Interview: Hayes Carll Celebrates Storied Career With New LP, ‘What It Is’
"If you offered to me 20 years ago what I have today, I don't know that I would have believed that it was possible. Don't get me wrong — I would have taken it, but I don't think I would've believed it was possible."
Hayes Carll is reflecting on his career as he chats with The Boot over the phone. Though he's looking back on two decades of playing music, he can't help but also look ahead to the release of his sixth studio album, What It Is.
"I'm excited to put this record out in the world and see what people make of it," Carll admits. When asked how long he's been working on the project, he calmly responds, "Well, that depends on your definition of 'work.'"
To Carll, it seems, his "work" on What It Is started about two years ago, when he gave himself a quota of writing and recording one new song every month. "That's not necessarily an ambitious goal for a lot of artists," he remarks, "but for me, that was a breakneck pace. A lot of songs I wrote during that time ended up on this record."
That breakneck pace isn't normal for Carll: "There's really no normal to what I do," he says with a laugh. "That's the thing with me: Sometimes I'll get three songs done in a week if I hunker down or if I'm co-writing with someone. But I can also get a song a year if I'm not pushing myself. It just depends on where I'm at in the world and what kind of headspace I'm in and how productive I'm being."
Helping keep him on track as he wrote and recorded What It Is was none other than artist and songwriter Allison Moorer, who is both his creative and romantic partner. She's also credited as the co-producer of the LP, along with Brad Jones.
"It's exciting and fun to get to work with somebody that I first and foremost respect as an artist."
"To be honest, I'm still not used to it," Carll says of writing with Moorer. "Though it feels somewhat second nature at this point, it's still a unique thing to me. It's exciting and fun to get to work with somebody that I first and foremost respect as an artist. She's smart, and she'll kick me in the ass when I'm being lazy or when I'm staying in one place. She's a powerful ally to have."
Along with Moorer keeping him honest, Carll implemented some broader accountability in his quest to write and record a song each month, too: "I started doing this Patreon thing, where fans and supporters can be your patrons and help finance your work," he explains. "It gave me something to do in between records, but also it helped me get music out to my fans. Some of these songs wouldn't have ended up on a record, so I wanted to get them out in the world in some capacity."
Though an artist's experience with a site like Patreon isn't always positive, Carll admits that he had a great time using the service and connecting with his fans in this unique way.
"It's a way to get instant gratification," Carll says. "I can write and record a song and put it out to my fans, and for them, it's a way for us to stay close and keep that relationship close. They don't have to wait years just to hear what I'm up to. And it give me a chance to sort of experiment as well. There's some pressure when you're putting a song on a record and it's going to live forever and define the next stage of your career."
The next stage of Carll's career is most certainly wrapped around What It Is, a record that finds the songwriter flexing new muscles while staying true to his deft storytelling wherewithal.
"On What It Is, I think there are three songs that I wrote on my own, and the rest are co-writes, but they're predominately with only four other writers [Matraca Berg, Adam Landry, Lolo and Charlie Mars]," he says. "And Allison is on a lot of them."
Whether he's co-writing, penning another song about Jesus or singing about politics, Carll tends to approach the craft in similar ways. "I'm usually writing about whatever I'm feeling at that moment, so whatever catches my attention," he confides. "Sometimes that's my particular state of depression, sometimes that's a memory or something I witnessed, sometimes that's what a great time I had doing this or that."
And, Carll admits, sometimes that thing that catches his attention is political in nature.
"I can't say I've been consistent in writing about politics, but it has crept into my work in the past. Am I comfortable about it? Am I excited about it? Not really," he confesses. "I'm not a confrontational guy, and I know no matter what your take is, if you're remotely political in any way, you're going to get blowback. I don't relish that; that's not my personality. I like to get along, but I'm also not willing to get along at the expense of staying silent about the things that I believe in or think are important. And often, these are things I feel the need to comment on in a creative way."
"I like to get along, but I'm not willing to get along at the expense of staying silent about the things that I believe in or think are important."
This willingness to hold his craft higher than any criticism or praise he might receive does not go unnoticed. Carll's commitment to telling the truth, in whatever way he sees fit, is on full display in nearly every track he's written and recorded. And it's not just noticed by fans or critics, but by fellow musicians, too: Recently, fellow Texan musician Joshua Ray Walker told The Boot that it was Carll's music that pushed him toward actually caring about the words in the music he was listening to and making.
"That feels a little surreal," Carll humbly states, pausing to let it soak in. "Somebody asked me what it feels like to be an elder statesman of this particular scene, and it's such a weird statement because it feels like yesterday that I just had a guitar and was hoping I could get one person to tell me I wasn't terrible.
"It's surreal, 20 years later, to realize that time has passed so quickly ... and also that I've maybe created some work that has influenced people in some way," he adds. "To me, that's really magical because that's how I got into doing what I do, because of the people who had that effect on me, who inspired a passion for songwriting and making music. That I could have that effect on anyone else is really cool. It makes me proud."
When asked who those artists were that influenced him 20 years ago, Carll is quick to answer: "I grew up with country music all around me, and I always loved to sing, and I loved the songwriting aspect of it," he recalls. "But I never thought of it seriously as something I could do until I first heard a little folk trio perform at the Unitarian church that I would occasionally attend. They came in and did a bunch of [Bob] Dylan songs. That led me to asking for my first guitar, when I was 15 years old."
From there, as with most songwriters, Carll is hit hard with the majesty of the inimitable Kris Kristofferson.
"When I was 17 years old, I was at my girlfriend's house, and her parents had a Kristofferson record. We put it on, and when I heard "The Pilgrim," when he starts out naming Jerry Jeff Walker and Funky Donnie Fritts and Dennis Hopper ... when I heard that voice, I said, 'I want to be that guy.' I didn't know anything else, but he sounded amazing," Carll continues. "Then, when I heard him sing, 'See him wasted on the sidewalk in his jacket and his jeans / Wearin' yesterday's misfortunes like a smile / Once he had a future full of money, love, and dreams / Which he spent like they was goin' outta style,' I was done. I mean, that was it for me."
From there, Carll says, several other artists had similar effects: Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Townes Van Zandt and James McMurtry. "There were so many people along the way that when I heard what they did," he notes, "it made me want to follow them. It opened up new worlds to me and got me really excited about the possibilities of writing."
"I had no idea if I was any good or not—and back then I probably wasn't that good. That was the challenge for me, to find out what I had and what I didn't have."
As he celebrates the release of What It Is and looks back on his career, no matter how impossible his success might have seemed, Carll confesses that he wouldn't have done it any other way.
"I knew I had to try," he divulges. "I think most people who knew me would have predicted that it wouldn't have worked, but at least I would have known, you know? That was it. I had no idea if I was any good or not — and back then, I probably wasn't that good. But that was the challenge for me, the challenge to find out what I had and what I didn't have, to find out what I was made of, and to push myself to see what I could do.
"When I look back on all the choices I've made in life," he concludes, "I think it was most important for me to pursue my dreams."
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