Hayes Carll on balancing the personal and political, and being covered by Kenny Chesney
Hayes Carll knows himself. The Texas singer-songwriter is a self-professed procrastinator, so he took steps to remedy that inclination in preparation for his latest album, What It Is.
“Just saying, ‘I need to write more songs,’ doesn’t exactly get it done for me,” he says with a chuckle. “So, after my last record, I decided to get myself on some kind of system where I was able to be more productive and staying engaged creatively.”
To that end, he began writing, recording, and releasing at least one song a month through the patron-supported site Patreon. “There’s nothing like a deadline to get you working,” he says, echoing the sentiments of writers everywhere.
It was a fruitful endeavor. Not only did he end up with 10 of the 12 songs for the new album, the fans who supported him got a peek into his creative process. “Very different versions [of the songs] ended up on the record than what I had released [on Patreon],” says Carll, 43. “But that was part of the beauty of it, it gave me a chance to experiment. To me, the Bob Dylan bootleg series is one of my great joys in life. And it’s fascinating to me to watch how songs evolve and how artists take different approaches to something, or how one song can have multiple lives.”
When it came time to record, Carll co-produced What it Is alongside fiancee and collaborator Allison Moorer, and Brad Jones. The result is a nuanced collection that tackles everything from the quirks and intricacies of romantic relationships (“None’ya”) to the effect of the current climate on one’s outlook (“Times Like These”) to timely observations on reactions to the changing landscape (“Fragile Men”).
The Texas troubadour, who kicked off the tour for What it Is March 28, recently spoke with EW about all of that, refusing to live in fear, and the benefits of being covered by Kenny Chesney.
“Fragile Men” pokes fun at those who complain about how the world is changing in ways that mean they will no longer be centered in all narratives. While there is humor in it, it also feels a little sinister — a bit like Leonard Cohen. Were there particular fragile men you had in mind while writing it or was it just a concept that came to you?
I wrote it with an artist named Lolo in New York. She came into the writing room and we had never met before. She was pissed off about some experiences she had had with men in the [music] industry. And she just blurted that out “All these f–ing fragile men and their egos.” And I said, “Let’s write that.”
Originally, it was just about patriarchy and chauvinism. But after [the violence at the Unite the Right rally in] Charlottesville, I think it hit both of us really strongly. We recorded a little demo of it, and she put together a video just showing all these neo-Nazis and Klansmen and trying to make them look as ridiculous as we could, and as pathetic as we could, which didn’t take a lot of effort. It was not to minimize the issue of racism or anti-Semitism or anything like that. But to take away their power in a sense by ridiculing them and minimizing them.
In some ways, the temperature has changed dramatically in the last two years with regards to artists engaging with fans on politically tinged topics. Did you have any trepidation about putting “Fragile Men” or “Times Like These” out into the world now?
I did, I did. My natural personality is to want to get along and to be a people pleaser sometimes. I’m born and raised in Texas and well aware of how divisive certain things can be, particularly these days. I spent a long time just hoping people would not throw beer bottles at me when I opened my mouth to sing. So the idea that I could go beyond that and have political opinions, that were valid — it took me a while to recognize that just because somebody disagreed with me did not invalidate how I felt about something.
Jason Isbell is a friend and an artist that I really admire. And I watched some of the backlash to “White Man’s World,” a song off of his last record [that] I thought was very nuanced and thoughtful. So we live in a divided time, which is what “Times Like These” is about. And whatever side of it you’re on, we’ve gotten to a point where I feel like we can’t hear a differing opinion. I think that’s really dangerous and unhealthy when we’re identifying people not by who we are but just as this sort of monolithic group that’s being demonized by one side or the other. Because that’s messed up to me. I have friends that I disagree with politically, but I know their hearts, and I’m not going to write them off as worthless individuals. And I don’t think I should be written off as that.
When I do put my foot out there politically, I had someone tell me on social media that he hopes I get “Dimebag” Darrell-ed. [Ed. note: Pantera/Damageplan guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott was shot onstage in 2004.] You get crazy people like that. Because I’m asking for unity, you think that I should be murdered onstage? That’s scary. But at the end of the day, I’ve decided life is short, and I don’t really feel like living it in fear.
On the flip side you have a straight-up country jaunt like “If I May Be So Bold” that sounds like you were sitting on the porch thinking about Johnny Cash and decided to have some fun.
That’s not far off. I was on a couch, not a porch. I’m one of those people that can find 1,000 things to do other than the thing they need to do. One night, I just said, “All right, enough with procrastinating and delaying, I’m just going to sit down and create something.” And so I did, I just started, I got out the pen. I didn’t even have a guitar. So the Johnny Cash part, that sound came in the studio. It was a little different, initially, what I had written.
But I just was having fun with words. That, to me, was an exercise — getting those internal rhymes of, “Why some men do their damnedest when a half a damn would do” and just having fun with language and then trying to actually say something. For me, the last couple years have been about this search for connection with my life and saying “Okay, I am scared of this. How do I overcome this fear? Here’s something where I’ve been falling short, what’s going on there?” And just trying to engage, and not coast. So that was the theme. But I did it in a lighthearted sense, while taking it very seriously at the same time.
What it Is includes “Jesus and Elvis,” which Kenny Chesney recorded for his most recent album Songs For the Saints. He operates in a different world than you do in terms of contemporary country music, but I’m curious what the effect of something like that is for you.
There’s a lot of things I respect about Kenny, and one is his appreciation of songs and songwriters. And more so than, say, your typical superstar. He knows the difference between stuff that’s just shooting for radio success and stuff that is telling a story and means something. And I mean in a perfect world, you get both of those things. He’s been really good at writing that but also searching that out and finding it.
As for “Jesus and Elvis,” I wrote it with Allison Moorer and Matraca Berg, both of whom knew Kenny — and I didn’t really. So when he asked to cut the song, I was thrilled. When I started out doing this…I wanted to be a songwriter. But it was also out of necessity, because the only way I could get anybody to hear my songs, I thought, was if I could present them a certain way.
It’s a really cool thing for me anytime somebody takes something that I’ve written and thinks enough of it to do their own interpretation. It’s particularly special when that is a huge star in the country music arena, or any arena. And how did it affect my life? There’s some financial benefits to somebody on that scale covering your stuff. And it’s just validating in a way. And I thought he did a great job of it.