Listening to a Will Hoge record is akin to settling down with short story collections by Ron Rash, Larry Brown, and Chris Offutt, Southern authors who traffic in terse accounts of blue-collar realities, transmissions inhabited by characters who are defined by their grit, desperation, and occasional triumphs. The title of Hoge’s latest record, Tiny Little Movies, encapsulates the Nashville singer-songwriter’s catalog– songs that are cinematic, slice-of-life mini-narratives whose credits often roll without Hollywood resolution. Most emblematic of Hoge’s working-class philosophy is the album’s lead track “Midway Motel”, a paean to those tumble-down inns that abide as relics on stretches of state routes and highways. For Hoge, the roadside motel isn’t a scenic blemish or backdrop for the unseemly; it’s something more profound– a ramshackle sanctuary that exists between trial and judgment, stasis and redemption, where “everybody’s got a story they’re trying to tell.”
Everybody is a vital, democratizing component of Hoge’s songbook. It’s those in “The Overthrow” who are exasperated by corrupt evangelists and politicians; those in “Even the River Runs out of This Town” who’ve lost loves to the city lights of anywhere else; those in “Stupid Kids” who are doing right by raising hell; and those in “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” who never betray their callings. Balancing empathy, rage, disillusionment, and hope, Hoge is the essential troubadour in a world that needs both torch songs and flamethrowers.
Hoge, whose “Even If It Breaks Your Hearts” received Song of the Year nominations from the GRAMMYs, the CMA, and ACM, plays Grant’s Lounge, Friday, March 25th.
What’s bringing you to Macon this month?
Well, finally the world opening up enough for us to feel like we can get out and tour. We’ve got a brand-new record [Tiny Little Movies, 2020] that came out right in the middle of the whole world being shut down. There’s a bunch of those songs that we’ve never even gotten to play live, so we’re really excited to get out and have a brand-new record (laughs)!
I was going to ask if it’s a delayed album release show...
I guess in some ways, everything is at this point (laughs)!
Did the downtime disrupt your rhythm?
Yeah, I mean for sure, and in some ways, it broke bad habits, too. I would have never taken that kind of time off. I think I’ve always thought that I couldn’t. I’m real fortunate that I learned that I can, and it was nice. There was a part of it, getting to spend more time at home and really be with my wife and kids in a way that I’ve never done before. That was really positive, and it helped a lot. I wrote a lot more and really kind of refocused. I think that’s what I needed to do. And again, I wish we didn’t have to have the world go the way it did for me to realize that. But as I try to make Shinola out of the shit that I was dealt, that’s the sort of positive spin I can at least put on it. Yeah, I got shown some things; there was some light on some things that I wasn’t very good at it, either, and I had to get better at those things, but, over a worldwide negative, I tried to at least make some positive shit from my end.
A lot of the musicians that I’ve talked to say they welcomed the break but felt guilty admitting it publicly, for fear of backlash. The “You’re an artist. Who are you to complain?” response…
It’s funny– we do this job, and truly at the end of the day, this is the greatest job in the world, and we all know that. It’s why we all wanted to do it when we were kids. And it’s why those of us that still do it, do it. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not real hard. I think that because it’s this really incredible thing, we feel like we can’t say there are things about this that are hard. Somebody goes, “Well, all you do is drive around and sing songs for people. Is it that hard?” Well, I mean, it depends on what you’re comparing it to, but yeah, there are things about it that are hard, and you can’t say that. And I do feel like that, especially the first little bit of shut down when nobody was doing anything. We didn’t even know whether we could go out of our houses. You started having phone relationships with people again, and it was funny with all my musician friends, the first little bit, we were like, “Man, this is awful.” But then it went over the edge a little bit. People are like, “Are we allowed to say ‘I’m kind of enjoying being at home’?” People that are like, “I didn’t think we could say that. I’m so glad you said it. I feel the same way.” But there were some bright spots, personally…
No, I agree. I got into the habit of getting up, reading, writing, or playing guitar on my porch all morning, no real disturbances from anyone…
A good time for us introverts…
It was good with the kids. We really spent a lot more time… My kids are now 14 and 11, but they got into listening to vinyl records because that’s what we would do– we’d sit around and play records. Now they’ve got record players in their rooms and their own little record collections of shit that they like. You had to find some sort of happiness in it, or you’d just go completely bonkers.
