Lilly Hiatt talks about new album and sobriety

RS Country (our eternal source of all good things americana once we’ve weeded out the Kenny Chesney, sorry Kenny) have an interview with Lilly Hiatt, daughter of John, which is an interesting read: “One day last summer, Lilly Hiatt sat down in her new East Nashville apartment and began writing a love song. It was the last type of tune Hiatt would have expected to turn towards, considering her circumstances. The last few months had been full of heavy heartbreak, constant commotion and emotional upheaval for the 32-year-old songwriter, who had moved out of her ex’s house, fled town for an extensive West Coast tour with John Moreland, and returned to a quiet, empty home to face reality earlier that spring. 

But sitting in her apartment, alone, back in the city where she’d grown up, Hiatt began writing a devotional to the one lover she’s always been able to rely on. In each verse, she scoped out a list of travails and struggles, arriving, ultimately, at a single, one-line chorus each time: But that record waited up for me.

The result, “Records,” a playful, organ-driven ode to the everlasting reliability and constant companionship of rock & roll, would end up becoming a concise and catchy summation of the period during which Hiatt wrote Trinity Lane, her third album and the most cohesive and declarative statement of the young songwriter’s career.

“Of all the things you can count on in life, music has saved my soul, and I think it’s saved a lot of people’s souls,” Hiatt says over a cup of coffee in New York last week. “Not to be morose about it, but if it weren’t for that, I don’t think I’d be here.”

As soon as “Records” comes up in conversation, it becomes clear how much Hiatt revels in discussing the guiding force that music has played throughout her entire life

“I can hear a Lightnin’ Hopkins song and relate to it, I can hear a Liz Phair song and relate to it, I can hear a Loretta Lynn song and relate to it. Those are all really different people, but we’ve all felt the same things and that’s really empowering,” she says. “Everyone knows when you’re feeling lonely or even ashamed of your feelings. I love the song ‘Jealous Guy’ by John Lennon because it’s so bold. ‘I was feeling insecure, you might not love me anymore.’ That’s really simple, where you know you’ve felt that way before, and been embarrassed by that feeling before, but so has John Lennon, and so now you don’t feel too stupid about it.”

Having spent several months holed up in her apartment obsessively listening to records, strumming guitars and writing songs, Hiatt headed to South Carolina in December of 2016 to record Trinity Lane (named for her street) with Shovels & Rope’s Michael Trent.

After following up her plaintive country debut (2014’s Let Down) with 2015’s synthy-roots rock Royal Blue, Hiatt’s latest album continues along the same path, straying even further from straightforward pedal-steel country arrangements.

“Lilly was adamant about not wanting to make a Nashville throwback record,” says Trent. “She wanted to make a rock record.” Trent and Hiatt, who bonded over Nineties alternative and held up eclectic albums like Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 as inspirational models, worked up a batch of songs with Hiatt’s band that ranged from messy grunge to mid-tempo country-folk to Brian Jonestown Massacre-inspired psych-rock.

Best known for country music, Nashville has also become a 21st-century hotbed for indie and garage rock. Hiatt, who feels as though she straddles those two worlds without completely fitting into either, has spent the past few years slowly trying to find her place in the town’s musical community. These days, she’s content with the ambiguity. “It took me a long time to figure out my footing in Nashville, and the key has been realizing that you don’t really have to figure it out,” she says. “Right now, I feel like plugging in my Rickenbacker and playing with these psych-rock guys in my band and just going for it.”

Trinity Lane is a collection of brutally self-reflective songs that reflect a period in which Hiatt, who, when not on tour, works as a barista, describes as a time of deliberate self-scrutinizing. Grieving her relationship, Hiatt, who had given up drinking five years earlier, felt more challenged by her sobriety than ever. She leaned on her own thoughts and her own music during those difficult months, relying on her creative energies to make sense of her own early-thirties turbulence.

“It was a very insightful, self-aware period of my life where you’re like, ‘Huh, I have patterns, maybe I should look at them,” she says. “I’m always trying to evolve. That’s where I come from, that’s how my family is. We work on ourselves a lot.”

Hiatt addresses her family head-on in “Imposter,” a moving chronicle of the Hiatt family that she wrote for her father, legendary singer-songwriter John Hiatt. “Usually, I’m like, ‘This song can be about anything,'” she says, “but on that song I really wanted to tell him thank you, in a way.”

Elsewhere, Hiatt sprinkles the album with blunt references to her sobriety, which she says is six years in the making and very much a work in progress. “It’s been really good for me, but it’s certainly not been the end of my self-destructive habits,” she says. “It’s still a journey, and there have been uncomfortable moments since then, confrontations with my own demons.”

Asked if she’s become more comfortable over the years discussing her sobriety in her music, Hiatt says that over the last year she’s truly acknowledged the degree to which it is an active, lifelong process. “It’s seeped into my music a little more lately because I started to realize that some of those habits that go along with being an addict, they don’t just go away.”

“Lilly’s songs are very personal, and there are very vulnerable moments on the record,” says Trent. “She’s fearless, and she’s not afraid to put things in a blunt way, even if it’s the most heartbreaking thing you’ve ever heard.”

The most powerful moment on Hiatt’s new record, however, comes late, during the somber ballad “So Much You Don’t Know.” After 10 tracks that detail intimate personal details, the song, an intimate meditation about the private unknowability of the human heart likely addressed to a former lover, doubles as a moving commentary on the very nature of autobiographical songwriting.

“The song is about how mistaken we can be about who somebody is. There’s always mystery and secrets and history, and I’ve gotten myself into trouble for trying to know too much about somebody,” says Hiatt, before arriving at one of the key revelations she’s had over the past couple years.

“I was thinking about how complex we are, how complex love is, and how you can never, as much as you empathize, or try to discover,” she says, “you can never be in the mind of somebody else.””

Author: Mark Whitfield

Mark Whitfield is the long-suffering editor of Americana UK, conceiving the idea in a dark room in 2001, although he ran out of words to personally review anything in about 2007.

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