Interview: John Hiatt Reflects on His Past, Invigorated By New LP, ‘The Eclipse Sessions’
"For two minutes and 20 seconds, it felt like all of Nashville was on the same page. I know I'm just an old guy and I can get nostalgic ... but it was nice."
It was Aug. 21, 2017, and those memorable two minutes and 20 seconds were the solar eclipse that turned day to night in Music City, one of the locations in the so-called path of totality. The event had a profound effect on John Hiatt and his crew: Not only did the it lead to the name of Hiatt's new LP — the 23rd in his storied career — but it also inspired the cover of the album.
"My friend Travis Rivers, he's been a mentor for years, and he sent me that picture. It's from NASA," Hiatt tells The Boot as he reflects on recording The Eclipse Sessions while sitting in a hotel just a few blocks south of Houston Street in New York City. "It's the moon's perspective, basically. I wanted to use it, but we had to ask NASA for permission.
"Fortunately, I remembered that we actually had a connection to NASA: Rick Linnehan, he went up to repair the Hubble [Space Telescope] 20 years ago and took one of my songs and woke up the crew every morning with it. It was "Blue Telescope,"" Hiatt continues. "He woke up his crew with my f--king song. I never won a Grammy, but I don't give a s--t. That is better than a Grammy. In my mind, I was up there with him.
"So, I called this guy from the propulsion lab whose number I still had, and he said it was totally cool to use it," Hiatt concludes. "That became our album cover."
This experience perfectly captures the utter uniqueness of Hiatt's career. His songs have been covered by countless legends, including BB King, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson and many, many others. In 2008, he received the Americana Music Association's Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting. And in 2018, he's celebrating some of the best work of his career.
But the release of this new disc wasn't always certain, especially for Hiatt.
"I was lost," Hiatt admits. "I spent the whole 2000s touring and putting records out. I was touring with bands, touring solo, doing my thing with Lyle [Lovett]. I was burned out. I ran out of gas."
After Hiatt finished touring 2014's Terms of My Surrender, it didn't take long for him to realize he needed a break. "I came home and told my wife, 'I need to slow down,'" he says. "I was doing 100-120 shows a year, something like 200-plus days on the road. We've been married 32 years and we've been apart a good deal of that time."
Time on the road wasn't the only thing that burned Hiatt out: Right after Terms of My Surrender hit the streets, he and his wife sold their family farm and moved into Nashville.
"There were a lot of big changes. That farm, that's where we raised the kids; it was our family place for 25 years ... It was an adjustment," Hiatt explains. "And now, on top of that, I decided to slow down touring. For 2016 and 2017, I was doing something like 60 shows, and so that was an adjustment for my wife. She wanted me to be home more, but then it's like ... are we sure about that?"
After being married for more than three decades, the Hiatts found themselves re-learning how to live with one another. "It felt like we were dating for the first time," Hiatt says, with a smile on his face. "That was fun. But, the other part of this whole thing was asking the question, 'Who the hell are we?' It took some adjusting."
But as lost or burned out as Hiatt may have felt, he never once considered hanging up his guitar. "Never. I never thought about that," he says. "I've been writing since I was 11, so I know this is part of who I am. It wasn't a question of 'if,' and not even 'when,' but 'how': How is this record, how are these new songs, going to materialize?"
"I'm still kind of restless, but I feel good. I'm 66, and I feel healthy and feel like I'm in good place."
Hiatt was able to, as he puts it, "live for a minute" and see where he was at as a songwriter and artist. "I'm still kind of restless," he confesses, "but I feel good. I'm 66, and I feel healthy and feel like I'm in good place. I feel like I'm writing good stuff again, like I've looked in the mouths of a couple of beasts and have lived to tell the tale.
"It's reinvigorating," Hiatt adds. "I feel refreshed by all of this."
As much as Hiatt's feeling of lostness plays a role in the story of The Eclipse Sessions, so, too, does its connection to two of his most celebrated releases. As Hiatt himself says, the new LP is a sort of completion of a trilogy, connecting on multiple levels with 1987's Bring the Family and 2000's Crossing Muddy Waters.
"Just like those other albums, [The Eclipse Sessions] was all kind of accidental. It's like the album was pushing itself along — I wasn't pushing it to be made, nobody was pushing it, nobody was looking for a record," Hiatt clarifies. "It's just this group of songs that came together, and the next thing you know, there's some light coming from it. I was in conversation with Kenny Blevins who has played drums with me for years, and next thing you know, we have a place, we have Kevin McKendree's studio out in the country. My wheels started turning, and so I thought about Patrick O'Hearn — a bassist we've worked with in the past — and wondered what he's up to."
Hiatt wasn't looking to assemble a big rock band; instead, he wanted to play his songs on his Gibson LG-2, a small-body acoustic, with Blevins on a simple, small drum kit and O'Hearn on the bass. "We went out to Kevin's with that intention, keeping things simple," he says, "and we still had no real thought about making an actual record. We just wanted to see what happened. That's how it started. And that's kind of how Bring the Family started."
As Hiatt begins reminiscing about Bring the Family, an obvious fondness coats his deep, inimitable voice. It's not surprising considering the trajectory Hiatt was on prior to that album: In 1985, he released Warming Up to the Ice Age, which would end up being his final record with Geffen before being dropped. The next couple of years took their toll on the musician, and he wasn't sure what was next for him.
