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Interview: Micah P. Hinson

2 January 2023

Photo by Natalia Andreoli

After a lengthy recording career that started in the early ‘00s when he was in his early 20s, Micah P. Hinson felt the unsettling stir of discontent while recording 2017’s The Holy Strangers. And following the release of 2019’s The Musicians of the Apocalypse, which was a long-and-strenuous affair, the indie-folk singer/songwriter gave serious consideration to walking away from music for good. With his marriage coming to an end, a crumbling relationship with his label, and a global pandemic turning the world upside down, Hinson was in a dark place when producer Alessandro “Asso” Stefana (PJ Harvey, Mike Patton) came to the rescue.

With a different approach to writing songs (singing about today rather than yesterday), a budding new relationship, a label that is interested in helping him move forward, and a move to Spain, Hinson’s considering his latest album, I Lie to You, the final assignment from the university of life. It may have taken a while to get to this point, but Hinson is anxious about graduating to the next stage of his songwriting career and, during the course of this nearly 2-hour interview, says that he’s never been more productive in his career.

The bio for your new album, written by Big Takeover writer Katherine Yeske Taylor, says you were close to walking away. Walking away in what sense?

MICAH: As I was getting through The Holy Strangers and trying to get onto The Musicians of the Apocalypse, I wasn’t getting support from my label, there was a lack of support from my family at the time, maybe even a lack of support from myself. Since I was a little teenager, it was always quite easy to write and record songs. Once I got to that level, I felt like I couldn’t find anything to say, especially with the type of stuff I had written about – relationships and hard times. I couldn’t translate that into anything productive or anything new. I was contemplating getting a job with the Chickasaw nation. I’m a Chickasaw so I was thinking, of course, the casino or something like that or trying to teach kids about music but you have to have a degree. At that time, I was really struggling with my label. I was really struggling with my booking agent who was in England, I was really struggling with my mental health with some health stuff that I had. I had a doctor-induced serious, serious, serious drug habit. A lot of things were coming together where I felt like I could be done. That was a hard thing to do because thinking about quitting, I could just see this vision of a swinging noose in my garage and that shows that I take what I create very, very seriously and it’s very tied into my life. I’ve always said that I’m not here to entertain anybody, which might not be the nicest thing, especially when people are paying money to watch me play, but I felt like I came from a different place where entertaining wasn’t as important as sharing who I was. It got to the point where it didn’t seem like there was anything left. It seemed like a thing to hang up the boots.

Through all that, it came together quite strangely. In the midst of all this, I met this guy, [Alessandro] Asso (Stefana), who ended up producing this record. He was highly motivated to help me in whatever way. And then the plague kicked off. In the midst of this depression and the stuff I’m feeling and working two day jobs and struggling to get by, I had this man halfway across the world getting ahold of the label and working with my stuff and putting this whole effort behind it. Without that, I wouldn’t be on the label I am, I wouldn’t be talking to you, the record wouldn’t be out. It all came together quite nice.

Do you think the pandemic happening and turning 40 around the same time had any influence on wanting to walk away?

MICAH: It would have been pre-pandemic. When I really started contemplating about it, it would have been 2017. The feelings I was feeling with my music, I guess it didn’t hit me really hard until The Holy Strangers album because initially that was supposed to be nearly 2-hours long, 28 songs. It was supposed to be a folk opera, it was supposed to be something heavy and long. I turned it in to the label and they said, “No. You need to make it a little less than half the length.” They were clearly not very supportive of that and that was strange to me because we’re not living in times where records mean as much as they did. If we’re going to put it on vinyl, maybe we’ll just put a selection of the songs on the vinyl. Online, it doesn’t matter if it’s 3 hours or 3 minutes, it has the potential of doing the same thing. It was disheartening to be told that the label wasn’t behind this thing that I had struggled with creating. I had even written a book to go with it. That’s when things started getting weird and heavy for me. I went on the road for it. I couldn’t remember the lyrics, I was having to write them and sing them from a music book. That lack of attention, that lack of feeling compelled to want to share all this stuff and this record, I thought I was lazy but in the end I think it might of been me showing my weakness.

