Hayes Carll is not a disciplined person. He’ll be the first one to tell you that. He told me this much when I first interviewed him in 2013 . "To be honest, I'm always looking for something else to do other than write. I wish that wasn't the case," he told me. It’s now three years later, but things haven't changed that much. With a short attention span, he gets distracted easily. “If I turn on the TV or find some distraction, I’m done. I won’t come back,” Carll told me.
So while the Austin based singer/songwriter loves to write, he also loves to not write, which is why it’s so difficult for him to write for long stretches: if anything even remotely interesting appears on TV, he’s hooked. According to Carll, it can be a cricket match or even “Martha Stewart boiling an egg.” He tries to keep himself as far away from the TV as possible when he writes. If he does get stuck, he returns to his tried and true method of pushing past that block: “a cleaning bender.” This is no metaphor. He cleans his apartment.
To solve this problem, Carll turned to co-writes for his latest album Lovers and Leavers. In fact, all of the songs on the album are co-writes, which was good for Carll. It’s enforced discipline: there was another person depending on him for output. He couldn't sit around, wasting that person's time. They'd certainly get annoyed if he want to sneak off to watch Martha Stewart boil an egg. (One of the songs on Lovers and Leavers is with J.D. Souther, a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. I dare say Souther earned this honor by watching cooking shows.)
Lovers and Leavers is one of my favorite albums of the year. Carll is an incredibly gifted songwriter, and he’s on tour now supporting the album. Catch him on the road: it’s one hell of a show. Read my interview with Hayes Carll after the video for "The Magic Kid."
How and when did you decide to start writing this record?
I never stopped writing from the last record KMAG YOYO, but I've always struggled with writing on the road. I make my living on the road, so that’s a problem. I put out the last record and hit the road—for years.
I get my ideas and my inspiration on the road, but I have to settle down and be somewhere with four walls that are consistent before I can really write. I need solitude and minimal distractions to get any work done because the road is filled with distractions. I'm in constant movement. I get all these ideas on the road, but it’s frustrating because I'm never in the headspace to turn them into songs.
I started the process of writing with other people for this album pretty early on. I found out that I’m way more productive when I write with other people. I was getting insights and coming up with interesting ideas that I wouldn’t have gotten on my own.
What do you mean by insights?
Different perspectives and styles. I have my strengths and shortcomings as a writer. It’s valuable for any writer to have a style, but—I hate to say I was tired of my style—I was looking to evolve as a writer. I was trying to mine some new territory, and I wasn’t having much luck doing on my own. I was getting personal and trying to open up in a way that seemed foreign to me. I was uncomfortable doing it and was having a hard time saying what I wanted to say. But when I got together with other writers, there was an efficiency to it because I was talking out loud and verbalizing what I was trying to do. Collaboration helps me see what I'm trying to say because I’m not going to sit down and have a conversation with myself.
On a practical level, working with someone spurs me to work, to move forward. I'm accountable to someone else, and besides, I have other stuff to do—I don’t want to spend my day indoors. When I'm writing by myself, if I hit a roadblock or a wall, it’s easy to just check out and watch TV or do a million other things. That’s not an option when you're working with someone else.
How did your collaborators help you say those things that you had so much difficulty saying on your own? Was it a case of coming up with a better way to say a line that was already there, or was it more about finding a way to get words on the page in the first place?
A little of both. As a writer, I've always been leery of putting myself out there in a certain way. I often wrote about things that were emotional to me in a straightforward way, but I always felt like I was couching those words in something else like humor or wordplay. I was more interested in the sounds of the words than in the actual meaning. I could get deep doing that, but more often than not I was putting a protective barrier between me and the material. I was not owning it.
The genesis of this record, other than my life and where it was heading, was a song I wrote with Darrell Scott called “The Magic Kid.” Darrell and I always have these long conversations that, after a while, seem to give rise to song ideas. During one of those two or three hour conversations, he finally said to me, “You know, you keep talking about Eli and how much you admire his courage and how he’s not afraid to be an individual. Let’s write about that.” I don’t know that I would have come to that on my own.
When we started writing that song, I glossed over some of the more honest moments, or I'd try to make something super clever. But Darrell told me just to say what it was I wanted to say, to not be afraid of expressing honest emotion. When he did that, at first I thought he was being too honest, too naked. Then it hit me: why would I not do that? I’m not trying to be clever; I'm trying to write about this emotionally personal idea. From that point on, I got comfortable with the idea of more outward and direct emotional expression. I measured every song after that by “The Magic Kid.” I wanted a record to reflect that honesty.
Back to writing on the road: do you ever do it?
I’m jotting down ideas all the time on the road. That’s the source for these ideas. You're in the van, on the train, on the highway, in a funky hotel, in bars. A different city every night. There’s romance, sadness, loneliness, excitement. All of those feelings are songworthy. But I get distracted easily and have a short attention span, so if there’s a cricket tournament on TV, I'll watch that. I know nothing about cricket, but it doesn’t matter. Or it could be Martha Stewart on TV showing me how to boil an egg; sometimes I'd rather watch her than write a song. I’ve never been disciplined. I need to be in a certain headspace to write, and it’s hard to get that on the road.
