We sat down with Once A Tree to discuss their backstory, making music while in love, and the release of their latest EP.
The Toronto-based electro-pop duo composed of Jayli and Hayden Wolf definitely has a fascinating backstory. Both grew up in British Columbia, raised Jehovah’s Witnesses but met while leaving the religion, and eventually excommunicated. The two bonded over their love of music and fell in love, moving to Toronto after Jayli won a songwriting contest.
Thus Once A Tree was born, releasing their first single “Howling” in 2015, and their first album Phoenix in 2017. The album earned the duo a 2018 Indigenous Music Award win for best electronic music album. They’ve since been covered by Rolling Stone, Billboard, People, and MTV.com.
Once A Tree are multidisciplinary artists who have directed, produced, and edited the majority of their music videos. The “Howling” music video is cinematic and occult. “Hide” features dancers writhing artistically. “Worth” is a metaphor for bullying through a little girl who looks like a monster. “What You Say” has Jayli carrying a skeleton around San Miguel de Allende, Mexico in a red suit, and this summer’s music video for “Rush” has Jayli wandering around Los Angeles.
Outside of music, Hayden has worked as senior photographer for Drake’s OVO clothing brand and produces for other Toronto artists. Jayli is an actor who is set to star in The Exchange, from director Dan Mazer (Borat) and writer Tim Long (The Simpsons), alongside Justin Hartley, Ed Oxenbould, and Avan Jogia.
In 2020, Once A Tree has released singles “Rush” and “3 Day Trip,” as well as an acoustic version of “Rush” which features Boy Pape. Their latest EP Fool’s Paradise is out today, so I sat down to chat with Jayli and Hayden about the EP, working during the pandemic, their musical journey, and mental health.
Our full conversation with Once A Tree can be found below:
The Concordian: When I was listening to the EP I found a lot of connections between the lyrics and the state of the world. In “Rush” Jayli sings, “You should take your time with me,” and COVID has put a lot of things on hold. We live in a very fast-paced world, so I think that has really affected people.
Jayli Wolf: Yeah. Last year, I was filming back-to-back and I was so caught up in work. And this year has been so different whereas I have the time to ask really important questions and kind of just reevaluate everything about my life and make sure that I’m on the right track.
Hayden Wolf: The things that are really important to you.
JW: Yeah! Because especially living in a city, it’s just so fast-paced, and I feel like I’m always just living for the future and never in the moment. So that’s definitely where that song came from. And paradise is a play on that saying, “ignorance is bliss.” Because we were just kind of playing with the idea that there’s some songs about infatuation on there but then also Hayden and I, you know, we were raised in a doomsday cult. So, when we left it was really hard to realize ‘holy, we’re not going to live forever on paradise Earth, we are going to grow old and we’re going to die.’ And so, realizing that we were like, was it kind of blissful to be ignorant of the reality of life like did we enjoy it? Do we regret kind of waking up sometimes? So some of the songs are about that too, I don’t know, it can be blissfully ignorant and we can kind of get lost in our own little worlds and sometimes we don’t even know it.
TC: Can you tell me about the process for making Fool’s Paradise and how it was different from making Phoenix?
HW: I think it’s way more upbeat and lighthearted in terms of the sonic direction, which is actually a good thing for how hardcore this year is. It’s more on the lighter side and a happier side. Yeah, we had a very similar process creation that’s a lot like Phoenix, we wrote on the road and … we’ve been working on this one for a little over a year.
JW: We wrote some in L.A. We had way more fun with this project because we would just get in the studio in a really good headspace and just literally have fun, it wasn’t about ‘let’s create something with a direction in mind,’ we just went in and had good energy.
HW: The track “Have You Ever,” we were in L.A. and we were about to go for a walk, and Jayli bent down to tie her shoe and you started to hum in this melody and then I grabbed a guitar. And she pretty much freestyled all the lyrics on that.
TC: Well that leads to one of my questions actually, because I had noticed that the EP is a bit more light hearted and upbeat than your older music. I was wondering if that was the result of what’s going on in the world or if that was just a natural evolution for you guys.
JW: Yeah, I think it’s just where we were in our mindset, because we started writing this right before COVID really hit. So it was January in L.A. and we were in a good headspace. We were just really grateful for everything that’s coming to our lives and where we’re at in our personal journeys. And I think that that is reflected in the music because we’re literally just having a really positive time.
HW: Phoenix is really therapeutic for the stuff that we’ve been through in our past and this is more in the moment; we’ve come to a much happier place in life. So I think it’s a natural evolution. I definitely want to play again with ballads.
TC: The EP is sort of about falling in love against the odds, slowing down to enjoy the little things in life, getting rid of toxic people. Why were you guys drawn to those topics?
HW: It’s all really personal stuff.
JW: Stuff we’ve been through and stuff that we’re going through.
HW: When we left the religion we lost so many people in our lives that were like our family. And so it made us kind of jaded or just really more aware of who we want in our circle and, you know, the people that really wanted to champion you and support you and love you for who you are. Yeah, so I think that was also a big key part of the lyrical content.
