The indie pop singer-songwriter Haleluya Hailu visited Toronto for two shows as part of a promotional tour for her debut EP, eternally, yours. Her lyrics touch on the simplicities of growing up in small-town British Columbia; problematic relationships from the past; fake friends; and, sometimes, suicidal thoughts. 

Indie pop singer-songwriter Haleluya Hailu (left) delivers a cheeky performance for her second EP, Eternally, yours. COURTESY OF RICHARD DAVIS@VANCITYRICHARD

Although described as a “sad girl” on her website, her sound is deceptively upbeat. I attended Hailu’s performance at the Burdock Brewery, where she was scheduled after Spring Colours, a Toronto-based indie rock band. Both groups gave a performance characteristic of the indie artists that survive in Toronto — it’s the kind of energy you can’t do justice to through a recording.

Burdock’s musical hall was warmly lit, lined with woody furniture, and had shelves decorated with glass bottles. Lightbulbs on a string zig-zagged across the ceiling, and a silver disco ball was in the centre. On the far end of the room, a bartender lit three candles to indicate the mini bar’s opening, where a spatter of people had already begun to order.

On the concert floor, Hailu chatted with friends with her hands in her pockets, showing off her “hardcore” Vancouverite roots in her blue Capilano University hoodie. When the main lights dimmed, the crowd turned to the soft pink, orange, and blue lighting that melded together on the stage. 

Haleluya Hailu’s flowy, feminine appearance contrasts her edgy lyricism.

On this Monday evening, Spring Colours’ vocalist, David, remarked, “The scaries are done. Now, you just get to rock out.” He was right — soon, you’d never be able to tell it was a workday. By the time their set was over and the break hit, the venue was bubbling with conversation, as it had filled out with groups of friends.

Between Spring Colours’ last songs, Hailu squeezed through the crowd, followed by her guitarists, and made her way behind the stage. As the band signed off, Hailu made her way up. She was no longer wearing her hoodie. Instead, she had sparkles along the highs of her cheekbones, and her silver nose piercing glinted in the lighting. She wore a flowy cropped sweater, a laced t-shirt underneath, and blue jeans. 

The duality between her lyricism and her appearance became even more stark as she introduced her single, “MANIC PIXIE PACIFIST.” 

“This is a song about wanting to kill yourself,” she said. “It’s a dancey one.”

Her long sleeves swayed as she sang, “Was I just playing a role / when you were taking me home?” The audience swayed along with her. Her faster-tempoed songs like “postal code” had us almost headbanging. But when the instrumental went starkly silent at the end of a song, her voice alone filled the room. 

Haleluya Hailu’s band jams along to her playful vocals.

Hailu sometimes grabbed her guitar to accompany the two guitarists and drummer. Her expressions went from blunt to dreamy as she performed. She snarkily rolled her eyes, or flashed a cheeky smile during “pinball” when she sang, “I like your stupid face.” During her more reflective pieces, she would thoughtfully gaze above the audience. 

Hailu transitioned her sets through playful dialogue with the audience. She asked us to boo, and the crowd obliged. “It keeps me humble,” she said. She told us she’d take those ‘boos’ and “package [them] up and send it to the west coast to [her] ex-boyfriend,” which pulled chuckles from the crowd.

Hailu searched the crowd for an audience member with small-town experience. She repeatedly checked in with the person between songs, saying, “Jordan, I’ll be talking to you.”

This playful chemistry continued:  “Jeff-”

“Jordan,” they corrected.

“Close enough,” Hailu decided, causing the audience to snicker. 

To introduce “walmart,” she asked Jordan what they did for fun in a small town. Hailu shared her own experiences: “I’d go to Walmart — have a joint, a gummy.” In response, an audience member behind me whispered to their friend, “So true.”

As Hailu switched from ethereal melodics to grittier dialogues between herself and the subjects of her lyrics, she elevated seemingly mundane experiences into bittersweet, charming memories.

Haleluya Hailu’s EP, eternally, yours, released on March 22.Disclosure: Haleluya Hailu has advertised with The Varsity in Volume 144.