So Warm and Old Sounding: A Conversation with Jake Hill

Jake Hill is a singer/songwriter from Plymouth, Massachusetts, from across the country, and from down the street. He has miles on his voice, blisters on his fingers, and stories to tell. He has released a number of albums, including Motel by the Side of the Road, New Men Old Boys, Any Kinda Work Today, In the Mountain’s Shadow, Heave To and Black Coffee Sessions. You can find him here and here.


UFR: First, I’m wondering if you can talk about your songs a little bit. A lot of them are like stories, or are stories. How do you choose what to write about? How would you describe your music?


Jake Hill: Stories are all I am really interested in in life. Whether it be literature, spoken from the mouth of an old man or a young child, or within the parameters of a song. Without stories we are nothing. We tend to forget this since we have so much cool technology and playing a dirt bike game on your cell-phone is easier then getting old uncle Horace to sit down and tell us again about the time he thought he found the skeleton of dinosaur in his raspberry bramble. Back in even our grandparents’ generation, the story was the golden form of entertainment, and I’m just kind of an old-school guy who believes in the importance of tales as lessons of precaution, exhaustion, and inspiration.


UFR: So really then, your songs are like stories, as your lyrics are full of metaphors, images and also a lot of heart. As a musician, do you also consider yourself a writer?


Hill: I consider myself a writer first and a musician second. The guitar and (recently) piano are just vehicles for my stories, really. I have been playing music in one form of another since third grade and making up stories about nonsense since I learned how to babble as a baby, I believe. The way I see it, rhetoric is the most important tool in directing people to what you want them to see. Just look at religion and politics as two monstrous examples. I’m just trying to use those skills I deduce for good, and not evil as my two examples dip into from time to time (or all the time, depending on your vantage point).


UFR: Can you explain the story behind a couple of your songs? Maybe “High and Low,” for example, or “Motel by the Side of the Road.”


Hill: Funny you picked these two songs, because both of these tunes started out in very different places than where they finished. (That’s the fun of writing for me, you really have no idea where you’re gonna wind up, and if you do, you’re a party planner, and not a writer at all.) They both started as little anecdotes from the life of Townes Van Zandt (my #1 inspiration to dedicate myself to the craft of writing, and in my humble opinion, the best songwriter to ever live). I have read every biography and piece of written word on him that I can find, because I’m trying to find clues as to why he was so much better than everyone else, but like looking for the Sasquatch, my efforts are usually in vain. “I had me a horse and her name was Geraldine,” which is the first line of “High & Low” was a fact that I got flat wrong about Townes that worked for the song—he had a dog name Geraldine, and horse named Amigo—and after I wrote that, I just wrote it about myself. The song took about 5 minutes to write and those are my favorite ones, because they usually freak me out. If I feel like shit after I write a song quickly, it’s usually because I just scared myself, and I know I’m on to something.

And “Motel” was written about a year after in pretty much the same way. I was reading this “American Songwriter” article about Townes, and there was this one part where he was talking about living on the road and the countless wayward motels he called home, and he had this one line about how the heavy curtains that can turn the brightest day into the darkest night if you were feeling blue, and he basically said that the curtains knew when you were blue. I thought that was far-out, so I just went with it. And 10 minutes later, boom, I was shaking at my desk smoking cigarettes like all my heroes who’ve died young.


UFR: So what is it about musicians like Townes Van Zandt that speaks to you? What in particular do you like?


Hill: I believe the effect of a songwriter is the same as the effect of painter. It’s how beautiful of a scene you create, or how effective a scene you create, that the consumer judges you upon. And the songwriters that do it with the sharpest pictures and the most tragic scenes are the ones that I call God. Townes is just the best I’ve ever heard, and I listen to his music everyday and I have for years, and sometimes I walk away with an answer to something I was looking for, or sometimes with a heavy heart.


UFR: As a body of work, your albums seem to evolve. Each one is different but they’re all unmistakably yours. Despite any differences your albums may have, is there anything that stays the same?


Hill: Well that is a mighty nice thing to say, thank you. And the only explanation for that is my first album came out when I was 22 or thereabouts, and now I’m 28, and in those 6 years I have gone from being obsessed with writing songs, to really not being able to do much else in the adult world. I have committed my life to my music, and I think when you fully commit yourself to something, your work changes. It becomes yours, and not an imitation of something else. The sounds and players may change, although they really haven’t in the past couple years. The thing that stays the same is that I am singing it. I might not be the prettiest singer, but I love the hell outta’ it, and I think people understand that.


UFR: Your work also seems to have that rare timeless quality to it. Even when you put out a new song it feels like we’ve heard it before, in an entirely good and exciting way. Do you agree? If so, how why do you think that happens?


