Hayley Warner On Returning To Music As A Solo Artist: 'It's The Best Struggle Ever'

21 June 2024 | 11:26 am | Mary Varvaris

One of Australia's most decorated songwriters has returned with a stunning new EP and is touring with Canadian star Donovan Woods. It's time you get reacquainted with Hayley Warner.

Hayley Warner

Hayley Warner (Credit: Joseph Clarke)

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If you only recognised Hayley Warner’s name from her time on Australian Idol in 2009, it’s time you get reacquainted.

Warner, an Australian singer-songwriter, was the runner-up to Stan Walker in the show’s seventh season. You can see why either of them could have won: both possess stunning, soulful voices that are uniquely theirs and can command a stage. But after Idol, we didn’t hear from Warner for a while. That doesn’t mean she ever stopped her music career.

In fact, Warner went on to sign a worldwide publishing deal with Sony ATV and ended up working with singers and producers around the globe, and in 2013, was already named one of Australia’s most accomplished songwriters.

With Warner at the songwriting helm, the songs she’s written have totalled over 11 times platinum worldwide. The songs have received over three billion streams worldwide.

Examples of the artists she’s worked with over the last twelve years include Tori Kelly (Hollow), Katy Perry (Never Really Over – her best song?), Kelly Clarkson (Glow), and additional songwriting credits with JoJo, Chris Stapleton, Nickelback, Calum Scott, Dean Lewis, and more.

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All that songwriting brought Warner success, but it sucked her enjoyment out of what she enjoyed about music. Warner realised that she needed to write for herself, and earlier this year, she released the stunning new EP, I Think I Saw The Moon.

This month, Warner has returned home for a string of shows where she opens for Canadian singer-songwriter Donovan Woods – the two a mighty team delivering emotional music.

“I have been writing for twelve years, about 300 songs a year over that timespan every single year,” Warner admits from her hotel room in Melbourne, her broad-brimmed hat working to cover the sunset from her eyes.

“The writing can get tiresome, but playing live never gets tiresome. I love it, even though I'm exhausted and my eyes are hanging out of my head [laughs]. I'll chase this till the day I die, and hopefully, I can get on some more tours and play a lot more because it's what makes me love music again. It's why I did it.”

Warner discovered her love for music at a young age.

As a child, she had grand plans to become an athlete, but at seven years old, she was diagnosed with Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease (LCPD), a rare childhood hip disorder characterised by the disruption of blood flow to the head of the femur, leading to the bone no longer growing. Warner had to relearn how to walk and found that music became her therapy in recovery.

“I initially came from a different path of, well… tragedy. I got diagnosed Legg–Calvé–Perthes disease in my right hip when I was seven. I wanted to be an athlete my whole life, and the doctor said I would never walk again. I would never run again. I'd never play sports again, which, you know, I ended up doing all those things, but I could never get to the level that I really wanted to when I was younger,” Warner shares.

She had to pivot. Warner regained movement in her legs after her mum brought her a $50 drum kit from a garage sale, and she started playing music.

Chuckling at the next part of her story, Warner adds, “I used to put the faces of the people that bullied me at school on the kick drum and the snare and the toms, and I just used to beat them every day because I was in so much pain from all of what was going on at school. And then it just became therapy.”

The next step came in finding someone to teach her how to actually play an instrument – the guitar. Steve Hill, one of the dads from Warner’s school, taught her everything she needed to know to write songs.

“When we made our first EP in Cloud 9 [released in 2007], he would run into the room and give me harmonies and then run back out and record on the 8-track,” Warner recalls, before stating: “If it wasn't for him, I don't know that I'd be half the songwriter or, for that matter, stuck it out as long as I did. Or, you know, have the tools he armed me with at such a young age, and he made the process fun.”

Remembering how much fun she used to have in music, Warner started working towards regaining that teenage abandon. “I used to have so much fun doing this,” she says, remembering the feelings that led her on her current path.

“Why don't I have as much fun doing this anymore? How do I get back there and take all of the industry bullshit out of it? This industry can become quite toxic and intense, and it can take a lot of the fun out of music, telling stories, being heard, and making people feel seen.

“I think I lost that for a few years, just getting immersed in the industry side of things. So, I like to go back to when I would have done it for free.”

