Photo Credit: Gregg Roth
Lilly Hiatt has steadily made quite a name for herself over the last few years, gigging steadily since the release of her 2012 debut LP, Let Down. The Nashville-based songstress releases her sophomore album, Royal Blue, on Mar. 3 via Athens' Normaltown Records. Hiatt plays Hendershot’s on Friday, Feb. 6 with her band, The Dropped Ponies.
Flagpole caught up with Hiatt for a chat.
Flagpole: Your new record is quite eccentric. There is a lot of synth on it. What inspired those production decisions?
Lilly Hiatt: I was friends with [producer] Adam Landry and was familiar with his work. I knew that he did a lot of garage-rock type, raw, barebones sounding stuff, but the sound is still kind of big… My band [isn’t] country. We lean towards that because we’re in Nashville, and we’re definitely influenced by all that surrounding us, but we’re just not a country band. The most country part of my music is my voice. So, we wanted to work with something that would not forcibly take it that route, but would encourage a new direction for us. We’ve been wanting to take that for a while.
FP: In Nashville, do you feel a bit out of place with your sound? Or is Music City a comfortable fit?
LH: I do feel out of place, but not in a “woe is me” kind of way. It’s a thrill, because I’ve always felt out of place. There’s always been this cool, underground group of people [in Nashville] that have felt out of place. And now that’s starting to bubble up. It is the kind of town where anything could happen… No matter what, Nashville will always be rooted in Americana or country music. It is also a songwriting town. And that’s primarily what I am—I’m a songwriter. In that sense, I feel like I fit in.
FP: You obviously come from a songwriting lineage. Your father is on New West Records. And your new record is coming out on Normaltown. You seem to like to keep things in the family.
LH: I had known people at New West for a while, because they worked with my father, so I had personal relationships with them. When I made my first record, it wasn’t like, “Daddy pitched it to his record label!” But, I knew those folks and wanted their attention. I like their take on music—they care about music at that label. They really do. I didn’t really know where else to start, so I just thought that I’d get in their face until they paid attention to me. And they did. It’s cool how it all came around.
FP: You’ve played Athens a fair amount. What are your feelings about Athens in comparison to Nashville?
LH: I love Athens. The way I describe Athens is that it’s the equivalent of a Xanax. It’s laid back. It’s small. There’s something that really fascinates me about Athens. I guess towns lean more toward what they’re rooted in. You had all that cool, weird music come out of there. It’s this unique thing. There isn’t a town like it. It’s stuck in Georgia in the Bible Belt. But it’s got this super-quirky, off-the-wall thing…
But, I’ve played there a bunch… and it seems like it’s hard to root yourself in Athens. There’s a pretty close-to-home scene there. I guess that’s how it goes in musical towns. It’s not that everyone’s jaded, it’s just that everyone’s like, “OK, what do ya got? You have to really wow me, because I’m immersed in this constantly.” It’s a good thing for a musician. It’s really important to think, “I’ve really got to work this crowd.”
FP: Do you feel like it takes audiences some time to get what you’re after?
LH: That’s what we’re working on right now. As a band, we’ve only had a few shows. I’ve been playing mostly solo… So, we’re sinking our teeth into, “How do we capture the essence of this record live?” As a five-piece band, we have everything that we need, except we don’t have a synth player… Adam, the producer, [found one for the record]. We’ll have him for our record release. But for touring, we can’t take six people out. I don’t have shit for money.
But that’s exciting, too, because it’s a whole new challenge. If you’re clever about things, you can figure it out. It is important. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot. It’s important to capture that when we tour. With the five-piece that we have, the pedal steel can compensate for the lack of the synth, atmospherically. So far, the new stuff sounds pretty cool, and pretty close to how we recorded it, which is the goal.
FP: You seem to be addressing a larger change in the music industry: Money isn’t being thrown around as freely, and artists are forced to make pragmatic decisions. Is that a blessing or a curse?
LH: I think [it's] both. There’s not the same kind of money to be had, and we all know that… Everyone and their brother wants to tour and have a band now. It didn’t used to be that way. The competition is high… But, I also think, amidst all of that going on, there’s so much mediocrity… If you’re clever, if you’re talented, and you’re determined and have thick skin, you can really shine. There’s a whole do-it-yourself element now where it’s all in your hands. No one gives a shit, really.
If you’re clever, if you’re talented, and you’re determined and have thick skin, you can really shine. There’s a whole do-it-yourself element now where it’s all in your hands.
I mean, they do. A lot of people help me. I love my label. I’m just saying, it’s up to you. So, that’s a bit liberating. I don’t think the output these days is as [good]. It’s quantity, not quality. When you hear something inspiring, even if it’s not your cup of tea, that’s really cool… I think of my dad going out and doing this when he just started out. He had to be smart about it. He couldn’t take all of the pro guys that he used on his record out with him. Lucky for me, I have some band members that need to make a living, but they love playing music. We aren’t in our early 20s, but they want to get out there and play, so they’ll do it for a budget price.
FP: At the same time, you have artists like Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson going back to their roots and gaining a lot of steam. Does putting out a boundary-pushing country record give you any anxiety?
LH: I’m glad you brought up Sturgill, because that’s another case where I am excited to see that happening. Now, we’re in a time where it’s more acceptable to be more honest in your art. That used to be the case, and it’s coming back around. For me, personally, it’s not like I had some formula to say, “Oh, it’s safe now to say what I want!” That’s how I’ve always done it. It just so happens that in the past year, I’ve gained a little more confidence in what I’m trying to say.
I’m not saying, “Oh, my record’s going to do great!” But that kind of [songwriting] is becoming more appropriate and encouraged. Hopefully people dig it. I’ve been writing songs about raw shit for a while, so hopefully someone will care [laughs]. I have a lot of hope. I keep my expectations relatively low, and it seems to work out well that way.