The Closer He Gets

Every minute of every day, an introspective bedroom strummer somewhere on earth takes a break from penning maudlin tunes about his ex-girlfriend long enough to fantasize about his own vindication writ large. But only a few of the crooners who envision major-label scouts discovering the Next Big Thing in the plaintive passages of their fingerprint-smudged demo cross the threshold of their dreams. Canada's uni-monikered Hayden, then, is a genuine rarity--a singer-songwriter who was still living in his parents' basement when behemoth American labels (including Geffen, with whom he eventually signed) began bidding for his talents. Moreover, he's survived this ordeal without losing any of his homey appeal.

"Some days I feel lucky about it and thankful and that whole 'I can't believe that happened to me' kind of deal," he muses. "But the truth is, most days I just kind of deal with whatever is going on in that day. Because things happen in small steps, some things don't seem so unbelievable after a while."

Though his living arrangements during the 1994 period mentioned above lent him a slacker veneer, Hayden was hardly idle. Within a year of purchasing a four-track, he had self-released a twelve-song cassette on his own Hardwood imprint, initiated a regular solo acoustic showcase at the Rivoli in Toronto, and begun touring his homeland. Another year hence, he launched Everything I Long For, a critically acclaimed debut CD that quickly dominated the Canadian indie charts and precipitated keen interest south of the border. "It's that scenario where if someone told me three years ago what would happen in those four months, I would have said, 'No way, that's crazy,'" he says. "But as it was happening, it was just the next step in the craziness that was going on at the time, so I never really freaked out about it or anything."

The freaking out came later, following a marathon of solo dates. "I remember at the tail end of when I was touring Everything I Long For, when it was just me every night," he notes. "And at the odd show, I actually ended up feeling like I didn't want to go on stage. At that time, I had toured the record for two and a half years in Canada, and then it was released in America and the rest of the world. Basically, three years after I had written and recorded the record, I was still playing it live--the same songs with one acoustic guitar and vocals and harmonica. I'd burnt out on the same songs and just me all the time." As a result, Hayden bailed on numerous dates, including an entire tour of Europe. In explaining his decision, he says, "Once I came to the realization that I wasn't into it, I couldn't fake it, because I'm not a good faker."

Hayden's inability to falsify is confirmed by the yarns he spun on Everything, as well as by those that appear on his latest long-player, The Closer I Get. "I would say that 95 percent of the lyrics are based on something true, whether it's something that happened to me or something that happened to a friend of mine," he reveals. "But I often change things around and make up endings and change little facts here and there, because I have fun doing that and it doesn't incriminate the people I know." Such subtle twists have abated any backlash, as has the convenience of absolute breakups. The reason former objects of his affection have never asked that he cease and desist rehashing their shared heartache is because "the people I write songs about never want to talk to me again," he speculates with a laugh.

The distant past no longer figures as prominently on Hayden's latest CD as it did in his previous work. "There aren't any songs that reflect back on my childhood, and that was a bit of a theme I explored in Everything I Long For," he remarks. "There are always those family stories that get repeated whenever you get together about funny things or embarrassing things that happen when you're kids, and I ended up writing three or four songs about those particular stories on my last record."

A more obvious shift pertains to Hayden's lazy barfly baritone. On his earlier offerings, he frequently veered into Tom Waits territory, busting out a gravelly caterwaul on tunes like "Skates." Now, however, he says that he's "in a different kind of space, where I don't think that I would want to sit and listen to someone screaming. So I don't really feel like doing that right now. And there are other, smaller reasons--like, it hurts my throat."

Aside from lessening his pain, Hayden's goal on The Closer I Get was to raise the intensity via the music as opposed to the vocals. To accomplish this, he ventured from his bedroom to utilize a number of recording studios, where he was able to fiddle around with twenty tracks rather than four and employ the odd instrument, like a Mellotron. In addition, the songwriter secured the services of revered producers Steve Fisk (Screaming Trees, Geraldine Fibbers), John Hanlon (Neil Young) and Scott Litt (Nirvana, R.E.M.). Rubbing shoulders with these studio luminaries didn't cause Hayden's head to either swell or deflate unnecessarily. In fact, the trio left him largely unfazed.  

"I didn't really want a producer who was going to tell me what instruments I should add to each song and whether I should do one harmony on my voice instead of three, because I was used to working by myself and not having to ask if anyone thought something was a good idea or a bad idea," he states. "Maybe I was spoiled, but it's my music, so I was pretty sure about what I wanted and what instruments I wanted on each song. Not to say that in each situation the people I worked with didn't add a lot to the record, but it might have ended up in more of an engineering capacity--just making things sound really nice and pleasant to the ear."

Even though the music on the new disc is more layered and complex than that of his prior recordings, chances are slim that Hayden will cease to be identified with his words. He has mixed emotions about that. "I have friends who will listen to music, and they'll know all the lyrics, and that's how they decide if they like the song or not," he points out. "And I know a bunch of other people who could love a song and it can be their favorite song, and they don't even know what the person is singing about--and I'm actually in that second category. I would rather just be known as a musician than a singer-songwriter. I happened to end up making my first record with the vocals really up front in the mix, and you could hear what I was saying, and I was telling little stories, but I've always thought of myself as more of a music person."

Nonetheless, Hayden's resume attests to other loves. He studied filmmaking at a school for radio and television and has made videos for himself and fellow musicians with the assistance of Canada's munificent funding for the arts. "You can get certain disbursements for starting up labels and money for recording a demo and all that sort of thing," he reports. "But I never applied for anything like that. The only thing I ever applied for was videos. There's a foundation called the VideoFact, and over the last four years they've basically given me like $30,000 to make videos that I didn't have to pay back. I applied for two of my friends' bands, and I got $10,000 each to do their videos. And then I got another $10,000 to do the first video from my last record." He's crafted all his videos thus far with the exception of the two latest clips, but he insists that the visual medium is of secondary interest for him: "It's something I enjoy, but I think I'm better at music than I am at film, just because of the way I think--you know, to have things be more immediate. With film, you don't really see the rewards of it for a while."

Immediacy was the guiding principle behind Hayden's contribution to Steve Buscemi's directorial debut, Tree's Lounge, a movie for which his growly, mundane narratives were uniquely suited. "I get film offers to do these generic kinds of 'We need a love song for Sally and Mike to kiss to' songs," he says. "But I one-hundred-percent need to see a film before I decide whether I'll be interested or not." He adds, "I loved Tree's Lounge right when they sent it to me, and I wrote the song that night, actually taking lyrics right from the dialogue of what the characters were saying in a certain bar scene. Two days later I recorded it, and that was it."

Clearly, Hayden has remained true to the solid simplicity with which he began, despite the ensuing privileges of major-label affiliation. But smoking record sales and steadily packed houses continue to elude him. "In America, I'm going to be playing to a lot of clubs that have fifteen or twenty people in them, and maybe not even that. Whereas in Canada, because I've toured a lot there, I've ended up getting a certain amount of fans just from showing up and playing." Yet Hayden is grateful to have reached the level he has and refuses to wax nostalgic for his days of complete obscurity, as other hyped acts are wont to do.  

"Sometimes I think about driving in my brother's Toyota by myself to shows in southern Ontario and opening for bands and having people talk while I played," he says. "Certain elements of what I'm doing now are a bit more fun than that, I guess."

Hayden. 8 p.m. Thursday, June 25, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $7, 830-

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