I have a friend, Cash Carter, who co-owns The Kindercore Vinyl pressing plant in Athens, and he said that since the pandemic, lockdown, and the aftermath, vinyl production has been through the roof, nonstop. The psychology behind that fascinates me.
We finally as a society again realize that you can have 45 minutes to listen to a record, not just thumbing through songs. I mean, we all do that– when I’m traveling, sometimes you just want to hear random shit and skip to the next song you want to hear. But there’s something that’s special about getting up and turning the record over, hearing on the record how the artist envisioned it. Those things still matter to me.
Do you still write with an album in mind?
I don’t start with that. I’m always writing, and I think that songs end up pooling together a little bit– you get a cluster of songs, and you go, “Well, these four kind of…” and then you throw those away. And then you go, “These four are pretty cool, and these two kind of go together,” so you go, “Okay, well now I’ve got four over here and three over here.” Then sometimes, you get focused and go, “I need to slink down this path a little bit,” but I don’t usually sit down and go, “Alright, I need to write a record that’s going to feel like X, Y, or Z.” I think there’s a little more constant process rather than that laser-focused thing. That doesn’t come until the end, if it does happen at all.
I wanted to discuss your writing process. I know besides being a solo artist, you’re also a professional songwriter. Did becoming a professional songwriter change the way you write? Are you more routine-based– waking up at 6 or so, writing all day, sticking to a schedule, or do you only write when the mood or muse hits?
You sort of try to do all those things, I think– at least the good ones do. I try my damnedest to be a good one. When the muse hits, you find a pen and paper or a guitar or piano as fast as you can, and you try to capture it. And luckily, when we’re fortunate enough to have those moments, that’s great. But I think over the course of years of doing this and having the good fortune to work with some other really great songwriters that were older and more experienced than me, I think when I was younger, I thought it was more of that: live your life and wait on lightning to strike. That was this sort of rock ‘n’ roll songwriter mentality. I thought it was a little highbrow to consider myself a writer, you know? I would read about writers. They’re much more addicted to the process– you wake up every day, and you write. I loved that, but I didn’t think you did that as a rock ‘n’ roll person. And then I learned that that’s really a huge part of it. I have gotten more and more into that– and I don’t do it every day, but I do it in long spurts. When it’s time to be creative, I do try to put myself on that schedule where it’s wake up, and every morning, one of the first things I do is this idea of “morning pages” which is just grabbing a pen and a notebook and writing. I try to write at least three pages in the notebook. It can be just random words but don’t think about it, don’t edit, don’t do anything. That, I found to be really, really helpful. That was a trick I learned from a friend. I’ve started to pay more attention to writers, not just songwriters over the last few years, but guys that write novels and film and TV. I realized that I guess I am– again, I’m so nervous about considering myself a writer– but it is what I do, and I think that I have to just accept that and dig in real deep to do that. And I’ve noticed that I feel like the songs get better when I do. The process is all of these things, really and truly.
How much music theory do you bring to the table? Or do you rely more on feel? Do you use theory to say, “This pre-chorus needs to add tension,” or is that more intuitive?
I don’t know much about theory at all. I’m self-taught as a musician. I did dissect songs in little ways, but I worked much more off of how it made me feel– like you said, the tension of that. I never dug into what caused it, necessarily– and I kind of wish at times that I had– but it’s much more of a feel thing for me than it is a theory thing. The things that moved me the most as a kid, even as I was getting into music, was 1-4-5 blues shit and soul music– those really were the things that made me perk up and listen. My dad would play Steely Dan records and things that were really smart, and I enjoyed them on a certain level, but it never made me want to go and do anything or pay attention. It always felt safe and warm like an old meatloaf that your mom makes, but it never made me want to go in the kitchen and cook anything like rock ‘n’ roll did (laughs)!
It’s amazing what someone can do with a 1-4-5 progression. I remember when I first started learning guitar, I would assume a song like “Slow Down” or “Tutti Fruitti” has a wild-ass, complicated progression, but it was usually 1-4-5.
