Enter the Weird World of Sloppy Jane

Posted: by The Editor

It’s half past midnight at Williamsburg hotspot Baby’s All Right and Haley Dahl is handing out well-earned medals to the winners of a wedding cake-eating contest. She disappears as the fanfare dies down. Before Dahl and her band can take the stage, the crew has to clean up the remnants of the competition, lest any renegade bits of cake or frosting gum up even one reed, string, or pickup of Sloppy Jane’s 12-piece orchestra. Once all the musicians are assembled and the stage is wiped clean of any confectionery casualties of Brooklyn’s most spirited competitive eating event since this year’s Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, Dahl stands with her shoulder-padded back to the audience and her velvet-clad arms outstretched, ready to lead the band through a rousing overture. 

Tonight kicks off Sloppy Jane’s three-night “remixed residency.” Each of the Sunday shows—all of which take place one week apart—are built around a specific theme, complete with requests for audience members to dress accordingly. The turnout at the wedding-themed first show reveals no shortage of tuxedo t-shirts, plastic flower bouquets, and haunted-looking thrift store wedding gowns—one was even flecked with (fake?) blood stains. 

These theme nights are just one of many testaments to Haley Dahl’s talent for worldbuilding. In its decade-plus of existence, Sloppy Jane has never been just a band—it’s an outlet for Dahl to draw a certain theme or concept out of her music and inflate it into an outsized, immersive phenomenon that audiences can’t help but give themselves over to. It’s also why putting together a Sloppy Jane album is such a long, involved process. “I love creating a full experience,” she tells me a couple days after Night 1 of her residency. “It’s not enough for me to just write a song and play it.” 

I’m eager to dig deeper into this aspect of her musicianship when we meet up for tea on the Lower East Side. She walks up to me in an oversized black short-sleeve button down adorned with flaming green-and-blue skulls, a long black satin dress, black platform boots, and an assortment of silver jewelry. When she arrives, she immediately removes her tinted steampunk goggles to reveal inky winged eyeliner and clouds of magenta enshrining her dark eyes, before snapping her flip-phone shut and pulling me into a hug. She speaks with the same gravelly, nasal buzz of her singing voice, gesticulates with ring-heavy hands, often interrupts herself, and punctuates her anecdotes with bursts of bubbly, full-throated laughter. Her return to New York is a homecoming of sorts—Dahl spent her early childhood in Manhattan before moving to Los Angeles as a preteen, and she’s lived and worked between the two cities for most of her adult life. 

As we begin our conversation, the wedding festivities from the other night at Baby’s All Right are fresh in my mind. And how couldn’t they be? The cake-eating contest that served as one of Sloppy Jane’s opening acts was only the beginning. Halfway through the set, Dahl invited a young couple—Kydee and Annie—onstage and officiated their surprise wedding. 

Dahl explains to me that she got ordained online and put out an open call on Instagram asking if any fans wanted to get married at one of her shows, and a pair of fianceés in Utah responded. As the story goes, Kydee wore a Sloppy Jane hoodie on the couple’s first date and later gifted it to Annie during the months where they dated long-distance. Their love story eventually brought them to Brooklyn, where they welcomed 200+ strangers to bear witness to their holy union.

Towards the end of the set, after vows had been exchanged, the new Mrs. and Mrs. took to the floor for their first dance, accompanied by a faithful cover of “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You”– courtesy of their equally faithful wedding band. The crowd of concertgoers-turned-impromptu-wedding-guests sang along, teary-eyed at the two beaming brides. 

A huge smile unfolds across Dahl’s face as she recounts the story of Kydee and Annie tying the knot at her show: “I love that these two very, very cute young people from Utah came to New York and made all these old weirdos cry!” 

As far as the residency theme nights go, the inspiration behind the wedding one is pretty clear. Madison is rife with lyrical references to wedding attire—the slow-spiraling dirge “Jesus And Your Living Room Floor” begins with a plea to be buried in “the same suit that you married her in,” and the acoustic “Epilogue” that closes out the album includes a scene of the narrator falling asleep in a wedding dress. A self-described “concept addict,” Haley Dahl has “always wanted to throw a wedding-themed party, ” and these motifs presented the perfect opportunity to live out that dream. Similarly, she’d long considered turning Sloppy Jane into a country band, and the recurring visual and lyrical motif of horses (plastic or otherwise) prancing through Madison’s tracklist and promotional cycle proved to be a match made in heaven for a cowboy-themed second show. The third theme—corporate motivational seminar—is initially a bit less obvious on the surface. When I ask Dahl about the inspiration behind it, she brings up the New Year’s Eve countdown that occurs in the 9-minute Madison standout “The Constable,” as well as the “accidentally self-help-y” stage persona that she often slips into. I’m reminded of Dahl’s list of unsolicited advice that she gave during a 2018 interview with Office Magazine (which includes nuggets of wisdom ranging from “Learning to excel in scenarios where you are totally miserable is essential to Becoming Great. Equally important is to one day wake up and decide to never do anything you hate Ever Again,” to “How to know if your art is good: if a child wouldn’t like it, it is bad”). She notes the boisterous, high-energy similarities between a self-help seminar and a rock show, and how modeling one after the other might unlock new aspects of old songs. 