JW: Yeah, we’re definitely coming to that place, and more conscious of who we spend our time with. And just always wanting to have that real love for each other — that unconditional love, even with our friends, where we just uplift and support, and there’s not that negative energy and there’s not that hierarchy feeling of competition. We just love each other and we’re just on the same wave, and we want healthy relationships in our lives now, whereas before we weren’t even conscious of that.
TC: Can you describe Fool’s Paradise to me in 3 words?
HW: Ignorance is bliss. In our case it’s just kind of funny to look back and be like, wow, we were living in a fairytale and as weird and fucked up as it was, that hope was really beautiful. Even [in] society sometimes we can get caught up in that.
JW: I mean obviously it’s so important to know what’s going on and have that awareness so we can change the world, but sometimes I was just getting really overwhelmed, and it was to the point where I couldn’t do anything because I was so stressed out and overwhelmed about trying to do everything. It’s great to keep bringing more positive headspace and take care of yourself so that you can bring that love and good energy to the world.
TC: How did COVID-19 and quarantine affect your art and creativity?
HW: We’ve definitely had days where we’ve been feeling overwhelmed or our mental health has really taken a hit. But I think overall we used this time to really focus on the creation process and honing in on really where we want to take the direction of the music and the type of music we make — which one makes us feel the best or the most organic.
JW: Just like everybody else, we lost our live shows that we had set up this year, but I think it’s been a very beneficial year creatively for us because because of that we’re getting into a new headspace, and I started meditating and I started therapy and I’m doing things to really take care of my mental health, whereas I never did before — I never really took the time to. Of course it’s affected our mental health. We’ve definitely had hard days.
HW: And I think if you can have something even that you do once a day that makes you happy during this crazy year, that’s so important.
JW: Most of my family’s still in the doomsday cult I was raised in, and they’re determined that it is the end of the world and it’s coming any day and we’ve always been taught that. But now with 2020 they’re so hyped on the end and a lot of them are talking to me more. Which is weird because they’re not really supposed to be, but they’re really encouraging me to come back to the religion, so even though it’s not a super healthy relationship, they are talking to me — which I find is a positive because I’ve missed them a lot. So it’s just been a really weird year.
TC: Over the summer you guys released a music video for “Rush.” What it was like to be making a music video during a global pandemic?
HW: We actually shot that just before COVID started, the beginning of March.
JW: Yeah, we were still in L.A. and nothing had really broken yet on the news.
HW: The creation process was really fun, because it was just me and Jayli running around the city and exploring different communities in L.A.
JW: I’m working on my solo project right now though and we just shot a music video a couple weeks ago and it was a very different experience with social distancing and making sure everyone’s got a good temperature and the map. It’s a completely different vibe on set.
TC: I had heard you were working on a solo project Jayli, and Hayden you’re producing that, so is working together on this project any different than working as Once A Tree?
JW: Yeah, I think it’s completely different because I feel like I’m having way more of a direction, even in the production just because I have a very definite vision of what I want sonically and visually as well. I have a very different direction that I want to take. So Hayden has been so good at just listening to what I want and taking notes for me. I’ve also got to work with a couple of other producers in L.A., and it’s more of a personal project.
HW: The songwriting is way more on your side. Once A Tree we usually write everything together but this was way more Jayli … really pouring out her soul. And then I was giving my little ideas here and there, but it’s definitely a very personal project.
TC: You guys mentioned live shows earlier, which were obviously cancelled. But I got to see your virtual set for imagineNATIVE Film Festival’s The Beat series, so what was it like to perform with no stage or audience?
JW: I liked it, there was no stage fright. We just got to be so creative with the editing too so we liked it. I think it was really fun. It was really cool and it was interesting to sign in and it was nerve-wracking to see what everyone was gonna say. It was cool, a really new way to interact.
TC: Jayli, you contributed to Beans, and Trickster, both 2020 TIFF projects which center on Indigenous youth. Do you actively seek out those kinds of projects which tell Indigenous stories or was that a coincidence?
JW: I mean, I definitely am so excited when things like this come across. I really wanted to be part of this project. I actually am really good friends with the director Michelle Latimer, and so when she was telling me about it I was like, “oh my god I hope I get to audition for this.” Just so pumped up because the novels are amazing and I don’t think I actively seek it, I think just as an actor hopefully I try to be ready to jump into any role. But yeah, I’m always excited when things like this come my way.
TC: After the success of Phoenix do you feel pressure to live up to that and one-up yourselves, or did Phoenix just give you the validation to be like, “Oh, we got this no big deal?”
JW: No, I don’t think I’ve ever felt in my life like “I got this” (laughs). I feel like more than ever, I just want to go back to the drawing board. I just feel like we’re really wanting to take a new direction with the music and that is to be more authentic … in everything that we say. Phoenix was authentic to what we were going through at that time, but we were really both depressed and suffering from a lot of mental health issues, and so I feel like now we just want to go back to the drawing board as who we are and get more authentic in a different way.
HW: I think every project is cool to see the evolution of where we are in our lives. So, each project is a cool archive of what we were going through.
Feature photos by Once a Tree