“The weather was crap, but it was great to get back over there and the crowds were really great.”
Singer-songwriter, Grammy nominee and Texas native Hayes Carll just returned from a quick tour of the U.K. and is taking a few days to rest up and do a few interviews before heading back on the road to promote his new album Lovers and Leavers, released April 8th on Thirty Tigers.
Hayes’s fifth album comes five years after his critically acclaimed record KMAG YOYO, which landed him on the top 20 of Billboard’s country and rock charts and was voted best album of 2011 by the Americana Music Association. That same year, Hayes was awarded American Songwriter’s Song of the Year award for “Another Like You”, a cheeky duet he recorded with Shovels & Rope’s Cary Ann Hearst.
Considered by the fans at his continuously sold out shows to be one of the best singer-songwriters today, Hayes is an American treasure who continues to carry the torch held by legendary artists like John Prine, Guy Clark and John Hiatt. I don’t mention this to him, however, because he strikes me as very humble and down to earth.
Produced by Grammy award-winning producer and musician Joe Henry (Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt), Lovers and Leavers ten songs were recorded in L.A. in just five days.
“That’s really just the perfect amount of time,” says Carll. “I’ve done records before that’ve taken me five days and others that took me a month. The danger of recording when you have a long time period or a big budget is that you can wind up doing twenty versions of the same song and just sort of lose the thread a little bit, so having a timeline really helps. It was a challenge because I had to trust Joe and the musicians, but ultimately I was able to let go and not micromanage or worry about other things; we just captured it all in the moment.”
Carll laughed and tells me a story about the first record he ever made. He was frustrated with how a particular song sounded and complained to the engineer that he just couldn’t get it to record the way he performed it live. The engineer just looked at him and said, “that’s why they call it a recording.”
Carll picked Henry to produce Lovers and Leavers after being drawn to a song Henry had written. Carll saw Henry as someone who was completely committed to the poetry, language and vibe of his craft, instead of worrying how many albums he’d sell.
“I was at the point where I was struggling and wanted to do that, too,” Carll reflects, “but I had my own hang-ups and fears. I started listening to Joe talk on interviews and I loved the way he viewed things; what he prioritized and his role as a producer and as an artist. He seemed like the perfect guy to guide me on what to me was sort of a scary jumping off point. I was someone who has done rock and honky-tonk and humor; all of these things that I was going to be letting go of on this project and he gave me the confidence to do that and helped me to remember what was important when creating this moment. Just stripping it down to the songs and letting them come alive.”
Lovers and Leavers showcases Carll’s incredible depth as a songwriter and is a very personal one for him. Some of the songs reflect back on the past few years and talk of Carll’s split from his wife, then finding love again. As a storyteller, he does not shy away from illustrating these painful struggles; reminding the listener that sometimes truly great songs are born out of truly great heartache.
“Good While It Lasted” and “The Love That We Need” talk about the loss of love and hits you like a chainsaw through butter with their intimate, emotionally-driven lyrics and honest delivery.
Carll co-wrote the fun ode to fellow musicians “Sake Of The Song” with Darrell Scott, himself a prolific singer-songwriter of intelligence and wit:
‘And there’s the mystic, there’s the legend, and there’s the best that’s ever been.
And there’s the voice of a generation who wants to pass this way again.
And there’s record deals and trained seals, and puppets on a string.
And they’re all just trying to figure out what makes the caged bird sing.’
“Before Darrell and I write anything we just catch up for several hours,” explains Carll, “and on this day we were telling our road stories and bitching about this or that situation or excitedly sharing a special moment that we had, but that song is based on all of these shared experiences as musicians. Whatever level you’re at, whether it’s the guy at an open mic night or Bob Dylan out doing 120 shows a year, we all have some of the same things in common. We didn’t have anyone specific in mind when we were writing it, we were just trying to cover as many of the potential players as possible. We spent a long time focusing on the yahoos and the misfits and the not so great, but we wanted to include the truly profound, as well.”
This record was a departure from Carll’s usual mode of mixing up the types of songs he includes on an album-some funny, some rocking, a ballad or two. Instead, he decided on a simpler approach.
“I went in with a pretty clear idea of what I wanted it to be,” says Carll. “Often in the past I’d have a collection of songs and wasn’t really sure what the musical home for them would be. My previous records didn’t really have a viable theme that ran through them and this one does. I wanted an acoustic-based songwriter record that gave the songs room to breathe and was very direct from me to the listener. We stayed true to that, which was a little scary for me. I’d never played in one place for so long before and it was unnerving, but I learned to trust Joe and myself and it was very rewarding and I’m very proud of the results.”
Since most of Carll’s songs tell a story, I was curious as to what type of books he read growing up and once he started reminiscing, Carll just listed one book after another from Treasure Island and The Count of Monte Cristo to Dickens, but counts the Beat poets and John Irving as his major inspirations. “I was really into John Irving as a teenager. Irving and Kerouac were the guys who really influenced me, but I read a lot; everything from science fiction to history to nineteenth century British lit.”
Carll’s love of Jack Kerouac makes an appearance in the song “Drive”, co-written with Jim Lauderdale. Carll and Lauderdale were fascinated by Neal Cassady, who is a character in “On the Road” and “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”. “He could drive for days at a time and just had this zest for life.”
Besides Darrell Scott and Jim Lauderdale, Carll has collaborated with a who’s who of talented, prolific artists including Corb Lund, Todd Snider and Ray Wylie Hubbard. Asked which artists he’d next like to work with, Carll, ever humble, says he’d like to work with anybody who helps bring out his creativity and it’s a long list, but he does mention Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson as being on the top of that wish list.
Carll’s friendship and collaboration with the legendary Ray Wylie Hubbard is well-known, with each joking and lovingly teasing the other at their live shows. When I asked Hubbard if he had a good question I could ask Carll for this interview, he thought for a moment and then replied, “ask him-what did Mr. Hubbard say to you when you asked him about show business?” Carll laughed when I asked about this and told me that he used to play at a little cafe in Galveston called the Old Quarter and all of these acts would come through there who he would watch and learn from.
“One time Ray Wylie came through,” recalls Carll. “I got to meet him and told him ‘I want to do what you do; I want to be in show business.’ He just looked at me funny and said ‘well, grab that amp and take it to the van’, so I did. When I came back, he said ‘alright, now you’re in show business.'” Carll laughs and says, “he’s been really good to me; a hero and a mentor. I definitely get a lot of inspiration from him, I’m just a big fan.”
Hayes Carll will be in Philadelphia on May 18th at World Cafe Live and in Washington, DC on May 20th at The Hamilton.