By Holly Gleason
It’s been five years since Hayes Carll put out a record, but it feels more like a decade. For the jokester/heart-tugging troubadour, there was a marital dissolution, a son growing into a young man, falling in love with Oscar-nominated fellow songwriter Allison Moorer (herself in the throes of a d-i-v-o-r-c-e from second wave outlaw Steve Earle), an endless string of dates, songs and trying to find the focus to go back into the studio. At 41, the 2008 Americana Music Association Songwriter of the Year and 2016 Grammy nominee for Best Country Song for Lee Ann Womack’s version of “Chances Are” had defined himself — like Steve Goodman, Randy Newman and John Prine — as a man whose sardonic wit packed quite a punch, whose characters and stories held truths and whose rare romantic moments were tender.
Standing at a crossroads, Carll knew he could keep doing satirical songs like the dumb redneck versus big box faith ditty “She Left Me For Jesus,” the tie-’em-up-sexual-attraction-of-political-polemics romp “Another Like You,” or the languishing Ray Wylie Hubbard co-created coquette “Drunken Poet’s Dream.” Or, he could dive deeper. But the deeper dive meant — horrors — putting himself in the songs. It meant eschewing his normal detachment, avoiding character sketches and tales of other people’s lives, the drawling hippie with the slouched shoulders and lank blond hair who most resembles a Modigliani prairie dog would have to put his life on the record.
Uncomfortable though it might be, the low impact, typically understated Carll realized if he didn’t move forward on a creative plane, he would begin the slow backward movement of Xeroxing what was and hoping already done was keeping up. So rather than ride the lagging momentum of repeating, Carll — his entire life upside down and inside out — made the decision to do the thing that scared him most. The result, Lovers and Leavers, is one of those albums that perfectly captures the phases and stages of falling apart, facing the truth, falling in love and facing the fear and finding one’s heart in the process. Tentative, doubtful, shaky, mournful and yes, wonderstruck, the Joe Henry-produced record is quieter than Carll’s KMAG YOYO, Trouble in Mind and even his self-released Little Rock. But in the lean arrangements, the notes sustained and lines hanging then dropping off, the malaise and the melancholy are conjured. Even the love songs sparkle without the glossy polish that signals “happy ending,” which is part of the elegance of Henry’s work.
Splitting time between Texas, the road and New York City, where Moorer lives with her son, Carll’s on the brink of a whole new way to tour his art. Shifting to small theaters to honor the new music, he’s doing a string of Texas dates around the album’s April 8 release, culminating at the Kessler Theater on April 16. Then he’s off to London for a U.K./Ireland run. We caught up with him right before he packed up his courage, took a deep breath and hit the road carrying the most personal songs of his life and career to date.
Where do you want to begin?
I’ve never started an interview with “Where do we begin …”
When someone hands you a jump ball, Hayes …
Yeah, well, I’ve never been much for jumping.
Okay, well, let’s start with the basics. If you had to describe the new record …
[Groans] It’s an acoustic singer-songwriter record about life and loss and change and … love. And relating to music, that changed what I was doing.
It opened my eyes to what I can do. I’m not just telling other people’s stories; they’re mine. That emotional honesty changes the stories when you sit down to write. You’re not just looking for a hook or a rhyme or a twist. And when you’re writing about personal stuff, it changes the effect of performing it: people know it’s you, so it feels more … right there.
And to get that, to heighten the music, you went to Joe Henry. He’s a big boy producer, and you’ve really made a big boy record. Lovers and Leavers is so grown up and subtle. How did you land on him to make this record?
I’d met Joe briefly over the phone a few years ago. I was doing, umm, this Producer Speed Dating situation for a record I was making. I ended up not working with him, but had a great conversation — and remembered that.
But you didn’t work with him at the time. What put him back on your radar?
Allison played me a song off his last record, and it really grabbed me. I kept listening to it over and over, and became obsessed with him. One song led to a few, and well, there you go.
What was it specifically?
He struck me as a poet, and somebody who’s creating art. While I’m sure he cares about what people think, it really feels like he’s creating his own world; he’s really committed to that. So as I was thinking about what I wanted to do (with this project), I knew that was something really important. Not to chase what was expected, but create what these songs should be.
