Hot on the heels of last week’s release of their celebrated new album Heart-Shaped Mountain, we chatted with indie-Americana fivesome Ha Ha Tonka for our latest NoiseTrade One-on-One. Read on to find out all about their new collection of songs, the inspirations behind their ever-evolving sonic direction, and why they had to record Heart-Shaped Mountain twice.
NoiseTrade: What can you tell us about the themes and stories found within the songs on your new album Heart-Shaped Mountain (out 3/10 on Bloodshot)?
Brian Roberts: I always hesitate revealing too much about song specifics, as I’d hate to ruin it for someone who thought a certain song was about something entirely different than what they’d thought. So, in general, this is our “love album” and love can be a scary thing. I felt that the title, Heart-Shaped Mountain, was an appropriate metaphor to use to encompass the general theme of love. It can be hard work climbing to the top, but the view from up there is amazing. Hopefully that’s not too cheesy.
NT: Fans of your previous work will find you guys covering some new sonic and lyrical territory on Heart-Shaped Mountain. Where did these new inspirations come first originate? Any specific bands or songs provide new creative sparks for you?
Roberts: This is the first album we’ve written with James (keys) & Mike (drummer) both fully involved in the songwriting process and they’re extremely talented guys. It sort of felt like we went from being a V8 engine, to a V10. While we were in the studio, we were watching the Jeff Lynne documentary, Mr. Blue Sky, and we drew a lot of inspiration from that. I know for a fact, that we tried to borrow how Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty would record their acoustic guitars. For instance, every acoustic track on our album has 36-strings: two 12-strings, a standard 6-string and a 6-string Nashville-tuned guitar.
NT: Album opener “Race to the Bottom” has been appropriately described as a “Springsteen-esque ballad” with “cinematic edges.” Has Springsteen been a direct influence on any of your work?
Roberts: I can’t say that we were thinking about the Boss while writing that song, but that’s a huge compliment.
NT: Tell us the story about having to record the album twice and what new things you learned about your songs (and yourselves) in the process?
Roberts: Well, I wouldn’t recommend it due to the initial stress of losing a week’s worth of work, but it wound up being the best thing that could have happened to the album. We’ve worked with Jason McEntire at Sawhorse Studios in St. Louis on three of our albums. He’s like a brother to us and a total pro. It was a bizarre set of circumstances that lead to the hard drive meltdown, however, we still had the reference mp3s to listen to and because of this, the loss of the actual session wound up being a blessing in disguise. We had a lot more time to think about the songs and where they were going, revisit the tunes, be more honest with one another about what shape they could or should take and then we got back to work. In the end, it was actually somewhat liberating… or maybe we just went through all of the five stages of grief.
NT: There’s a ton of beautifully executed multi-part harmony singing all over Heart-Shaped Mountain. Is this something you guys have to work hard to achieve or does it just come out naturally throughout the songwriting process?
Roberts: We do work hard on it, but hopefully it never feels forced. I think we all just love to sing and it’s a weapon we’re lucky to have in our arsenal.
NT: Finally, as a big fan of the dying medium of album art, I love the match-themed cover art on Heart-Shaped Mountain. What can you tell us about the inspiration and execution of that piece?
Roberts: A buddy of mine, Saul Gray-Hildenbrand, is a phenomenal artist based outside of Nashville. You can see some of his work here – http://www.lafontsee.us/artists/saul-gray-hildenbrand/index.html
Somehow I talked him into working on a piece for the cover of our album and we couldn’t have been more pleased with the results. He wound up giving me the actual piece on my birthday, after all the pictures had been taking of it for the cover. He’s the best.