Haley Grant had grand designs for “She Won’t Make Sense,” the bare-knuckled concept album from her New York alterna-duo The Harmaleighs, getting its premiere it in The City this week.
But after composing six songs detailing the anxiety and depression she had been battling — a dark entity she actually named Susan — she lost the plot. For several months, she told her bandmate and romantic partner of five years Kaylee Jesperson that she was stuck.
“I kept telling her that we had no second act, no conclusion, no happy ending,” says Grant. “Then I, uh, got our ending.” It wasn’t what she was expecting. Her relationship with Jesperson began to die as grim new material jolted to life.
Grant and Jesperson — who began playing music together as classmates at Tennessee’s Belmont University, first in a Mumford & Sons-ish big band, then a whittled-down quartet and finally a duo — could find only one way to stay together as The Harmaleighs. It was by breaking up as a couple.
Jesperson openly blames Susan: “For a long time, Haley had really needed to work on her own mental health, and the first half of this record walks you through that journey, to her discovery that Susan pushes people away, and ultimately pushed me away,” she says, at Grant’s urging. “Now she understands that Susan is just a part of her, and Susan is going to be with her forever.”
Easing the harsh truth is the fact that the performers decided to keep The Harmaleighs going as a band. “It was all too easy to just say, ‘See ya later. And don’t ever speak to me again,’” says Jesperson. “But we saw that it was a delicate situation, and if we didn’t handle it the right way that the band, everything we’d ever created, could just blow up in our faces. And we didn’t want that to happen.”
To make it work, they had transcend resentment and be civil. At Belmont, the pair gravitated toward each other in mutual musical admiration of their chiming way with an oblique pop hook. Yet it was Jesperson who initially sensed the dark shadows rippling beneath Grant’s shiny surface.
“On the outside, Haley’s a big goofball who loves to have fun, but musically she’s into some deep and serious stuff,” she says. “But that was always her way of expressing that side of her, since talking about those things was probably never easy for her.”
To that point, the new single “Sorry, I’m Busy” stomps along to a celebratory beat while Grant cheerily chirps the warning signs of an panic attack.
Other new songs might prove too uncomfortable to perform: Jesperson says, “‘Dim the Lights’ is pretty difficult, because it’s specifically about our breakup. When Haley first showed me the song, I was like, ‘Oh, my God! I can’t sing this!’”
IF YOU GO
Ages and Ages, The Harmaleighs
Where: Hotel Utah, 500 Fourth St., S.F.
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Contact: (415) 546-6360, www.ticketfly.com