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Photo by Christie Greyerbiehl
After an eight-year hiatus, Hayden Desser’s returned with his ninth full-length album, Are We Good, featuring collaborations with The National’s Matt Berninger and Aaron Dessner, Feist, and Big Thief’s James Krivchenia.
In this conversation with the Canadian singer-songwriter, we dig into the making of the new album, discuss songs that take you back to a certain place and time, the importance of album sequencing, and a charity that is near and dear to Hayden’s heart.
It’s been a few years since you’ve released anything. Is there anything that held you back?
HAYDEN: It’s been a bit of a perfect storm. I’ve had young children, one of my kids has special needs and it’s a whole other level of care, concentration and time, both physically and mentally. I never stopped creating and writing songs and going up to the studio and accumulating material. But, the desire to put it out in today’s world, I kind of lost the desire to do that. When I see something online that says, “Check out the 1,000 songs released today” or “The 500 best songs released this week,” it’s hard to imagine putting yourself out into that world. My problem is I take so long between records anyway, the world always changes between records for me. I’m always playing catch up and learning how you release a record every time. It’s always a new situation to get used to. This time, it’s even crazier.
You’ve been releasing music since the mid-90s, just before the internet really started taking off. Music fans had to put in more work to discover new artists, you couldn’t hop online and pull up a song in 2 seconds. And, if you wanted to know who was playing at a club, you either had to go to the club and look at the calendar they might have hanging up on the wall or you had to read the ads in the local alt-weekly. With so much music at our fingertips these days, it feels like music has become a bit disposable.
HAYDEN: It does feel that way. It’s paradoxical in many ways. Back in the day, you needed to have a whole team behind you and you had to have a label and you had to have a budget to make a record. All those things are gone, in many ways. I guess if you’re an extremely talented young person and you come up with something truly original, ideally it’ll rise above the thousand new songs a day. Honestly, it’s very confusing to me. I would hate to be just starting out now. I know some younger artists who are incredible and I truly believe that if they had released their records 20 years ago, they would be doing extremely well right now and found an audience. They just haven’t.
The song “On the Beach” is getting a lot of attention on various websites and through social media posts. Are you noticing this as well?
HAYDEN: I don’t know. Maybe. The problem with me is that the whole act of putting stuff out is not healthy for me. Whether things are going well or things are not going well, whether people are noticing things or whether I’m being ignored, none of that information helps me write new songs. Everything is a distraction. It’s difficult because I’m on this teeter-totter of needing a certain amount of support to continue doing this as a career and having the focus to be doing what I want to do in the way I want to do it. I don’t want to have to pay attention to certain things and I never used to have to at all. Now, I do. I’m trying to find the balance of it not affecting me to the point where I’m like, “Oh wow, I didn’t play guitar for a week because I was putting out little videos on Instagram because I want to have a career still.” I’m trying to find my way right now.
Time seems to fly. You’ve been doing this for almost 30 years.
HAYDEN: I have been doing it for 30 years because my first cassette came out at the end of ’93, early ’94.
Not many people last in the same job for 30 years. If you decided to give it all up today, you’ve got a lot of great accomplishments that you could look back on and consider your career a success.
HAYDEN: Some days it feels like an accomplishment. I definitely think because of my personality, my lack of success in many ways, is way I have nine albums that I’m really proud of and also why I’m not in trouble as a person.
You received a lot of press at the very start of your career and I would guess you may have felt like there were a lot of expectations to live up to by signing a major label deal.
HAYDEN: Probably when I was working on my second record for Outpost/Geffen, I felt some pressure and it was a bit overwhelming to me. Even though I liked the record that came out of it, it was an extremely difficult record to finish and to put my personal stamp on in the end. I was constantly pushing back and making it my own and remixing and doing this and that to make it feel like it was mine the way my first record and EP were. That being said, the pressure I had was nothing compared to some other artists because I also had this deal where I had almost completely creative control and the fellows at the label didn’t really badger me. If I was a pop artist or didn’t have as much creative control, I would have just lost my mind.
I was wondering if moving from a major label to an indie like Arts & Craft gave you some freedom but it sounds like you had that even while at Outpost/Geffen.
