Naomi Hooleys songs conjure images of nature

by: COURTESY PHOTO - Native Alaskan Naomi Hooley, a songwriter and pianist, will bring her keyboard and vocal gifts to McMenamins Grand Lodge in Forest Grove Firday night.Raised in the Matanuska Valley of south central Alaska, singer-songwriter and pianist Naomi Hooley had what some would call a storybook upbringing. Her family built their own house and grew food, hunted, caught fish, started a business and went for a spell without running water or electricity.

But like stepping back in time, being a musician in Alaska had its limits. A sparse population had Hooley driving 800 miles one way for a gig, making it impossible for her to make a living as an artist.

Her old band falling apart, Hooley knew that to have success was to leave. She visited a handful of other music-savvy cities, but when she hit Portland, she said, “Something felt right, like I had come home.”

Hooley sold what she had, packed her truck and drove to Oregon where she arrived alone: not knowing a soul, not having a job or a place to live, but certain music was the destination.

With the vocal clarity of Neko Case and a gift on piano that mirrors the audacity of young Elton John or the fury of Carole King, Naomi Hooley will perform a free show at McMenamins Grand Lodge on Friday, Nov. 16 at 7 p.m.

Thrift store find

A five-year-old Hooley picked up her first keyboard at a second hand store in her hometown. When she sat down to it, the girl said, “I could pick out the melodies — the keys and I were meant for each other.”

Music lived within her, says Hooley, but she will always be learning how to craft its expression.

Neither of her parents were musicians, and Hooley grew up on oldies radio listening to Elton John on the piano. At home, she heard church music, an influence that has left remnants of gospel and hymns in her songs.

People say Hooley is not just another girl on the piano. A button-face blond with a thin frame juxtaposes her cool, powerful voice and boldness on the keys.  “I’ve had this voice since I was a little one,” said Hooley. “I sang in school talent shows … people covered their ears when I sang as a first grader because I was ‘loud.'”

The artist says she was made fun of for writing song about serious topics.  “I was never writing or singing for anyone else though, and for that I’m thankful or I may be a much milder version of myself,” she noted.

Alaska-nurtured, Portland bound

“Alaska is a storyteller’s paradise,” said Hooley. She tells stories in her music inspired by the human experience, people, nature, and the stories we tell ourselves. “Mother Nature raised me too, so I always have imagery that the earth inspires me. It’s the place I got to find balance — the woods, the rivers.”

When Hooley made the trek to Portland, she knew she would have to start at the bottom of the barrel. Determined, the singer hit open mic nights around town until she landed her first job within eight days. After that, she immediately began working to make a record.

She wrote her first album, “It was a Great October,” produced by Rob Stroupe of 8Ball Studios, as an optimistic look back on the life she left back in Alaska.

Today, Hooley shares the stage as a duo with either Amanda Breese or Rob Stroupe. Stroupe will accompany Hooley at the Grand Lodge with his own tunes and original songs from her album.

Hooley says she loves the Grand Lodge. “We get to take our time and tell stories and be ourselves, almost like it’s someone’s living room,” she said.

Intimate shows also let the duo get to know new folks and make friends. “That’s what I love best about this crazy gypsy life,” she noted.

Though she’s traveled far from home to make a life as a singing and songwriting musician, Hooley still misses out on a few things living in Portland, such as her mother and father, the wide open spaces of Alaska, the mountains — landscapes she knew as close as friends — and picking blueberries.

“I know my home is here in Portland, but part of my soul was carved in the dirt in Alaska,” said Hooley, “It will always own some piece of me.”

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