Over the last four decades, John Hiatt has proven to be one of the most influential and celebrated singer-songwriters in the game. With his newest album The Eclipse Sessions coming out October 12 on New West Records, we interviewed Hiatt to discuss the recording of The Eclipse Sessions (his 23rd studio album overall), the connections it shares with two of his most beloved records, what it’s like to have his songs recorded by other legends like Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and much more!
NoiseTrade: Your new album The Eclipse Sessions (out 10/12 on New West) is your first new album since 2014’s Terms of My Surrender. Since you haven’t historically gone that long between album releases, what’s all transpired for you in the last few years and what was it that let you know you were ready to get back in the studio and record a new album?
John Hiatt: We toured Terms of my Surrender for most of 2014 and 2015. I was out with a band most of that time. I came home at the end of 2015 and realized it was time to cut back a little on my touring schedule, so I cut the schedule in half for 2016 and spent time with my wife and the family. I turned 64 at the end of the summer of 2016 and was adjusting to a new place in my life. A place I had never been before. I had been on the road every year since 2000 and was putting out an album approximately every 18 months. I was a bit depleted creatively, not that it is a bad thing, just realized it was time to figure out where I was mentally, physically, and spiritually. Toward the end of 2016 the songs started to show up again, and then we recorded The Eclipse Sessions in August of 2017. Guy Clark used to say – when asked how do you know when it is time to make a record – “when I got ten good songs” and that’s pretty much how I felt. I had some songs together and it was time to start recording.
NT: You’ve said that you see your new album operating in connection with two of your most celebrated releases, 1987’s Bring the Family and 2000’s Crossing Muddy Waters. What are those intersecting points for you and to what do you credit those echoing connections?
Hiatt: One of the big connections between the three is that they all kind of happened by accident. I didn’t really go in to the studio intending to make another record. I was mainly just trying to record some new songs I had. I really didn’t know what kind of record I was going to make. That was the same thing that happened with Bring the Family. My friend, John Chelew, organized the musicians and we had four days in the studio but I really didn’t know what was going to happen. And with Crossing Muddy Waters, a trio of guys and I went over to Justin Mebank’s home studio at the last minute. I’ve got these songs and thought “hey, let’s try it without drums” and see what happens. The next thing you know that was how we recorded them. The sound just happened.
That same thing happened with this record. We went to Kevin McKendry’s home studio out in the country. Kevin is a great Nashville keyboard player. In the studio with Kevin and I was Kenny Blevins, who has played drums with me on and off for years, and Patrick Ohur, a great bass player who made a couple of records with us. We just started recording these songs as a trio, a little broke down drum kit, myself on acoustic guitar and singing, and Patrick on the upright bass with some electric. We would get a live take off the floor- vocals, guitar, drums, and then Kevin would put a little keyboard on. Kevin’s son, Yates, who was only fifteen at the time, would come down at night after we had left and add a guitar part. It happened very accidentally, and the next thing you know we had a record.
NT: Your NoiseTrade sampler features three new singles: the bouncy folk of “Cry to Me,” the confident blues-rock groove of “Over the Hill,” and the tongue-in-cheek confession of “Poor Imitation of God.” What can you tell us about the writing and recording of each of those tracks?
Hiatt: “Cry to Me” was the very first song we recorded, and I think we nailed it in about three takes. On this song, I wanted to use the vocal off the floor. Since I sing and play at the same time, we can’t go back and fix the vocals. I don’t use pitch correction or any of that stuff. So we had to get a take where everything was right: my pitch and the vocal performance. We managed to do that in three takes. After the third take we sat down, listened to the track and thought “this is good, let’s do another one.” I think we got one or two more that day. That day also happened to be my birthday, August 20th.
“Poor Imitation of God” was in the later sessions, if I’m not mistaken. I believe we cut that during the four days we had in October of 2017. That’s a song I wrote about my Catholic upbringing. It was pounded into us youth that you are made in the image of God and you gotta do your best. Although you’ll never be perfect, you gotta do your best to hold up your end of the bargain. I always felt like I fell short. It’s a bit tongue in cheek, but it’s about a guy who is trying to love this woman the best he can but his biggest problem is that he is also trying to learn how to care about himself. How can you love somebody if you don’t love yourself? I think that’s a dilemma for a lot of people.
For “Over the Hill,” I had the chords and the that first line just popped out: “I’m over the hill, under the bridge, got a few peaks and valleys, I ain’t seen.” I thought “man, that is something to write a song about right there.” Ry Cooder used to tell me, “you know when you get a line or a melody or a couple of chords, then you just jump in the little space ship and take the trip.” That’s kind of how I see songwriting: if I can get a little initial inspiration then, okay, let’s write this song. Most of the time I don’t even know where it is going until I get there. You know it when I know it.
NT: It’s been over four decades since you released your debut album (Hangin’ Around the Observatory) and you’ve been going pretty non-stop since then. What differences and similarities do you hear when you listen to the 21-year old you on Hangin’ Around the Observatory versus the 65-year old you on The Eclipse Sessions?
Answer: At 21 years old I hadn’t found my voice, that’s for sure. I was kind of untouched, really. I wasn’t trying to imitate anybody but it took me a while to develop my artist self. I think I started to get things together around the time I made Riding With the King. One side of the record was made with Nick Lowe and the other side was made with Scott Matthews and Ron Nagle. I started to develop the sound that I would later draw from – that mix of roots, rock, rhythm and blues and country. It’s the same sound I’ve drawn from ever since. Because I was an addict and alcoholic when I made that record, I couldn’t sustain it. Once I sobered up in ‘84, things started to come together and then we made Bring the Family. Since that point I’ve been pretty true to myself, although I love to experiment. I love all kinds of music and I don’t like making the same record over and over again. I admire artists that stretch out and make all kinds of different records and I try to do that myself. I listen to my 21 year old self and sometimes I don’t think I’ve learned a damn thing.
NT: Finally, you’ve had your songs recorded by such legends as Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton and B.B. King, Emmylou Harris, and many more. First, as a songwriter, what are some of the thoughts and emotions that you experience when you hear someone else interpret a song of yours through their own creative filters? Second, as an artist, what have been some of your favorite songs of other artists that you’ve covered yourself over the years?
Answer: Well, it always blows my mind when someone records a song of mine. I feel like I’m a fan of so many of these artists, and I’m always amazed what they find in my song that I didn’t necessarily know was there or they interpreted it in a way I hadn’t heard before. Iggy Pop, for example, did such a great job with “Something Wild”. If anyone could put a different slant on that song it would be Iggy Pop. I’m a huge fan of his, by the way. It’s such a thrill to hear your songs performed by other people, and I think one of the things I love most is that it is such a cross section of artists that record my songs and I am really honored by that. It’s not one certain type of artist that will record one of my tunes and that means a lot to me.
As far as some of my favorites, there’s been so many. When Joe Cocker did “Have a Little Faith,” I was so thrilled. B.B. King and Eric Clapton, two of my heroes doing “Riding With the King.” Willie Nelson singing “ The Most Unoriginal Sin” and the Neville Brothers singing “Washable Ink” – one of my early cuts. I just love that. Bonnie Raitt singing “Thing Called Love” kind of put me on the map in a lot of ways. And of course, having Bob Dylan, one of your all time heroes, cover one of your songs is just a thrill. It’s endless, Emmylou Harris singing “Icy Blue Heart” and Johnny Adams doing “She Said the Same Things to Me,” that was just a thrill. Buddy Guy, the blues great, did “Feels Like Rain.” The list goes on.