Micah P. Hinson – Live Review & Interview From the End of the Road Festival 2008
One thing everyone knows about Micah P. Hinson is the fairytale story of his fall and rise from the depths of a drug related incarceration after falling in with the wrong woman, to the valedictory release of his beautiful debut album Micah P. HInson & the Gospel of Progress back in 2004. He was saved by the music, we tell ourselves, fitting the whole thing neatly into a nice, Meg Ryan-friendly narrative that fits the kind of one-dimensional storytelling to which we are becoming increasingly adherent.
I myself had pretty much that basic story in my head when I met him at the End of the Road Festival, in September 2008. Fortunately, before I could stray too far down a path that seems to quite irritate him, Micah himself decided to make sure I knew that was bollocks from the beginning. “The music for me wasn’t like a saviour to pull me out of the dark spaces” he told me early on, after explaining that the narrative in most people’s heads is a pretty superficial charicature of years of his life, the actual story much less neat and tidy than that.
“Even on the new album [Micah. P Hinson & the Red Empire Orchestra] there’s songs, like Keep Having These Dreams that I wrote when I was 19 or something. There’s some other songs on the record that are quite old. On Opera Circuit there are some other songs that are pretty damn old that didn’t come from that exact time. By the time I recorded the Gospel of Progress record I had a lot more than just a couple of dozen songs. By that point I’d been recording songs for eight years. Not sending out demos or talking to labels of any of that shit, but I had a four track and then I moved up to having a computer. By the time I had the Gospel of Progress I probably had five hundred songs maybe, I mean a shitload of songs, and so the Gospel of Progress was when we went back through all of those tunes and decided what the best ones were and that’s what made up the Gospel.
“So the Gospel didn’t come out of a certain time in my life, it wasn’t like there was a fall and there was this rise and all these songs came out, it was nothing like that. And even getting signed to a record label, from the time I lived in the hotel and I was writing songs, and you know my life had fallen apart, and I was bankrupt and all of that shit, to the time that I actually got signed by a record label like at least three or four years had passed between those points.”
So like many of us I was labouring under a slightly mistaken impression that the period in his life that he spent with the model girlfriend he would later come to call the Black Widow, and whose high living and drug habits apparently led to his eventual arrest and incarceration, in turn gave rise to a burst of cathartic creativity. That doesn’t mean that his earlier, more turbulent years were not nevertheless an incredibly fertile period in his songwriting life.
“I don’t write as much as I used to. I write differently. I spend more time on the piano, trying to write songs on there and get my skills better that way. But as far as sitting down and trying to write words and tunes, at the moment I feel quite bored with it, and I think that’s why I’m trying to move onto the piano and spark life into something else. But it seems natural to take the new songs and take the old songs and make them all kind of fit in because in the end the songwriting doesn’t change too drastically. And I find it really rad to take out an album that I made when I was fourteen or whatever and listen to that songs and think what could that turn into, what could I do with that, and just revamp it.
“It’s a very tedious thing with me picking out the songs that I’m gonna use and the order that they’re going to be in, it’s a real pain in the ass. In the end I think the songs actually kind of write themselves. We’ll start off with something I think might be my favourite song on the album, but once we get done recording it it’s the worst thing that we’ve done, so I kind of just set that aside. So I think songs have to grow, and you kind of have to let them be, let them use you.”
Given that he seems to both connect very viscerally with his music and yet to also mix the songs of a nineteen year old boy with the songs of a married man in his late twenties, I can’t help but wonder that it might be a little difficult to pick up the emotions of ten years ago and regenerate them truthfully enough to create the kind of simmering rage you see when he performs. But it seems that he doesn’t so much recreate the old emotions as continue to fit those old thoughts into a new framework.
“I guess the main songs on this album that I brought from the old days were songs that I’d written to an imaginary human being. Especially I Keep Having These Dreams, I really really dig that song. Songs like those, Dying Alone, Keep Having These Dreams, they’re tunes that I don’t think held any truth when I was younger, when I wrote them. They weren’t written for anybody, I hadn’t written them for anyone, especially I Keep Having These Dreams. So when she came into my life and I had this song, it kind of clicked. It’s like ‘okay, that was the reason why you wrote that at fifteen years old is because twelve years later you’re going to meet a human being, and that’s going to mean something to you.'”
“Dying Alone, that song came because she went to school under my father – he was her professor – and we met one time at my folks’ house. And I’d just gone through surgery and that stuff, and I met her and I went back to my apartment, and it was hard because I was with somebody else at the time, and sitting on my front porch writing this tune about somebody else felt really really strange. But I had such a draw to her from that very first moment – I know it sounds cliched and Shakespearean and bullshit – but it really did happen that way. And I felt like a creep. I remember finishing that song thinking that’s really weird, you shouldn’t write a song like that – like I don’t want to die without you, basically – for a stranger. But fuckin’ a, man, we got married and I’m not a creep anymore.”