Hill: The familiarity of music is something I have always been drawn to, and something I strive for in my music and writing. I am basically a hillbilly singer from a middle class, loving family from the suburbs. I mean three or four generations ago my people were getting in fist fights in sailor bars, but that’s not any kind of place to raise a family. I discovered at an early age that everything you can think of to do has already been done before, unless you’re a true genius, and trying to reinvent the wheel of music is just a waste of time. Three-chord songs sound awesome throughout American music, so that’s what I do.


UFR: It seems like your band is a pretty important part of your performances and really, your music. As far as composition, what do they bring to the table? What does your writing process look like? Do you write alone first and then bring what you have to the band or do you all collaborate?


Hill: YES! Great question. The people in my life musically are the oxygen and bread and beer of my life. Kit Carlyle is my right-hand man, and one of the most wonderful musical minds I have ever been around, and probably ever will. He can play any instrument well—and if he can’t, give him five minutes—and his additions to the songs melodically and tonally are something I am forever grateful for. He has also been taking the production reigns ever since we went rogue and his ideas and execution while recording is brilliant.

Dave Robertson is the dude I have been playing with the longest, and perhaps the perfect bass player. He is downright nasty at his instrument, is always on time, and knows his role as a bass-man, and loves it to the center of his being. I hope to play with my band for the rest of my life, but I kind of know I will have but one bass-man for the remainder.

Larry Anzuoni has been around for the shortest amount of time (a year-and-a-half) and has had a gigantic impact on our live sound and our recorded sound. He owns his own amazing recording studio at his home, and hits the drums like a savage one minute and a little old lady the next. Some people call it “dynamics,” I call it the “Savage/Little-Old-Lady Syndrome.”

Chris McClellan and Jim Betts are my writing partners and I am forever grateful for them. They’ve been my mates since grade school and neither of them studied writing at all, but they’re great minds, and loose like me and we write a ton of songs. Most of them are either joke songs or suck songs, but every once in a while we get some real gems. That’s writing for ya’. It’s miserable. Then it’s brilliant. And then you’re addicted.

And we would look much less pretty and professional looking if it werent for Scott Gordon Bleicher, my photographer/videographer friend from NYC. He is a visionary dude who’s ideas are oftentimes more outlandish than mine, if you can believe it. A man of incredible desire and focus, he is. Scott has done 8 videos for me over the past couple years and 4 album covers and has been an amazing asset to the direction of this hell journey. I’m pretty sure Scott and I will work together forever as well. I hope we all can be in a kick-ass poetry/rock-and-roll club in heaven after all this stuff is through.



UFR: A simple, yet big question: Why do you write?


Hill: I write because I feel it’s one of the only noble things a person can do with his life. Putting out fires, building quality products, being a good parent to your children and writing worthwhile things is the only way I think people should live. I’m glad no one listens to me though, or else I wouldn’t be able to get a great deli sandwich at a great deli.


UFR: I’m wondering about your writing process. What does it look like? When you’re first drafting a song, are you concerned with both the text and the song itself? How do you negotiate between the two?


Hill: The process is forever in flux for me. Songs can start from just farting around on the guitar, or eavesdropping on a conversation, or reading a line in a story or interview or street sign. The most important part of writing for me is being open to writing at any moment. My best songs have come to me by sitting still at my desk and looking out the window. That is also how I write my worst songs. There are no answers, just trial and error and self-doubt and more self-doubt and parties and long drives and hangovers and borrowing money and emailing and spending all your money on a guitar that you saved to go on vacation with your girlfriend and now you don’t have a girlfriend and you can now plan a longer tour that you will leave for heartbroken and come back from with fond memories and a pain in your chest that you keep telling yourself is the final scene of the play. But then you get 14 hours of sleep and everything’s great again.


UFR: You’re from Plymouth, Massachusetts, America’s hometown. Has living there affected your music? Have you traveled elsewhere? How does location influence your songwriting?


Hill: The whole America’s hometown thing is not something I’m proud of, because of the slaughter of the people who’s hometown it really was, but that is a black mark on American history, and I had nothing to do with it, so I consider Plymouth the place of infinite inspiration. My family is here, my woods are here, my sea is here, my fish are here. Without all these things, my writing would be sterile, or sane, and I don’t want any of those things. I have been all over the world, not every place, yet, but a bunch of places, and Plymouth is where I come back to. It’s “Home.”


UFR: A question I love to ask: Does your music inform your life or does your life inform your music?


Hill: Well, I usually get all my information from library, so I think the answer to this question is: Plymouth Public Library. I kid, well, kind of. Music is my life; it wakes me up at 1 am like a crying child, it races my heart and slows it on down. It feeds my need for wonderful and wonderment. So, in short, music informs my life informs my music.


UFR: What do you have to say to people who might say pursuing music is a long hard road, with little chance for success?


Hill: Pursuing music is a long hard road, with basically zero percent chance for success. It needs to be more damning, I feel. You don’t choose to be a musician, it chooses you. And you’re officially screwed once you realize you cant do anything else. It’s okay though. Because you’re a musician, and you’ve always been weird. And that’s the best part.