Then again, a Sloppy Jane performance is never just a rock show. The wedding-themed installment of her residency is a high-camp carnival that revels in theatricality—though not the polished, fresh-faced theatricality of a tourist-trapping Broadway show. It’s more like an after-hours Vaudeville act or a Rocky Horror-esque cult darling for the not-so-faint-of-heart. As a conductor/composer/renaissance frontwoman, Haley Dahl’s stage persona is about ¼ circus ringleader, ¼ court jester, ¼ Vegas showgirl, and ¼ charismatic pastor whose church may or may not be hiding a dark secret. 

The setlist is expectedly Madison-heavy, though some highlights from her 2018 debut LP Willow make for show-stopping moments as well. Dahl’s dusky contralto winds around “Bark Like A God,” a twisted piece of chamber punk erotica that’s equal parts silly, sultry, and spooky. She stomps and growls through fan favorite “Where’s My Wife?” a rip-roarer about a manic pixie nightmare girl whose hobbies include crying into wallets and “getting high on chandelier polish,” (this particular live rendition is made all the more hysterical by the fact that Dahl segues into it immediately after officiating a wedding). On “Peroxide Beach,” which she describes as “a guided meditation from hell,” she dons a nasally Valley Girl accent to deliver hilariously horrifying (or horrifyingly hilarious) gems like, “Is everything you cared about before today rendered totally meaningless? Or is the weight of the world even greater with its loss? Speaking of weight, I ate way too much fucking salt today!” Needless to say, the ragtag gang of freaks that constitute Sloppy Jane’s audience eat that shit up.

The many hats that Dahl wears aren’t limited to her live performances. The Madison visual album that Dahl released in May is a multimedia re-assertion that her zany versatility knows no bounds. Dahl lets her jerky, awkward dance moves carry her deliriously through a cavern filled with kissing couples in the video for lead single “Party Anthem.” Forensic Files-inspired campfire singalong “Judy’s Bedroom” is stylized like grainy VHS cult footage, with Dahl orating to her cave-bound followers by candlelight. The abrasive interlude “Bianca Castafiore”—named after the similarly abrasive grand dame opera singer from the The Adventures of Tintin—features an animation style best described as Blues Clues on acid, and wouldn’t be out of place in a music video from Missy Elliott or Tierra Whack’s catalog. “Lullaby Formica” and “Wilt” both intersperse medical horror with soft focus glamor in a Twin Peaks-reminiscent fashion.

Lynchian influence is nothing new to the Sloppy Jane Universe. For its most obvious example, you don’t need to look much further than the band’s color palette. When I ask about the inspiration behind that signature shade of Sloppy Jane Blue, Dahl cites her teenage obsession with David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, as well as the works of her grandfather, an abstract painter who emigrated from Iraq through Ellis Island and almost exclusively used shades of blue. Like Joni Mitchell, Maggie Nelson, and Regina Spektor (who once used the titular blue to track the history of mankind, even going so far as to call it “the most human color”), Dahl is drawn to blue’s boundlessness. To her, blue is everything and nothing all at once. “There’s this depth and space implied,” she muses, “Blue is forever. It’s this great emptiness.” This blue infinitude goes all the way back to the opening verse of Sloppy Jane’s unofficial theme song, 2015’s “Ballad of Jane”: 

Pray to Jane our God and master

To a ceiling made of plaster

The upstairs neighbors are stomping on it

They love blue ’cause it’s infinite

Dahl’s signature royal blue suit that she wears onstage (and one day plans to eat) was adapted from the outfit she used to wear when she began dancing at South LA strip clubs at 19. A big fan of both Bobby Vinton and the aforementioned David Lynch, Dahl’s routine involved stripping out of a blue velvet bikini to “Blue Velvet.” It was a sliver of creative control in a career where she had very little control in general. Though she acknowledges that her former line of work may be an empowering or positive experience to some, for Dahl it was the opposite. 