The odd thing about his relationship with Ashely is of course the open and public nature of it. She is the lady in the photos on his album cover, she plays in his band, she is the open subject of many of the songs on his album, if not originally, by the process of reinterpretation and re-imagining of older material. He is more open in his songs than almost anyone I can think of, and now his wife is included in this unguarded exposition. It comes with the territory to a large degree – given the nature of his songs, she knew that in marrying him she must in some way be offering her own privacy up to his audience in the same way that Hinson himself does. Marry someone whose life is out in the open and, suddenly, so is yours.
“I prefer it that way, as to being a different person. I’d hate if he was taking pictures of somebody else, I’d much rather it be me. I mean it’s still his songs and his project and his pictures and things like that.” she explains, “I don’t know how that would not be true for anyone marrying a musician.”
Hinson himself explains her involvement with a near-evangelical fervour:
“We have an amazing friend and he was with his girlfriend for five years and she called herself the tour widow. The guy was out on tour so much that what was the point of the relationship, and they split up. It’s a rough time, fucking five years, that’s not a short amount of time when you’re giving your soul to another person. I guess we have a very good understanding of the fact that we’re follow my dreams. You know, she has her own aspirations, she’s a very smart individual, she has her own things she wants to accomplish and I want to utilise the music and be able to take the time off that she can do what she needs to do, and for right now it’s imperative that we are together. It’s imperative.”
It may be a kind of open window into his personal life, but then even during the interview you can start to see how, for Micah at least, that kind of openness is possible. People put their wall, the point at which they demand privacy, in different places. He puts his quite low. He’s open and incredibly forthcoming, but the wall is still there in evidence, it’s just much further back than most people. Micah is experienced in giving interviews, he writes incredibly emotionally revealing songs, and yet his barrier is still evident when you talk to him.
It’s an odd juxtaposition because he gives a more passionate, revealing and informative interview than I could have hoped for.
“I would say I write pop music, to a certain degree. I think I have some songs that are very poppy, like We Don’t Have to be Lonesome, that’s just pop from a different era, pop form an era that actually meant something. Pop music now, like the Beyonces, and I guess Britney Spears, nobody gives a shit about her anymore, but a lot of those people they don’t do anything. All they are is an ugly face that is put on the front of a song that somebody else has written.
“And you look at people like that and you look at people like Patsy Cline, and yeah, she didn’t write her own songs, but she fucking meant it and you can hear that she meant it. I think that’s beautiful that you can take somebody else’s tune and make it sound so goddamn believable, it makes me ill listening to some of that stuff because it’s so fucking good. And I think that’s something that modern pop music has lost a little bit. We’re not talking about things that matter. We’re not talking about unrequited love, we’re talking about finger-banging and getting with chicks and ‘I’m going to do you in the club and you’re greasy’ and all this crap. I think that’s really sad, and I don’t listen to that shit, but I think it’s very disgraceful. I think music is much more holy than that.”
It’s another completely frank statement, full of sincerity and full of openness and yet still guarded in a slightly enigmatic way. Perhaps the last couple of questions in the interview, as per the last couple of songs in his set, bring us a little closer to something of an unguarded truth. And it’s one of the reasons I am glad I interviewed Micah P. Hinson. He was guarded, but never mean. He was open and talkative and he gave a lot. He wasn’t incautious, but neither was he insincere. Maybe one of the provisos for exposing so much of your inner life to the public is being more careful about not breaching the walls you do have.
But if I were to pinpoint the moment in the interview and the moment in his performance at which he allows us just a little glimpse into something about his life where he allows the control to slip just slightly it is right at the end, where he sings This Old Guitar by John Denver*. Your Dad is a sensitive subject for anyone, but when Micah starts talking about it a lot of the old protections seem to be a little relaxed. They may not be, but that’s the way it seems. He’s a cautious man, a sincere man, a generous interviewee and one of the best musicians I have ever had the pleasure of hearing.
“This Old Guitar by John Denver, almost every night I play that. And the main point of that, I always tell people as well, that the main point of that song isn’t for those people, it’s for my father. If people know anything about me, about my sordid past and stuff, I clearly didn’t get on very well with my father. I think we were so close it kind of tore us apart at times, and the only thing that was solid in that relationship from a very young age was always John Denver. I could hate my father, but if he picked up a guitar I’d get mine and we’d play some songs. Then I’d put down my guitar and flip him off and walk off, and there’s always been something special about that. Even though I’ve been a complete jackass through much of my life he’s always supported me.”
Micah P. Hinson – For Your Eyes
Micah P. Hinson – I Keep Havin’ These Dreams
Micah P. Hinson – Patience
John Denver – This Old Guitar
*He didn’t sing this at End of the Road, but it’s a regular set closer.More: end of the road, john denver, micah p hinson