The title of Hayden's new release, his seventh full-length, is a koanish and gnomic shot over the bow, and a doozy at that: Us Alone. It implies a web of relationships and connections, but also a plurality of solitudes, and maybe even conflict. Who's “us,” for starters? A couple or family, or maybe even a tribal, community-type “us”? Or perhaps it's more abstract and sweeping, like “us” as a culture or society. Who's instigating this apartness? Is the “us” turning away from others, or being cast out? Is the phrase a courageous declaration, or a desperate, lonely yelp? Maybe it's total “human condition” stuff, meaning that all of us, every single one of us stupid/smart talking apes, is profoundly alien to every single other one of us, and that no matter how much we share with each other that is intimate, that brings us closer, that is part of ourselves, we still remain fundamentally, existentially, irrevocably alone, unable to truly reach into each other and understand what's there.
It's a nutshell/universe of a title, and classic Hayden—the kind of precise, distilled ambiguity and contradiction he's trafficked in for nearly two decades, fastidiously made, but slippery in meaning and intensified by emotional heft. Like his words, Hayden's music has been crafted the way good furniture is: the joints disappear under the skill and labour, and all that remains is the function and the beauty. His sonic hallmark, a kind of soft-focus textural lushness and slightly slack dreamlike aura that borrows from several old folk, country and pop forms, belies both the amount of work and play funneled into his songs. If you're esthetically and temperamentally susceptible, his records can lull you into a sort of oneiric reverie, and, along with his evocative lyrics, borne by his croony, drifting baritone, can seem to take on the shape and weight of your own life and troubles. He's one of those artists people think are speaking right to them, about them, about what's going on in their heads and lives right this second.
“Well, I do get the sense that from talking to certain people that it seems to be meaningful music to them,” Hayden acknowledges. “To couples, as well, oftentimes. People will go out of their way to let me know that. And you know, it's pretty amazing. It's the farthest thing from my mind when I'm working on it, but I love to hear it. I get a kick out of it because there's so much music out there now that, personally, leaves me very empty, and the last thing I would say when describing it would be that it moves me emotionally or it really made me think about certain things in a different way. To me as a listener, that's very rare and only happens once in a while, so if someone says that to me about my work, it's pretty huge.”
From the beginning of his career, the music press classified Hayden's work as “confessional,” not only due to its charged emotive quality and how it gave listeners the space to relate it back to themselves, but also because they pegged him as part of something zeitgeisty unfolding at the time.
The early '90s bore the fruit of the previous three-and-a-half decades of counterculture movements, and “alternative,” “lo-fi” and “independent” culture leaked into the mainstream. It was the age of zines, indie films, slacker comics and handmade everything, some of which, unexpectedly, found massive audiences. Artists like Kurt Cobain went from playing to 50 people in a dive bar to being papped during headlining arena tours within a matter of months, and appeared in Rolling Stone wearing eyeliner and openly expressing rage, hurt, alienation and confusion. Which led to a stampede of media-outlet squares and the kind of people who forecast trends and baptize demographics in service of the almighty dollar, reflexively making stupid shit up about the “new masculinity,” the “new rock stars” and the “new authenticity.” Entertainment titans struggled to figure out how to co-opt this turbulent wave of democratic (and inexpensive) culture, while artists tried to reconcile their earnest principals with the corrupting influence of The Industry.
Meanwhile, in Ontario, Paul Hayden Desser was making things.
“It's a strange and semi-confusing trajectory, really, and involves different countries and different ways in how I was introduced and perceived,” Hayden recalls. “In Canada I started out very … I think the word is 'organically': hand-making my own cassettes, putting out my first CD on a small Hamilton label, driving to all my shows, silkscreening posters and T-shirts, opening for bands and doing all my own booking for a couple of years. So people here had that feeling that they were, you know, starting out with me or whatever, and many have stuck with me since that time.”
Suddenly, he found himself in the right (wrong?) place at the right (wrong?) time, already doing the right kind of thing.
“In the States, I was introduced as sort of a music-business entity,” Hayden explains. “The way people first heard about me was a cover story in Billboard about a bidding war with major US companies. I went right from some nothing to being on MTV with my videos showing.”
At best, it was disorienting for a bright, introspective, autonomous, melancholic young artist who worked, immersively, at a near-glacial pace. At worst, it was borderline traumatic.
“What happened in America with me—it was amazing and not great at the same time,” he relates. “The amazing part is that for some bizarre reason I was paid a lot of money at that time from these companies. I think I was always aware that this thing would run out, but what that guaranteed to me, personally, as an artist, was the ability to spend the next 10 years making exactly the records that I wanted to make without even the thought of: 'would they sell,' 'would this be on the radio,' 'I have to tour this record for three years and build my career because if I don't I'm going to have to work at an Arby's.' You know what I mean? So, they [major labels] were sort of unwilling patrons of my art. Grudgingly, I think, especially in the end.”
Hayden chuckles, a husky gleeful rumbling that sounds like thunder in the distance.
There was something else the experience gave him, too: tangible evidence of the reach and force of his art. “I guess I realized it could have that kind of personal impact after my first record;. I have boxes and boxes of handwritten letters from that time, from '94 to '98 or whatever, with people telling me incredibly personal things, and feeling that I was the one who they wanted to tell these things to. It was pretty intense.”
It must have felt like a huge responsibility.
“Yeah, and it was weird for anyone to think I was up for that, because I wasn't out to be that person. I was just trying to figure out my own situation! I've never been great at doling out advice as if I had the secret to anything, because I definitely don't,” Hayden laughs. “On a very basic level, I kind of go a bit crazy when I don't [make things]. I'm not the happiest person if I don't have access to a piano or guitar.”
These days, with a wife and young daughter, “the amount of focused time I get, it's not as combustive as it used to be. When I'm able to play music now, I make the most of it, and there's very little wasting time. The excitement around coming up with a new melody or chord production is still the same—I mean, a sound I love can sort of feed me creatively for a month, put me in a good mood.”
“Well, I did go through kind of a psychotic period towards the end [of making Us Alone],” he ventures. “If you ask my friends, they'll say that happens on every record, towards the end. Inevitably, there's a point where I've heard every song probably several hundred times each. I just hit this thing: 'It's no good; it's too long; too short; this song doesn't work; that song doesn't work'—right? I call people up to see if they can do a better mix, the mix comes back and I don't like it and I go back to mine. There's this whole process of doubt and making mistakes and wasting time.” The memory literally makes him groan.
“So anyway, I had a finished record and I mastered it and I listened to it a month later and thought there were major problems, so I went back and wrote another song and recorded it, re-mastered the record with the new song, and three months later decided to take that song off and go back to a similar version—that sort of stuff.”
He laughs again. “It seems like I can't avoid that little process. And that's incredible, you know? The thing with the creative process is that if you have a month of writer's block you can't help but think that you're never going to write a song again when that same exact thing has happened maybe 20 times in your life as an artist, and still your mind can't escape the thought that: 'Ok, this is it! This is it this time!' That kind of blows my mind. Still.”
Tue, Mar 26 (7 pm)
With Lou Canon
The Royal Alberta
Museum Theatre, $25