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  • Karly Ramnani

P&P Spotlight: Hayley Brooke

What if we told you that artists can start their careers on Reddit? Yes, Reddit, the infamous discussion platform that’s home to numerous question-based and advice threads. While she attended the University of Southern California, Hayley Brooke utilized the platform to talk about her mental health struggles and post her original lyrics. Fast-forward to now, she’s quickly climbing the ranks in the indie music scene and touching many hearts with her latest single, “Marble.”

Based in Los Angeles, CA, Hayley Brooke uses her talents in singing and songwriting to tell her personal story. She reminds listeners that they’re not alone, and that your favorite artists have more in common with you than you might think. Her raw yet dynamic songwriting comes alive with her impeccable vocal technique, shaped by her experience in musical theater.  

Image credit: Hayley Brooke, graphic created by Karly Ramnani

YOU'LL LOVE HAYLEY BROOKE IF YOU LISTEN TO: Taylor Swift, Hailee Steinfeld, Olivia Rodrigo, Renee Rapp, Lizzy McAlpine, Katy Perry, Noah Kahan, Gracie Abrams, and of course showtunes!

What were some of your earliest introductions to music and theater, and what made you realize that this is what you wanted to do professionally? 

The first musical I ever watched that made me realize I wanted to be a performer was the national tour of Annie. I had been obsessed with songs from the show since I was three or four and was always singing “Maybe” and “Tomorrow” in my stroller and around my house. But seeing Annie live when I was five years old was a different experience that completely opened my eyes to the power of live theatre. I was mesmerized by the kids in the show and the impact of their powerful performances on the audience. I knew from the moment I saw the show that I wanted to tell live stories and take audiences on the roller coaster of emotions that I had felt with Annie. After watching Annie, I fell in love with musical theatre, and this passion for theatre later grew to become a love for singing and songwriting. 

Over the years, what artists and sonic influences have shaped your craft the most? Who's on your playlist right now?

One of the first pop artists who inspired me was Katy Perry. She has exciting melodies and versatile lyrics that span from emotional heartbreak to self-empowerment, and her music stuck with me. Since my introduction to Katy Perry, I have been inspired by female pop artists such as Taylor Swift, Hailee Steinfeld, and Adele. Recently, my biggest influences have been Olivia Rodrigo and Reneé Rapp. They both possess rich vocals and superb songwriting skills that I emulate in my music. As an artist, I try to take pieces of what I love from different artists and place them into my unique artistic sound and expression. I believe that influences can be incredibly powerful as long as I stay true to myself and the stories that I tell. 

Do you have a favorite Broadway musical you've seen (or at least listened to the soundtrack of)? 

The best Broadway musical I’ve seen is Wicked. I know that it’s a slightly basic answer, but it’s only basic because the show is so damn good. The music is incredible, and on top of that, the narrative is incredibly effective despite being quite simple. I think that’s the best kind of live storytelling: a story that is digestible and understandable by audiences but still resonant and powerful. After seeing Wicked, Elphaba, the “wicked” witch, immediately became one of my dream roles. Unlike in The Wizard of Oz, where she is an evil and unredeemable character, Wicked gives her a heart and makes the audience root for her. In my mind, she is the true protagonist of the story. I found Elphaba very relatable because, like her, I have faced adversities that have made it harder to pursue my dreams and be my best self. Elphaba’s perseverance despite the unlucky cards she has been dealt is incredibly admirable and inspiring. And on top of that, she sings the best freaking songs. I remember being in awe of the girl who played Elphaba that night and her ability to sing difficult notes effortlessly while flying above the stage. 

What about your favorite show you've ever been in? What made your experience in this show stand out? 

Wow, this is a tough one. I’m going to have to say the Broadway National Tour of Shrek the Musical, which was the first professional show I did. I was only nine when I got the opportunity to travel across the United States for over half a year doing what I love most, and I’m so grateful I was given that opportunity. Touring over 24 cities was such a special experience, and I loved that I was able to sightsee in addition to performing. It’s actually through the Shrek Tour that I fell in love with Los Angeles, which largely inspired me to attend USC. In addition to my love for the touring experience, Shrek is such a wonderful and undervalued show. Like Wicked, it bears a message that is simple yet powerful. And the music is incredible. Getting to perform eight shows a week for audiences all across the country was such a special experience that I will never take for granted. When you’re in a show for so long, you truly fall in love with the characters you’re playing, which for me were Young Fiona, Young Shrek, and Grumpy the Dwarf. I found parts of myself in each of them: a hopeless romantic like Young Fiona, a desire to be loved and understood like Young Shrek, and crankiness early in the morning like Grumpy. I will forever cherish falling deeper in love with theatre through Shrek

Image credit: Megan Chan

What drew you to USC's music program, and in what ways has it helped you grow as a budding artist? How did you balance singing and writing songs with being a full-time student? 

