A conversation with John Hiatt

The music industry needs a triple bypass, he says, and the Web's performing the surgery. Straight talk from the veteran musician, whose new album will be released this week both online and in stores.

By Amy Reiter
September 25, 2000 10:52PM (UTC)
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John Hiatt has a voice you can swim in -- deep, warm, a little gritty. It moves slowly in spots, pools up, muddies into a thick groove, then hits a snag and runs clear.

You probably know Hiatt's voice. Songs off his 1987 breakthrough record "Bring the Family," 1988's "Slow Turning," 1990's "Stolen Moments," 1993's "Perfectly Good Guitar," 1995's "Walk On" and 1997's "Little Head" made their way up the charts, got their share of AAA radio play and helped build him a dedicated following.


You definitely know his songs. They've been covered by Bonnie Raitt ("Thing Called Love"), Ronnie Milsap ("Old Habits [Are Hard to Break]"), the Neville Brothers ("Washable Ink"), Bob Dylan ("Across the Borderline," "The Usual") and, just this summer, Eric Clapton and B.B. King ("Ridin' With the King").

He is, they say, a musician's musician. But his lyrics are often so personal -- drawing on his struggle with alcoholism, the breakdown of his first marriage (which ended in his wife's suicide), the joy of bringing home his brand-new daughter, to name just a few -- it's hard to believe anyone can inhabit them quite like he can. Yet he says he's "tickled" by all the big names who've sought out his music. Hearing his songs covered by his idols, he says, is "just too cool for words."

After 26 years of recording, this week Hiatt is simultaneously releasing his first acoustic album, "Crossing Muddy Waters," in both a pay-per-download format on EMusic.com and in "hardware" form by Vanguard Records. Relaxing on his Tennessee farm before heading out on tour, Hiatt took some time to share his thoughts on Napster, songwriting, success and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.


How did a guy like you, who doesn't even have an e-mail address, decide to release an album on the Web?

It just happened. We spent a lot of time over the last year getting out of our deal with Capitol Records and being able to take the record we were making with us. And we were successful in doing that as of about Jan. 1 of this year.

Then this interest just suddenly sprung up from EMusic.com. They said, "How would you like to put something out with us?" Initially, they wanted to put out some demos that Dave Immergl|ck, the mandolin player, and I had, and it just turned into this record. And then Vanguard got involved after we'd already made this recording.


Does releasing the album on the Web give you more control? What's the allure?

Well, it's a new way to get your music out. And it's a way of doing it without a middleman, i.e. a big corporate record company. I call the Internet "Willy Loman's revenge," from "Death of a Salesman." Willy Loman actually gets to bring his wares right to the customer, direct. That's exciting.


It's also cool that it's a new frontier -- nothing's settled. You have all this great technology exploding. It's created all this great controversy with Napster, and I think that's wonderful. I'm glad to be a little dinky part of it.

But you're also releasing it the old-fashioned way.

Yeah, Vanguard Records is releasing it simultaneously, working in conjunction with EMusic, which is not something the other major corporate labels are willing to do, judging from their reaction to Napster.


What happened with Capitol? It sounds like things got unpleasant.

You know, it wasn't unpleasant. It's like a broken record, no pun intended, but it was the same old story: The guy who signed me left. So I had to reenthuse a new regime, and, to put it simply, they didn't like the record we were making as much as we did, so we figured, you know what, they probably shouldn't put it out. So that was that.

Are you going to release it?


Yes. We're going to finish it in January. We own it. We got out of the label deal with the record, which was no small feat. We had to jump through a few flaming hoops and train poodles and God knows what else. But we got out with the record, and we're going to put it out.

We're shooting for May 2001. I'm going to start touring for "Crossing Muddy Waters" at the end of September, solo initially. I've got about a month's worth of solo acoustic dates and then the two Daveys are going to join me in November and December. And then I'll probably tour a little bit into the new year, January or February. Meanwhile, we're going to finish the rock record with the Goners [Hiatt's backing band], and hopefully put that out in May or June 2001, and then tour next summer again with the Goners.

That's a pretty busy year you've got planned.

It is. It's great. That's what so exciting about the business right now to me. There are so many more opportunities.


