This fall, British Columbia-founded, Toronto-based duo Once A Tree – Jayli Wolf and Hayden Wolf – released their new EP Fool’s Paradise, the follow-up to their 2018 Indigenous Music Award-winning album, Phoenix. On the new release, they explore loss, trust, and love that heals, and frees. For the couple, and creative partners, these themes — once resigned to love songs on the radio — became reality when they met.
Raised in B.C., each grew up in the Doomsday religion — an apocalyptic belief system that proselytizes disasters that will destroy Earth and humankind. Both young, aspiring, multi-disciplinary creatives — Jayli is an actress, Hayden a photographer —were forbidden from pursuing their artistic dreams. But a virtual chance meeting changed everything.
“We started communicating long-distance, through social media,” explains Jayli. “We were both doubting the doctrine of our community.”
After bonding online, Hayden decided it was time to do so in real life, jumping on a Greyhound bus for a 13-hour ride to Jayli’s hometown. The pair spent their first night together writing music, and the next month making art. All of the art-making eventually led to love. Realizing that they had something special, they wasted little time. Excommunicated from their community by family and friends, they took off to Toronto with just their suitcases and guitars.
“I won a songwriting contest through APTN,” says Jayli. “They were going to just fly me out to Toronto to shoot a music video. I asked them if instead of getting me a return flight, they could get us two one-way tickets. We had no money, we didn’t really know anyone here at first, and we were on-and-off homeless. But then Hayden was accepted into a non-profit arts program called The Remix Project. That’s when he started to really focus on his beat-making, and experimenting with different production styles.”
Hayden grew up with a camera in hand. Once in Toronto, he used every opportunity to forge new connections, doing gigs whenever the opportunity arrived. Then an angel, and Canadian music icon, by the name of Gord Downie, popped up.
“I was offered a gig doing BTS [behind the scenes] photos for a short film,” says Hayden. “When I got to set, I realized that the lead actor was the Gord Downie. During a break for lunch I thought to myself, ‘Man this is your chance to share your music with someone big in the industry.’ I got the courage to go ask if I could show him some of my stuff. Gord was one of the most down-to-earth, gentle souls. He sat with me and listened, while giving me some great advice. That’s when the writer of the short film overheard the music and approached us. His name was Gavin Sheppard. He told me how he helped start a program called The Remix Project, and that I should apply.”
“We had no money, we didn’t really know anyone, we were on-and-off homeless” – Jayli Wolf of Once A Tree
Hayden was accepted into the program, opening doors that may never have happened otherwise, including their first indie record deal, music management, and a job working for Drake’s OVO brand. Working with the OVO team gave him a rare, much-sought-after education in making art.
“I [became] Senior Photographer at OVO for over four years.” says Hayden, “getting to produce and direct visual content for the brand. It taught me an extreme work ethic. The whole team around Drake are dedicated visionaries, and it was an incredible experience to work alongside them.”
Today, the pair are taking their vision further. Once A Tree – described by Hayden as the circle of life, “knowing that energy doesn’t die, it transforms” — fuses organic folk instruments with electronic beats, to tell stories of resilience and loyalty against all odds. Their song “Born for This” was selected for a 2018 Nissan KICKS national TV ad campaign. The stunning pair also create all the visual content around their work ,and they’re each working on solo projects – Jayli on a debut solo album (which promises to be raw and personal), and Hayden producing cover art and music for various Toronto up-and-comers (including Jayli).
Looking back, they both marvel at their fortuitous connection. Hayden says it’s allowed them to access lives they may not have had, if not for each other: “I think these themes [love, sacrifice, and healing], we never fully experienced before we met each other and started a new life together. We now experience unconditional love from the people in our lives. We’ve made friends that love us for who we are, not just the God we pray to. We feel like underdogs in a lot of ways, but we’ve never given up on ourselves or our dreams. We keep aiming to bring more love into our everyday lives, more joy, more freedom.”