Rolling Stone Online: John Hiatt Interview

By Mary Huhn

John Hiatt, born in Indianapolis, Ind., in 1952, just released "Walk On," on Capitol Records, the first for that label after breaking his ties with A&M. In fact, Hiatt recorded "Walk On" without a label. Hiatt also wrote all the songs for "Walk On" on the road during his "Perfectly Good Guitar" tour in 1993-1994.

ROLLING STONE ONLINE: You never wrote songs on the road before?

JOHN HIATT: Every once in a while, I'd tear one off, but not with this regularity. The songwriting angel visited me and stayed with me over this tour. It was really nice.

RSO: What usually happens on tours?

JH: Well, all the same stuff, except I don't write all these songs. That's really about it. Most of your day is spoken for. In a way that's good and, in a way that's bad. After a while you start to feel like a baby from another planet. So it can be a little odd. I started writing these songs just to have a little break. And you know, I deserve a break today.

RSO: When you got home did you realize this collection would have this longing feel to them --hellos, goodbyes and all that.

JH: No, it just came out that way. As a writer you try to write about what you know at the time. That seems to be what was going on at the time. On the road your reality doesn't resemble what you might think reality really is. It gets a little skewed. You're so focused on doing these shows you tend to sacrifice a lot of yourself for those two hours. It's well worth it because you get plenty back, don't misunderstand me, but you do aim your whole day towards that two hours on the plank. And what you're going for up there is communication and magic and it's the opportunity to get out of yourself, which I feel is like a privilege. But the rest of the day can be problematic -- What am I going to eat? Why am I going to eat. Where I am going to eat? Why am I thinking about eating so much?

My day is full of press and travel. I might get a couple hours to myself plus the six or so you get to sleep. It's pretty well claimed. Of course we want more time all the time, but when we get a day off we don't know what to do with it, except be exhausted.

RSO: So how do you find time to miss home and have all these thoughts of longing.

JH: [laughs] You only have to be alone with your brain, your guts, for a minute to feel like "Oh, [sniff, sniff] , I want to go home.'

RSO: And your family is back there.

JH: We're in contact all the time of course. It's just a tricky balance and we get through it. Hell, I just felt these were legit feelings and they just came out in the songs. Musically these songs offered a contrast to the music we were making on the "Perfectly Good Guitar" tour. And contrasts are most welcome during the touring life, cause the touring life can take on a shade of gray after a while.

RSO: And the "Perfectly Good Guitar" tour was hard rock, kick-ass rock & roll.

JH: Yeah we'd get up, turn up and go for it every night. These new songs have more of a back porch kind of vibe.

RSO: "Walk On" seems to be a return to pre-"Perfectly Good Guitar" and "Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan?" records.

JH: I don't tend to steer a song in one direction on another. They tend to steer us. When we got together to make the record, even though I had these sort of woody, back porch, kind of hearth and home, mom's on the dulcimer, grandma's on the pump organ, kind of songs, we were set to go into the studio with the Guilty Dogs, the band I had out on "Perfectly Good Guitar." However, the guitar player quit two weeks before we were ready to record. So we scurried about and found Dave Immergluck [formerly of Camper Van Beethoven & Counting Crows], who came in with pedal steels and mandolins all this stuff. So this was not a plan. But it turns out, of course, it suited the songs. So maybe there's somebody or some power looking out for us.

RSO: Have you worked with any of the members of Little Village [Nick Lowe, Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner] since you ended that tour?

JH: Uhhh, no. We're kind of trying to get something together toward the end of 1996, if nobody has a stroke between now and then.

RSO: What did you learn from the Little Village project?

JH: I learned I'm hard to work with and great bands don't grow on trees, and the music is to be protected and guarded and respected at all costs, because magic bands don't happen every day. You have to honor and respect the integrity of a group like that.

RSO: Are you still hard to work with?

JH: I wouldn't be the one to ask would I?

RSO: Well you figured out you were hard to work with before.

JH: I don't like living with myself a lot of the time. I'm scared from the get-go. I think I've lightened up quite a bit. I don't mind challenging people. Part of why we're on this planet is to not only do our best but to challenge others to do their best. I think that's part of the brother's keeper philosopher if you will. If we are brother's keeper, it's not to take care of them but to help them help themselves. But even that sometimes it's hard. Sometimes I don't challenge people I just tell try and tell them what the hell to do which is not terribly affective. People tend to chafe at the kind of approach. So you have to balance it out.

RSO: Who are some of today's songwriters that you admire today?

JH: The guy who writes for Son Volt [Jay Farrar], a young Canadian fellow named Ron Sexsmith...

RSO: I'd like to know the derivation of that name...

JH: I don't know, it would seem to be Anglican, but a pretty swinging Anglican, which brings me to PJ Harvey, I like her, she's the Anglican blues that's what I call her music. I like Liz Phair.

RSO: Do you get to see many performances?

JH: I don't get to see many shows. In New York I went to see Page and Plant. I was pretty jazzed up about that. I thought Jimmy Page -- the guy's still playing. I know everyone's elevated Eric Clapton to a sort of God-like status. But for my money, Jimmy Page is still out there shredding. He's still out there on the edge. I think Eric tends to play it safe. But I listen at home. I got one of those 10-disc changers in my truck and about once a month I go to Tower and just peruse the new releases and I like to buy them cause I like the way the cover looks, you know what I mean? I'm just fan really.

RSO: What was it like to have the freedom of recording your record without a label.

JH: It was great. I'm not casting any dispersions on record labels, it's my psychic makeup. I just wasn't thinking in terms of "my next record." I was more motivated by the body of work and the musicians I had together -- in other words by the music. It kept my focus clear and my priorities straight. I recommend it. In fact Tim Devine, my A&R guy who signed me at Capitol, he said, "You realize I have to drop you after this record so you can make another good one." I said "that's fine, but just remember I'm a free agent."

RSO: You're going to have to have one bitter fight.

JH: I'm sure we can work that one out.

RSO: Tell me about your background in writing.

JH: I started to write songs when I was 11 years old when I picked up a guitar. I was totally driven in that direction. While my buddies were up learning Jimi Hendrix solos, I was sitting up in my room writing songs, I've been off and running ever since.

RSO: Did you pick up other writers?

JH: My early writer influences were pretty much song writers. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen were my two favorites initially. I locked myself in my room for a year and listened to "Visions of Johanna" over and over. My sisters told me later they were quite concerned about my mental health. Something about the feeling of it just nailed me. That's where I started picking it up.

RSO: Did you reach back also?

JH: I started to -- vis a vis the folk gods. Mississippi John Hurt was a big influence on me-- that country blues that kind of informs my stuff to some small degree. Taj Mahal. There was so much cool stuff going on there in the early mid sixties. Through the English groups, oddly enough, such as the Yardbirds, I started to get into more electric blues, Muddy Waters, the Chicago stuff. I also loved Mitch Ryder and the pop rock records of the day.

RSO: Was this all in Indiana?

JH: Yeah. I moved to Tennessee when I was 18. I became a staff songwriter for a publishing company for $25 a week that was effectively the beginning of my professional career. I haven't had a regular job since. I've been one of those musician guys.

RSO: And doing it okay.

JH: I've learned a whole lot. I've been very slow developing. I don't think that's a bad thing, sitting here at 43 and thinking I've got my best stuff in front of me rather than behind me. It's a nice feeling.

RSO: What do you think is ahead of you?

JH: God only knows.

Copyright 1995 by Rolling Stone Online
with permission from Mary Huhn & Rolling Stone Online

Thanks to Marc Zolot <> for securing permissions and contributing this to the SOR Archives.

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