Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Songwriter's 'fearless' daughter making musical name for herself

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Most days and nights you will find Hayley Gene in one of the four recording rooms of The Messengers studio in North Hollywood, writing songs for emerging pop stars.

Oh, to pen something as famous as The Cat Came Back, the signature ditty of her father Fred Penner, Winnipeg's iconic children's entertainer.

The path the 27-year-old former River Heights resident has chosen to follow to musical glory is much less public and takes her through endless co-writing sessions in search of that infectious hook or big melody of the next chart-topper.

Gene -- she dropped Penner in favour of her middle name eight years ago when she left Winnipeg to carve out her own identity in Toronto -- is a newly signed staff songwriter for the American songwriting firm BMG Chrysalis and the Grammy Award-winning Canadian production team The Messengers.

They don't write songs the way they used to, when a composer supplied the music and a wordsmith the lyrics. Today's model is a TV-style writing room, especially in the pop and dance genres. It starts with a producer creating a track, an instrumental groove and arrangement, which is sent to top-liners like Gene, who write what appears on the top line of a chart -- the melody, lyrics and phrasing.

"I don't have a Top 10 Billboard song yet," says Gene, during a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles. "Everyone wants me to say I've written the latest Katy Perry song. For me, I'm trying to build a reputation as someone who's doing something unique."

Her credits in her first year include co-writing Australian pop star Cody Simpson's Paradise, the title track of his debut album; Shake, by American actress/singer Victoria Justice; and More Than Friends by 2013 Juno Award nominee Victoria Duffield.

Blessed with perfect pitch, Gene also sang back-up on Justin Bieber's All Around the World.

The music industry is a dog-eat-dog business -- the same track can be sent to dozens of hired guns, meaning most do a lot of work for nothing. Many tunes are written but few are chosen for recording and a songwriting credit.

Gene believes the teamwork model works better for her than the stereotype of the tortured solitary artist.

The occupational hazard is that anyone with any ambition and drive will toil 24/7.

"That's a daily struggle, finding time to have a real life," she says. "I have a hard time being social because I just want to work. I work with workaholics, which is very inspiring but in effect makes me a workaholic. I don't want to miss any opportunities. I want to always be ready to work."

That mindset is what has her living her own reality series with five guys in a house only a few minutes away from their studio.

"I'm living the TV show New Girl," says Gene, referring to the sitcom in which Zooey Deschanel's character moves in with three young men after she breaks up with her boyfriend. "Last night I went to sleep at two in the morning to the sounds of NBA basketball being played on the Xbox in the living room."

But she's not complaining because she's finally sleeping in a grown-up's room, after a stint bunking in a laundry room the size of a child's mattress.

"I took pictures because I thought this would be perfect for my E! True Hollywood Story one day," she says, with a laugh.

It's easy for Gene to be one of the boys when her house is full of them and the music industry is still dominated by men. Sometimes the proximity to so much testosterone makes her forget herself; she doesn't get indignant when she and the guys are driving down the streets of Los Angeles and they spot "a dime piece" -- a woman that rates a 10.

"I go along with it and then I wonder, 'When did I stop repping my gender?'" says Gene, who counts Adele, Imogen Heap and James Taylor among her favourite songwriters. "I'm surrounded by men all the time and it becomes easy to jump on the bandwagon and go for it. You have to make a choice as a woman. You can fall into the pit of what you can do and handle.

"I don't want to be the girl who leaves the session crying. I have seen more than one girl who can't handle criticism."

Her all-in lifestyle and uber-competitive profession doesn't daunt Gene. That doesn't surprise her father, who remembers when his eldest daughter came home from Westgate Mennonite Collegiate and asked him to teach her to play guitar for a talent show -- the next day. The singer learned a simple fingering position that allowed her to accompany herself in front of her classmates with only hours of practice.

"She was fearless," says Penner. "It was, 'Sure, I can do that.' There was no hesitation."

At 13, Gene and her girlfriends formed The 4 Corners, an a cappella pop quartet that played at venues like the Red River Ex. At 17, she was the Manitoba-based host for CBC-TV's children's programming before moving to Toronto to work at The Eggplant Collective, where she was the voice of commercials for Cheez Whiz, McDonald's, Kraft Dinner and Hamburger Helper.

Later she studied journalism at Ryerson University, before meeting James McLeod, with whom she formed the electronic dance band TuZO.

After a nasty split with her boyfriend, Gene fled to London, where she wrote restaurant reviews for a magazine. Her musical connections opened a songwriting door when she visited a friend in Sweden. That led her back to Toronto and to Olie, an indie music-publishing company.

When The Messengers' Grammy Award-winning producer Nasri (Nasri Tony Atweh) reached out for some fresh songwriting talent, Gene was soon on her way to L.A. for a month-long tryout, which was eventually extended to three months, six months, a year and her own deal.

Like every L.A. songwriter, Gene is a performer at heart and works on her own music. She had a recording called The Year -- which documents the melancholy loss of love over that time period -- ready to go in January but then shelved it.

"I want to make an amazing album," she says. "I'm surrounded by unbelievable musicians and I'm so competitive. At this point in my life I don't want to make an album unless it is Adele good."

Her dad was recently in Los Angeles and performed at his daughter's favourite watering hole, where he had the 20- and 30-year-olds up on their feet singing along to The Cat Came Back. On the airplane home, Penner ran into Winnipeg-born singer Chantal Kreviazuk, who worked with Nasri on Feel This Moment, a Pitbull hit that features Christina Aguilera. Kreviazuk has also penned tunes for Kelly Clarkson, Gwen Stefani and Carrie Underwood.

"She said, 'I love the work that Hayley is doing,'" Penner says. "She told me to tell Hayley to keep on it. That felt good from a dad's point of view, to get that encouragement from someone of Chantal's stature. Songwriting is a very hard gig."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 1, 2013 G3

History

Updated on Monday, June 3, 2013 at 9:10 AM CDT: corrects spelling of Hayley Gene

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