In today’s local music scene, artists on the fringe of busting out beyond the stifling moniker of local or regional band headline at The Hollow Bar + Kitchen in Albany. Acts that play on indie radio stations, garnering healthy crowds at live shows, and hearing the whispers of possible recording contracts.
Yesterday, that was Fear of Strangers.
Val Haynes speaks of her past as Strangers lead vocalist in an Ernestoic manner. It was the past. Now, she’s a woman of letters. A lover of Ernest Hemingway. She’s more apt to speak about the piece of fiction she had published in a literary magazine earlier this year, or her triumph over earning her master’s degree.
“Music is not a viable thing for me,” said Haynes. “Maybe other people can make a living out of it, but I never could.”
Nevermind she fronted a band that was on the fringe. Or, that it was signed to Faulty Records, a holding company to I.R.S. Records who owned the rights to R.E.M., The Police, The Go-Gos and Concrete Blonde. Instead, she laughs about that master’s degree in English, and how it hasn’t landed her a job.
But, right now, Haynes is off to work. She’s preparing for a Fear of Strangers reunion show at The Hollow Bar + Kitchen. Time to study up on songs from more than 30 years ago. Lyrics protesting war in Central America. Strumming the guitar to melodic chords germinated and cultivated by other bands from a small dive out of East Village. Before Duran Duran and MTV. She will get lost. Despite her admission to playing the guitar “badly,” hold the author’s feet to the fire and she’d identify herself as a musician first.
“I can’t do anything with music in a room,” said Haynes. “I can’t write, because my mind goes straight to the music. My listening, my audio faculties are really good. My sensitivity to it. In that way, yes, I’m certainly no musician the way Todd Nelson or Al Kash is. I can do other stuff and think other things when I’m reading, but if music comes on, I am there. I can’t even listen in the car.”
Haynes said she misadvertenly took a wrong turn in New York City and got into an accident, all because she was listening to one of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos.
Fear of Strangers was a quartet consisting of Haynes, Nelson at guitar, Kash at drums and Steve Cohen as bassist. They had formed as the Units, until a band out of San Francisco started a trademark dispute. Signing with Faulty Records at around the sametime R.E.M. signed with its subsidiary, I.R.S. Records. The local moniker preceding the band’s name appeared to be stripping away. Ira Robbins of Brooklyn-based Trouser Press magazine described Strangers as “simple, melodic rock with clever topical lyrics.”
“The music is fresh and catchy,” wrote Robbins in 1982, “if a bit naive; Val Haynes, a strong, clear-toned vocalist showing traces of Joan Baez amid the rock stylings, provides most of the band’s character.”
By 1983, the band broke up.
Haynes moved to New York City to continue her musical career as Lonesome Val. Things picked up in 1988 when Musician Magazine named her the Best Unsigned Artist. Upon listening to Haynes’ voice, delivering vocals with a mild country twang, Elvis Costello compared her to Patsy Cline. She signed with Bar/None Records and released two albums, “Lonesome Val” in 1990 and “NYC” in 1994.
Haynes moved back to Troy six years later to pursue that English degree.
Hemingway wrote between the lines, the details of his protagonists inferred more than stated by the wordsmith. His bravado to devote pages to nothing but dialogue is something Val Haynes admires most about the author. “He doesn’t fall in love with his language. He’s learned how to kill his darlings,” she said.
“I write because I like to. But, I do want to be read, also,” said Haynes. “You know the moniker Lonesome Val? Some people think that I’m sad and lonely. No. Misunderstood. That is how I mean it. In a broader term. I think that is the motivation to my writing. “
At home, Haynes has files of her written work— poems, songs, incomplete works. From her perspective, there is little difference between the songwriter of her past and the writer of today.
“I don’t see them as different in a way. It’s all made up,” said Haynes. “We are affected by everything. All of the text in front of our eyes. … I don’t define them as different things. I see writing is writing.”
Haynes said she feels safest on stage, and looks forward to playing with her old bandmates again, in front of fans who remember them. When asked what new fans should expect to see at the Hollow that night, the writer said, “Great musicianship from the other guys.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Fear of Strangers host a reunion show Thursday, June 30, at 8 p.m. at The Hollow Bar + Kitchen, 79 North Pearl Street in Albany.
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.