Singer-songwriter Shaina Hayes on making the shift from farmer to musician in her 30s.

I am a singer-songwriter who didn’t release my own music until I was in my 30s. This was largely due to the fact that I spent most of my 20s farming. When I mention this, most folks tend to point out how strikingly different these two careers are, often remarking on how challenging it must have been to make such a drastic shift. Indeed, they have their differences, but in truth, music and farming are deeply intertwined for me. It’s hard to say where one ends and the other begins, and I have found that there is a lot of beauty in the ways that they intersect.  

To understand this unconventional career path, we’ll have to start with my equally unusual upbringing. I was raised in a tiny farming and fishing village on Canada’s East Coast. My father was a cattle farmer like the five generations before him and most of my neighbors were fishermen. The region itself, called the Gaspésie, is a peninsula that juts eastward into the Atlantic Ocean, tethered to the mainland with the St-Lawrence River to its north and the salty Baie-de-Chaleur to its south. Geographically, this makes it a very isolated place — a day’s drive from any major city. For me, this isolation was compounded by the fact that I grew up in an English-speaking community — a remarkable minority in this predominantly French-speaking region. The finite edges of my tiny universe were further emphasized by the fact that I grew up without television and at a time when the internet was only just beginning to get its footing.

When my interest in music became evident as a teenager, there were very few options as far as local musical training, so each July my parents would send me off to a one-week music camp in the city. My brief, but formative attendance at this camp would become the highlight of my high school years and led me to eventually make the move to Montréal to study jazz voice at the college level. My excitement to be in the big city kept me propelled long enough that I completed my studies, but my lack of musical experience from the offset, coupled with the general competitiveness of the scene, left my relationship with music battered and deeply affected. When I finished, I felt like I could no longer decipher how to go about making music, nor remember exactly why I had been drawn to it in the first place.    

Shortly after, when I turned away from music and towards farming, it was in a pretty conscious effort to leave the world of creativity behind. The familiarity, detailed planning and formulaic nature of farming appealed to me, so I completed an undergraduate degree in agricultural sciences and went on to spend a big chunk of my 20s working for various vegetable farms near Montréal. In 2020, I started my own farm where I operated a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) basket program. This is a model wherein folks pay a membership fee at the beginning of the growing season in order to receive a weekly basket of vegetables. Launching the program during the pandemic felt important, not just as a means to provide some form of stability to the members of my aching community, but also to keep me tethered to them during that period of distance.  For three years, the farm was my main gig and I loved it. At times it was incredibly tough, but it gave me enough little smiles in the day that I couldn’t imagine ever giving it up.

However, I would eventually come to find that I had been very wrong about farming. For me, it was inherently creative. To turn a field of pasture into a bustling Eden is undeniably a feat of creativity, not to mention the building of the baskets themselves (the variation of veggies, colors, and flavors) is an incredibly artful task. I won’t assume that this is the experience of all farmers, and certainly, I employed an awful lot of science-brain to make sure the farm was operating effectively, but it turns out that my deepest drive to farm was an artistic one. I believe that it was my love of farming that allowed me to recognize my desire and believe in my ability to be creating beautiful things all the time. And so, it’s farming that eventually brought me back to music. In the cracks of my busy farm days, grubby and exhausted, I found myself picking up the guitar, songs welling up to the surface. When my growing seasons would wind down and I tucked in the farm for the winter, I got to work on refining and recording these songs. That’s how my first two albums were born.  

My first album, to coax a waltz, took gentle, independent flight in the spring of 2022. To my amazement, it was received with such warmth and enthusiasm that it landed me a collection of impressive show opportunities, a label, and most importantly, a kind and thoughtful fanbase. Within a year of that album’s release, it became clear that summer, the high-season for farming, was indeed also the high-season for music, and that I wasn’t going to be able to sustainably pursue both of these loves simultaneously. In 2023, I chose to ride the music wave, putting the basket program on hold while I toured my music around the province.    

My second album, Kindergarten Heart, was released this past month on February 23, 2024. With help from my new industry team, it has taken flight on a bigger set of wings than my first album. It’s been deeply thrilling to watch it soar and to marvel at how these scrappy little songs have managed to wrestle their way into existence and into the hearts of others. 

2024 is shaping up to be my busiest music year yet, forcing farming to settle into the cracks of my free time just like music once had. The life lessons that I’ve gathered from farming are truly countless, but if I had to boil them down to one, it would be the importance of finding and nurturing the source of your deepest love for your craft. This is certainly true of any craft, but when it comes to a job as physically-demanding as my type of farming, this lesson was inescapably obvious. Without the deep reserves of energy that come from well-stoked passion, the tangible difficulty of this job quickly causes it to sour. At the farm, the work of nourishing my passion meant taking regular breathers in order to admire the way the landscape was taking shape. It meant taking the time to make beautiful meals with the vegetables that I was producing. It meant regularly expressing to myself and to others how thankful I was to be working with my body, working outside, working with plants. Put simply, it meant cultivating gratitude with as much intention as I did the plants themselves. 

Enchantingly, this exercise of gratitude did more than just teach me how to love what I do. It also refined my ability to scan for, recognize and articulate the things that I find beautiful — a long forgotten reflex snuffed out in the throes of music school. I suspect that some of my earliest songs were themselves the manifestation of this exact exercise — exclamations of gratitude for the farm, or at the very least, a rechanneling of the beauty that I found there when I took the time to look around. In this regard, I daresay that without the farm I wouldn’t have a single song to sing.  

Unsure of where the music wave will take me, I continue to push back the edges of my tiny universe. I do so with certainty of only this: that in order to live creatively, there is no formula to be deciphered, no career to be defined and most importantly, no beautiful idea unworthy of flight. There is only the steady hunt for little smiles, and making this latest album snagged me a few. 

(Photo Credit: Lawrence Fafard)

Shaina Hayes is a folk singer-songwriter based in Montreal. Her latest record, Kindergarten Heart, is out now on Bonsound.

(Photo Credit: Lawrence Fafard)