrics which may be why many L Word fans have enthusiastically responded to the music and seem ready to welcome Hailey's newest artistic venture.
So yes, I watch The L Word. But I wanted to focus on the music.
We talked about how storms make for a great concert and candlelit bathrooms are the best place to record vocals for an album.
I also asked how they saw themselves as women in music. Some of their answers surprised me -- probably because I'm a feminist, and I always want everyone to feel empowered in the same ways that I am. But what if some women don't label it empowerment? What if they call it "living their lives?" Even if we have different perspectives, it doesn't mean we can't respect and learn from each other. It definitely doesn't detract from the fact that it's always a pleasure to meet other women who know how to pursue the lives they want, and who also, as luck would have it, can rock.
Do your experiences and perspectives as a woman inform your song writing and performing?
Leisha Hailey: You know what, I think for me, I know it doesn't. I've never sat around and thought, OK, I'm a woman, how can I approach this song? I'm a woman, how can I approach my show tonight? I think that's actually boxing ourselves in. I think you just have to be a performer and artist.
Camila Grey: I think creativity is kind of genderless. I never think I'm a woman trying to do this. I just assume that what I'm doing is just as valid as a man doing it.
(To Grey) But have you ever had any kind of struggle where you just come up against that wall? Because I know with your background in producing, you were working within the hip-hop realm (producing work with Dr. Dre and Busta Rhymes), and that to me can seem really male-dominated.
Grey: Oh certainly, but they so took me in and embraced me. It was just a creative thing. They saw some sort of talent and [the wall] didn't come up for me, very often. I guess that's a good thing.
Yeah, it is. Definitely.
Hailey: I think it's the outside world that puts people in those fences. It's almost like that whole Lilith Fair phenomenon. As great as it was, there was this sense of separation. If you like women's music, come see this. Whereas [women's music] should always be around, and always flourish. I mean I was a part of that [with the Murmurs], and lucky to be a part of it. But at the same time, I don't think that it should have stopped, or that it should have just been a phase in the music industry. So, I think it's sort of how people around women look at it, not the women themselves. (To Grey) What do you think?
Grey: Well, for me it's a double-edged sword. You want to bond together with other women and, at the same time, because you're doing that, you're isolating yourself from everyone else, and thus creating a separatism. You want to be part of it, and that's what you're fighting for, but you're separating [yourself].
Hailey: I think you want to be a part of playing with other women because you actually like their music, not because they're a women's group. It's like, I really dig that band! Let's go on tour with them! Oh, they happen to be girls.
Just because they're women and they happen to be around...
Grey: It's a tricky question.
It is a tricky question. I think we can debate it in any artistic field too. In some ways I totally agree with you guys... and in other ways... What do you think of the current state of music?
Hailey: There are lots of people we love and respect, but it's over saturated. If you want my personal opinion, I just think everybody's in a band. It's almost like reality TV, everybody's famous...
Grey: American Idol...
Hailey: Well, it's harder to weed out the real talent. Harder to weed out the real honest musicians. I think people can be honest about it, but for the most part, people think it's cool to be in a band, and they start playing. I don't know, we go to all these clubs every night and I see dressing rooms filled with stickers of all these bands I've never heard of. And I don't feel like it was always like that.
Why do you think that's happened? That over saturation?
Grey: It's a lifestyle that they're selling. It's like people want that lifestyle. What they don't realize is every day you're working.
Hailey: There's an idea of overnight success these days. You're flipping burgers one day and you're a multi-millionaire the next. Or you know, reality TV. Someone follows you around with a camera, and the next day you're on some network and everyone knows you [when you] get a cup of coffee. You've got these overnight sensations, and I think it's very false, and I think it doesn't last.
A lot of women sometimes split their creativity for relationships, or they put it on hold to have a family, or jobs that pay the rent. How do you own your creativity, or how have you gotten to the point where you're just, like, this is what I need to do, and you make time for it?
Grey: It's a balancing act. I'll tell you that. It's ultimately the thing that I'm most passionate about, and I'll always have it. It's like my little baby, it's difficult, but ultimately [creativity] is the one thing that's always the one constant in my life.
Hailey: I think no one would ever want to be with me if I didn't have a creative outlet. It's the only way I know how to survive.
Someone [who is] struggling right now, to have that balance, is there something you would say to them?
Hailey: I think if you come from a really honest place, you usually end up having a lot of success in that. And that's not just monetary success, but spiritually. I think you just have to know that you love what you're doing. If you don't enjoy it, then it's not right. If you do enjoy it, then all the struggles just don't matter, because you're happy.
Grey: I agree. It's also knowing what your gifts are -- natural talents. And following that.
Hailey: And also you have to work very hard.
Grey: A lot of work.
Hailey: No matter what, it's always work. But it's fun work. Because there are so many days when you could just pack it in, but you can't.
I can't imagine touring non-stop like this.
Grey: I was sick last night, struggling so hard. I couldn't even smile. I think I stopped smiling. But, you just power through. You're trying to give something to somebody else -- the audience. And even if you're having a bad day, or whatever's happening in your life, you have to kind of grab for that thing that you're passionate about, and let it shine through regardless, and that's the most difficult part, forgetting about all that and being in the moment.
Have you found support that's helped you through that?
Grey: We're like a little band family! We all support each other, we all have bad days.
I [read in another interview] that initially you were just two girls and an iPod. (Before the summer tour, Uh Huh Her played some early shows without any backing musicians. Drummer, Josh Kane, and guitarist, Jacques Brautbar, have joined them on the summer tour.)
And now you have a band, people backing you up, so does that make a difference in support?
Hailey: Oh always, always. The more people on your team, the easier the game is. You have more people to go to, more people picking up the slack, more people to carry heavy things around!
