Haley Reinhart: The Chicagoan With The Musical Ear Springboards Off Her “American Idol” Exposure

Haley Reinhart reflects upon her upbringing in a “house of rock,” the catharsis she found in slam poetry, and the value of risk-taking.

Long before Haley Reinhart made a name for herself as an “American Idol” finalist, she was performing on international stages. Haley’s pre-“Idol” participation in Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival and Italy’s Umbria Jazz Festival underpinned her dazzling soul-infused renditions that ultimately led to her third-place finish. Throughout the 10th season, Reinhart tackled several venerable classics: “God Bless the Child” (Billie Holiday), “Fallin’” (Alicia Keys), and “Rolling in the Deep” (Adele). Her debut album – Listen Up! – was released via 19 Recordings and Interscope Records on May 22, and received widespread critical acclaim.

In the midst of a promotional campaign for Listen Up, Haley Reinhart spoke with AllHipHop.com about her upbringing in a “house of rock,” the catharsis she found in slam poetry, and the value of risk-taking:

AllHipHop.com:  Both of your parents – Harry Reinhart and Patti Miller-Reinhart – are musicians who played in their own band. What artistic values and professional lessons did you learn from both of them on an individual level?

Haley Reinhart:  I give my parents credit all of the time, because I am very blessed to have grown up in a home with so much music and parents that were so dedicated to their passion. They played – and that’s how they met – and they’ve been playing in a band together forever.  I grew up around great music and listening to the classics. Respect of live performance has been in my blood from day one. As a little kid, I went to clubs, and I have always been around that lifestyle and talking to adults at a really young age. All these things really broadened my mind and opened up a whole new world for me, where there was no turning back. I knew I wanted to be an entertainer.

AllHipHop.com:  On your debut album – Listen Up! – you co-wrote every song except for “Free”. As a singer and a songwriter, reflect upon a specific time or place in which you fully recognized each talent. And between the two, which skill comes most naturally for you?

Haley Reinhart:  I grew up in school doing a lot of poetry – mostly slam poetry – and anything that would let me get my feelings out.  I started writing songs in middle school, but when I give myself the time to sit down, and reflect, and feel, and let things come out, I find that it’s very easy for me to do. I just have to give myself the chance to do so. I have always been a real busybody. Even when I was back home in Chicago, I would make so much time for my friends, and I was just all over the place. When I sat down and just took a moment of solitude, it came really easy – especially melodies. Those would just come in my head constantly, and I would try to get a voice memo down or something immediately. I had hundreds and hundreds of them on my phone until the phone broke.

AllHipHop.com:  Oh, wow! I know that was heartbreaking.

Haley Reinhart:  Yeah, it was a sad thing – breaking my phone and losing a lot of potential material. But I am really thankful that I was able to get my hands dirty on my debut album, and let everybody know that I was there to work. I wanted to be a part of every aspect – the melody, the lyrics, and the production.

AllHipHop.com:  Before your “American Idol” experience, you attended Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, to study jazz. What technical skills or level of artistic appreciation did your college experience heighten or teach you?

Haley Reinhart:  I went to school and I was surrounded by all these amazing musicians; and even in high school, I was with a wonderful jazz director. I was able to go to Switzerland and Italy my senior year, performing jazz in the Montreux and Umbria Jazz Fests with this band as their first singer. That was a huge eye-opener for me. And going into college, they never really had any singers. I was the first one to broaden that spectrum when they took me in as a singer. Mostly it was jazz vocal performance. I was in three combos – and I was in a big band – so I have so much respect for music theory. I know the basics, but to be honest, I kind of cheated my way through that because I went by ear. I grew up with a musical ear, so I would hear things, memorize it, and repeat it back. If I’m going to admit to it, I will, but I do appreciate everybody that goes through it, because it’s a lot of work.

AllHipHop.com:  My favorite tracks from your debut album are “Undone” and “Now That You’re Here”. For each track, make a quick note on the songwriting process, recording experience, or lyrical influences.

Haley Reinhart:  “Undone” was a really big change of pace for me, because the rest of the album is very mid-tempo. It has a good groove to it, and that’s where I like to be most of the time – as far as performance is concerned. It’s different doing ballads, and it is a little bit more on the “poppy” side, especially with the repetitive “undone, undone, undone.” So it was interesting for me hopping into that world. I added a whole lot to it, and I just kind of dug deep into a darker, heartbroken place and that’s what came out.