As a fourteen-year-old, Warner played shows in underage bars and laughs at the times she was kicked out of those venues.

“I’ve always loved playing live,” she says. “It's just nice to come back to it—the releasing [music] part can feel detached from seeing people sing the songs. I had a couple of people singing all the lyrics to all songs in Melbourne the other night, and that felt really special.”

Warner is touring on the back of her moving new EP, I Think I Saw The Moon, a release that balances poignant piano ballads with her big-time pop vocal. Some moments can make you cry (Brother, You Were Once), while others are euphoric. Warner says her mission was to combine the rawness and autobiographical writing she does so well with pop-leaning, indie sensibilities.

The EP was born before the COVID-19 pandemic when Warner had a non-religious “Come to Jesus” moment upon realising that she didn’t enjoy songwriting and didn’t feel like she was giving her all anymore.

Taking a chance on herself and writing her own stories, I Think I Saw The Moon was made in Warner’s spare bedroom with her buddy, Tom Jordan, who she flew out from Nashville. They created magic on a pair of $250 KRK speakers from Guitar Centre and, in 19 days, came up with every track.

“As the EP evolved, we wrote all those songs in a row and never wrote anything else. It was only those five songs,” Warner says. “Our strike rate was insane, and we knew we were on to something.

“I mean, we had no budget. We were just like, ‘Let's write this thing’. I had some stories to tell, and it was what I needed. I think if I didn't have the pandemic, I might still be writing in rooms and being quite miserable and bitter, and I didn't want to.

“I wanted to leave the industry for a little while before I started burning bridges, honestly, and almost going too far, and then I couldn't come back to it. Now, I love writing again for different artists because I feel fulfilled in my own artistry.”

How did Warner escape the music industry bullshit? She’s learned to just have fun.

“I feel more excited about the future than I ever have,” she says. “I felt uninspired for a while; I was just writing for others. When people come and see me live, it's a different thing. It's hard to convince people that you’re great when they might have an idea of you 15/16 years ago, and nobody's the same person as they were 15/16 years ago.

“So, when people see it, they have a visceral reaction that they're quite surprised by. And even friends of mine that have never heard the music before, or have heard the music but haven't seen me live, they'll come and be like, ‘What?’ I feel more inspired than ever, and I want to keep making music, and not to be too hard on myself.”

One of the challenges of Warner’s comeback is becoming a relatively new artist all over again, despite her twelve years of experience writing for other artists.

Reflecting, she says, “I'm not the same person I was 15/16 years ago, and those stories weren't really mine; they were written for me. I've only been at the camera and releasing my own stuff for four years, so I need to give myself a little grace and just keep building and keep making the records.”

“It's a lot of financial input that you have to do yourself in the early days, and I think a lot of people overlook that,” Warner notes.

Dispelling the myth that it’s easy to exist as a new artist, she adds, “Everything costs money, so you have to find it and make it somewhere else. And I've been lucky enough to make money in music for 16 years, and that be my job.”

For Warner, it hasn’t been easy getting people to listen.

“It’s hard to get people to listen, especially when you've been around. A lot of people like to give the new people they've never heard before more of a chance than someone they have this preconceived idea of.” That’s not too upsetting for her (“I'm not doing brain surgery, I'm not saving lives”), but she does have something special on offer: Warner wants to soundtrack your life.

“I'm just trying to put music out there and make people feel a little less alone in their own life, and hopefully give some people something to walk down the aisle to, or a reason to break up with their partner, or a reason to look back and remember them fondly,” Warner states. To her, making music is the best job in the world again.

She adds, “I sound like I've been complaining, but it's a struggle. But it's the best struggle ever. It's so rewarding when you get on that stage and you see people light up, come over after, tell you their story, or say, ‘I want to play that at my wedding’. Or ‘that Brother song made me reach out to my brother or my sister’, or ‘I hadn't talked to my friends in ten years’.

“It's a struggle, but I'm not the first to do it, and I won't be the last, so we just got to keep pushing forward and making great art. That's the only thing for me.”

I Think I Saw The Moon is out now. You can catch Hayley Warner opening for Donovan Woods on the following dates:


w/ special guest Hayley Warner


Friday 21 June - The Great Club, Sydney NSW

Saturday 22 June - Black Bear Lodge, Brisbane QLD

Tickets here.