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Christy Hays on the state of narrative songwriting and the lure of Montana

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Christy Hays returns to an isolated, cold landscape to 'get real work done.' - STEPHANIE MACIAS
  • Stephanie Macias
  • Christy Hays returns to an isolated, cold landscape to 'get real work done.'

Had she led a less nomadic life, Christy Hays imagines her songwriting would have been very different.

The Midwestern native, whose recordings and live performances most often draw comparisons to Lucinda Williams, can boast an impressively disjointed geographical resumé.

After abandoning her hometown, Tuscola, Illinois, Hays up and moved to Alaska. Once there, she worked a number of jobs, including a two-summer stint as a river guide during which she lived, for months on end, in a cabin that had neither running water nor electricity.

From there, the alt-country-inclined singer-songwriter relocated to "Music City USA," aka Nashville, where she was able to witness the countrified pop star-making machine up close and impersonal. She then moved on to more like-minded musical terrain in Austin, Texas, and put together the band Caliche with friend and lead guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo of Okkervil River and Octopus Project fame.

Hays figures all that has contributed immensely to her story-based and character-driven songs, which she's certain would have taken a much narrower course had she stayed in a town with fewer than 5,000 people.

Other than innate talent, which she clearly has, Hays says "it takes two things to develop one's songwriting: years in one's life and actually living one's life. Had I stayed in central Illinois, I think a lot of my writing would be about myself, and possibly redundant because of that."

While Hays knows her music would have reflected a narrow cultural perspective if she hadn't taken to the road, she also points out that people are largely the same wherever you go.

"The characters I choose to touch upon could easily be from my small town, but I'm sure my ability to articulate that would suffer. And possibly," she adds with a laugh, "the music would be darker because of depression."

None of which is to say that Hays' lyrics are overtly cheerful, but neither are they self-indulgently morose. Typically, they fall somewhere in between:

"Something here reminds me, of the place where I grew up / Is it the asphalt siding, or the '93 Ford truck?" sings Hays on "You Don't Have to Wait," one of the more plaintive songs on her 2012 album Drought.

In "Chicon," from her 2015 EP Caliche, she conveys similar sentiments, albeit from the perspective of a character who needs no such reminders of the place where she grew up: "I stay close to my mama's house these days / She would have wanted it that way."

Meanwhile, the musical approach Hays brings to her recordings is so stylistically eclectic that a casual listener might not even pick up on them being the work of the same artist. O' Montana is largely acoustic, with touches of understated violin and a subtle country feel, while Caliche, also released in 2015, is a full-on electric band effort.

That latter's echo-laden rock arrangements fall somewhere between Crazy Horse and Cowboy Junkies, an admittedly broad terrain, greatly influenced by Gurgiolo. (For her current tour, Hays is going alone with just voice, electric guitar and a few effects.)

Both musically and lyrically, Hays says she still draws inspiration from Lucinda Williams' breakthrough Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. "That album opened up a whole new world to me for the narrative and grittiness of female songwriting," she enthuses. "The cadence of her lyrics. How simple yet how complex the subject matter was. The depressing beauty... I could go on. I'd never heard anything like it. It made me think there was room for me in this kind of art."

Except, perhaps, in places like Nashville, where the current state of narrative songwriting is not overly healthy. As the Houston musician Robert Ellis recently commented, "It's mostly rich guys in Nashville writing about shit they don't know anything about."

Hays reluctantly agrees. "It's a very small group of people in Nashville that churn out hits for the biggest money-making genre in the world — God knows why — set to hip-hop beats, '80s rock and synth-tones, and then presented as country music. It's more akin to advertising than songwriting."

So now, in keeping with her semi-transient nature, Hays has happily relocated to Butte, Montana, where she recently bought a home of her own. Why would anyone actually choose to live in a place where, as the sun was setting just this past Christmas Day, the temperature had already fallen to 12 degrees?

"I'm pretty introverted, but social when I want to be," says Hays, who thinks of Montana as her Alaska of the lower 48. "I love the north because of the anonymity, nature, unpretentious people and culture. Also, I enjoy winter, which I've lived without for the past eight years in Tennessee and Texas. Winter is quiet, slow, beautiful and lonely. A time to get real work done."

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