This is who I am. This is kinda what’s going on in my life … and this is really the art I wanna create. We all have these notions, but somehow we never quite get there. Joe, I believed, could help me make that happen. “The Magic Kid” and “Love Don’t Let Me Down” were the earliest songs I’d written on this record. But “The Magic Kid” was so personal and honest, and I just wanted the record (of it) to feel real to me. I sent it to Joe, and we started talking about what I wanted, what these songs could be. He really gravitated to “The Magic Kid,” too. I’d had a buncha songs I’d been writing, but they felt, umm … This was a record that could be something else. Joe heard it, and started asking, “Does (this song) hold up against this song we’re both responding to?” It really set the tone and tenor for the kind of record I was trying to make. “The Magic Kid” became a real touchstone.
How did that translate to making the record?
Well, I don’t make a lot of records — and I put a lot of pressure on myself, which makes me second-guess everything. We didn’t do a lot of pre-production, just had a lot of discussions. We decided it was about a consistent sonic palette, but leave room for the songs.
And then …
I didn’t know any of the musicians. So I’d go in, and … just do the best I could. After a couple days, I realized there were no solos, no funny songs to fall back on. I got really scared, then I realized, “No, wow! I made the record we’d talked about.” In that moment, I let go of all that baggage I worry about, and just trusted someone who shared my vision, and enjoyed it as a process.
Back to “The Magic Kid.” It’s pretty wonderful, and such a charming melody.
It’s about my son Eli. He’s 12 now, but he started getting into magic when he was about 6, 7 years old. He was drawn to the card tricks and manipulating the cards. When he started, his mom and I were his audience, and we saw so many tricks. I remember watching him doing the tricks, and then I remember watching him when he started doing them for other people. I just love the look on people’s faces when you see them watching Eli, and then the trick happens. When I understood what (magic) meant to him, that gave me the most joy! When I realized this is a really formidable thing for Eli, it took on a deeper meaning to me. Regardless of what people think, he was gonna do this — and that intention gets them to see it as more than just some parlor trick.
Wow! And from that …
I wrote “The Magic Kid” with Darrell Scott. I’ve written a lot with Darrell for years, and I’ve always had these great conversations with him. A lot of what we write comes from that.
Is there a process of harvesting that?
Well I have my habits and strong work things that I fall back on, and he has his habits and work things, too. So when we’re together, it’s finding the way to let go of my stuff. I always learn a lot from him: we usually talk for a couple hours, then we dig in. My personal stuff, this time, and my professional life, where I was creatively, it all kinda came together. Darrell is the kind of writer who makes it okay to just say the emotion that you’re feeling, to describe it. I’ve always been someone who believes “show, don’t tell.” But there’s a lot of power in that … but it also made me feel very vulnerable.
[Laughs] It’s a lot easier to assume some character to be removed. You can do great work that way, tell the truth and have no risk. There’s elements of me in there, I may be completely in there. But it’s not the same. For this record, I wanted something more. It felt very vulnerable and exposed — not just the writing, either, but the recording. There’s no jokes. There’s no rock ’n’ roll. There’s no honky-tonk stuff. There’s no big sing-along choruses. Nothing to two-step to, nothing to laugh about. Really, there’s nothing to fall back on. There’s just the songs, just what was going on in my life, me, and some really great musicians. The process changed me.
Well, you are exposed.
Oh, yeah. I had second thought once I started: “I don’t know if I can do this.” It was hard, but it was also necessary. There’s just what was going on in my life. There’d always been some sense of being removed, and I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was. But suddenly, I was writing about my life directly. Nothing was distracting from the melody and the lyrics. Something needed to be different.
I’d been gigging for 18 years, touring for 15. There was a conflation of events: I was going through a divorce; I started a new relationship; I’d been doing a certain thing on the road musically and I wasn’t feeling gratified. I used to come off the stage feeling energized and now I was drained. The way I was living on the road in my 20s and 30s wasn’t working for me, either. I was exhausted and drunk at the end of every night. I was living on a hamster wheel, and it wasn’t connecting for me. But I still think I have the greatest job in the world, so I started changing the way I performed, started writing all over the board — bawdy songs, funky songs, classical country songs, rockers – to see what connected to me. I wanted to feel re-charged when I walk off that stage, to feel connected to the audience instead of just performing. They deserved more; I needed more. That was on my mind when I was writing, and I didn’t know where that would take me.