When I first came to USC, I didn’t know anything about the music program, let alone that it was one of the top ones in the country. Once I discovered the opportunities the Thornton School of Music had, I decided to take a couple of music classes, which led to adding a music industry minor. My minor has helped me understand the business side of music and how to market and brand myself as an artist. I have had incredible professors who have amazed me with their knowledge and abilities to be professors at USC while simultaneously being professionals in the industry. The music industry minor has also sparked my love for event planning, which I hope to combine with my passion for music to offer performance opportunities for smaller artists like myself. It’s challenging to balance the singer-songwriter stuff with school, but I’ve found that it’s not too difficult because writing songs is like free time for me. It’s incredibly therapeutic and helps me express myself and my emotions. As long as I look at creating music through that lens, it doesn’t feel like work. I’ve also been a part-time student recently, which has given me the time to focus more on my singer-songwriter and live performance careers.

After co-founding USC Songwriters' Forum, you've done so much to share your talent and expertise through this organization. What are some of your favorite parts of your experience with Songwriters' Forum? 

Ahhh, thank you! Songwriters’ Forum has done so much for me, so there’s so much to say. I truly don’t know if I would be where I am today without it, pursuing my dreams of being a singer-songwriter or even knowing those dreams existed. And I would not have the same artistic influences and experiences without Songwriters’ Forum, because funnily enough, I met my first love through the club! Since then, I have written many songs about that relationship, my experiences of falling in love, and the unfortunate heartbreak that came after. It’s okay Songwriters’ Forum, I forgive you for giving me my first heartbreak. At least it made me a better writer. That just shows that Songwriters’ Forum has affected me so much on both a personal and professional level. One of my favorite parts of the club is the community within it. Our members are so passionate about music but also remarkably humble, and humility is one of the traits that I respect most in others. We always have such a good time together, whether we're choreographing goofy interpretive dances to each other's music, giving constructive notes on member’s original songs, or collaborating in performances. It’s been incredible to see the club grow since I helped start it in 2020. The executive board is always doing so much, planning tons of live performance opportunities, leading meetings with engaging and educational meeting topics, hosting socials for members to hang out in more casual settings, and constantly growing and evolving the club. It’s crazy because when Songwriters’ Forum first started, no one knew what it was. Now, anytime I mention it, people are like, “Omg. It’s that music creation club on campus. I want to join, it looks so cool!” 

I love how you turned to Reddit to share your lyrics in the early stages of your career. Could you tell us a little more about this?

Yes, of course! Reddit was the first place where I felt truly seen as the artist I wanted to be (a mental health advocate and friend who validates listeners and reminds them everything’s going to be okay). I first posted on Reddit in the Spring of 2022 in a mental health community I had already been active in. I decided that since I was creating music that related to what was being discussed in the community, I might as well share it and see if I could give back to others. I remember going off my phone for a while after posting. When I went back on Reddit, I was shocked by the responses I received. My video was trending at the top of the Reddit page, and it had tons of supportive and encouraging comments. Some of my favorite comments were “It sounds like an old friend was singing this to me, telling me it’s all gonna be okay thank you!”, “This was so incredibly raw and beautiful. You touched my soul. Thank you for sharing”, and “I’ve been having the most anxious day ever, and this made me instantly feel more at peace. Thank you for your beautiful words.” These particular comments spoke to me because they weren’t about my voice or performance as an artist like most feedback I had received in the past. They were about my impact on the listeners, and how I made them feel less alone and more seen. This is exactly what I want to do as an artist. At the end of the day, it’s not about me or my voice. It’s about the song and how it makes listeners feel. My voice is just a tool that helps me express the music in an emotive and powerful way. Posting on Reddit reminded me of why I truly want to be an artist which is to help others and make them feel less isolated in their experiences. It helped me separate my ego as an individual and artist from the music I create and the impact it has on others.  

As your fans know, mental health plays a huge role in your music. What does it mean to you to be able to bring light to this topic through music? 

It means everything to me. My mental health journey has been incredibly long and difficult but it has also taught me so much about perseverance, resilience, and my inner strength. I have always been transparent about my experiences with anxiety, depression, and ADHD, but there have been some challenges to being as open as I want to be due to the stigma that still exists. As an artist, I want to debunk the stigma and show people that it’s more than okay to have a mental illness and that it’s empowering to be open about your struggles. We live in a world where people are constantly trying to put on smiles and act like everything’s perfect 24/7. But the reality is that we’re human and things aren’t always going to be great, but that’s okay too. Someone once told me that most of our life is spent in feelings of neutrality and even at times negativity. But that’s what makes the wonderful times stay close to our hearts. If everything was great all the time, I don’t think any of it would matter. 

As an artist, I like to call myself a music therapist because I hope that the songs I write can be therapeutic for listeners. I hope they can make listeners feel seen and understood and encourage people to not give up and push through hard times. Although some of my songs have darker topics, I always try to frame them in positive ways to provide a sense of hope to people. However, the sense of hope I write with is a realistic hope that isn’t saying everything’s going to be perfect and change for the better overnight. I’m saying that with time, patience, strength, and determination, things will get better, but there will still be more ups and downs. I try to incorporate this sense of realism into my music because I find that too often, songs portray a romanticized fantasy that feels unachievable.

