by: Thomas D. Mooney
Singer-songwriter Lilly Hiatt recently made the move from one Music City to another–from Nashville down to Austin. And as much as things change, they stay the same.
Her songwriting and songs has been almost immediately appreciated and acknowledged by the locals as worth listening to. I mean, if you can write and sing songs well, you’re going to be able to do so almost anywhere. Great songwriting gains a following anywhere.
Her debut album with her backing band, The Dropped Ponies, Let Down is filled with a number of songs that feel as though they could be twice her age. She never has a line that feels out of place or odd and generally give the vibe that Hiatt’s been doing this for a long time–even when she’s still exploring what it is to be a songwriter and artist.
And really, what very well could be Hiatt’s strongest attribute is her sense of taste. Nothing seems forced or rigid. That partly comes with the ease she carries in her voice, which is one of the clearest, crisp voices currently recording “Americana” music. She has a genuine voice that can pierce a room.
Hiatt could have done what often artists can do on their debuts: play it safe–or at least keep their songs all within a certain context, space, and sound. Luckily for us, Hiatt’s Let Down doesn’t ever fall into that state of mind. She takes chances here and there.
The record starts off with a number of fresh and smooth country folk songs–“Championship Fighter,” “Young Black Rose,” “People Don’t Change” in particular. But on songs such as “Angry Momma” and “Big Bad Wolf,” she and the Dropped Ponies decide to let it rip. They’re filled with giant Neil Young/Crazy Horse driven guitars that give us another side of Hiatt.
Another moment is on “Master.” It feels as though Hiatt could have written it with Neko Case (think of her cover of “Runnin’ Out of Fools” from Blacklisted). Hiatt doesn’t go completely Case on the song, but she certainly shows us her vocals are bigger than we probably originally thought on this bluesy soulful ballad.
Hiatt, daughter of the great John Hiatt, certainly proves the old adage that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. And at this point in her career, she certainly has all the makings to become as revered as her father.
We caught up with Hiatt last week as she was getting ready to drive back down to Austin from Nashville. She is performing at The Blue Light tonight (June 14) alongside Adam Hood and Rise & Shine.
New Slang: So you released your record, Let Down late last year. Doug Lancio (Patty Griffin, Todd Snider) is who produced it. How was working with him knowing his experience and who he’s worked with in the past?
Lilly Hiatt: Doug has a real laid-back approach to things. He’s really calm and not a lot ruffles him. So it was a very friendly, easy-going work environment. He also has a great knowledge of what works sonically. What pedals and what sounds work where. He was able to bring out things we probably wouldn’t have thought of on our own. But he also let us find the project. He just wanted to emphasize anything that he could. He’s just a laid-back, friendly person to work with who has a really great ear. And he never wants to overdo things. That’s a thing I appreciate because I appreciate simplicity.
NS: What song do you think changed the most from your ideas on how you thought it’d be when you were writing it to how it eventually took shape and was recorded? Did anything change significantly over time?
LH: Yeah. Definitely. There’s a few songs I can think of. I think the song “Oh Mister” definitely did. It kind of started out as a dirty waltz and by the end, we had so much fun with pedals and guitars on that one, it ended up being this spacey, reverby sound–which was very exciting. And a lot of this had to do with the guy who engineered it, Chad Brown. He brought out a lot of that stuff as well. “Angry Momma” and “Big Bad Wolf,” I know those two songs definitely got fattened up by a day spent just having a lot of fun playing with different guitar sounds. That was exciting.
NS: Yeah. I was going to mention that. I think there’s a lot of really classic ’50s/’60s country moments on the record, but there’s also a few times where you guys get these Neil Young Crazy Horse guitars. You just get them really big and loud. What lead you to really going with that?
LH: I think I tend to come off a bit country, but I’m rooted in a lot. I’ve always been a really big grunge fan. A Neil Young fan. And I know the people I play with, kind of are too. Especially Beth [Finney], who plays all the lead guitar on that album. She’s a rock and roll kind of player. So when we kind of have the chance to run with that, I think we both have a lot of fun. And like I mentioned, Chad Brown, who engineered, he’s kind of a rocker too. We were seeing how much we could get away with with my kind of country folky songs without sounding ridiculous.
NS: On the record, you’ve got a song on there called “Young Black Rose.” I read that it was kind of a response to the song “Black Rose,” written by Billy Joe Shaver and sang by Waylon Jennings.
NS: Is that kind of an intimidating situation? You know, writing a song that was written by one of the best songwriters and performed by one of the dominant voices in American music?