Yeah! And then from there, you start to put in a little bit of your own thing. I hope it’s a lifelong learning thing for me.
Are you ever afraid of running out of ideas?
No, not really. Maybe I did when I was much younger and doing this, but I think at this point, when you get to your fifteenth or sixteenth album, you go, “People may not like my ideas, but I’m not going to run out of them at this point.”
It’s certainly a young person’s fear. After you’re 30 or so, the next decade doesn’t seem so ancient anymore. I’m in my mid-40s, and 50 is looking quite young and doable…
Oh, yeah, and that’s one of the things I was really interested in even as a kid, you know, talking about the 1-4-5 thing versus the other shit that was going on. I remember listening to blues guys and going, “Man, this is shit that you could do in your 80s!” (Laughs) You almost get cooler as you get older! There’s an economy of motion in it. You’re not wasting notes a singer. That kind of shit, I was fascinated by, whereas I remember watching KISS– that I loved when I was 6 or 7-years-old because they were like monster superheroes with guitars– and thinking, “That’s going to be weird when they’re 75-years-old, up there trying to spit blood,” and lo and behold, they’re fucking up there doing it (laughs)! But I’d rather be Muddy Waters.
Do you make a distinction between writing songs for you and songs that are for someone else? Do you ever feel, “This one’s for me?”
I don’t know that there’s always ones that I feel like, “This is for me,” as much as there are ones that I write that I feel like aren’t for me more so than the other. I think I always try to start with the idea in mind of just trying to write a great song. When I’m writing by myself, there’s usually a whole lot more of a chance that that’s going to be for me, than in the other situations. When you’re writing for somebody else, it’s a little liberating in a way because you can take some liberties. They set the guardrails whereas maybe things I wouldn’t be comfortable saying– nothing that I’m morally opposed to, but there’s certain imagery and stuff like that, or you’re writing from a girl’s perspective– that’s something totally different, which is fun. It tends to be more of a situation of “This is not for me” versus “This one is definitely for me.”
A number of artists have found success with your songs. What’s it like hearing someone else perform your material?
Man, it’s incredible, really and truly. I think about how there’s a whole lot of songs out there for people to pick, and if they’re willing to come and do that with something that you wrote, it’s pretty cool, really and truly. It means a lot every single time. And, on the good days too, their checks are a whole lot bigger than the ones I got when I recorded, so that works out too (laughs)!
When you were growing up, what was more important or alluring– the performance or the song?
I think at the core, the song is king. I don’t know if you can do a great performance of a real shitty song; now you can do a great performance of a pretty ok song and make the song better. I don’t mean this to sound shitty– and I don’t want to say illiterate because everybody in my family can read, but they don’t– I don’t come from a literate family. My mom and dad don’t read– they’d read the newspaper, but we didn’t have books around. So again, the writing part of it was always real intimidating. I wasn’t vulnerable enough to really dig into that. I could sort of scratch the surface when I was younger and feel okay– but I could take control as a singer. I was always pretty good; that came pretty easy. I can go up on stage and try to make something blow up, which was kind of like a weird magic trick that I thought was cool as shit.
You know, the song is really the most important thing, but the live performance part for me was the thing that I could control the easiest. I think I gravitated towards that early on. I think a few years ago, it probably went back to a 50-50 thing where I realized the song really has to be there before you can perform it, and it’s probably, even more, the other way now. I think I probably lean more toward songs. It’s probably 70-30 now. Obviously, the song has to be a hundred percent finished, but I think I like the songwriting part of it more than the performing part now.
How much of your writing is autobiographical? I’m thinking of a song like “My American Dream” where the speaker spent some time in college like you did?
There’s always little pieces of it in there. I would argue that there’s no song that is not at all autobiographical. Now, it’d be a lie to say they’re all one hundred percent autobiographical. You can’t write without a part of you in there. And I think that’s kind of what’s fun. I don’t spend a lot of time going back to old records, but when we do, like before we go out for a tour and you kind of go back and revisit, I think I always find little pieces. There’s always something in there. So one-hundred percent of the songs are partially autobiographical (laughs)!
