Words by Tommy Johnson
It’s pretty rare to find someone that wants to conduct a conversation in the early morning. Late gigs, traveling overnight, time in the studio are just some of the prime examples of going against setting up a morning time appointment. For AJ Haynes, the rising of the sun is exactly where she feels at her most comfortable.
At the start of our talk, Haynes informs me that she had been contacted by a few others to discuss her band’s latest offering POWER; the earliest phone call started at 7 am. “I know that it’s not the typical request is from musicians, but I like to do press calls in the morning with my cup of coffee,” Haynes explains. “I think my brain is fresher and hasn’t been bogged down by my to-do list.”
Listening to Haynes speak, a soulful aura emerges with every single word that she spoke. It comes fully alive when hearing her sing with her band Seratones. Since 2016, the group has steadily been carving their name into being one of the most talked-about bands to see. After their critically beloved debut, Haynes and company found themselves touring with the likes of The Dandy Warhols and Drive-By Truckers and being seen by a larger audience on CBS This Morning and NPR Music’s Tiny Desk series.
But with POWER comes a turning point in some aspects for Seratones. A couple of changes within the ranks offered up other influences and Haynes the ability to demonstrate to everyone just how much stronger she became, both as a singer and a writer. “This record is really personal… it’s me making talking about my life,” Haynes says. “Part of me having to grapple and deal with that was realizing that our stories are worth telling, the stories of everyday people. When I was writing POWER, I was thinking about getting up early as fuck in the morning, being tired from not getting enough sleep; I thought my friend whose is left with nothing to raise her daughter and had to figure it out; I think about the women who raised me; I think about everyone’s struggles when they wake up in morning that they have to go to work.”
The band traveled from their profoundly rooted base in Shreveport, Louisiana to Nashville to record with Cage The Elephant guitarist Brad Shultz. Replacing the brashness from the debut, Seratones shifted their focus towards having a grittier soul sound; vintage Motown and Stax were just two of the heavy influences that the band took away from recording. Still intact however is the core that makes Seratones who they are as a cohesive unit. Haynes brings up she observed the connection that the audience has with the ensemble. “I feel really lucky to reach people in such a wide age – from two years old to people in their nineties. It’s pretty amazing that our music is able to translate generations.”
Off Shelf: Do you feel that you are reaching kids and they will follow your lead and become a musician?
AJ Haynes: I absolutely do! For me, being exposed at a young age to other artists – and to see especially other black women performers – that set me on a track to think you can’t be what you can’t see. So it’s important to show people you can do this other expression of yourself. I don’t want necessarily want to inspire people to be musicians; I want other people to feel that they can express themselves.
OS: It feels like now more than ever that you can feel things and do what you want to do without feeling conflicted or scared.
AH: I think it’s important… people wanna hear something that they can believe in; that they emphasize with. We need that, and it ties us all together in a beautiful way.
OS: Do you feel that with your writing? Do you feel like it’s a burden? It sounds like you want to be expressive and be moved.
AH: Oh, I don’t think it’s a burden at all! I’m a civil rights nerd… part of what’s integral to that part of history is music. Something as simple as Ruby & The Romantics’ “Our Day Will Come,” [sings] ‘Our day will come / if they just wait a while,’ the song is just a love song, but in the context of 1963, it became this anthemic song. Part of what makes that is the context of the culture, but also Ruby’s commitment to singing, living this song. The arrangements are so cinematic. That’s the kind of art that I want to make; you can talk about something as beautiful and as simple and complicated, and longing as love is, and from that, it can become someone’s anthem for their march towards social equality. That’s pretty incredible that art seems to translate in that way. I think it’s exciting to be a part of it. I don’t think it’s a burden at all. Progress is about motion. Anytime you are at motion, it’s good.
OS: I was reading about your social work with advocating for women’s rights and abortion rights. That must have spoken to a lot of people.
AH: I’m glad it does. You have to understand that I spent most of my adolescence working as a counselor in an abortion clinic, so I don’t think of it. This is the work that needs to be done in my community, so you do it. I don’t know, I feel like anyone else in their community does similar work. Mine just happens to be in a more heightened, microcosm.
OS: Have you been given any pushback from those who have learned this about you?
AH: I mean if they have, I don’t give a shit. I think there are instances that people aren’t going to understand and that’s okay. They don’t have to, but they do need to recognize my humanity, my autonomy and respect that. We don’t have to agree on things. You know [novelist/activist] James Baldwin talks about we don’t have to agree on things… that is what makes dialogue interesting. Anyone nervous about that, it’s unfortunate. I hope that they grow to become more dynamic people that can hear things from different vantage points.
OS: Have you always lived In Shreveport?
AH: I spent my childhood in Columbia, Louisiana, which is a really small, small place. Before that, I was in Japan.
OS: I’m assuming your mother or father was in the military?
AH: Yeah. My father was in the Navy. My mother is actually from the Philippines, but she moved to Japan and met my father there. The more that I think about it, my sense of community comes from always being around people that don’t look like each other. My family is pretty diverse. My family before, whenever we were on the military base in Japan and from all over the world… that’s why community is important to me. We have to nurture our communities. If we don’t, who’s going to?
OS: How did you meet your bandmates?
AH: Transcendental drunken musings, punk shows, experimental art shows, friends of friends, and chance. Living in Shreveport allows for all of those things, I suppose.
OS: One of the most interesting tidbits of the band’s resume was touring with Charles Bradley. What did you take away from that experience?
AH: Charles Bradley is an ever-present force. He showed me how much love means through his performance. He helped me realize how much I needed to feel that in a performance space, to feel safe to feel whatever I’m feeling. Before touring with Charles, I thought of performance space as mostly spectacle, as art for art’s sake. I learned that we have the power to really curate an environment of love and understanding, of ease in processing our emotions.
OS: How long did the recording for POWER take?
AH: Making the next album truly starts the moment you leave the studio for the one you just made. Meaning, the entire creative process begins with the end of the previous project. The actual recording process took about two weeks, but there was a lot of preparation and hard work that went in before we arrived at Battletapes.
OS: Recording in Nashville, did you and the band feel it was necessary to go outside the normal surroundings?
AH: What is normal surrounding? And what’s normal to Nashville? I have no idea. When you’re in studio-mode, you largely don’t venture far from the studio with the exception of the necessities – good food, good coffee, and a place to get fresh air.
OS: What was the takeaway from working with Bradley Shultz?
AH: Honestly, it’s difficult to reduce what I took away working with Brad. He’s such a multi-dimensional person. He’s both an intense bolt of electricity and a gentle spirit, a manic force and an immaculate calm. I learned to trust the process. I learned to trust my voice and my instincts. And I learned that four shots of espresso mixed with honey is a helluva way to start the day.