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Q&A: Hailee Steinfeld Opens Up On Personal ‘Half Written Story’

When you get an Oscar nomination at 14 years old starring opposite Oscar winner Jeff Bridges in a film from Oscar winners Joel and Ethan Coen your lot is cast as an actor in the eyes of the world. Such was the case for Hailee Steinfeld after her breakout role in 2011’s True Grit.

But like many, Steinfeld is blessed with multiple talents. The list of greats who succeeded in both music and film is a stunning one, from Barbara Streisand and Frank Sinatra to more recently Jared Leto and Beyonce. And despite the fact there is a proven track record of talented musicians who have dual talents (Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were also acclaimed painters) there does sometimes remain a prove it to me attitude from fans when it comes to actors who make music.

Steinfeld proves it without a doubt on her stellar new Half Written Story, the first of a two-part collection out this Friday (the second half of the project comes out later this year). When you hear her intimate, her attitude in the joyous pop, the production and the passion she brings to the first five songs it is clear her love of music is genuine.

When you talk to her about everything from the Weeknd and Billie Eilish to the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac it is even more evident that, to paraphrase Elvis Costello, Steinfeld’s aim is true.

On the eve of the release of Half Written Story I spoke at length with Steinfeld about her passion for music, rediscovering vinyl during the pandemic and revealing so much of herself on the new songs.

People have gone different directions in releasing music during this time. What was your thought process in releasing the EP now?
It was a combination of things for sure. These are songs that I am so proud of and have had for a while now. This is a project that, unbeknownst to everyone else, has been pushed quite a bit. And if I could have put this music out the day I wrote it I would have. But obviously there’s so much to take into consideration. I was also away working on a TV show [Dickinson] and this was always sort of my time that I carved out for music. I try and do my best in working with my teams and making it so that I can focus on one at a time. So that whether it’s music or acting it’s getting 110 percent of me. So it is a very strange time to be putting out music. But I also sort of feel music has such a unique ability of connecting people and bringing them happiness. And for me music is such a release. And any time a favorite artist of mine drops new music it’s like there can never be a wrong time for that.

What have been the songs or albums you have turned to during this time?
I’ve had the Weeknd’s new album, After Hours, on repeat. I love his music. I love the production on the record. I think that he is amazing. But I’ve also been doing a lot of deep dives into old albums that I grew up listening to, which are a lot of the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, a bunch of Pink Floyd this morning. And I have all these vinyl’s. I’ve actually been putting together a little home studio and so I’ve been wanting to hang my vinyl’s up on the wall. I pulled out a bunch I totally forgot that I even had. This has been so amazing to actually sit and listen to an entire album from start to finish without any distractions. I can’t tell you the last time I did that. I of course will download albums when I’m on planes and traveling. But I’m either falling asleep, someone is interrupting or you’re distracted. But to be able to just sit and listen to these records from start to finish has been really cool.

New music takes on a different life live. Thinking about playing these songs what tracks are you most excited to see how audiences respond to them?
I haven’t performed new music in a very long time. So the idea of performing these songs live is truly exciting to me and I do hope that’s something that can happen soon. But you’re right, it comes to life. I went on tour with Charlie Puth and I played a song I wrote that I never released. It was a song that I really loved and it was a new song. And for me it was just so exciting, this was kind of a little treat for me. And I realized by the second show there were fans singing it in the audience. And it’s because fans who saw it the first time of course posted about it. And it was so incredible to just see it had reached so many more people than I ever thought it would within 48 hours having never been released. And that was live. So the idea of performing these records, that’s when you get to see how it resonates with other people and how they connect with it. I’m excited about the idea of performing all of them live.

It feels very much like a break-up record and when you put yourself out there like that I do think people connect with it more deeply. Are you finding that?
I greatly appreciate you saying that. Obviously an album is, for me, the ultimate goal. And with this being my first body of work since my very first body of work four years ago, even though it’s a small collection, these five records, I really do feel like it was an accomplishment to come up with a small collection of songs that represent multiple, if not all, of the emotions that you feel when you’re going through a breakup. Or at least for me. It’s like one day you wake up and you’re angry and pissed off. That’s one of the records. The next day you wake up and you’re confused, frustrated and lost. And then the next day you’re empowered and confident and getting yourself back and it’s an amazing feeling. That all happens in waves, it’s not even stages. I was going in and out of feeling all of those things. So I really do feel proud of the fact I was able to come up with these records on one small project. And it’s not all of it. There’s more to come.

Since it is coming out in two separate bodies of work do you find a common theme in the two bodies or are they distinct?
I haven’t thought about that. [But] I definitely think there is a cohesiveness. These records I feel are more personal. It’s kind of crazy cause my first EP came together so quickly. I signed with my label, Republic Records, and within six months I had my first single, “Love Myself,” which ended up going platinum. I thought it was gonna take a couple of years to just figure out what the heck I was doing. And then in under six months it was just this roller coaster ride from then on to then releasing the EP. And it was an incredible experience. But I do feel like now I’m in such a different place as an artist. And just having learned so much, having been on the road, having learned what it’s like to make the music I want to perform, I had never sang in front of an audience before I released that EP. When I say it happened so quick it just happened. And that’s magic too. When something happens like that and it’s good you run with it. But I do just feel like I’m in a place now where I’m more confident in the work.

I imagine music has always been a part of your life. Did it just work out that acting success came first?
Absolutely, music has always played such a huge role in my life in general, in my life as an actor and making music has been a dream of mine since as far as back as I can remember. And what most people don’t know is I started making music around the same time I started acting. But the acting is what happened first and music became more of a side project throughout the years until I found myself in the position to cross over into music in a way that makes sense. I made a movie called Pitch Perfect 2 and it was the perfect segue. It was the first time anybody heard me sing, which was awesome because if they know of me they knew me through my films. And so this is a film they were seeing me sing in and that was the perfect segue. And then not to mention coincidentally Republic had done the soundtrack for Pitch Perfect and then later two and three. So all the pieces just fell into place.

Are there people that you really admire for the way they have evolved and see yourself wanting to grow in a similar direction?
Yeah, there are a lot. I feel like within my generation alone there have been so many young artists that come up. And I started in a place that was all about the work and working hard and being kind and respectful. And it’s so amazing to be part of a generation of young people that that’s all they want to do, work hard, and prove to themselves they can do what it is they love. That’s all I’m doing. There are so many people if I look back, like Rihanna is somebody that I absolutely love. She is so unapologetically herself. She does what she wants when she wants it. She makes the kind of music she likes and if you choose to listen to it then great. I think there’s much there and I respect that.

When you can tour finally and both parts of the project are out who would you most want to tour with?
There are a few. There’s an artist named Benee. I think she’s really interesting, her music is amazing and she just seems like a really fun person. I think that’d be really cool. I’m a huge fan of Billie Eilish of course. I don’t know that there is anyone that I’ve talked to that isn’t. She puts on an unbelievable show, her and Finneas. And there’s a group called XYLO that I really think is awesome. And I’ve seen them play a couple of shows at small venues in New York City and around and I think they’re really fun. Touring is an amazing thing and you learn so much regardless of who it is. So hope it happens.

Baltin: What do you hope people take from this record as a body of work?
I think people now more than ever are getting so creative in the space they are in because it’s really all we’ve got right now. I’m just looking forward to seeing their reactions to the music. I feel like I am paying this forward in the sense that I went through this time in my life that built up a thirst to talk about. And one thing I love is that all my fans will come to me and tell me these records made them feel less alone and hearing them say that and sing these songs and watching them make videos to these songs and do all that makes me feel like if what I went through was good for anything it’s that.

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