LH: [Laughs]. Well, I think if I was more well-known, it’d be an intimidating thing, but I don’t know. It really didn’t intimidate me or anything. The cool thing is, Billy Joe Shaver, I’m playing a show with him tomorrow night so I’m really excited about that. And I was thinking about that song. I don’t know if I’ll be doing it.
NS: [Laughs]. Well I think it’d be really cool if you did “Young Black Rose” and he did “Black Rose.” I know he typically plays it.
LH: Yeah. I was thinking that too.
NS: Billy has been one of my favorite people to have interviewed. He just talked and talked about music and told different stories.
LH: I bet he’s amazing to interview. He seems so funny and personable and feisty [laughs]. I’ve read interviews with him and they kill me. I crack up every time.
NS: Yeah. Getting back to that song, or not necessarily just about that song, but how often have you had the urge or gotten inspired to write a song that’s specifically influenced a song of yours? Does that kind of thing happen much?
LH: Well. That’s a good question too. I don’t think that has happened much. I mean, a bazillion specific songs have influenced me. That’s where I do get a bunch of inspiration from, from listening and whatever life experiences and scenery surrounding me, but no, there’s been few times where I’ve responded to [another song]. But there are in some of my other songs where there’s some little lines that might have come from another song and trying to respond to them in one way or another, but they’re more just a singular line rather than a whole song. I’ve had songs serve as templates for some of my songs. Like where you hear a song and go “Oh, this is so great. I want to try and write something like this.” Not completely copying it or anything, but just in that style. But yeah, it is exciting to think about the possibilities of writing more songs like that.
NS: Yeah. I don’t know if that happens more often than people are aware of or if it’s the complete opposite and never happens. But maybe it does happen all the time and we as listeners have no idea. Another song on the record that I think is great is the song “People Don’t Change.” The chorus, “It’s hard to understand people really don’t change.” I think that’s great. It’s actually something that I’ve thought for a long time about people [laughs]. I don’t know, that’s probably my only solid observation on people; it’s that they don’t change–or at least you can’t change them.
LH: [Laughs]. What’s funny, is I think about that song and I think I’ve changed so much since I made that record and since I wrote those songs, but think, at the core of it, I’m still me. I still have felt the same way I did when I was six years old. Yeah, we evolve and get better at things, but I think there’s a true core human inside all of us. And I’ve tried to change other people and that never works [laughs]. I think it’s something I’ve tried to come to accept. You can change your habits, but I don’t know, I believe we are who we are. And I think when I wrote that song, I was frustrated by a lot of things about myself and coming to some kind of self acceptance. Not saying that it’s solely about that or anything, but we’ve all had these relationships where we’ve tried to change the other person or tried to be this way for them. It never seems to really work.
NS: Yeah. Your songwriting, there’s somewhat of a balance to it. I feel as though you can tell that some are more based on personal thoughts while others are more storytelling. What kind of songs do you enjoy writing more?
LH: It’s easier for me to write songs that are kind of an embellished version of myself. There’s definitely some expanding on things. Not everything is completely nonfictional, but are autobiographical. Songwriting is a very personal thing for me so it typically comes from a personal spot. I’d like to get better at–I’ve tried to get out of the box and write from totally different narrators. That’s hard for me, but it’s something I’d really like to do. Some of my favorite songwriters are able to do that. I’ve been working on that, but it just comes out terrible so. I haven’t figured that out [laughs].
NS: I can’t remember who said it–but he was talking about writing personal songs and getting to that point in which you’re able to write about yourself but not air out all your laundry. It takes trial and error and time to get that right.
LH: Right. I think that’s great. No body wants to hear that. Because if you do, it feels like you’re just writing the same old song. A songwriter who I think is amazing is Randy Newman because he writes all these different songs and he says that none of them are about him. Clearly he’s in there somewhere though since he’s writing them. It’s all his perspective. That’s exciting to me. I aspire to–not to be the next Randy Newman or anything–but to get a grip on that a little more.
NS: I love Randy Newman. I think he’s so under-appreciated by the general public. He’s I guess what you call a songwriter’s songwriter. I don’t know how old he is now off the top of my head or anything, but he’s obviously a lot older than us, but even so, I think he still has this image and idea of what being American is. He still has a pulse on that.
LH: Yeah, he totally does. I never really knew much about him. You just think Toy Story. That really was the extent of my knowledge. But a really good friend of mine went through a really big Randy Newman obsession and I heard all of this music by him. I was just amazed and didn’t know he could write such heartbreaking songs. I guess in our generation, he’s really under-appreciated in the scheme of things. I mean, people know who Randy Newman is, but not a lot of people our age know just how important of a songwriter he is.