That followed into The Musicians of the Apocalypse and I didn’t feel like the label I was on cared. It just seemed like, “Oh, he’s got a name. He’s been doing this for almost 20 years so we’re going to release it.” That’s okay but it’s always important, no matter what job you have, that you feel like somebody is behind you, encouraging what you’re doing and appreciates what you’re doing whether you’re working at Little Caesars or working at making songs that are trying to make a difference to other people and yourself.

As much as I love being able to stream music, there’s nothing like holding something physical. It’s the same way with Big Takeover. I love holding the magazine in my hands though I do a lot more interviews for the website.

MICAH: I miss the physical aspect of a lot of things. Speaking of print, I knew that Uncut magazine was going to review the new one and I was all excited. If I was in Texas, I would have gone, I would have found it, I would have opened it up. But, thank God, that morning I didn’t. I just found it on the internet and they did not like the record at all. It was really strange. It was like, “It seems like Micah just collected some old songs and then put some covers and ‘threw it out the door.’” I was like, “Holy shit, why did you even put that in print?”

Those days of going to the bookstore and opening up Mojo and opening up Uncut or NME and being like, “Look what they’re saying,” now, it’s a weird thing because if I had gone there and read that, I would have been destroyed or my feelings would have been hurt. Now, it’s like, “Eh, it’s just a print magazine. Who reads print any more?” (laughs) It’s so strange how I came in almost 20 years ago where all of this hadn’t happened yet. It’s been a fascinating learning experience and I haven’t learned very well. When I look back, when I was at SXSW in Texas, I should have listened to the people speaking about internet music and heard about streaming and the way things have changed but, no, I was like, “People are going to like physical music and nothing is going to change.” Clearly, I was wrong.

Are the songs that are on I Lie to You castaways that never fit on other albums or are they song that weren’t quite ready or finished until now?

MICAH: There were songs that I always really liked but they were never able to find a home on my records. The idea of reworking old songs, that’s been a big mainstay of my albums. The majority of my albums, there would be new songs, there would be intermediate songs, and there would be old teenager songs and they would go through a different development of finishing. To use older songs on this one is part of what I’ve always done. I wouldn’t say that I went back and reworked songs, I just took the songs that were already there and I put a bigger backbone to them.

I used to have a really big problem where I’d sit down, I’d write a guitar part, if lyrics didn’t come at that same time, that would probably be a guitar part that would never had vocals on it. Or, if I sat down and had guitar and worked out the vocals, that was probably going to stick like that. I’ve never been one to go back and give the songs room to breath. If I didn’t come up with it very, very fast and it didn’t sound a certain way, there wasn’t anything I could do. I would leave and never come back to it. But, now, I can have an opening. “Okay, that sounds rad.” Then I can work on it. “Where’s this going to go?” Then I can write some lyrics, or maybe I’ll scrap those and do something else. That feeling of being able to work on stuff is a very new concept to me and this would be the first record that I was able to do more of that. “Ignore the Days” is like that, it wasn’t stuck in concrete in the first 10 minutes.

I’m tired of singing about dead people and dead things. I didn’t realize how impactful that was on my life. If I’m singing or writing from ways that I used to feel, there’s no way to push towards anything new or learning anything new about myself. Luckily I figured out that that wasn’t healthy for me in the songwriting or in my mental state either. I don’t think I would have come to this point with my songwriting if I hadn’t come to whatever point I had come to in my life. I think if I had kept my life the same, I don’t think I would have been able to see the light to progress beyond that. Maybe, in some ways, I could have come to this realization years ago if I had made different decisions but I’m glad that it came exactly when it needed to.

I feel that, in some ways, everything I’ve done up to this point was just me practicing. I had to spend a lot of years in my own university, I suppose. That ties in with me wanting to quit. At the time, I thought it was the end point. But looking at the reality, hopefully that’s just the beginning for me. It feels that way. I have another record demoed and then another record demoed. I have a ridiculous amount of work waiting and ready to go.

Making the pivot from writing about the past to writing about the present, is it still comfortable for you to write music or is it uncomfortable and a challenge because it’s all new?

MICAH: I find it easy. There’s not a struggle in the idea of knowing that I can write like this so let’s just stick with that. The new roads that I’ve gone down, it feels very comfortable and very freeing. Luckily it didn’t hit me like I need to learn to do things in a new way because that’s going to benefit me, now how do I figure out how to do that? I had already sharpened my knives to be able to move on.