Like what?

Just the fact that it's so wide open, that the corporate labels are being caught with their pants down. And obviously their reaction to Napster, which is I guess typical of modern corporate America doing business. When they find a competitor, their reaction is just to annihilate them.

So that was their knee-jerk reaction, but I think what it really said was, "Geez, we don't know anything about this stuff." I have lots of different feelings about Napster and that technology. It's great in terms of kids sharing music, but I think it's a problem when college kids download whole CDs and turn around and sell them for $20. But there are solutions to all this, I would think. And obviously the courts felt the same way because they've given Napster a chance at least to come up with a defense. It's not going to go away; it's going to change the music industry. It's already doing it.

Is it going to be good for the artist?


Absolutely. How could it not be? How could another avenue of being able to get yourself heard not be a good thing? The traditional avenues have gotten so corporatized -- it's going to be one big major label when they're all done eating each other. And then there's one or two conglomerates that own all the radio stations, so you have to sound a certain way to make that work. When things get so constricted like that, other arteries have to open up. And that's what's happening, I think. The industry's needing a triple bypass. [Laughs] And the Web's giving it to 'em.

Why an acoustic album?

I'd always wanted to make a more acoustic singer-songwriter kind of record. And this was the chance to do it. It's pretty much acoustic, but there's an electric slide on one song. And Dave [Immergl|ck] plays electric mandolin on another. No drums, though. We finally got rid of the drummer.

Is recording an acoustic album any different from recording when you're all plugged in?


It's just like any other record to me. It's a joy and a thrill. But then, I never really have anything planned out, to be honest. And we made this record in four days, which is how much time we spent on "Bring the Family."

I wanted to get kind of a back-porch feel to it, and I wanted to do it live. So we just sat around in a circle in this little studio up the road, about three or four miles from our farm. I'd play the song once and David Immergl|ck and Davey Faragher [the bass player] would remember the chord progressions. But my chord progressions aren't too difficult to remember, and we'd played together for about six years, so we had a pretty good musical rapport. And we just rolled tape. A lot of it's first take. There are a couple of second takes, but mostly we just went with it.

Have you worked that way before?

Yeah, that's pretty much the way we work -- especially with those guys. Davey Faragher has been playing with me since the "Perfectly Good Guitar" tour, which was, what, '93, '94? And Dave Immergl|ck has been playing with me since "Walk On." We've arrived at the idea that we're better when we don't know what we're doing. [Laughs]

What's your writing ritual?

I've been writing for a long time. I picked up a guitar when I was 11 and within a couple of months I wrote my first song, so I've been around -- I'm 48, so what's that, 37 years?

Over the years I've employed all kinds of little tricks and disciplines, but they've all fallen by the wayside. I just write pretty much when the inspiration hits me. Usually, it's just picking up a guitar and playing, and the next thing you know, you've got a chord pattern, and you've got a melody, and you're singing nonsense because you like the melody so much. And the next thing you know, it sticks with you to the extent that you think, gee, maybe I oughta write some lyrics. So that's when you get the paper out and try to come up with something that's worth singing.

When you go back and listen to your music, can you identify in the music what you were going through when you wrote it?

Oh yeah. When I go back and listen, I definitely remember where I was at the time. When I listen to those first three A&M records ["Bring the Family," "Slow Turning" and "Stolen Moments"], I can go back to when we were newly married and when we had the baby and how the kids were all little -- we each had a kid we brought to the marriage -- when I wrote this song or that song. Or I look back and go, "Oh boy, I had my head directly up my own ass on that one." You get a lot of that, too.

Is it weird for you to listen to the albums from the rough years? Some of the emotions seem so raw.

Oh, no. The songs are what got me through. It's kind of like only the song survives. It's not my real life in these songs. It's inspired by bits of it, but it's inspired by a lot of different bits. The songs were my release; the music makes me free. I've always felt like there's nothing I couldn't write my way out of.

Is it easier for you to write from a happy place or a place that's a little dark?

That's a tough one to answer, because once you start writing, all kinds of things come up. But, generally, I think the popular myth about suffering for your art is a bunch of crap. Who wants to suffer for anything? The fact is, life includes as part of the ticket price plenty of suffering. It's gonna be there. I think the more whole I become as a person, the more whole I become as an artist.

