I had just finished an interview at a marketing company in Austin, Texas and was standing on the street waiting for my car, when a woman with a box of donuts stopped to chat. Musician Virstyne Henry uses her music to challenge the status quo and ask the scary questions. We met at Radio Coffee to talk music and motivation.
I met you side-hustlin’ with a box of donuts.
I was going to get my acupuncture NAET treatment because I have allergies. Especially since I moved down here.
Because of the trees right?
The cedar, man. I’m a second year cedar fever survivor.
You’re a Native Angeleno and were originally pursuing acting as a career. Was theatre, or I guess film, always an interest of yours?
I wanted to do theatre and film, but my master plan was – I noticed that, if you are a Hollywood actor you get preference over theatre roles, but not the other way around. I wanted to become a film actor because film actors are higher on the pedestal. People who know who they are, they bring in money. From a business standpoint, it makes more sense because good theatrical productions cost a lot of money and you want to get people in the seats. You gotta pay everybody. You gotta pay the actors. You gotta pay the lighting designers. There are more people who are gonna show up just to see the name, whether they’re good or bad. “Oh Julia Roberts is doing theatre now? Let’s see if she has chops”. They can just go right to Broadway and don’t even have to audition.
How was it auditioning in LA?
I was very – I sucked. There’s probably lots of really bad audition tapes around LA with me.
And you went to school for it too?
I did, and I think it was hard cause I was theatre trained. I didn’t really break away from that until later. I really like theatre because it’s more instant gratification, it’s more of a rush, it’s more bonding with people. With a film, you can have a scene with somebody and then not really connect with anybody else in the movie because they’re shot on different days, in different locations. In theatre, you form this weird family bond, even if it’s with people you don’t like, or even hate. You still feel, whether it’s a good play or a bad play, that you have a connection with them. It’s so weird, I can’t explain it. This person’s my family, but he’s like the cousin I hate.
So I sucked. I know why I sucked. I was really scatterbrained. I was really stubborn. I’m not one of these girls that is a sit pretty girl. I would get a weave and then go swimming. And then I’d have a fucked up weave. I hated having my makeup done all the time, everyday having my hair done. I’m really active and it was just really hard for me to keep up with it. It sucks because you have to have another job to pay for your acting. You have one job to pay for your utilities and your rent and your car payments. And then you have another job to pay for your headshots and your acting classes and your makeup…
I went to a performing arts high school; my dad came out to be a director, that’s how he met my mom. I was born there. I was in the machinery of LA since I was a kid. I went to Hollywood High –
WHAT! YOU WENT TO HOLLYWOOD HIGH?
It’s not like – [Laughs]
I’m so excited. That’s awesome.
When I decided to move to Taiwan, that was one of the most life-changing things I ever did. I needed to know that there was something outside of this bubble of California and the industry. A lot of people don’t understand that.
When I was leaving, I started to notice a couple things. I was talking to my best friend and I was like “I know why my careers not taking off. I’m just not pretty enough. I need a nose job”. And he’s like “WTF, you’re fucking crazy” and went off on me. And it’s so weird because it’s something I would never say. I had a couple girlfriends who had nose jobs. And they’re not happy, they’re not happy at all.
Around the same time, I had a casting director tell me my weave was wack. But I needed that because it was! I had an audition with her earlier that day and then I saw her later at a casting director meetup. She grabbed me by the hand. She said it louder than I think she intended to because she was drinking. “You aren’t fooling anybody baby with that. Either take it out, or get a $400 one”. I was like “Oh no, I need a nose job and I need a new weave!”
Then I ran into a girl, we did an extra job together when I first got back from college. I see her five years later and she’s all excited because she got a co-star role on a TV show. After five years this is all she has? This is it? A two-line role on Law & Order? There has to be more to life than this.
I’ve always wanted to live in another country. I was already long-term subbing anyway. Whatever country took me, I just went. It was so funny because I just got my SAG card, I just got a theatrical agent, and I just got a commercial agent. So I had things that were starting to line up. But I wasn’t happy.
Your bio says you fled LA on an Eat Pray Love vision quest.
When Julia Roberts decides to leave her husband, that sets the ball in motion. Mine was like telling my friend I need to get a nose job. That was my bitch slap.
Cut to you living in Austin, handing me a Krispy Kreme. Now you’re living here and you’re working on music. Did that music start in Taiwan?
It started with this guy who’s my best friend now. There’s this place called Carrefour in Taiwan, which is like a Wal-Mart (it’s a French company). It’s where a lot of the foreigners would go to get stuff like frosted flakes. I see this dude with an afro and his wife at the time. I see these brown faces. I’m living in a town that’s like an hour outside of the capital. You barely even see white people. You barely even see other black people. So I was like “Is that a black person?” I like ran up to him and I was like “BLACK PEOPLE!”. To this day he teases me “We thought you were crazy. We just saw you running up to us”. To make a long story short, we became really good friends. He did all my artwork.
When I moved back to LA, we kept in touch via Skype. We were talking about music. I thought I was gonna just use my English skills to travel the world, because you can totally do that. If you have a lot of experience you can make good money going to different countries and teaching English. I tried that for a while, but I felt like the artist in me was still longing. I couldn’t erase that part of me.