Speaking of school, you majored in history. Does that passion for history inform your songwriting?
I think that some of it comes on a real basic level. I think one of the things that first drew me to music was the history of it. I like the link from African instruments being brought over and played in a field, all the way up to that joining with country music and that creating the blues, and the blues creating rock ‘n’ roll and rock ‘n’ roll going to England, and England bringing it back here. The history part of music in general, I’m enamored by. I can read about it, talk about it and watch it, and listen to shit about it all day long. So I think an overall love of history is there.
I think it probably does play into the storytelling and narrative part of it, of trying to find a center point in each song, like, “What is this character? Who are these characters?” Even when you’re making them up and you’re trying to tell a story in three and a half minutes, there’s some love of history, I think, as I work to continue to try and be a better writer. Even if it’s not in the song, you’re building a history with every little story you tell, like, “Why does this person feel this way?” Even if it’s not the song, if you want that character to really feel right, you tell us some historical bit about them, even if it’s just internally as you try to figure out what they’re all about.
Instead of moving to Nashville to pursue songwriting, you were born there. What was it like growing up there?
It made it a whole lot easier to buy a house because I was here before the property values went up (laughs)! But, yeah, it was a huge influence, man, especially growing up when I did. My dad and my uncle had been in the music scene, which has always been a big deal in Nashville– it’s called Music City for a reason. But even back in the ’50s and ’60s, there was just incredible music being made here, and not just country– there was an R&B scene, and there was a rock ‘n’ roll scene, and there was country and blues, all of the things that you would love. So my uncle and my dad had grown up and joined bands and were playing in what they called combos around here at the time, saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. They had some little pockets of success here and there and made records, so there was a love of music and an accessibility to it that I don’t think I would have gotten somewhere else, which was cool. Then you also got to see the infrastructure in a way. The only way I can describe it is when I talk to people that are from L.A., the movie business seems crazy when you’re an outsider looking in, but I think if you grow up there, and you’re in the movie business, there are people that just work as grips and best boys and lighting directors. Some of them are huge, famous actors, and some of them are big famous directors, but there’s lots of other people that just make a living in that business.
The great thing about Nashville, especially when I was growing up here, it took all of the star bullshit away because you saw the stars at the grocery store or at school picking up their kids. It humanized the industry so that you thought you could do this. And not to mention, you knew guys that were guitar techs and drum techs and front of house guys, so the business was just much more of a thing that you could do. It took a little bit of a lottery ticket part of it away and made it something like, “Well, as long as you’re willing to do, X, Y, and Z, then you can find a way to make a living in this.” It just made it a lot more accessible to me.
It’s also shown me a lot. There was a TV show called The Ralph Emery Show that was on Channel 4 every morning for years when I’d wake up. It was just a local morning TV show like every damn town in the country has, but this one had the house band in the morning, and they were just smoking— piano player, pedal steel, player, fiddle player, guitar, bass drums, singers, all different kinds of shit. And, you know, for a kid to hear that, starting at probably five years old, there’s a quality to the musicianship that is not lost on you really early, too. The desire to really try and be top-notch in your craft is really important growing up here.
The title of your latest record, Tiny Little Movies, applies to your entire catalog. Each song is steeped in a narrative with characters, settings, and conflict. How did you come to embrace the narrative approach to songwriting?
A lot of it started for me with a love for ’70s music. I missed the generation of ’80s hair metal shit that I should have probably been really listening to as a kid because that’s what my peers were into. I had missed that because of my dad’s record collection, which has older bands like the Stones and The Beatles and shit like that and then as a kid in the South, that led to Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers and all of that great rock ‘n’ roll from the South. The thing that I really loved about that was– it’s also what I had loved about country music– I always loved stories. I love being able to see what it was that the stories were telling. I loved how more direct the songs were, the better. Then I got into more of the sort of Van Morrison aspect of writing, too. It’s like you sing these really beautiful parts, but also like, “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” (Laughs) It just makes me feel a certain way! I like that as well, but there was just something as a writer I liked. I like the directness of those kind of simple folk tales, like “Here’s what’s happened.” I was always enamored by that.