UFR: As either a musician or a writer, what’s been your biggest obstacle?


Hill: The biggest obstacle for me was convincing the people that loved me that I am doing the right thing. And the hardest part about that is when years later you seem to be in the same spot, and they take a more serious stance with you that you’re throwing your life away. The hardest part is then looking that person in their eye and telling them to go fuck themselves. Telling them how if they lived a “normal life” like that person probably does, that that result would drive you to homicidal or suicidal thoughts. And going back to your desk and finishing your damn song, because that’s your damn job, and making it not about bringing a hand grenade to work and pulling the pin and rolling it down the pathway of the cubicles. That’s hard, for me.


UFR: Who or what are some of your creative influences?


Hill: Townes Van Zandt, the woods, the oceans, the rivers, Jim Harrison, Tom McGuane, Steve Earle, Woody Guthrie, writing a better song than Jim Hanft, the mountains, the people, Don Delillo, Ted Kooser, The Tallest Man on Earth, my brother Adam, my sister Alicia, the “pre-morning” (hours between 1 AM and 6 AM), fishing, eating, John Steinbeck, Jim Harrison (again) and Peace.


UFR: As a musician, where do you want to go? What’s next?


Hill: The remainder of my life on earth? My only goal for right now is to be able to buy a house on the Eel River in Plymouth and go fishing much too much. A lofty goal some might think, but I feel a shift coming.


UFR: What one piece of advice do you have anyone who wants to pursue musicianship and songwriting?


Hill: Musicianship: play, play, play. Swear at your instrument and hands and heart, and play some more. Then play more. And in eight years you might be good enough. Music is a son-of-a-bitch.

Songwriting: listen to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Tom T. Hall & Steve Earle everyday of your life, and read books!


UFR: You’re soon releasing All the Voices of the Forest, a children’s album. You’re also working on an EP with Charley Hustle of The Hustle Standard. These records seem completely different but both seem totally great. Can you talk about them a little bit? Are you working on anything else?


Hill: YES! To the projects part! I will be as succinct as possible here, because there are a few:

March 30th, my rock and roll band, Dudes Of The Dungeon (which is exactly the line up of my Jake Hill & Deep Creek band, with the addition of Chris McClellan & Jim Betts sharing the lead vocal duties with me), will be releasing an EP we created one night while recording the new JHDC album. It’s called “Playing Cards & Drinking Beers” and its gonna’ be 8 songs and like 60 minutes long and its wicked low-fi and loud and aggressive without being too aggressive.

April 19th is the release of the kids album, “All the Voices of the Forest.” We did this between Christmas Eve and the end of January. I received a grant through The Iguana Fund to write and record it, and that is exactly what we did. Kit produced and recorded and basically played all the instruments on the record, and I wrote the songs alone or with Jim and Chris, and with the help of Dave Roberston, and Allyson Harple, we recorded a children’s album that we are extremely proud of, and hope will bring thoughtful joy to the children and parents who listen.

April 3rd will be the release of “Compilation Vol. 1,” a 12-track record I recorded with the Handsome Ladies Record Club that was started this past December by Will Knox, Alec Gross and myself when Will had the idea of buying an old 1/4 tape machine and recording all the songs with one microphone & recording the takes to video and putting them together. (It will be available here and on Bandcamp.) The result has been amazing, and we’re just playing and singing on each other and having a wonderful time and the recordings have been so warm and old sounding since we recorded them on such a wonderful machine. We are headed out to the west coast for a 10-day tour that will bring us all over California, including the Hotel Cafe in LA, April 5-15th. And an east coast tour in June, and hopefully Europe by the end of the summer.

Mid-June or so will be the release of the new EP from Jay Kill & The Hustle Standard. This EP will be similar to our first EP “New Men Old Boys,” but will also have the addition of a lot of live instruments done by the Deep Creek boys, and also other New York City players that have yet to be tracked. I love working with Charley. He is a producing and engineering genius and one of the best people I have ever meet. These songs are really exciting for me.

End of June/early July will be the release of the new Jake Hill & Deep Creek album that we have been tracking on and off since last April and have finalized 15 song out of 27 or something that we recorded and it has been an amazing adventure recording this album, and I think the end result is going to be something we are all extremely proud of. We should be wrapping it up before long.

And in the very near future, Mark Bryant at Plimro Records, who I recorded my 2nd, 3rd & 4th album with is releasing a best of 2008-2011 Jake Hill record called “Repressed in Plimoth” that will feature new mix and masters of songs we have been putting out in the past few years. There will also be a DVD with all the videos created by Scott Gordon Bliecher, as well as bonus footage and bloopers and unreleased songs that I recorded about four years ago. That should be cool and I’m very proud of what we have done together at Plimro.

So that’s it for now I think.


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