And, I was at the end of my marriage, and a lot goes with that. There was this new relationship, and a lot goes with that, too. Fact is I’d never stayed in one place long enough or stayed focused enough on a relationship long enough to really think about them or make them work. I got to a point where my keeping my relationships out of my songs wasn’t working. So I go back to Darrell, because the only time I felt like I’d done that was with Darrell eight years ago on a song called “Willing to Love Again,” that was an apology to my wife. I needed to go to a place where I was very straightforward about who I am and where I’m from. It was awkward, not something I’m used to, and absolutely necessary. It felt uncomfortable, but it was liberating … and it felt right, though I had no idea what was going to come out.
Yeah, I was probably trying to figure some stuff out in my life rather than hide it. Todd Snider has this quote and I love it. “I don’t write songs to change people’s minds. I write songs to ease my own mind.” I’ve seen Todd and others working their stuff out, figuring it out as they wrote. I’ve never been that guy. But this time, I was trying to make sense of a lot of things. You know it’s more than “This is what’s going on” or “I’m trying to capture a moment,” though it’s in there. It’s more trying to articulate something and say it out loud to make it real, which is hard. It’s a general feeling of being exposed, but it’s also about being brave enough to do it. It’s been rewarding to realize you can go there, [even] knowing somebody might say, “Oh, he’s being sincere — that’s not cool.” Or worse, “He’s got nothing to say.” And when it’s your life …
Those comments are about you.
Well, all these things are going to be very present … for my ex, my friends, Allison, my kid. Having it all out there, for them, too.
Yes, you write the songs, but lots of people have to live with them.
Yet it’s a small world. It might’ve been out there before these songs.
Yeah, it’d been five years since my last record. People kinda knew what was going on with my life, so I knew they’d look at these songs, try to figure out what had happened.
Well, bad cliché, but life is hard. Marriage might be harder, and your lifestyle doesn’t help.
It’s incredibly hard. My marriage ending was difficult. It’s a struggle and heartbreaking and painful, because you build a life with someone and you run out of steam. People change. You change. It’s really hard, especially if you’ve got children.
And your new relationship is with a pretty relentless writer in her own right.
Allison is so thoughtful and engaged, about the work she creates and her, too. All of it is a work of art. She stays engaged; things matter. It’s been so eye opening. She’s incredibly smart, ridiculously talented, and she’s driven to learn and create. She just never stops, and that lit a fire under me to not check out, but to push. She inspires me.
Isn’t that pressure?
No, it’s wonderful. As an artist and a writer, there’s everything from the shared experience of doing the same things to life on the road, the venues, the people you meet. She’s been there, and she knows. Creatively, she does her things and I do mine. Right now, she’s in grad school getting her MFA in non-fiction. That’s the world she’s living in. But we keep each other turned on and aware of new things in music, in literature, different stuff. And we’re also honest enough with each other to go “That’s a crap idea,” and move on.
But you’re the guy who lost a girl to Jesus … who chases drunken poet’s dreams.
Oh, my natural tendency is to be fun in the songs; it’s my natural respite. Look, humor is a great equalizer. Lyle Lovett, John Prine, Randy Newman, Todd Snider all use humor to say some pretty serious things. Keith Richards said it was the secret to everything. It’s something that grabbed me, made me feel connected, because it loosens you up — those funny, clever details, then you give people something universal in the chorus that really touches them. … In the end, there are better singers, guitar players and songwriters out there, but it was my ability to make people care that really got them to listen. But I’ve done “She Left Me for Jesus” and “Another Like You,” and if you just keep doing that kind of thing, it can become just a trick. With this record, I found my spot and tried to stick to it. It’s part of evolving and growing. I’ve got new bawdy songs, and funny songs, all the kinds people expect. But it didn’t feel right to put them out there with the songs that are on this record.
So, what’s been the reaction from your crowds so far? What are people thinking of this new side of yourself that you’re showing on this album?
I’ve not taken it out on the road yet, done the more personal kind of show. So I can’t say yet.
Is it risky?
Every record I put out affects my quality of life. How’m I gonna tour? How’m I gonna present this? And it is different. I spent all day today talking about how I’m going to present this. You know, I know it’s different and that changes things. Maybe I’ll lose a piece of my audience, but maybe it’ll grow it on a different level. You can’t know. But I had to let go of that and not worry. It’s all different and it’s scary, but it’s good.