A Q&A with Half Dream on their debut EP "Monster of Needing"

Earlier this year, Nixie Mag covered the debut singles from Half Dream, "Celia" and "Strange Lover" (you can read more here). Half Dream was set to release their first EP in April, as well to embark on an accompanying tour. We had set up an interview for their Nashville stop, at the Cobra.

But when those plans were put on hold, so was the EP. But now, Half Dream is back, and have now released that debut EP, titled Monster of Needing. Much like the songs "Celia" and "Strange Lover" suggested, the 7-track project is both dreamy and sharp, as the lyrics navigate healing, empathy, and love.

I got the chance to speak over email with Paige Berry, the frontperson of Half Dream, about Monster of Needing. Berry is originally from Knoxville, Tenn., and moved to Austin in 2014 in the aftermath of an abusive relationship. The move reinvigorated her; she delved into songwriting in a new way, and she eventually formed Half Dream. We spoke about this decision to move, the music community of Austin, and the importance of therapy and love.

What was it about Austin that drew you to move there, without having been there? Do you feel that being in Austin changed or impacted your writing?

You know, I didn’t really decide to move to Austin until the week I made the call. My primary thought was that I just needed to get out of town in a really urgent way. I had finally hit a breaking point in my abusive relationship, and my therapist at the time was from Austin. She had spoken really fondly of it, and it just sort of popped into my brain. I quit both my jobs the day after I decided, and I was on a plane with my mom to check it out a week later. I was blown away by the things I take for granted now. It was July 4th weekend, so there was music and fireworks at Auditorium Shores. It felt buzzy and alive, and it was so much prettier than I ever could’ve imagined. I couldn’t believe there were cacti and agave plants everywhere. Someone in Knoxville had told me Texas was all swamps, haha. Clearly, they hadn’t been to the Hill Country.

I’m going to admit something embarrassing: I didn’t know Austin was the capital of Texas, and I didn’t know it was “The Live Music Capital of The World.” Can you imagine my surprise when I came to realize the magic I’d found myself in? I was writing a bit in college, but not super seriously, and nothing I would stand by now. Being in Austin made creative expression feel possible in a real way for the first time in a long time. My new community made me feel seen and heard, and really demystified songwriting for me. It felt like something that was in my grasp. So in a way, Austin is the reason I’m making music now.

Can you tell more about what the music community in Austin is like? Or any favorite spaces, venues, or memories?

Austin is a big little city, or at least it used to be. I know folks who have been here much longer than me would say that descriptor doesn’t hold up anymore, but it still rings true to me in a lot of ways. Within certain circles, there really is a lot of overlap in who plays in what band, and the people in your orbit. For example, my last guitarist was in my band, fronted his own band, and is in my current guitarist’s band. My current guitarist is in my last guitarist’s band. It’s silly and sweet and comforting. It’s a good feeling knowing that I can go to Hotel Vegas, Cheer Up Charlie’s, or Hole In The Wall and likely see my buds without much planning. Those spots are my main hangs, but Far Out is doing some really awesome things, especially now when the safest way to see music is outside. They have a fabulous outdoor space. I also love Austin for the house show fests and DIY spaces that still linger (and fingers crossed will have a renaissance).

I saw Adrianne Lenker (of Big Thief) play solo in a friend’s living room in 2015 or 2016, just before Masterpiece came out. It wrecked me. Just completely changed the way I saw music. The way she held the space was not of this world, and her writing is not of this world either. She would become a huge influence in my writing, and two years later when I played my first full band show, she happened to be in town and came to my then partner’s house where we hosted. I couldn’t believe it when she was dancing to our music in the back, like genuinely enjoying it. She’s such a kind and present person. I’ve never been more scared or more honored to play than I was that night.

Tell me about the rest of the band members. Where are you from? If you’re not from Austin, what brought you there?

Jake is from Kerrville, TX and moved to Austin to escape the small town bubble and get his shred on. He is going to roll his eyes when he reads this! Ah, he just told me “Oh shit sorry, I got fired from my job at a religious hunting company in the hill country and moved out a week after.” The honesty, haha! He is literally one of the most talented guitarists I’ve ever met, and his music needs to reach as many ears as possible. Austin loves him; he could probably get into any show for free, haha. But that’s because he’s a true blue friend to everyone, including me. He has a band called The Stacks, plays guitar in Tyler Jordan & The Negative Space, and just started a sick new project called Knife Channel. Two years ago, he beat cancer! What the heck! He is such a sweet boy. The first night I met Jake a group of us were headed to San Marcos to see The Deer in Jake’s radio station van. I had just moved to Austin a couple months prior. When he opened the back to let us in, rather than seats, there was a vintage orange couch. It was so f*cking funny. I said aloud, “My mother would not approve of this!” and meant it. We’ve been best buds since <3

Vanessa is from Tallahassee and moved here to play music and live somewhere she could see a show every night (amen, sister). Also, when I asked her to answer this she said, “because I’m a badass biotch” which she probably thinks I won’t write, but she’s wrong. She’s been in several projects, but currently is in Sailor Poon (the most baddest all-womxn punk band), writes solo material, and is forming a new project. She is an incredible musician and music therapist. We are so lucky to have her. We needed a new bassist, and she casually mentioned over DM that she’d be into joining if no one else was interested. I immediately begged her to be in the band, because I loved her so much as a person, and I mean instantly loved her, like within 5 minutes of meeting her. I am convinced she can pick up any instrument, but you should hear her tickle the ivories. We have a new arrangement where she will be singing harmonies and holy sh*t, it’s angelic. The voice of an actual angel and the heart of one too.

