Austin songwriter Hayes Carll returns to Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa
for The Oklahoman / NewsOK
Five years passed between Austin songwriter Hayes Carll’s acclaimed 2011 record, “KMAG YOYO (and other American stories)” and the 2016 release of his latest album, “Lovers and Leavers.”
The former found Carll at the peak of his tongue-in-cheek, character-driven storytelling: The title track is from the point of view of a baby-faced G.I. on the front lines, and “Another Like You,” about a hardline Republican and Democrat finding common ground in a one-night stand, topped American Songwriter’s list of best songs of 2011. Carll’s knack for straddling touchy themes like war, politics and religion with a dose of acerbic humor spoke to fans on both sides of every fence, in whiskey-soaked clubs and honky tonks across the country.
“Lovers and Leavers” is a world away. In measurements of time, it was five years and 53 days. In measurements of life, Carll saw hundreds of nights on the road, went through a divorce and fell in love. The Hayes Carll who went into the studio to record this album had a deeply personal list of themes to cover, and the plaintive record, by comparison to “KMAG,” is downright sparse and displays that gravity in spades.
As Carll wrote in the album’s artist notes: “ ‘Lovers and Leavers’ isn’t funny or raucous. There are very few hoots and almost no hollers. But it is joyous, and it makes me smile … It’s my fifth record — a reflection of a specific time and place. It is quiet, like I wanted it to be.”
Q: I think you’ve been pretty classically misunderstood by a lot of your fans. What’s the quote about irony that you like? Not everyone gets it?
Hayes Carll: Yeah, Ray Wylie Hubbard dropped that one on me. I’ve found it to be true. People take what they will from most forms of art, and it can be a losing battle to try and control how it hits them or how they interpret it. I’ve written a lot of things that I didn’t intend to be taken at face value but were, unfortunately, by a lot of listeners. That is one of the challenges of using irony or writing in a character that isn’t me.
Q: Your new record for me felt like you drawing a line in the sand a bit about what kind of artist you are in the present. Was there trepidation about making that statement?
Carll: I was drawing a line in the sand. I didn’t want to leave as much gray area for interpretation. I wanted to make a singer-songwriter record because I wanted intimacy and connection to the material that I hadn’t previously had or communicated. I am becoming more private and developing stronger boundaries as I get older. The opposite of doing that just isn’t that much fun anymore. I had some trepidation in that I was afraid I wasn’t offering something for everyone as I had tried to do in the past, but I’m not Wal-Mart. I’m an artist with a specific thing to say at a specific time.
Q: When you were choosing the songs for “Lovers and Leavers,” did you set out to purposely create the mood of this record?
Carll: Yes. I set out to make what I thought of as a singer-songwriter record. I wanted it to exist in its own world and give the listener the aural equivalent of a close read, if they chose to listen that way. I wanted it to have a sonic signature, but one that was not overwrought or overthought. And it isn’t. I chose the songs I chose because they were the ones I felt closely connected to, and if I didn’t feel that, I didn’t force them into the record.
Q: Why was Joe Henry the right producer for these songs?
Carll: I knew that Joe has the confidence to stop producing. Not everyone does, and a song can end up with way too much tweezing and piling on instead of being allowed to stand on its own as a composition. He displays that in his own recordings and those he makes for others. I trusted that he knew what to do with the kind of record I told him I wanted to make. And he did — we finished it in five days. Not a whole lot of polishing there, which I think was the right choice.
Q: Your girlfriend, Allison Moorer, is a prolific writer of great songs and many other things. Have her methods affected yours?
Carll: Her discipline and work ethic, and understanding that it doesn’t all come out at once, have given me more perseverance in my own work. She’s also good at making sure she stays inspired by sort of constantly looking for sources, staying curious and enthusiastic about all art forms. Her curiosity and open-mindedness inspire my own. She also doesn’t give up on ideas and revises until she can’t anymore. I’ve tended to give up when the inspiration died until recently. I know now that good writing is rewriting most of the time.
Q: What are you reading or listening to lately that you find inspiring?
Carll: I just read “CVJ: Nicknames of Maitre D’s and Other Excerpts from Life” (by Julian Schnabel). Allison picked it up recently, and I read it before she got a chance to. It holds a lot of great advice for artists — how to stay engaged, how to listen to and trust yourself and your own instincts rather than listen to others and putting their opinions before yours. Musically, I’m into Rayland Baxter, Gregory Alan Isakov, Dawes and Jason Isbell a lot these days.
Q: Are you strict or academic about your artistic process? Or is there a particular head space you have to be in to get things done?
Carll: No. But I need time, and having my head be clear does help.
Q: What do you do differently to mentally prepare for a Cain’s Ballroom show versus many of the quieter theater shows you’ve been doing this year?
Carll: I like using the different muscles for different types of shows, and after I’ve been doing more of the quiet, acoustic shows, it’s fun to get a little rowdier. The quieter shows are more open emotionally for me, but the trio and band shows are more open musically since I don’t have to do every bit of the work. Both are their own special way of communicating.