"I was having conversations with John Chelew — may he rest in peace," Hiatt recalls. "He used to book McCabe's Guitar Shop out in Santa Monica. I played there a lot in the '80s. He and I were chatting, and he'd ask me who I would want to play with if I were to make another record. The first answer I gave was Ry Cooder; I thought he'd be great. I worked with him before but never really thought about playing with him on one of my things. So John said he'd talk to him, and I was just like, 'Yeah, right.' Then he asked me about drums, and I said, Jim Keltner. He's the best. John said he'd talk to him, too. I couldn't help thinking, 'Sure, you who book McCabe's Guitar Shop and me, we're going to get these guys.' I didn't see it happening."
Not long after talking with Chelew, Hiatt received a call from Andrew Lauder, who ran Demon Records for guys like Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello. He was very clear with Hiatt that he wanted him to make a record, and Demon would release it in the UK. It was the unexpected inspiration Hiatt needed.
"I had just been dropped by Geffen, I didn't have a label, my wife and I just got married, and some bank loaned us money to buy a house," Hiatt says. "I kept thinking, 'How in the f--k am I going to pay for this?' It was one of those moments, one of those stark terror moments. Andrew said he had $20,000 and that's all he could pay, and I told him I wouldn't even know what kind of record to make. My confidence was so shot, and he said, 'You could sing in the shower and we'd put it out.' That's what he told me."
Hiatt takes a breath and, for a brief moment, looks like he's traveled back to that conversation with Lauder.
"F--k, man, it almost makes me cry when I think about it," Hiatt confides. "That's all I needed to hear, just a little confidence booster. So I called Chelew. I didn't know if his pipe dreams could actually come true, but I told him I had 20 grand, so if he could get anyone in the studio ... He asked me who I wanted on bass, and I said Nick Lowe, so he told me to call him. The next week, Chelew had Ocean Way Studio booked, and Cooder and Keltner were in. I said Nick could fly in and do it on a visitor's visa. And it all came together, man. It happened that way. We had just enough money for four days with those guys. That's how Bring the Family got made."
A little less than 15 years later, Hiatt found himself in a similar situation.
"At the last minute, again, I didn't know what to do," he says as he looks back on the making of Crossing Muddy Waters. "Capitol wouldn't put out the record that would become The Tiki Bar Is Open. Capitol didn't like it, so we said, 'See you later,' because we thought it was pretty good. Meanwhile, my manager said there's this new internet startup that would give a certain amount of money to put out an internet-only release. I thought it was great, so I called up Davey Faragher and David Immerglück, and we put together this little trio thing. We went in with Justin Niebank — who's become a big-time Nashville producer now — in his home studio, and we just wanted to see what would happen. It was so similar to [Bring the Family and The Eclipse Sessions]. We made Crossing Muddy Waters in about four days."
As Hiatt thinks about this trilogy of records, he's quick to offer up a piece of personal wisdom with a laugh. "I don't know if it's true, but I seem to do better when I don't think I'm making a record."
"I don't know if it's true, but I seem to do better when I don't think I'm making a record."
He's also quick to add another special record to the conversation.
"Slow Turning to me had this kind of connection," he says. "I really think that was connected to Bring the Family. That was another 'band' record — you know, the Goners were a really special band, we made a special kind of racket. Sonny Landreth brought that rhythm section of Kenny Blevins and David Ranson. They were gonna come up and audition, so they were learning tracks from Bring the Family, and I remember Kenny, the only song he learned was "Memphis in the Meantime." And that's the song I picked, because if the drummer can play that, then we're good. And he killed it, man."
As much as he enjoys reflecting on his work over the last several decades, Hiatt seems just as excited to talk about what he's doing in 2018, and it doesn't take him long to offer up some of his favorite tracks from The Eclipse Sessions.
"I'm kind of partial to "All the Way to the River" right now," he admits. "It's a relentless kind of song. You don't know if this woman just gives up and moves on, or what it really looks like ... and it reminds me of Nashville. This is a place where a lot of people bring dreams, and they don't always materialize. New York City is the same way, you know? I like the feeling of that song.
"I also like "Aces Up Your Sleeve,"" Hiatt adds. "I kind of deal with my 'cranky old guy watching his city change before his eyes,' and I kind of use that as a metaphor for love lost."
One of the first songs that Hiatt shared with fans prior to the LP's release was "Poor Imitation of God," a song he says is rooted in his Catholic upbringing. "Faith plays a role all the time, you know? A large part of being alive is believing in stuff you can't see. It's important," he acknowledges ... and then, as he thinks about his Catholic roots, he starts laughing.
"That song, I copped that idea — it was drilled into us as kids," he says. "You're an imitation of Christ -- I think that's what they told us. I always felt inadequate to live up to that. It was tough. It was rough, man."
As he thinks about his past and present, Hiatt isn't one to shy away from looking ahead either, especially when it comes to his songs. For a man whose tunes have been covered by amazing artist after amazing artist, there's one person he hopes might consider recording one of his songs someday.
"Lady Gaga," he divulges. "I'd love her to sing one of my songs."
"She's unique. I think she has something really great," Hiatt says. "You know, the odd thing is, I don't write songs for people. I've never been able to do that, but I think I could dig something up for her. You can't know how thrilling it is when someone records your song. It's such a great feeling ... it's really, really special."