When things aren’t clicking during the writing process, do you have any rituals that jumpstart your process?
Anything from cleaning my apartment to taking a hit off a joint, though I don’t do so much of that anymore. Either my tolerance is lower or the weed is getting stronger, but I find myself just staring at the ceiling now when I do that. Laughs. If I turn on the TV or find some distraction, I’m done. I won’t come back. So I might take a walk or I might exercise. As I said, cleaning my place has always been a big help. I find that if I get stuck and go on a cleaning bender, I come out refreshed.
This is pretty unusual, but ever since I was a kid, when I get excited, I rub my hands together, run them through my hair, and I imagine what I want to happen. I imagine what I want this song to feel like. I’ll get in the shower and do it. I won't just sing out loud; I’ll sing it in my head and feel the beat and the rhythm and how it feels coming out of me. I’ll hear the instruments. I can see myself singing it, and I can see the audience reacting to it.
Now, the trick is getting dried off and putting that to paper. I've always been able to go to a place where I can see the whole experience. Of course, that can also be incredibly frustrating because in my mind I've written a thousand hit records. Laughs. So it’s really all about putting down my guitar and going into my imaginary world.
You mentioned walking. How often do you use that to clear your mind?
Quite often. Running also works. It’s very meditative, once you get in the groove and assuming you are in shape. Running gets rid of a lot of junk in my head and allows me to focus. I can take a lyric and play with it, twist it around. It gives me the headspace to sit down so that I can sit down and focus afterwards on writing. Exercise lets me approach songwriting without a million different things popping into my mind. There can be so many distractions, from things like bills to babysitters, that are disruptive. Exercise allows me to clear those things from my mind, or even to deal with them as I run so that they don’t creep into my mind as I try to write.
Talk about your experience writing "A Jealous Moon" with J.D. Souther.
Co-writing blind was a new experience. I didn’t know J.D. before we wrote "A Jealous Moon" other than for his reputation. We got together and spent half a day in a room. It’s awkward because you don’t know how the other person works, and it’s especially difficult when the other person is a legend. That’s a time for all my insecurities to come out. We’re both sitting there, trying to play guitar and emote. You have to be totally open with a stranger. It can be uncomfortable. You just throw stuff out until the other person says they like something.
We stumbled upon the idea for “A Jealous Moon,” but we couldn’t get much more than maybe a melody and a verse. So we got together about six months later to finish it, but we had lost all the work we had done the first time. We got more work done, although when it came time to record, I still felt like the song needed more. By that time, I was in L.A. and he was in Nashville. I wrote probably three of the verses myself, but it was still so cool to see him work. He would take a line or a melody and do something incredible with it, and then I'd remember, “Oh yeah, that's why he’s in the Songwriters Hall of Fame.”
I imagine that writing blind can push you in new directions.
That’s true, especially with someone outside of your genre or sensibilities. Working with someone can make things too predictable. It can be too comfortable, often to your detriment. But when you take someone with a different sensibility, it’s fun to get on their wavelength. For me, these songs were personal, but working with someone new allowed me to remove myself from the songs and work from a different perspective. I have a good time writing with my buddies, and we can come up with something good, but I don’t know that we can come up with something remarkable. It’s not going to be something outside of my wheelhouse. But when you work with someone unfamiliar, everything you do is unexpected, and the process is full of happy surprises. You go in different directions, and there’s growth in that.
What song on Lovers and Leavers was the easiest song to write?
Probably "Drive." I wrote that with Jim Lauderdale. (Note: here's my recent interview with Lauderdale). We had never written together before, but we knew each other over the years. He had just done a tribute record to Robert Hunter (lyricist for the Gratefeul Dead) and he had just finished reading a book called The First Third by Neal Cassady. He's a legendary beatnik, a mythic figure. In all of the literary representations of him, he's know for his stamina and ability to drive endlessly. He had limitless energy and an incredible lust for life. He would just drive for days at a time and explore the world.
So Jim started talking about The First Third, and On the Road was a hugely influential book for me. We both had a fondness for Cassady and had so much shared knowledge of his life. The song came together in about two hours. We didn’t have to create the character because we felt like we knew him.
Speaking of books, who have you been reading?
At the moment, I'm reading M Train by Patty Smith. I just finished Just Kids, so M Train is my second book by her. I’m also reading Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje. I also picked up a Milan Kundera book called Immortality again, even though I read it about 15 years ago. What I like about Kundera is his discussion of politics and the social and psychological effects of communism and of neighbors turning on each other. That was always interesting to me, especially as a history major in college.
Allison (Moorer) is in the MFA program at the New School, and she signed up for a class called "Literature and Politics." It sounded like a really interesting class, so I decided to read the books along with her. I bought the whole syllabus. Then the class got cancelled so I'm stuck with all these books. Laughs. (Note: read my recent interview with Moorer here)