Interview: Hayes Carll

Hayes Carll has been making albums for nigh on two decades with a smile on his face and a knowing glint in his eye. A surveyor of people and situations, Carll writes songs that could have been written from the watchful eye of a barfly documenting the world around him. Like a Texan Todd Snider, Carll embodies both a sardonic swagger and a laissez-faire disposition. That changed with the hugely personal ‘Lovers And Leavers‘ album in 2016, but is clearly evident once again on ‘What It Is‘ his sixth album released this month. Americana-UK catches up with the acclaimed singer-songwriter ahead on his upcoming UK dates. 

I’ve always seen you as someone who looks at the world with a wry, carefree humorous take. I hear that all through ‘What It Is’, which reminds me a lot of your ‘Little Rock’ album. Given the state of the world, the almost ridiculous US political landscape, how easy is it to smile these days? 
I’m finding it in some ways easier than I ever have. There have always been troubling things happening locally and globally. The key for me is to practice gratitude for what I have, spend time with the people and ideas that I’m passionate about and moved by, and find ways to be engaged in a productive way rather than feel defeated by all the negative. That doesn’t mean I ignore it – and yeah, it can get to be depressing – but it does mean I try not to let it paralyze me or reduce me to such a state of anger and bitterness that I lose my own light and the ability to spread it.

Tell me a little bit about how the songs came together for this record? Are you a constant writer while on the road or do you prepare material for when a new album feels on the horizon?
I’ve gone through all different types of approaches over the years. But there was about a five-year gap between my ‘KMAG-YOYO‘ and ‘Lovers and Leavers‘ records, and creatively and professionally that level of productivity was not where I wanted to be. So pretty soon after ‘Lovers and Leavers’ came out I came up with a plan to write and record, one song a month and release it to fans who supported me on Patreon. This gave me a schedule to keep up with work wise, as well as the ability to create in the studio so I didn’t get stagnant, and an outlet for the work once I had finished it. The schedule and the ability to flesh out ideas in advance served me really well when the time came to go in the studio for ‘What It Is.’

The album feels and sounds a lot more expansive than ‘Lovers and Leavers’ which really felt like a record you had to get out of your system. Did it feel like that to you?
‘Lovers and Leavers’ was really capturing a moment in time. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t that happy of a moment. I’m really proud of that record. I think it challenged me and got me out of my comfort zone, and it just sounds really good. ‘What It Is‘ came from a more confident and joyful place. It feels more like a culmination of all the records I’ve done before. I’m in a fairly confident place as an artist, I was working with people I trust and respect, and my songs lined up with my life in a way that feels empowering.

Tell me a little more about ‘Fragile Men’. I really love that track.
It was originally inspired by the patriarchy that the song’s co-writer, Lolo, was dealing with in her career. About a week after we started the song the marches in Charlottesville, West Virginia happened and we went back to the song and aimed it at those assholes marching at night in their khakis with tiki torches shouting “Jews will not replace us!” The words and, the imagery, and the results the next day, of those men were all horrifying. But we wanted to take away their power by highlighting their weakness, their fears, and their impotence.

I also love ‘I Will Stay’ very much. You write wonderful love songs, that’s for sure. Tell me a little more about that song and how it came about?
It’s just a promise to Allison that I’m in it for the long haul. I wanted to write her song that would remind her of that.

Where are you based now, Hayes? Are you still in Texas? How is Austin these days and the music scene there?
I left Austin almost two years ago and have been spending time in NYC and Nashville. I think the scene in Austin is still as strong as ever.

I’ve always found your records offer views, observations if you will, on universal themes – even the personal songs hit a nerve. Is that where you find most inspiration for the song or are they much more personal evaluations?
My last two records have been more personal to me. I’m starting to be able to step out of the character and just say how I feel, or at least use the character to directly represent how I feel. If that, in turn, ends up being a universal feeling then that’s a bonus I guess. But earlier on in my career, I think I went for the universal first, hoping it lined up with how I felt. I was less secure as an artist so I was sometimes reaching in a way I don’t feel the need to today.

There are some notable co-writes on this album. I’m wondering how that process works for you? Is there usually a base idea or do you literally throw ideas at each other and see what sits together?
Every co-write is different. On this record I had a pretty lean and mean list of accomplices. Charlie Mars, Lolo, and Matraca Berg (who is in the country music hall of fame) helped out on one song each. Those were all songs where someone had a title or a line and we just got to work finding the story. But the two people I leaned on the most were Adam Landry ( a great musician/producer friend of mine) and Allison Moorer. Allison was on I believe seven of the songs. A few of those we sat down to write together with an idea in mind but the bulk of them were things I was working on and she would come in and save the day when I got stuck in the minutia.

You have a great canon of work, Hayes. What records, songs etc stand out for you as moments when you felt, “yeah, I’ve totally nailed that!”
Well, I appreciate that. It’s a hard question for me to answer. If I’ve put something out on a record there was probably some point – either in the writing of it or in the recording process – that I felt pretty good about it. There are certainly some that stand out a bit more than others. But I’ve found out that things change with time and my own growth and tastes. Something I thought was brilliant at one point might not stand up in the same way a few years later. And some songs I maybe overlooked prove to be more durable.

A hell of a lot of water has passed under the bridge since we worked together a little bit on ‘Little Rock.’ How have you changed as a songwriter and so you still enjoy the ‘game’? The touring, the recording?
I really enjoy the writing and recording aspects. Anything where I get to create. And I love performing live. When I’m dialled in and approaching it the right way that is its own form of creation. I don’t have the same enthusiasm for travel and hotel rooms that I did as a younger man.

What did Alison Moorer bring to the party in terms of production? It’s certainly a mighty fine sounding record!
She brought a wealth of experience and taste. She has made a lot of records in her career and has been around music all of her life, and she pays a lot of attention to where the sounds come from and what makes a record great. She also knows me better than anyone and is often my creative partner so she had the clearest view and understanding of my vision and what I wanted to accomplish.

What are we gonna be in for in the live shows? Are you bringing a band over this time?
I haven’t made a final decision but I’ll probably have some players with me.

What It Is‘ is out now on Dualtone Music

May 2019 UK Dates

15th Deaf Institute, MANCHESTER
16th Cottiers Theatre, GLASGOW
17th Greystones, SHEFFIELD
18th Pocklington Arts Centre, POCKLINGTON
19th Glee Club, NOTTINGHAM
20th  Hen and Chicken, BRISTOL
21st  The Haunt, BRIGHTON
22nd Omeara, LONDON

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