Going back to the idea of you almost walking away from the music business, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into the word “quit”. It’s often associated with something negative like quitting a job. But, I’ve found that quitting something can actually yield positive results. Quitting bad habits like drinking or social media, for instance, can lead to better mental health. Have you quit anything that has resulted in something positive for you?

MICAH: Wow. What a really good question. Coming to that point where I was going to quit, where I felt like it was time, I think I had forgotten what it meant to me to write and how important it was for me. It had turned into this thing where writing filled up records, and records was a thing that got sold. It had changed into a job. I had lost track of my purpose and, with that, it took being able to realize that I was okay with being able to give that up. I guess I shed all those things that had made it miserable to me and had gotten back to the point, and the point was writing about my present life and how I felt about that life, maybe what I wanted to do about it, maybe what I didn’t want to do about it. You really threw my mind for a bit of a loop there.

I had seen, and accepted, the death of something important to me, and upon reaching that, and the desolation of that, I ended up realizing some of the things I needed to change and I started thinking about some things that I had forgotten and some things that will get me to this point right now. I took some old songs, which I was tired of doing, and reworked them a little bit. I had some new stuff and dedicated myself to not writing about things from the past any more, it’s just going to be from here forward because I’m tired of singing about dead people and dead things and dead relationships. Everything opened up. I’ve written more since deciding to quit than I have in half of my career. What a way to think about it. Maybe it’s accepting that things can be over and you’re okay with that and then you’re able to figure out those initial emotions that got you to here in the first place.

During the pandemic, I was working at Little Caesars and not making any money but I felt like that was the only way I was making any money because there was no touring and nothing was happening. I kept going to this job and the plague is on. It’s Texas and nobody gives a fuck about what it happening. They were open during work hours and everything seemed like normal. But I was going to work at 2 in the morning just to make sure that I was gone by the time other employees showed up. I had gotten so stuck in the idea that this was what I was doing to support my kid, this is what I’m doing to make a little bit of money, and then one day I quit. I had had enough. I was barely sleeping. I felt like I was losing my mind. All of a sudden I got a big check from Universal publishing and then a big licensing deal came in. I thought quitting was going to be bad but, upon quitting, money actually started coming in from the reason I thought I was on the planet. We’re always told, especially in the United States with the big capitalist fist on us, that quitting is always a bad thing but I think quitting can bring you to some beautiful things. If I hadn’t quit, hell, I might be the assistant manager there now [laughs] and I might have gone the way of the dodo bird as far as music goes.

That ties in with a lot of stuff. Being from Texas, the political, the religious aspect of all those things you’re taught growing up that so many things are bad and so many things are immoral, you just end up getting yourself in a cage. Getting older, and I guess this is the place I’ve been the last couple of years, I’m listening to what I’ve been taught, like quitting is bad, like Jesus is Lord, and realizing you have to take the things you’ve been taught by society and step back and decide what you want to leave there and what you want to take away. Whether I would have kept that job and my life would have been completely different or if I still believed in certain thing, being a Texan, I could easily believe in very dangerous things and be a very dangerous person, I guess I’ve learned that evaluating what the hell is happening is the most important thing in the world.

Do you split time between Texas and Spain?

MICAH: I live half the time at my parent’s house in Denison, Texas, because it’s so expensive in Texas. With all the traveling, I can’t rent a place that’s going to be empty six or seven months out of the year. I live half of my time here in Madrid, Spain. The only reason I go back to Texas is to see my kids. The pandemic had a way with me and my family. There’s been a divorce and all these things have happened. It’s been a very interesting time for me. At the end of that stuff, even though I don’t get to see my kids as much as I would love to, the things I get to teach them and, more importantly, the things I get to show them about life, and that everything doesn’t have to be seen through this tiny, little Judeo-Christian, denizen, white situation, I speak to them about being Native and I speak to them about other thought processes that go beyond the idea of the Christian God, it’s a learning experience. Along with my music changing and trying to better myself, I couldn’t have a revolution with myself with music without having a revolution with myself of all the other aspects of my life.

What are some of the biggest day-to-day differences in life between Texas and Spain?