Image credit: Megan Chan

What's your favorite venue you've performed at in LA so far? What made this venue and the show you played there stand out? 

Also a tough question! I would have to say Tirebiter Brewery. It’s an awesome venue right by USC. I first performed there when I threw a concert for one of my music industry classes. My concert group was struggling to find a venue within our budget that could accommodate people under 21. Our professor recommended Tirebiter Brewery, and I checked the venue out. The staff was incredibly kind and accommodating and wanted to help us bring our vision to life. The concert and collaboration were very successful, and since two of us in the group were involved in Songwriters’ Forum, Tirebiter asked if we’d be interested in hosting collaborative open mics. At the beginning of the semester, we started hosting bi-weekly open mics at Tirebiter, and they’ve been a major success. We’ve hosted about eight so far, and the open mics have been a great opportunity for USC artists and local artists to get more live performance experience. I enjoy performing there because the vibes are so chill, and it is a judgment-free zone. The staff at Tirebiter has helped us cultivate an environment that is incredibly supportive and kind. My favorite venues are the ones where you feel like you’re performing for your family and friends and are just having a good time. I adore the staff at Tirebiter. Although I am sadly graduating and moving to New York, I am excited to see the relationship between Tirebiter and Songwriters’ Forum continue to blossom and grow. I am grateful to have been a part of starting the open mic. 

After "Marble," what can fans look forward to from you this year? 

I have a very exciting project coming out in June! I am releasing another single, “Love of My Life,” alongside a music video with an amazing crew of USC film students. “Love of My Life” is a special song because it speaks to who I am as an artist and how I want to impact my listeners. Although the title alludes to love for another, the song is about the most important relationship we have in our lives: the one with ourselves. I’m sick of hearing so many songs about romance and relationships with a significant other, so I’m excited to shake things up and focus on the relationship with self. I have been working on this song for a while, so it has been very cool to see it come to life. I’m collaborating with an awesome producer I found through Spotify. When he sent me the mix, I was in awe of how sick the vocals and production sounded, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with the world! It’s also been crazy to see the song become so much more than my artist project through the music video. My incredible director, Ella Godinez, and executive producer, Mitchell Jung, have brought on an amazing team of passionate and talented individuals. They have put so much work into bringing the video to life, and it is inspiring to see how excited they are about the project. They’ve also given me a lot of creative input into the video, which I appreciate. The music video narrative is awesome because it goes with the song's concept but tells a slightly different story than the lyrics. I love it when a music video diverges a bit from the song itself because the additional narrative adds an even deeper, multi-faceted meaning to what was already there. 

Finally, the P&P classic! What's a lyric from "Marble" that is especially meaningful to you? Walk us through the process of yourself writing it, and how do you personally connect to it? 

Love this question! There are so many lyrics I love in the song, but the one that sticks out to me most is “She’ll be the one people say they knew back then.” This lyric resonates with me because I haven’t always had the best luck with my friendships and social life. Middle school and high school in particular were quite challenging for me, and I remember eating lunch in the bathroom like they do in movies too many times because I was embarrassed I didn’t have anyone to eat with. Back then, I felt like I couldn’t be my true self because I didn’t have the right supportive friends to express myself. Even now, I sometimes struggle to feel like I can be the best version of myself in environments where I’m not as comfortable. However, I’m thankful that I’ve also found spaces in college where I can be true to who I am and feel support and love from those around me. I think that discovering what makes me feel like the best version of myself in these past few years has helped me do this. But still, from middle school to now, I have often felt undervalued by those around me when all I give is kindness, love, and support. Sometimes, I feel like being too nice has led me to be walked over, and I’m sure others can relate to this. This lyric speaks to all these years of feeling undervalued and like I had to compromise myself because others wouldn’t give me the time of day to be my best self. I hope that one day, the people who didn’t take the time to value what I was giving them will see that in hindsight they should have. It’s not that I’m trying to value myself off other people’s opinions, but rather that I believe I deserve to be valued for the caring and loving individual that I am. Being an artist makes me feel seen and loved in ways that I haven’t always before, and it’s through my music that I hope the people who matter will look back and say, “I knew her, and she was a good, kind, loving person.” I truly believe that as long as we put good into the world, the right people will ultimately reciprocate our love and support.

In an industry driven by perfectionism - where fans mostly see artists putting their best foot forward - a vulnerable powerhouse who openly shares her struggles is a breath of fresh air. As she covers her experience in a stunning, raw manner, Hayley’s meaningful work truly makes a difference in the industry. Hopefully by now, we’ve inspired you to start diving deeper into her world - but if not, here’s a playlist we’ve curated to help you get started!

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