I think that’s developing more, now. Like I said, again, just being honest, I watched movies and shit growing up, like any kid, and saw things that I liked, but I don’t think I really studied. I got more into that much later, as far as, “Why do I like this?” Especially with books. It’s really been in the last seven or eight years that I’ve really become much more of a reader. I did it passively, and I would do it in spells, but as I have gotten deeper into that and befriended friends that are artists and novelists and writers, that’s been really eye-opening for me; they’re really up close. I could sit here and try to name a bunch of famous authors and artists and shit– there’s a lot of those people that I like, but to say that they really influenced me is probably disingenuous, whereas I can talk about my friend Mikey Mitchell, who is a visual artist, and my friend Omari Booker, who is a visual artist. They’ve been really inspiring. My friend Ed Tarkington is a writer that’s just published his second novel, you know? We were really close as he was writing and getting his first novel published. Those things have been much more influential on me probably than the “classics”. While I love them, and I’m trying to soak everything in, I’m starting to find more things that I love. Really watching those processes up close was much more influential on me than any of those other things.
How do the visual artists inspire you?
I always grew up thinking that was something that was just completely removed from what I did. And then I watched them work, not necessarily the process of how they paint or how they design, but the way they go about it. They wake up in the morning, and they have this idea, and they start putting something down. Then sometimes they just scrap a whole canvas, and then they find a way to show it in a gallery. It took all of the magic away– in a good way– and made me realize that all of this is art, space, work. It’s exactly the same as what I do. Their dedication to their craft…You don’t go get your art played on the radio; nobody looks at your art and says, “I want to do a painting of your painting.” It’s really eye-opening to me, like, “Well, that’s the same shit that I do.” I happen to have an outlet that potentially does something that’s a little different than what they do, but the process was really inspiring, and the work was great. To see them following their own ideas… They aren’t concerned about, “Well, the so-and-so gallery’s not going to show this piece if don’t put this right color in here.” I think that in this town, especially when you get caught up in the grist mill of the songwriter thing, it’s real easy. There’s are tons of people here who do the same thing. You sit down to write with somebody and before you’ve even gotten a chorus written, they’re going, “Well, I don’t know if this would get played on the radio.” It’s like, “Fuck, man! We’re not finishing this song because we don’t know if it’ll get played on the radio?” That drives me crazy, so it just reset my whole artistic compass! I’m going to try to do great work and fuck the rest of it (laughs)!
Shifting gears a bit, your work is focused on the middle class, their uphill struggles. Why does the middle class mean so much to you? Why is it important to document what they’re up against?
Well, one, I grew up on the lower end of that, so it’s what I know. It’s the same reason that I’d be a little disingenuous if I started going and making hip hop records. As much as I love the medium, it’s just not really who I am, and it would come off as a false narrative at best and just grossly appropriating at worst. But that’s where I come from, so I think that’s a big part of it. And parlaying back to the history part of it, I think that the solution to a lot of our… I try not to put too much time overanalyzing our geopolitical shit in our state and our region and in our country, but the shrinking middle class is what I would argue– probably behind education– is one of the biggest problems we have. That’s really what we should all be striving to have– this robust middle class where you have people that can come from literally [nothing]… People who come from less don’t want to be fucking billionaires; they want to find a job that allows them to make a living and spend time with their families and go on a vacation every now and then and not die of a heart attack at 45-years-old. I mean, that’s the dream, and I’m lucky enough to have it!
I think that part of it is that I wish more people could achieve that dream, and I wish that more people understood the importance of it. It’s funny– I don’t think I’ve ever thought about that until you mentioned it. I don’t think that’s intentional, but that has to be the reason why, or a part of the reason, anyway.
It feels like you’re giving a voice to the voiceless, providing them with if not a platform, at least representation. You succeed at that where many politicians fail. I think it’s also notable that you don’t shy away from writing about cultural or political concerns. You could just write about romance and heartbreak. Those subjects are tireless. Yet just as many, if not more of your songs, look elsewhere. Why aren’t those more topical concerns off limits to you when they might run the risk of scaring off radio programmers and portions of your audience?