Grey: And we're all up there together, doing the same thing at the same time, and we're all experiencing it differently, I imagine.
Hailey: Sometimes we're like, oh that was a terrible show, and then the drummer will be, oh that was fucking awesome...
Speaking of terrible shows and good shows and great shows, what's the difference do you think between a great show and good show?
Hailey: It's a real energy thing between us and the crowd, sometimes the crowd is amazing, and I feel like we fall short. And then sometimes I feel like we put on a great show, and the crowd. So it's really about those magical times when everything is perfectly aligned, and just works out wonderfully.
And no one knows why...
Hailey: Right, exactly!
Grey: It's like the ebb and flow. They give back to you, you give to them.
Hailey: So far one of our best shows was at the smallest club we played it was really hot, and really packed.
Grey: There were tornadoes everywhere!
Hailey: Yeah, a stormy night and it was just. You can't repeat it, and then the next show. I felt not as great about, because I think we were just trying to repeat the performance, wanting it to be that magical. But you know what? You can't touch that, you still can put on a good show, it's just not magic.
Right, you can't get that every time. That would be exhausting.
How have you evolved as musicians since you started working together?
Grey: Letting someone else in to inspire me, to create with, which I'd never really done on that level. I'd always done a lot of work alone and now she'll be like, that part sucks.
Hailey: I'm not hard like that!
Grey: No, she's not.
Hailey: Maybe it's because you have someone else to actually show up for?
Grey: Yeah, totally, like you're sharing it with someone else whose giving you input, and I've definitely evolved in that way. I generally work well with people when they're either telling me what to do as a session person and with her, it's not like she's telling me what to do, it's more collaborative. I did a lot of stuff by myself or as a hired gun, so it's definitely a different process and being up front, that's the second [way I've evolved].
Yeah, I read [about the nerves of being up front on-stage]. How are you doing with that?
Grey: It's getting better with every show. Consistency helps. It becomes like [routine]. Go eat dinner. Go play a show.
That's a really good thing to remember, consistency helps. Because just bouncing around from city to city, you need something.
Grey: Every show is different, but the actual process of getting on-stage has become fluid.
Hailey: We've been doing these one-off's, and there's so much time lapse between each show. My adrenaline has been so high before those shows, and now my adrenaline's dropping because it's a more consistent thing. So I'm having to really amp myself up. All these people come out to see us, it's so important for me. I don't want our band to fall short.
How do you rev up the adrenaline?
Grey: We have dance parties.
Hailey: We blast our iPod backstage and you can start to feel the excitement from the club when it starts filling up.
I wanted to ask about the vocals on I See Red (the vocal tracks were recorded in Camila Grey's bathroom). Can you talk about how this location affected the mood, or tone of that album?
Grey: It was awesome.
Grey: We had so much fun. We would light candles in there.
Hailey: I mean, seriously, we would literally mood that little room out.
Grey: It was the moodiest bathroom I've ever been in.
Hailey: We would light 15 candles, and turn the lights off.
Grey: It was like our own little thing.
Hailey: It was like a little cave.
Grey: And we were doing it all by ourselves and I think it was so in the moment.
Hailey: We changed the light bulbs to red. It was great. And at the time, we never even expected anyone to listen to what we were doing. So there was no pressure, no expectations on it. We were just getting to know each other as friends, because we were complete strangers making this funny little EP together. I thought it would be kind of an underground, grassroots, word of mouth thing, slow build and it was totally the opposite.
In a good way?
Hailey: Yeah, I think. There hasn't been any luxury of time, so we've had to step up to the plate, so much faster than I think we would have preferred. Even the live shows, you have this EP out, and now you have to tour. Oh my god, we have to figure out how to do that!
Grey: We threw a lot of it together, very last minute, because we were being pressured to be there.
Hailey: Exactly. But you know what? Maybe that's the way it all had to unravel, because maybe we wouldn't have done it otherwise. Like, oh yeah, we'll tour next year, we'll put a band together someday, and I think it's forced us to show up, and that's not always bad.
No, not at all. It forces you to do it. I consider myself a feminist, and a lot of the things you're saying are very empowering. Do you see it that way? Do you see it differently?
Grey: I don't think of it like that.
Hailey: I just kind of live my life the way I live it.
Hailey: I don't come at it with that...
Hailey: Intention. Perfect word.
I think a lot of the things you're saying do have an effect on people, I mean just having two women front a band is pretty great.
Grey: Cool. We're psyched about it!
(To Grey) I did have a question for you, actually. I did some online research, which can be dangerous.
Grey: Yes it can!
And I saw that you were credited as Camila Guttierez on a couple of things. Did you change your name for a reason?
Grey: Just for this band, I've been credited as Camila Grey. Camila Guttierez was a Screen Actor's Guild name, so they make you pick other names. That's kind of fun, to have an alter-ego.
Are you Hispanic?
Grey: On my dad's side.
Me too. (We slap hands) My parents were from Argentina and Peru.
Grey: ¿Hablas español?
Si, hablo español.
Grey: ¿Un poquito?
Grey: Pues, mi español es muy malo porque no puedo practicar con nadies.
Mi español no es perfecto, pero estando aqui en Miami, yo hablo español siempre. (To Hailey) Do you speak Spanish?
Grey: I lived in Spain for a small amount of time, and when I was there, I was completely fluent, and my mom spoke Spanish. She's not Hispanic, she's French and German. But she learned it from my father. She loves languages. I was so fluent, and now I can understand a lot of it, but the tenses, I have a hard time of it, but by no means am I trying to hide my heritage. It's just more like a stage name. I'm proud of my roots!
Hailey: I'm proud of your roots too.
Tour information, song downloads and videos can be found at uhhuhher.com. Common Reaction is set for releases this week on August 19.