“Now That You’re Here,” I had a lot of fun writing this one, and I had a lot of great people around me. Me and Sam Watters were going back and forth just talking about love and listening to other music. I remember we were listening to Nina Simone and really contemplating the world itself, and everywhere that life has taken us so far – all those things that make up love to us. And then as far as the sound goes, I love old soul, Motown, R&B; so, we really got a good groove with this one. And, it just kept going. I mean, the time just flew by. Fourteen hours later, I was thinking of all these background parts that just kept coming, and I couldn’t stop putting down.

AllHipHop.com:  As you pieced this album together, you worked with several different writers and producers. How did this affect your approach to the recording process?

Haley Reinhart:  Diving right into the process, that was a whole other ball game. I mean, you’re right. I was in a new city, first of all. I went from Chicago to L.A. So, here I am in Hollywood – driving to all these strange houses and studios. I had no idea what I was getting myself into each day. Let’s take Busby. He’s one of the very first producers that I met. We’d write the song and record it all in one day. Then the next day would be somebody completely different with a completely different song. That’s just how I worked for three months. I got about 30 tunes out, and then it became a pick and choose ordeal. The more and more I wrote, the easier it was to know which direction I wanted to go in, and the easier it became to just walk in without feeling nervous – just ready to work and get something good out.

AllHipHop.com:  Following your “Idol” experience, you became known as a “risk-taker.” How did you harness and develop this trait in your early life? And what do you consider to be the greatest risk that you took during the production of Listen Up! ?

Haley Reinhart:  I’d like to say it’s the Midwestern chick in me – coming from Chicago. I grew up with a really strong family and really strong friends. I have a very strong sense of where I come from, and what I want to do, and the kind of person and artist that I want to be. I am very grateful to be a part of Interscope Records – where all these huge things happening. It’s not an easy ticket. I’m working my butt off. But the other part of where I get to win is knowing that I’m making music that I’m proud of. I’m really harnessing who I am, and continuing to bring that out through everything that I do. As far as risk taking goes, I’ve always just put myself out there and had a positive attitude about the experience, just thinking, ‘What could be bad about this? Let’s see what happens.’

AllHipHop.com:  Do you feel that you took a risk with the musical direction of this particular album? Although a student of jazz and a lover of rock, your album makes use of a different aesthetic – incorporating blues and the sounds of Motown.

Haley Reinhart:  You know, the sound just ended up coming out like this. I went in knowing my roots and what kind of music I love. I came from a house of rock and classic rock, as well as old soul, blues and jazz. Incorporating all these things made this sound happen. That’s not to say that I don’t think the next album could go in a more “rocky” direction. As I grow, my music will continue to evolve, and there are so many things that I would love to touch on. But the fact that this came out a little bit more on the funky side, I’m really happy about it.

AllHipHop.com:  Beyond the music, and focusing on the visuals utilized in your album artwork and packaging materials, it appears that you are fan of pin-up girls from the late ’50s and ’60s. It’s sexy, yet classy.

Haley Reinhart:  I just always wished I was a kid of the ’60s. In a way, growing up with my parents, I lived in their era. I tapped into it at such a young age. I just really admire it. And looking back at the women in the ’50s and all the classy, sexy pinup women of that time who were so strong in their own way, I find it very empowering. I think it’s so important to have this class about you, but maintain sex appeal. All these things combined – this is one of my favorite looks.

AllHipHop.com:  Following the release of your debut, what memories shine bright in this early stage of your artistic journey?

Haley Reinhart:  There have been multiple things. Nothing compares to hearing my single on the radio for the first time. Driving down to Virginia Beach, I’ll never forget where I was at that point. And then doing all these promo tours – seeing fans and being able to tell you’ve made such an impact on them. They draw you things. They give you these amazing letters. I’ve come across more and more since the “American Idol” tour, and it really hits home and touches my heart.

As far as performing, I was able to be a part of Muhammad Ali’s 70th birthday celebration, the Power of Love Gala. That night will always stand out to me. I was amongst legendary musicians, artists, and actors, and nothing can compare. I got off that stage feeling larger than life. I was the baby artist, and I just felt so pleased and honored to be a part of all of that.  I love hearing that the music that I’ve worked so hard on is exactly the direction my fans can see me going in. On “American Idol, I did a lot of different things – and I love a lot of different genres. But I was able to create my own sound, and when I receive feedback from people saying that my work sounds like a collective record, that is really, really pleasing.

For more information on Haley Reinhart, visit her official website.

For more of Clayton Perry’s “views” and interviews, browse his “digital archive” – www.claytonperry.com – and follow him on Twitter (@crperry84).