So then I started doing music. It was funny, once I kinda put that idea out there – I don’t know if you believe in the Law of Attraction? It’s kind of woo-woo. It’s when you set an intention, you bring stuff into your space. I need to get a piano. I don’t have money. I’m staying with my mom. I got in touch with my cousin who’s a sound engineer. I was telling him “Yeah I want to get back into music”. He’s like “I have this keyboard that’s just in my garage that I’m not even using. You can just have it”. It was like 88 keys weighted.
I started playing around with it and started writing music. Narciso would play guitar riffs and I would add piano to it. And I was like: You know what? I really want to get back into music. I feel like it’s really fulfilling and I was a fool to let it go. I’m gonna save up and I’m gonna move to Texas in a year. So I move here, and then his art career starts taking off…So now I’m a solo artist.
When I listen to your music I hear big band, I hear a little musical theatre, and there’s a playfulness that’s kinda indicative of Fiona Apple. Who would you say are your primary influences?
Everybody! I think the musical theatre is more unconscious…Tori Amos. I feel like I’ll never live up to her. She’s like this goddess, she’s just phenomenal. I like jazz stuff, I like rap. I like all kinds of music.
People freak out when they listen to my music cause it’s not hip hop and they don’t know what to do. When I drove for Lyft, I would have scratch tracks in my car and I would show people my stuff. Some people would dig it, but this one guy was like “Aw that’s cool, but what you gotta do, you gotta put a beat on it.” I was just like “That’s not really the kind of music that I’m going for”. He got like mad at me. Not mad mad, but…he’s a creator too and just doesn’t understand why I don’t want to put a beat on all my music. They can’t see outside this box.
I’d love to go through some of your songs and give folks a little background on each. Starting with “Authority”. I loved the lyrics in this:
“I learned that I’m a product of the system
I know that I’m a victim of my rage
Well on the count of three
I’m gonna bury this disease
I’m gonna snap my chains and break out of this cage”
Can you tell me a little bit about the writing process with this. What’s behind it and where was it coming from?
That song came really fast. Which is rare. Sometimes they come fast and sometimes they take forever. I said a lot of good things about Taiwan. The worst thing I can say- that kind of troubles me – is that they don’t question anything.Their innocence and their trust has a childlike quality to it. And in that childlike quality, you have a collectiveness mentality, you don’t question things. “Oh well, the government would never lie to us”. Being a teacher and being on the other side…I’ve always been respectful of authority. I still have relationships to this day with some of my teachers, if they were respectful with me. I was also reading 1984 at the time. It was a combination of these things.
I wanna talk a little bit about “Break Away”:
“Little boxes they are closing us in…
From the sky…
From our lyrical lives
And they clock says…
This is how you survive…
9 to 5 for the rest of your life..”
It started off with a guy I was seeing when I got out here. He was in a real abusive relationship with a woman. It’s interesting because you always here about women being abused. He probably wouldn’t even consider himself abused, but from what he told me…So basically, it started off with that. I actually wrote that song out of order. I write a lot of songs out of order. It started with “The devil herself, well she kissed me and I cried, Cause she cuts just like a knife…But I’m having the time of my life”. So he was still kinda torn between her and going back to that situation.
Then Narciso and I were talking about how a lot of people are in jobs that they hate. I wanna say it’s a Woodie Guthrie song. You know that song? They use it in the opening of Weeds? “Little boxes on a hillside”. So I started kinda thinking about that, but I was thinking more little boxes as far as cubicles. I see the impact of people that I know that have office jobs and what it does to them, if that’s something that they don’t want to be doing and if they want to be doing something else. How long are you gonna do this? And I’m not judging. We’re in this situation, we have to work to make money.
Because of that, they think about drugs or have some kind of escape which is unhealthy. Which could be an abusive relationship.
Alright. We’ll do a lightning round of questions. Favorite music artist you’re listening to right now.
Bon Iver. But I discovered him late.
Are you listening to the recent one? Or For Emma?
Both….I like him alot. When I was in Taiwan, I wanted to cut out every aspect of pop culture that I could get away from and just be in my bubble. I think they blew up just as I was going there.
Oh! Benjamin Clementine. Do you know him?
Yes? I think I do...
He’s like Nina Simone reincarnated.
What are you reading right now?
What’s the game plan for the album?
Well I’m working on my set list right now. I’ve probably written about 34 songs with melodies. I have a really good vocal coach right now. I want to become a better singer, more athletic, more sustainable. SXSW is coming up, so I want to network with people. I’m looking for a producer. Maybe possible other band members. This year I’m just going to worry about networking. I’ll probably try next year to see if I can get a showcase.
What advice would you give someone who feels trapped in their current reality, like you were in LA? Who feels like they’re unable to create or break free of the rat race that they’re in.
It’s sounds so cheesy, but take a risk. And it’s gonna be scary, but do something that you would not do, that doesn’t involve hurting anybody else. Cause people thought I was crazy. You’re gonna move to Taiwan? They’re like “What happens if you don’t like it?”.
I’ll just move back.
Virstyne (Vir-STEEN) Henry’s Indie Pop style tackles the status quo and questions social “truths” through honest introspection. Sign up for her newsletter to receive free music downloads. Header artwork by Narciso Palma.