She performed at clubs under the stage name Willow, a persona that would go on to become the titular character of Sloppy Jane’s 2018 debut LP. In part a reaction to the dangers and degradation Dahl faced as a stripper, Willow was a pseudo-concept album that aimed to “humanize and destroy” the hypersexualized, easily objectifiable character that she played. Through ragged punk instrumentals and sensationalized violence taken to its most absurd, satirical extremes, Willow subverted the tired tropes of sex worker narratives—the anonymous and disposable stripper, the one-dimensionally evil vamp, the hooker with a heart of gold. When Dahl adapted her club routine for Sloppy Jane shows, her striptease culminated in her shrieking while convulsing on the floor and puking up blue paint. “It felt like a defense,” she explains, “I wanted my nude body to be weaponized, I wanted to feel horrifying.” Looking back, this scary-to-sexy sliding scale became a sort of template for how Sloppy Jane operates thematically; any beauty or sensuality must be met with equal opposite grotesqueness. 

As a band/moniker/ever-evolving musical project, Sloppy Jane has existed for over ten years (“Ten years!” Dahl groans, “My face just aged as you said that”). The sound, aesthetic, and lineup have all undergone seemingly countless iterations. Yet whether Sloppy Jane is a noisy post punk outfit, an underground orchestra, an immersive art rock cabaret, all or none of the above, something essential remains at the core. Haley Dahl is both the fearless captain propelling the band forward and the steadfast beating heart holding it together at the center. When I ask her about how it feels to spearhead a project and a musical identity that’s cycled through so many sonic and aesthetic overhauls, Dahl credits this to her obsession with “the abstractness of identity.” This seems to be Sloppy Jane’s guiding philosophy, especially since much of Dahl’s songwriting process revolves around rearranging old songs until they’re unrecognizable and functionally new. “I love how you can change how you can change every single thing about yourself and still be yourself,” she tells me. “You can change every single thing about a song and it’s still the same song.” 

Sloppy Jane is Dahl’s great Ship of Theseus experiment—and this approach isn’t just relegated to the ongoing formation of the band’s identity, but to her own on a personal level. In all realms, she’s constantly challenging herself to defy both internal and external expectations for the sake of seeing what central, immaterial aspects remain:

“We’re so pressured to identify ourselves as like, “I’m this kind of person, these are the things that make me me. I like playing punk music, I have this kind of hair, I’m this gender and this sexuality, I’m this, that, and the other.” But I think that what makes you you is so intangible. It’s something that can’t be bought or identified. People get caught up in these things and it makes them very stuck. When I was making punk music I would talk about wanting to learn how to orchestrate and people would be like, “You don’t really need that for the kind of thing that you do.” And I’d be like, what’s the kind of thing I do? I’m fucking 20! I don’t know what I do! I wanna do everything!”

Madison, a high-concept rock opera that Dahl describes as “a grand romantic gesture,” shows the listener unbridled and unrequited love in meals of concrete, dead policemen peeled off the hoods of cars, slugs spilling from skulls smashed on the pavement. When she invokes imagery that has the potential to be cute or romantic, it works as a sort of fucked-up Chekhov’s gun—the dog gets kicked, the pony gets sent to the glue factory, when a lover has “roses on the brain” those roses are revealed to be either plastic or dead. 

The record is a product of Dahl’s ugliest romantic impulses, something she laughs while admitting almost two years after its release: “My most central feeling in making [Madison] was like, wishing something horrible would happen and I would die so people would have to say they loved me, even if they didn’t actually.” Death is not only the great equalizer but the great affection-generator. As is proven further with each outpouring of love for a celebrity whose life of exploitation and mockery is followed by a premature death and a collective heel-turn— everybody rushing to scream into the void that the tabloid-cannibalized star was loved all along—the fastest way to make people love you is to die. 

The emotions behind Madison demanded a visual and sonic palette savage and melodramatic enough to match the enormity of Dahl’s loneliness. She couldn’t just make a breakup album—breakup albums are a dime a dozen—she needed to make a rock opera in a cave. Dahl identified heavily with the godly motivation behind Leland Sprinkle’s Great Stalacpipe Organ, a lithophone carved from underground stalactites, which broke the Guinness World Record for largest musical instrument. 

The way she describes her routine and mental state while writing Madison makes it sound almost like a self-imposed monastery. Dahl remained sober and celibate, wore the same outfit every day for a year, and for extended periods of time refused to touch anyone—no hugs, no handshakes. She woke up hours before sunrise, went to sleep in the early evening, and frequently went on liquid fasts. She would go days, weeks without leaving the house (this was pre-pandemic). If all of this sounds unhealthy or unpleasant, she’d agree with you, even going so far as to admit that she was “very abrasive to be around” and “almost non-functional as a human being.” Her ability to function as a human being was secondary to her ability to be a vessel for this grand, higher calling. 