MICAH: So many things. Here, I get up in the morning and there are people walking the streets. They’re all seemingly normal people and they’re kind. Even though I learning to speak Spanish, people are very sensitive to that and if I can’t speak very well, I can ask them to speak slower and they work with me. If you’re in Texas and somebody speaks another language, we can hear in our mind all the things that are said to those people even though Texas was Mexico a very, very short time ago.

I guess the main thing, and this says a lot about the society, there are stores here that are owned by individuals and individuals go to individuals to buy their shoes. There are just shoe stores. There’s just stores for individual things as opposed to when I’m in Texas where I get up and go to Wal-Mart and look at all the fucking people at Wal-Mart. You buy some fruit and by the time you get home, it’s going to be half rotten. There are so many differences in just the small everyday socializing. Just the smiles and the acceptance. When I go back to Texas, the days that I get to see my kids are great but other than that I lay in bed a lot or I go skateboard or I go try to walk in the woods. In Denison, the entertainment for the teenagers is going to Wal-Mart or going to Target. There’s nothing for them to do outside of that. It’s a hard thing to be in Texas and not like the way I feel and the way people feel around me but there’s nothing you can do about it. I don’t want to sound too negative. Texas is a place and there’s beautiful people there and there’s a fair share of kind and accepting human beings. When I’m in Texas, I feel like a stranger and that’s just a difficult thing to deal with.

How did you end up in Madrid?

MICAH: Life happens. I ended up meeting a woman named Lina Castellanos. I would call her a world-famous muralist. She’s a brilliant human being. She’s from Colombia and she lives here in Madrid. We had met before the pandemic at some of my shows. When life took a turn, it all came together. That stuff I was looking for, the idea of unconditional love and true support and understanding, all these things I had been looking for unsuccessfully, I found it in this person and I found it in that relationship. She lives here and so it made sense for me to come here.

Your public persona is Micah P. Hinson, Musician. In Madrid, are you Micah P. Hinson, musician, lowercase “m” as in someone who isn’t there to make a living or career, but someone who is still involved with making music for yourself?

MICAH: When I was living in Texas and coming over and touring for all these years, I felt like capital “M” Micah plays music and he’s going to be in Europe and lowercase “m” Micah is going to go live his normal life in Texas. That ended up making a strange divide in myself because when I’m here, I do this, when I’m over there, I do this. In some part of my mind, when I came to Madrid I thought I’d be doing more, I’d be playing that role of the capital “M” but it’s just kind of realizing that there never was that separation, that the capital “M” and the lowercase “m” was the same thing and just because I’m here doesn’t mean I have to perform in some role. It can all just be one thing. I’ve played some stuff but I’m not connected to the music here. There’s no venues or bars that I specifically go to because I know that certain artists are going to be there. Of course, I’ve seen more shows here than you would see in Texas and things that would be very dissimilar to what I would normally see. Let’s say the last show I saw in Texas was Jesus & Mary Chain, that would fit into what I do, but Marc Ribillet, I saw him here in Madrid, and it was like a religious experience for people. It was amazing to see this man essentially be a preacher and to be bringing positivity. Back in Texas, if Marc Ribillet was playing, I’m not sure I would have ever gone to see him. Going to watch a lot of Latin-American bands and trying to expand my knowledge that a vast majority of the world doesn’t sing in English and a lot of other shit is going on, that’s been fascinating to me.

You haven’t done a lot of touring in the U.S. throughout your career. Is that something that even appeals to you or has that ship sailed?

MICAH: It definitely appeals to me. I released that first record and I was doing little runs with people like Eric Bachmann from Archers of Loaf and David Bazan and Centro-Matic. I even did a national tour with David Gray which was like, “What in the world am I doing on tour with David Gray?” I was on Jade Tree Records. We released my third record, Opera Circuit, and it had glowing reviews in CMJ. I was in Entertainment Weekly with Will Smith on the cover. That just didn’t translate into sales and Jade Tree closed their door on me. At that time, English and European money was still magic. It was like, “The label is dead, the money is magic in Europe. I’m just going to go to where the money is magic.” I went and toured and did all that I’ve done but I regret not putting more patience into that. I’m not dying for massive success or fame, it just came down to finances. It’s interesting to be in Europe and people say the things they say about me and they come to see me play but, in the States, I played my first shows in like 10 years up in Massachusetts and Vermont and nobody really showed up. I have designs on doing a chunk of U.S. shows in the fall.