About the Author

Hayley Gene Penner

Hayley Gene Penner is a singer-songwriter who grew up sharing the stage with her father, renowned children's entertainer, Fred Penner. She writes with some of the biggest artists and producers in the music industry. Her debut album, and her memoir's namesake, People You Follow, will release in July 2020. She splits her time between Winnipeg and Los Angeles.

 

Books by this Author
People You Follow
Excerpt

Tal
Drinking the Kool-Aid

A couple weeks before I moved to Los Angeles, I found a drawing I’d made when I was six. It was at the bottom of a box labelled Goodwill? The unintentionally abstract illustration shows a long, sparkling, red convertible, with a somehow dripping Hollywood sign in the distance. A tall, dangerously thin, flowing-haired young woman leans against the shimmering hood, her hand holding a cellphone to her ear. At the top of the crumpled piece of construction paper I’d written Hayley, 21-years-old?.

I turned twenty-six a few weeks before coming to L.A.

I definitely did not have a convertible; I tossed a Honda Civic rental onto my buckling Visa. And my cellphone barely worked in the U.S.

I had been in L.A. for forty-four days. Tal’s company put me up in a sketchy basement apartment. If I hadn’t been living underground, I bet I would have been able to see the Hollywood sign from my window.

I pushed all the cheap furniture up against the poorly painted walls in the living room and devoted two hours every morning to P90X. I was determined to at least appear as though I’d made it, and that started with a rigorous workout regimen. My goal was to have at least a few people say they were worried about me when I went home to Winnipeg for Christmas.

Tal was this charming, vibrant, extraordinary writer. He almost instantly became my new favourite person. He was funny and tall and dark and took up all the space in every room, and I was convinced that if he thought I could make it, I could.

My first two months in L.A. consisted of driving to the studio every morning at 8:00 a.m. and spending four hours alone in Tal’s vocal booth before getting booted into the tiny, fluorescent-lit storage space in the back of the building. I would sit at a desk that was dwarfed by a horrendous neon mural and wait for him to pop his head out of his room, perhaps offering me an opportunity to write something with him.

It felt like a sort of long-winded audition, and I thought I was doing well. He would dip into my little incubator every few hours to see if I’d written a hit or to say, “Come on. We’re walking to the grocery store.”

He made me laugh on the way while casually lecturing me about songwriting and the industry and who to trust. Then he’d buy a watermelon, a pound of cold cuts, and a bag of almonds and we would walk back together. And he trusted me. He told me about the two women he was in love with, how deeply he loved them both, how he didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know about each other, but that didn’t make me think less of him. I felt welcomed into his inner circle. I felt like his confidant and friend. I saw him as a struggling man and I was glad he had me to talk to.

We would drop the food in the fridge, then we’d head outside, where I’d watch him play basketball alone with his shirt off for half an hour before we got back to work.

He had a two-bedroom apartment in North Hollywood and decided to rescue me from the Hollywood basement he’d put me in. I thought living with him would be fun. I’d get rid of my rental car and commute to the studio with him. He understood that I didn’t have money and couldn’t really make any, since I was officially a tourist, so he’d feed me and take care of me in a way that made me feel like I’d found a little home.

At the studio, I spent a lot of time in the bathroom. I didn’t need to use it. I just didn’t really feel like writing. I’d go and look in the mirror for ten or fifteen seconds, decide whether I loved or hated my body that day, then flush the toilet with nothing in it, run the tap to suggest I was washing my hands, and walk out. Maybe take an ass selfie for whatever guy was getting my ass selfies at that time. I somehow felt that by taking multiple bathroom breaks, I would at least seem productive. Like these pee breaks were the result of hard work and perseverance.

One morning of a long weekend, when most of the producers were with their families, it was just the two of us in the building. I came out of the bathroom and looked for Tal. He wasn’t in the common room or shoving cold cuts into his mouth in the kitchen. There was almost no noise coming out of his studio room, so I knocked without expectation.

He said, “Come in. I wanna play you a new song.” He opened his computer. I paused in embarrassment for him. On the screen a girl with long black hair was getting fucked from behind while she sucked off some Tarzan-looking dude in front of her.

Tal left the screen open long enough for the man in her mouth to finish on her rosy-pink cheeks and lips, sealing her eyes shut like he was planning on making her a papier-mâché mask. Then he said, “Oh shit. That’s embarrassing,” and closed his computer.

He pulled out a guitar to play the song live. He sang with his whole heart, all emotional and generous with the intimacy of his performance. It felt like an invitation into his private self.

We just sort of casually moved past the accidental porn mishap, though I guess I suddenly knew what he liked. And suddenly he knew that I knew what he liked. It felt like this weird shared moment actually brought us closer. Like walking in on somebody masturbating. You can’t unsee it — you can only decide together to pretend like you didn’t or, at the very least, pretend it didn’t leave a totally indelible imprint.

He took me for Korean barbecue, then moved me into his apartment. _

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