The press often characterizes you as a very successful writer and a moderately successful performer and solo artist.

I think they're gauging the success by what they know about. And so they figure, "Oh, 160-some odd covers, wow. This artist did your song? That artist?" And they go, "Oh, that's successful." So I guess they figure, "Oh, his songwriting must be the thing."

But you know, the two work pretty well together for me, and have ever since "Bring the Family," really. We can go out and play and draw a couple of thousand people in a lot of different places, so I feel very successful in that way -- just the fact that people want to come out and hear me.

So you gauge your success by the performing rather than the songwriting?

I've never separated the two. I don't sit down and write songs for other performers. That's a misconception about me. Because I've been covered a fair amount of times, people think, well, he just sits there and writes songs for people. But I've never done that; I've never been able to. I've always written 'em because I'm planning on singing 'em. So the songwriting thing is that solitary exercise you do, which I love -- you know, I have a real passion for it. It's the process of it that I love, and then to be able to go out and play those songs in front of people is the payoff.

Is it also a kick to have someone else record your music?

Absolutely. I mean, put yourself in my place. If you're in your car and you hear a song you wrote on the radio, first off, you're hearing it on the radio, which is too cool for words. And then just the fact that someone thought enough of your song to record it is so totally flattering. How could you not feel good about that?

Is there a song of yours that another artist has recorded that made you see the song in a different way?

That happens a lot. And there again, it's nothing you can really put into words. It's just that you'll get a nuance or a texture that you didn't know was there, either in the melody or the music or the lyrics.

Like the Neville Brothers, when they did "Washable Ink," you know, they put it in a whole different light for me. Or when Bonnie Raitt took "Thing Called Love" and made it so seductive. I guess she can just do that. That redhead!

What's the sense you get from your fans? They're so often described as a "cult following," which is kind of a scary term when you think about it.

I think that's what they call it when you don't sell 20 million and hang around for a couple of years or five years or 10 years and then go away. You know what I mean? That's the more typical kind of deal. I've never had huge sales like those artists.

I'm thinking of people like Neil Young or the Neville Brothers -- although their sales are probably way different, those two acts, I call those people "lifers." They're in it, that's what they do. They'll do it till they drop. And I consider myself one of those, even though I don't have as big a following as some of them.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers are an example of a contemporary act that's having hits right now, but you know, they've got the goods. That Anthony Kiedis writes great lyrics. They always have great songs. They're a great band and they're lifers. They're going to be doing this as long as they're around.

Is there someone you'd like to record your music who hasn't?

Yes. The Red Hot Chili Peppers. [Laughs] But they pretty much do their own stuff. Or Ray Charles. Or, gee whiz, you know who I'd love to have record one of my songs? Rosemary Clooney. She is something.

What has been your greatest musical high?

Having a song cut by the guy who wrote "Layla" is pretty great -- and then having B.B. King singing and playing on it. That's pretty up there. And when Bob Dylan recorded a song of mine for a movie he was in -- what, 10 years ago? -- that was a total kick.

There's a little record that just came out -- a bunch of my songs done by other artists -- called "Rolling Into Memphis." There's some really great blues musicians on it. James Cotton plays harmonica on a song, and Odetta's on it. I loved Odetta when I was coming up. And there she is singing a song of mine. I started crying when I heard it, because I remember what a comfort her voice was to me when I was a screwed-up little white kid in Indianapolis, totally into music and not having too much success in any other area of my life. That was real moving.

What's left? What's the big goal you're still aiming for?

I'm not really goal oriented. That's probably bad, but for me the goal is about the work. It's all about the work -- to be able to keep writing the songs and keep playing the music. The results of my writing and my singing are almost just a footnote to me. It's the joy and the satisfaction I get out of doing it that keeps me doing it. I just want to keep that up.

And I think human development goes right along with artistic development. I think if you stop trying to get a little better as a person, then you stop getting a little better as an artist. I'd like to keep chipping away at the pitiful little sculpture. That's it. That's about the size of it.

Amy Reiter

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