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From opera to honky tonk, Hayley Thompson-King gives herself room to roam

Haylee Thompson-King in her Somerville apartment. Nicholas Pfosi for The Boston Globe

Like many musicians, Hayley Thompson-King is also a collector by nature. Not the grab-anything-not-nailed-down kind of collector, mind you, but the methodical, curatorial type, focused on gathering selectively, in one place, one day at a time, the things she truly loves.

A peek around the 35-year-old singer-songwriter’s Somerville apartment — where she lives as an artist-in-residence through a grant from the city’s arts council and teaches voice lessons in her spare time — reveals countless keepsakes. A horse saddle and belt buckles bring her back to a childhood in Sebastian, Fla., filled with county fairs, riding lessons, and rusted trucks. Dozens of records, strewn in stacks, expose the same obsession with opera that propelled Thompson-King through her undergraduate studies at NYU and a master’s program at the New England Conservatory of Music, both focused on the Romantic art form. At least one of the guitars within view is a relic from her old days in the garage-country group Banditas.


Along one wall, above time-worn tambourines and tape machines, hangs a row of paintings bookended by the Pink Panther (“Actually, that’s the first thing I ever bought when I moved to New York”) and a silhouetted musician lost amid the throes of a since-forgotten symphony (“That picture’s from my mom’s mother, and it looks exactly like my mother”). A clothes rack looms over a scruffy brown couch, crowded by more winter coats than any New Englander would ever need.

Thompson-King’s attraction to artifacts, of all shapes and sizes, may be rooted in her belief that appreciating the past can help you fathom the future. That’s borne out by her musical stylings, a cross between fuzzed-out rock ’n’ roll, classical opera, woozy psychedelia, and honky-tonk that feels at once appealingly old-school and downright experimental.

Across her debut solo LP “Psychotic Melancholia,” out Sept. 1, Thompson-King draws upon her raw yet theatrical voice, as well as influences ranging from Schumann to scripture, to translate uncommonly complex themes (dismantling false idols and revisiting the Old Testament’s treatment of women through a feminist lens are just two) into a soulful, sonic tempest that may well constitute its own genre. Ahead of that release and two Boston shows — a stripped-down set Wednesday at the MFA, and a free album release party at Loretta’s Last Call the next night — Thompson-King sat down to discuss her singular vision.


Q. If you had to explain “Psychotic Melancholia,” how would you do it?

A. I look at this as not only an alt-country album but an alt-classical album. But really, my whole goal was to make something that was super true, honest, and interesting. Why not bring all the things together that make me who I am? I know it sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s true, like, why not be weird? If not now, when?

Q. You studied opera. Was that originally the plan?

A. It was. And I really love opera. I really wanted to do it. But it was a lot of me getting into these fights with directors or people I needed to make friends with in order to get into a show. Being an opera singer, it’s not a solo sport. And I did maybe two productions that I thought were really creative, good, and fulfilling. But other than that, I was so heartbroken, because I really wanted to do opera but I didn’t want to be in these people’s productions.


Q. How did you move forward from that?

A. I started writing, and I had a band, but the same thing happened where obviously the other members also had say in what we were doing, and I couldn’t handle it. So in the studio I was like, “I’m done,” and then I decided I had to be a solo person and be totally in charge. I do have a band, and I work with the same guys all the time, but they get it. They get me. They understand that I need things done a certain way.

Q. And, of course, there are some tracks on “Psychotic Melancholia” that are heavily opera-influenced, so you haven’t left it behind.

A. I shouldn’t say they’re opera songs — they’re art songs, because they’re not actually from operas. They’re classical music that was written as part of a song cycle. So the two songs I do are from a cycle called Liederkreis, by [German composer Robert] Schumann, traditionally done by a male singer. One is called “Wehmut,” which means “melancholy.” If you open the CD on the inside liner notes, the translation of the poem is right there; it’s my favorite poem, and it totally encompasses what I think it’s like to be an artist. The other one, from the same cycle is called “Mondacht,” which means “moon night.” I loved those songs and was drawn to them, and I wrote them before I wrote the rest of the record.


Q. I read somewhere you’ve described “Psychotic Melancholia” as a Sodom and Gomorrah . . .

A. [Interjecting] Concept album! [Laughs] Yes. That was a joke at first, but it’s actually sort of true. Right now, I’m in this business mode, but when I’m in the creative side of it where I’m writing, it’s like daily I’m reading the Bible, reading whatever I can, and just letting my brain roam. I try to find scholarly works, but I also like to read what cult leaders are writing about, to get inspiration for a lot of stuff about the role of women biblically. Lot’s Wife never got a name; she was considered this terrible woman, and I don’t know what the reality is, but I just felt like I was really confused by why she was wicked, and why it was wrong to question. When I was a kid in Sunday school, it was like, “But why?” and they were like, “Just go with it.”

Q. You experiment pretty heavily on this release. Are you worried about how it will be received?

A. There was a while when I was very ambivalent about putting it out, because it felt like, once it was out, I’d have no more control. It’s like having a child; it’s walking, talking, and people have opinions of it. But my new motto is that everyone is doing the best they can, and I feel like I worked so hard on every single detail. I feel super comfortable that it’s the absolute best I could have possibly done it. So whether people love it or hate it — my therapist would say that’s not my work. My work isn’t to make you like it. My work is to do it so I know it’s right, done, and ready to go. I gave it that energy, and now that part of my work is over. Now, I need to take it on the road and figure out how to do it again live.



With Traveller, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Aug. 30 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $24-$30, 800-440-6975, . At Loretta’s Last Call, 1 Lansdowne St., Aug. 31 at 9 p.m. Free.

Isaac Feldberg can be reached by email at, or on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.