Just flat out to me– I’m speaking for me and not for anybody else, but to me– it’s right or wrong. I’m not comfortable watching marginalized people continue to be treated as such. I’ve never participated in it, wouldn’t participate in it, but I’m not going to sit back idly and pretend that doesn’t happen because I’m okay. That bothers me a lot, just personally. Then, artistically, the artists that I’ve always been drawn to the most were the ones that did that, so it never felt like those things that feel risky and dangerous or taboo. It never felt that way. It always felt like, “Well, why the fuck wouldn’t I?”
I was watching that Summer of Soul documentary last night, and it’s just so interesting to watch it. They were talking about Stevie Wonder, in particular. He’s a perfect example. The term genius gets overused, and there’s only about four people you can probably use that term for in the modern music business– and he’s arguably one of them. He’s an incredible singer, an incredible player; he had this great pop success with Motown and had big pop records and could have easily coasted from the early ’60s and transitioned into the ’70s with, “Here comes the blind dude that plays the sweet love songs, and everybody loves it!” You can be a heritage act real quick, or you can start to talk about shit that matters– not just to you, but to your audience. Sometimes the audience doesn’t even know they don’t know. You mentioned “the voiceless”. The voiceless often don’t know they’re fucking voiceless! Sometimes it takes some loudmouth to holler a little bit for somebody to go, “Oh shit, I never realized I could say that or feel that way!”
So, that’s a long-winded answer. I feel that’s part of my job. Sam Cooke did it with “A Change Is Gonna Come”. You see it with Stevie Wonder. You see it obviously with Dylan and Neil Young and Woody Guthrie. That lineage to me is incredibly important, and it’s also cool that none of those people are what I consider political. I don’t want to be a political artist. I don’t think any of those people are political artists, but that doesn’t mean that an artist should never say anything political, especially with their art. If you’re going to reflect your feelings– we all have feelings about that shit. If you want to not write about it, you got to lay down in that bed at night.
What about a song like “Still a Southern Man”? It’s a mature, thoughtful way to address the duality of being a Southerner. You acknowledge the problematic and horrific, but you don’t disown yourself from your heritage. Was that a difficult song to write?
Man, it was real easy. We talked earlier about autobiographical– that one is one hundred percent autobiographical. We moved from Nashville to Franklin because my folks could afford a house out in the middle of nowhere in the suburbs when I was five or six. I grew up out there, and all of the mascots from my junior high, from seventh grade through high school, it was the Franklin Rebels, a Confederate soldier mascot. And yeah, there was a rebel flag on everything. And man, I loved it, because that’s what I wanted to do– I wanted to play basketball for the Franklin Rebels! My best friend’s dad growing up was the coach; we’d go to games! That was my first dream before even rock ‘n’ roll. I’m not talking about playing in the NBA; I’m talking about playing at that high school. That’s what I wanted to do. That was the greatest thing ever. It meant the world to me.
And you know? I was the asshole that would bring the rebel flag to the games. There weren’t hundreds of people, and I did it. It was crazy. We would go play in Memphis, and I’m like, “I’m not going to take this flag because that would be really racist to go to Memphis with a rebel flag,” but I wasn’t smart enough and worldly enough to realize that I’m bringing this fucking rebel flag to our home football game– that’s fucking racist, too, you dummy! It’s incredible the things you don’t see when you grow up like that and you haven’t seen the world.
So, no, it was really easy to write because I reckoned with that as I grew up. You hear people say, “Well, you shouldn’t have any shame or guilt.” Man, it’s not guilt or shame– it’s just you change as you learn shit, and you see the world. What [the flag] meant to me was, “I’m a rebel. Nobody tells me what to do. I do whatever the fuck I want.” “Fuck the man!” was what it meant to me. That’s not what it meant to all of my friends of color that I was with every day at school. I think of how fucked-up it is that they didn’t even have the ability to really come and go, “Hey man, this is real fucked-up,” and I don’t know that I would have been able to hear it at the time. You know, those things are hard, but like you said, the South is responsible for, I would argue, the greatest shit that America has to offer, from literature to fucking rock ‘n’ roll, to fried chicken and grits. Everything that I truly love about my fucking life is deeply, deeply rooted in the South.