Much like Leland Sprinkle was called by upon by God to construct his magnificent musical creation, Dahl describes the epiphany that led to her sophomore album’s concept as almost a priestlike calling, one that came to her all at once: “It was just this full vision—I see an orchestra in a cave and that’s what I’m gonna do. I didn’t know how to write orchestral arrangements, I didn’t know how to play piano, I didn’t know how to sing besides screaming. This is what’s gonna fix my life.” 

“Well, did it?” I ask her. “Fix your life?”

“I think so,” she nods, before adding, “I’m really proud of the person I became through making that album.”

After Madison was finished, Dahl struggled to move on from such a gargantuan undertaking. Not just the fugue state she was in while writing the album, but also the years-long hunt for the perfect cave, followed by two weeks of bringing a 21-piece orchestra underground and back up again each day while recording inside West Virginia’s Lost World Caverns. After pouring so much of her time and  personhood into such an ambitious, harrowing, tactile, and (I’m sure she’d agree with me) wildly inconvenient project, it’s understandable that a creator would find it difficult to move on. 

Dahl was still fixated on Madison’s most definitive motif—caves. On the record, the cave is the ultimate visual shorthand for the loneliness of heartbreak, for the vast yet often hollow nature of a grand romantic gesture, at times for clinging to one’s own delusions rather than heading towards the light and at other times for dredging up the guts of the earth to excavate the truth—even if you know it’s going to hurt. Though the recording was done and the album had finally seen the light of day, a part of Dahl still felt stuck underground. 

While searching for a sign that might lead to her next project, a friend showed her Ghost Town Living, the Youtube channel where entrepreneur Brent Underwood documents his off-grid experiences and restoration efforts in an abandoned Central California mining town called Cerro Gordo. Dahl, along with her longtime friend and collaborator Mika Lungulov-Klotz, later visited Cerro Gordo for a New Year’s celebration that Underwood was hosting in one of the underground mines. She tells me about the experience of emerging from the Christmas-decorated mine just minutes into the New Year, staring up at the infinite stretch of stars above the desert, and stumbling upon a new epiphany: “This is where I’m supposed to be. This is what happens next.” 

Since then, Dahl has made Cerro Gordo her primary residence, bringing the abandoned mining town’s population up from 2 to 3. She’s also befriended Underwood, who’s been involved in Dahl’s next creative endeavor: building a recording studio/musicians’ residency in the ghost town. A historically cold winter postponed the start of its construction, but she’s looking forward to breaking ground on it once she’s wrapped touring (her current docket includes an opening slot with 100 gecs at Boygenius’ Hollywood Bowl Halloween show). It’s a far cry from the solitary life she’s been getting used to back in Cerro Gordo, where her access to things like internet and running water is unpredictable and her main connection to the outside world is driving two hours to the nearest town to buy groceries every other week. Though Dahl is excited about the shape her artistry has yet to take, she admits that her off-grid lifestyle has made her appreciate the connectedness and immediacy of city life, and that she doesn’t necessarily see her current home as being a permanent one (“I’m not gonna live in a ghost town forever”). She also admits that she doesn’t know much about what goes into building a recording studio—especially one in such an unconventional locale—but then again, a few years ago she didn’t know anything about conducting an orchestra, let alone conducting one 245 feet below the earth’s surface. 

Dahl hasn’t strayed from her “learn-as-you-go” approach to all aspects of creation, and her fastidious loyalty to constant transformation has served her well so far. Still, she admits that it’s trial and error, and that to accept who you are is to also consistently challenge the very idea of identity. Call it a soul, call it essence, call it the true self—no matter what you empty out or add on, for better or for worse, there’s always going to be something at the center that stays the same:

“I could change literally everything about the way I behave, the way I dress, what I do for a living. I could get plastic surgery and change my whole face and body, but people who know me would still be like “But you’re still you!” Because there’s something that you are. And sometimes that’s a horrible feeling, it’s inescapable, this thing that I am, but it’s cool too. For better or for worse, any music I make is gonna sound like it’s mine.”

This is as much a philosophical approach to her artistic endeavors as it is to who Haley Dahl is, and who she’s constantly becoming and un-becoming. It always comes back to a willingness to challenge her current state, to look at something she knows nothing about and decide to learn everything about it, to transform into something entirely new that somehow retains its instantly recognizable essence. Her music, and the world she builds around it, is a vessel for infinity. 

Grace Robins-Somerville | @grace_roso

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