HAYDEN: Yeah, I forced that and it just came from how I started with a 4-track and learning how to record and write songs. My first album is someone learning how to do something. It’s like evidence. I felt like I had to continue that way because that’s how I started.
Do you feel like, at this point in your career, you’ve settled into a groove or do you think there’s still things you could learn?
HAYDEN: There’s always stuff to learn. I’m not the most adventurous person. There is a balance in knowing your limitations and knowing what you’re good at and also striving to do new things. I like to think I strike that balance. If I look back at the songwriting and the song structures and the style of songs and the instrumentation and the playing and the singing, I do feel like I’ve come a long way and learned a lot. It’s probably quite subtle to the outside ear but I hear it. For instance, on this new record. there’s a lot of changes and song structures and bridges and things like that that when I came up with them, I was like, “Oh, I haven’t done that before. I like that.” I feel good about things like that.
Did you do more collaborating on this album than you have in the past?
HAYDEN: I would say the most collaboration before this one was that difficult one, The Closer I Get, and there are some similarities to that record with this one. The only other one was a record called The Place Where We Lived which I worked with a friend/producer of mine named Howie Beck. He co-produced the whole thing and we did the whole thing in a few weeks in his home studio. That was an easier one to make. This one has a relative amount of collaboration. The biggest change in the last few years was, for the first time, me co-writing songs. That’s something I have never done. I snuck one in with Steve Buscemi by stealing words from his script of Trees Lounge but that was unwilling co-writing. Apart from a song I released in 2021, where the lyrics were based on a novelist friend of mine, these Matt Berninger songs are a new thing for me.
How did that relationship with Matt and The National start?
HAYDEN: My relationship with them began when this fellow named Brandon Reid, who used to come see me play in Philadelphia back in the late ’90s, early 2000’s, he was the house sound guy at The Khyber. His story is that he was the sound guy there and The National came through town. He did such a good job that he became their front of house guy and then eventually became their manager. When Boxer was first released, he called me and said, “We’re playing the Opera House in Toronto. I’m with this band called The National. You should come down.” I hadn’t heard of them yet even though Boxer had been out for a while. I went there and saw the show, loved it, went backstage and I think 2 months later I was in Europe opening for them. I think that Matt, Aaron and, maybe, Bryce had been really into that album, The Closer I Get. They knew me. That became my friendship with all of them, they are all awesome dudes.
I like to ask artists if there is a song, album or artist that, when you hear, takes you back to a very specific time in your life. Your song “Terry Cloth Blue (Every Single Thing)” seems to answer that. The song titles “Save a Prayer” and “Careless Whisper” are part of the lyrics of those songs. Are those songs that, when you hear, take you back to the memories you’re singing about in that song?
HAYDEN: Yeah, that’s very specific to that crush that I had when I was 14. Do you remember the song “Axel F”? That was the first song I learned to play from ear, do the part on the piano. And “Careless Whisper,” I did learn on the saxophone at school. I didn’t really pay attention to learning notes or theory or anything, my first thing was just to take things off the radio. I remember teaching myself that sax solo from “Careless Whisper.” There are songs that over the years take me back to certain times. There’s a Cat Stevens song called “Father and Son” and that takes me back to going to my friend Keith’s cottage in northern Ontario in the summer and us playing guitar on his dock. Or “Powderfinger” by Neil Young takes me back to that time. For sure, there are several songs that bring back memories. It’s incredible how strong they can be.
Would you say Are We Good tells a complete story with each song being a chapter or is each song you write a complete story within itself?
HAYDEN: It’s song by song but because they’re coming from me, they always have inter-related themes and I can usually make a record out of them. Even the songs that Matt and I wrote, they were similar in several ways. When he writes certain lyrics, I’m like, “Yep. I agree. That fits.” That’s never an issue either. But, I’m a big album person still. This one in particular, I probably went through a year of different sequences, rearranging songs, adding songs, taking them away. It helped me stay fit because I was running at the time and I would listen to my sequences during my runs and that would help me but then I would change my mind. The back and forth and struggle to finish this one was next level.
Is there a particular song that is completely different in the final sequence than from where you had originally thought it might go?