My wife’s a therapist, and I have learned through years of that relationship and years of therapy for us and myself that there’s a big difference between but and and. With the South, I realize that it’s not, “Well, it was really racist, but we did all of these really great things.” It’s, “Man, it was really racist, and we also did really great things.” I can be proud of one and really am not okay with the others, and again, not ashamed of it, but just willing to go, “This is not okay and shouldn’t happen anymore.” It doesn’t seem that difficult to me.
On the heels of what you just said about your wife being a therapist and therapy, how difficult is it for you to channel your rage and anger into something productive?
(Laughs) Oh, shit…
I mean, one alternative is to rant or yell something inarticulate. How do those frustrations and concerns become a song and not a diatribe?
I think a lot of that is practice and therapy and reading books. There’s book I read called Nonviolent Communication [by Marshall Rosenberg] that was a real life-changer for me– how to listen, and how to respond. It’s not something I’ve always been good at. I think there was a period of time where I was less well and less self-aware, where I was probably more excited to hear my mouth run than I definitely should have been.
But the writing about it also helps. That’s the other thing– I think that there’s a period when you first start writing, you don’t know how to write those songs, so it just comes out in this…. Where do you spew that confusion or anger? And then once I was able to put those into songs, I realized, “Well, there’s a way to do that. I can say all of the things that I want to say, and it doesn’t need to be hateful. I’m just going to lay these things down the page like I would anything else and think about it.” That was just as therapeutic as anything.
Given the subject matter, how do you maintain a level of empathy? You do give your characters a grace that other writers might not. For me, the folks you write about, the guy wearing the letterman jacket who won’t let it go, the people who have historically voted against their best interests, as much as I try to be compassionate, I admit to growing frustrated and angry with them. Yet you bring back my empathy for them. How do you do that?
Oh, fuck, man (laughs)! I don’t know! That sounds like you need to lay on the couch and talk to someone about that (laughs)! I hope that there’s an honesty in it that does humanize that a little bit. I get real frustrated with the, “You know, man, we all just got to get along.” It’s like, I’m not going to get along with Nazis. That’s just off the table for me. And that’s something I’ve had to learn, that there are boundaries that have to get drawn. And I ain’t cutting anybody off over economic policy and shit like that. We can disagree, have robust conversations about all of those things– I love that. That’s how we get to the gooey shit in the middle to fix things. I would hope that there’s some honesty and truth in the stories and the characters.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s the more real I can tell the story… And that goes for a song like “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” which was incredibly real and autobiographical, and almost so personal that I felt no one’s ever going to understand this and it was the exact opposite. I can only reckon that same is true about the other. We all do have those moments when we get frustrated with the family member that’s a knucklehead, that can’t see through their own bullshit. If you think you’re alone in that, that you’re the only person fighting that battle, that’s really tough. We all are really doing this shit to have some sort of connection, to have somebody that goes, “Oh man, I’m not alone in that feeling,” whether it’s how happy this thing makes me, or the love in that song is the kind of love I’ve always wanted. It’s good to know that somebody else feels that way too. Or the pain that I’ve never been able to express about this loss, and now this song sums it up. I think that when we don’t feel alone, that’s where we really start to connect. So I would hope that some of that’s in there.
How are you feeling these days? Is there anger? Or is there more hope?
Man, there’s always hope. I can be as pessimistic as the next guy, but at the end of the day, I watch my kids who are 14 and 11 at this point. I watch what they go through and how much more empathetic and compassionate and smart they are– and I’m not talking about just my kids; I’m talking about a group of kids of that generation– they care so much more about the world and how to get help to other people and how to help themselves. They’re talking about feelings. I was bottling shit up and putting it in journals, trying to scream about it on stage for well into my fucking 30s, long before I understood that there’s other ways to cope with some of the shit that can help. (Laughs) I got 14 and 11-year-old boys that are already working with their peer groups about conflict resolution and how to talk about themselves! I can be pessimistic and down on shit as you, but I got bags full of hope, all the time!