[Continued from Part 1]
JH: Well, what did you want to talk about with Mexican Blue?
GT: I’ve been trying to figure out this album of yours for years.
JH: Whoa, what have you been trying to figure out?
GT: I’ve been trying to figure out why it has just wrapped around me. It feels like such a mythic record as a whole. And I’ve never heard anything else like it, and even you have evolved from it and created some wonderful work after. The reason specifically with Mexican Blue, it actually helped me write a script a couple years back. I had been working on this piece for a long time and I was trying to figure out the rhythm of the emotion and I remember for some reason while I was writing the script I put that record on and the record itself was really working for writing and then it got to Mexican Blue and it was like, well, this is what this whole film was about, in some strange way or another. So the whole album has acted like magic to me and it’s become this thing that I keep turning to time and again trying to figure out what that is, and I’m certainly not asking you to resolve that.
JH: There’s a lot of different pieces of art that work that way for me. The Master and Margarita has been a really big inspiration over many years. To the point where I haven’t even read it in years and it still comes out in my work. My connection with that piece of literature is still totally present. But there are new things coming out now. It’s interesting, I feel some things I’ve been totally fascinated with for like ten years are only now being visibly imprinted in my work.
GT: Like what?
JH: I was really obsessed with the Georgia Sea Island Singers. Do you know them?
GT: I don’t know them.
JH: They are…do you know who Zora Neale Hurston is?
JH: Zora really helped document their music. Some of the songs, the first time you hear them, if you don’t know the story, it just sounds like African music. And then you listen more closely and you realize they are singing in English. It’s really interesting music and especially the early recordings are more culturally isolated. I mean, they were on an island off the coast of Georgia. And there’s this southeastern African American micro-culture of people whose ancestors were from Sierra Leone, or that area, which is a rice-growing area. So they have a more unified cultural connection to their roots because a lot of slave populations were Pan-African and they were from a lot of different places all over the west coast of Africa. But in the rice-growing regions slaves were traded specifically because they knew all about growing rice. Historically those places were totally black. It was like being in a German town in central Texas or like being in an Irish neighborhood in New York. It was like Little Sierra Leone. And the music is straight up, the rhythms are Sierra Leonese music, but it’s in America and they are singing in English.
The other interesting thing is English was a trade language, or is a trade language in that area, so people have their tribal languages, but they use English as a market language. So when these people were brought over they spoke English already. They spoke their own version of English. The music just has a very specific drama to it and this really specific almost emotional reenactment. That kind of stuff and the type of performance, I feel that in my work now. But it also reminds me of things the Rolling Stones did as well. It’s a certain type of blues-related performance.
GT: When I kept telling people the music I was going to do for Trickery Mimicry, I was throwing out these names like Philip Glass and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and then I said it had a bit of the blues so I was throwing out, like, Charley Patton and everyone just thought, Okay, well, how is that going to work? And I said, “All I can tell you is that it will.”
GT: But it was just what was in my head. It may not make any sense and it’s not specifically one thing or another, but it works for what we’re doing.
JH: Yeah, and also, the way musicians speak about music is just so different from the way non-musicians think about music. So it’s super hard to communicate that. I’ve had a lot of trouble just talking to journalists about music. It’s just confusing. I really don’t like the term ‘folk’. It’s like an ethnographic term. It’s just kind of rude. The idea of going into the Georgia Sea Islands and saying this is your folk music, it’s just rude. “No, this is what we play.”
GT: And it’s really reductive because it doesn’t work to actually try to hear all that’s going on. It labels and says, “Well, this is what this is,” but it doesn’t really account for it.
JH: Well, yeah, and at the same time it’s not using the language of the people who came up with it. The thing is, that is arguably folk music, from a certain perspective, but just because a band has acoustic instruments, it doesn’t mean they are playing folk music. I see a lot of people, even people whose work I really adore, saying they are a folk musician and it’s confusing to me. It’s not correct. It’s not how I think about music.
GT: What were you drawing from when you did, Mexican Blue in specific, but that record? It does have a very different sound to a lot of the other stuff you’ve done, and it’s got a particular feel to it.
JH: It was made in about two weeks and to contrast it with the previous record, Escondida was made in four and a half days. So we had more time. We had more money. And it was just the batch of songs. I was thinking a lot about Willie Nelson at the time. I was really into this band Freakwater. It was almost more southern in some ways. You can hear so many influences on that; you can hear Björk. And I was also trying to entertain my band. I wrote that song Springtime Can Kill You and it was about wanting to write a song that was really interesting for the drummer to play. That kind of composition is always really interesting to me.
GT: It has this quality and energy that was so foreign to me. And I was so taken with it.
JH: Most of it was done live in the studio with everybody playing at the same time. The compositions that I did were based on my love of improvisation. It’s meticulously composed, that song Springtime, but it’s the type of composition that’s open to performance in the moment in a way that people aren’t necessarily used to hearing. Improvised music, experimental music, and some kind of jazz you expect to hear it, but songs with words with a direct emotional appeal, that the emotions are reaching out not appeal in the sense that people will like it, I just don’t think people are used to hearing improvised music in that context. So maybe that’s what feels different about it?
GT: It very well could be.
JH: I think of it as like art music.
GT: It is. It definitely is. It feels as if I’m walking this line where I am exactly where I am supposed to be with it. Even though it’s moving around me and evolves every time I hear it, whenever I’m listening to Mexican Blue you’ve got that wonderful piano and your voice and then suddenly the drums and everything kicks in right at the moment that it absolutely should. And yet you feel that openness, that it also could have not, it could have hit a beat later and it would have been a very different song suddenly.
JH: I really love to hear improvisational ensembles, really good ones. I just saw one of the best sets of music I’ve ever seen a few months ago here in town. It was Marc Ribot’s Trio. So the bass player who also plays violin, he used to play with Albert Ayler—Albert Ayler was a big influence on John Coltrane; when John Coltrane began to get more free it was due to Ayler’s influence—and Chad Taylor on the drums. It was incredible and I walked out feeling like it was a new fucking world. I think that type of commitment to performance in the present moment that is precarious and is about the ensemble, you don’t hear that in that sort of context a lot—like linear, narrator kind of songs. And we were all really committed to that.
That song Ghostly Girl, I really love all the elements of how that worked. I just wrote another song about that woman. Or, she makes an appearance on the next record. We’re going to go in and record in a few days. In some ways it’s going to be really similar to the way Springtime Can Kill You was cut. My last record was just more of a rock record than Springtime was, but it was almost entirely live where everything that could have happened at the same time happened, including the vocals, which is not traditional.
GT: Yeah, you are supposed to isolate so you can do clean cuts.
JH: Yeah. Boring.
Well, did you have any more questions? We haven’t even talked about it lyrically at all. Let’s just talk a little bit longer about it, if that’s cool.
GT: I know one of the lines that has always hit me in Mexican Blue is the line “everything’s so much better when you’re around”. And then you move onto talking about how much you love that song and that sound.
JH: In Mexican Blue I’m singing to a songwriter. I say, “I love your song, I love your sound.” By song, I didn’t mean one song—I meant her work in general, all her songs. It’s really direct. I like songs that shift perspective. One of my favorite songwriters over the last few years is Michael Hurley and I love how he does stuff like that. And Willie Nelson, Daniel Johnston, Neil Young, Tom Waits, just the way that people zero in on internal experiences and then step back and describe things from a bigger perspective or more like third person, that’s really interesting.
GT: It allows it to be autobiographical without being latched to the idea of being autobiographical.
GT: The personal of it is not hindered by the personal of it.
[Continued in Part 3]