Bryan is from Chicago and moved here because “Everything is bigger in Texas, and I had to see for myself!” Lmao, he just texted me that. He also requested that I add “turns out only voting is a bigger pain in the ass, so now you could say I’m here to flip this shit blue #PSA #GoVote.” He’s not wrong! I met Bryan last year when we played a show with his band frostypalms. I didn’t know much about them but had seen them on several bills around town. When I saw him play (he fronts the band) I was like oh ok, sick voice, sick arrangements, sick guitar. SOLD. I went and schmoozed with him afterward, because I genuinely wanted to play another show with him. When we needed a new drummer, he told Vanessa he’d be interested and the rest is history! He’s a heavy hitter, and I love it. My past drummers had a slightly softer touch, but I love this direction for us, and I love his energy. He’s a real sweetheart, and he is super diligent in his music path. He’s present, and he’s organized. He also plays in a band called Mylets, which is a mathy-type project. I love the diversity in his interests.

At the end of the day, it’s so much more important to me to play music with folks I love and vibe with than to have the most skilled players in the game. Luckily, I have the best of both worlds. I’m grateful every day.

I read that these songs come from a love of storytelling and radical empathy: What does radical empathy mean to you?

Radical empathy means creating space to share without judgement. Vulnerability starts a chain reaction; when others see the bravery that comes with sharing your heart, they feel safe to do the same. That’s how we meet each other where we are, and that’s how we break the cycle of trauma.

Another theme in this EP is healing: Would you say that writing these songs were what led to your healing?

I think I started my path to healing the moment I moved to Austin, and these songs sprang from that experience. When I first started playing--which was only three years ago (shhh, don’t tell anyone)--I was shocked to find that my music was so well received. It was so validating to be accepted into the ranks of musicians who I already admired so much. It made it all feel possible. I felt like my story was worth telling. That’s what I mean about the power in creating space for others; that very thing changed my life. It gave me a place to express and process, and in that journey I’ve learned to love myself. I can say honestly that in this moment, I know myself better than I ever have, and if I stopped playing music tomorrow I’d still feel that my life had meaning and value. But let me level with you--none of this would have been possible without therapy. I could not have done this alone, and I end every set with “please go to therapy, it saved my life” because it truly did. Therapy provides a solid foundation to do all the work that happens outside that room, like writing vulnerable music.

At the end of the day, all we have is ourselves, and the only person we can ever truly know is ourselves. That is the most important relationship we’ll ever have.

What is the significance or thought behind the title, “Monster of Needing”?

I’m so glad you asked this question! "Monster of Needing" comes from a line in the song "Love Is A Sword." I really waffled on the title, but when this came to me, I told my partner at the time that I knew what it would be. He said, “Monster of Needing, right?” That really solidified for me that this was the right name. "Monster of needing" describes how childhood trauma manifested itself as anxious attachment that would affect every relationship--platonic or romantic-- I’ve been in since. I fear abandonment in a real way, and I often seek partners who will participate in the cycle of push/pull that recreates the patterns I learned as a kid. Through therapy, I’ve done a lot of work on identifying my needs, trusting myself, and leading a values based life--which allows me to have the healthy relationships I want. I’m still working hard on this every day. I’m not Buddhist, but I think it relates in some way to the idea that attachment is the root of all suffering. At the end of the day, all we have is ourselves, and the only person we can ever truly know is ourselves. That is the most important relationship we’ll ever have.

You pushed back the release date of the EP from April to now - has COVID-19 affected the EP and writing in other ways? Have there been changes?

Oof, this is a hard question, because I will answer it honestly, and the answer is painful. We were set to play several unofficial shows for SXSW and were shortlisted as official artists. It was a big blow when South By was canceled, and it took about a week to realize the severity of what was happening. We had a fully booked tour lined up immediately following the release, and we had to cancel all those shows that took months to plan. I ended my relationship with my partner who was also our guitarist two weeks later after four years together. I was in and out of crisis from March to August, and in July I came very close to taking my life. I was the lowest I’ve ever been, and I was just swimming in loss, with no hope in sight. My therapist and an adjustment to my medication saved my life, as did the steadfast support of friends. I wrote a song immediately following my breakup about that relationship, and another fairly recently that is about my past relationship, but also about accepting the circumstances. This has all been a huge practice in acceptance. For example, I’ve had to accept that grief is not linear. I feel very safe and strong right now, but I might crumble next week. And if and when that happens, I have the tools to address that. I’ve learned to tend to my basic needs as a way to get ahead of mental health crises, and prioritize the work that it takes to implement what I’m learning. We had been working on a couple of new songs before everything turned upside down, and I plan to pair those with the new songs I’ve written for an EP in December. We’re recording with Dan Duszynski of dandysounds who did such a beautiful job of producing and mixing Monster of Needing. I am so excited to work with him again. For many months, I didn’t have the headspace to make plans or even function on a basic level, but slowly I came back to myself, and felt strong enough to take on the challenge of actually releasing the EP. I realized that these songs are too special to sit on them forever, and I can’t know the outcome of a decision until I’ve made it (another therapy nugget). I spent so long trying to do everything the “right way” and I think I’m more interested now in doing what feels good. And this feels really, really good.

You deserve love from yourself and others. None of us can do this alone, and it is beyond brave to seek help.

Is there anything else that you would like listener’s to know about Half Dream or Monster of Needing?

If I could leave folks with one thing it is this: You are so loved, and you are valuable simply because you exist in the world. Nothing you could ever do will change this or take it away. You deserve love from yourself and others. None of us can do this alone, and it is beyond brave to seek help. We love you, and we’re so honored that you’re a part of our journey. Thank you <3


Listen to Monster of Needing below.