HAYDEN: There were drastic changes because in the end I was so lost and had tried so many sequences that I reached out to Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene, who I had heard through the rumor mill was good at sequencing records, and I was like, “Kevin, man, listen to these songs a few times. If you come up with an order, that would be awesome.” He got really into it and he came up with the sequence that is on the record. The most radical thing he did was moving “East Coast” from the last song and he made it the first song. To me, that was a real, “Whoa,” moment because I had always pictured it as the way to drift away. The last song is something I think about a lot. He just had his way with it and I was like, “Okay. This is probably what I need.”
So you’re at peace with the final sequence of songs?
HAYDEN: I don’t know (laughs). I remember liking what he did but at that point, honestly, I was just hands up in the air because at that point I had probably had thousands of listens to my songs. We’re talking about a six year period. Think about that, six years to whittle down 11 songs. It’s incredible that I’m not in an unhealthier state right now.
Is it weird to be talking about songs that are six years old?
HAYDEN: Yeah, some of them. My joke is that Obama was still President when I started working on this record. Think about that. A lot has changed. It’s weird but there’s also some songs that are way more recent and those songs are the ones that made me finally think I had a record that would be my next record.
Is there a particular lyric that, after you wrote, you were particularly proud of and that you hoped people might catch when listening to the album?
HAYDEN: I think as I was writing some of them, I was proud but I can’t recall which ones. I labor over lyrics so there would have been a few that I was excited about but I’m honestly more of a music guy. I have those sort of physical, mental reactions to coming up with a melody over a chord progression. Those are the moments where I come up with something and I’m happy four days after, holding on to that feeling. Those are the ones I go after. I’ve never been a journal writer. I don’t often write down thoughts. The music comes easier to me. It’s not because I don’t take lyrics seriously, music is just more fun.
I did want to ask you about the lyric “Drinking income taxes” from “On the Beach.” Is that a line that just sounded good in the song or is there something that I’m missing about drinking income taxes?
HAYDEN: (laughs) Well, when you do your taxes, if you make a certain amount of money or not a lot of money, you’ll get an income tax return. So, every year, because my wife and I are artists, and we bill things in a certain way, we get pretty good checks after income tax. We don’t really pay income taxes. That lyric is us just celebrating the tax year. But, also, an income tax is a classic cocktail as well. I don’t recommend trying it. That being said, that particular song was written in a workshop situation where I had to write a song a day for seven days and I wrote that song very quickly. It was one of the rare songs these days where I wrote most of the lyrics as I was writing the music. That line just happened. I had to make sense of it after I sang it.
Do you do that a lot, throwing down a lyric and then going back and changing them?
HAYDEN: I would say a lot of the time, we always call them yogurt vocals or, a more common term is a scratch vocal. Because I can’t really write a song without having a vocal melody over it, the first few times I’m laying it down, I’m singing the sounds of words over the music and a lot of the time there will be something in there and that will end up being in the song. Not always, but sometimes there’s something in there.
It’s been eight years since your last album. Did you write enough songs for this album that you might already have a start on the next album?
HAYDEN: It’s possible. I always think that with the leftovers. That being said, they’re not really leftovers because the songs aren’t as good in my opinion. Either they didn’t fit on the record or I didn’t finish the words the way I wanted to or the recording wasn’t perfect in my mind. There’s several songs now waiting around. What happens usually is when it would come time for me to make new music, going back and repairing things is way less interesting than starting from scratch. That’s something I worry about.
Do you think you’ll do any touring in the U.S. for this album?
HAYDEN: I’m applying for a visa that will allow me to play in the U.S. for about 3 years and I think it’s going to cost me $5,000. There are some annoying things like that but I hope to come and do some bigger market shows in the U.S.
Can you tell me about the Dream Serenade event that you and your wife organized?
HAYDEN: We’re going to be doing our 8th or 9th annual event in October. It’ll be at Massey Hall. It’s a benefit concert for children with exceptionalities, inspired by our daughter and her school and her caregivers and parents of children with physical and/or developmental disabilities. It’s one of the good things that my wife and I every year, the best thing.
For more info about Dream Serenade, visit dreamserenade.ca
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