by Rob van Alstyne
The first reaction to hearing local folk-pop singer Jeff Hanson’s music is inevitably bewilderment. Hanson was born with a head-scratchingly high-registered singing voice, and initial CD player encounters with Hanson’s debut album, Son, had me convinced my stereo was beset with some sort of mechanical malfunction. After getting over the shock of the voice, however, a second, more lasting, assessment took place—this kid can play. The choir-girl-voice-trapped-in-a-man’s-body may be what grabbed my ear, but it was Hanson’s cagey songwriting skills that refused to set my lobe free from its melodic deathgrip in the months to follow.
Download an mp3 of Jeff Hanson’s song This Time It Will courtesy of Kill Rock Stars.
All photos courtesy of Jeff Hanson
in Nebraska with the famed Mogis brothers (producers of nearly all things Saddle
Creek, including Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley and the Faint being the most notable),
Son was a solo tour de force. Handling all instrumentation duties (excepting
piano, played by his soon-to-be-wife Megan), Hanson looked back to the music
he loved as a child growing up in Milwaukee for inspiration—the Beatles,
Simon & Garfunkel, Brian Wilson—and managed to imbue a fair amount
of their spine-tingling melodic mojo into his own deftly played creations. Whether
nimbly fingerpicking his way through intricate acoustic balladry (“Hiding
Behind the Moon”) or power-chording an electrified pop anthem (“You
Are the Reason”), Hanson plowed an effortlessly melodic and memorable
musical path throughout his debut. Hanson’s innocent feminine vocal quaver
proved the ideal vehicle for Son’s dramatic lyrical terrain, composed
mostly of aching paeans to the brokenhearted.
Hanson was signed to prestigious national indie label Kill Rock Stars on the
strength of an unsolicited demo tape—a near unheard-of move for a label
of KRS’ repute—and Son garnered rapturous acclaim in some
big time music press (Time Out New York, CMJ). Currently Hollywood is knocking
on his door (a song off of Son, “The End of Everything Known,”
has just been tagged to serve as background music for a new Josh Hartnett film)
and plans are being made to tour Japan and Australia, where his albums have
recently been licensed for release. Yet for all the at-tention
gets in certain parts of the world, he remains largely unknown in his own backyard.
Having lived in the Twin Cities since 1996, moving here with his band of high
school friends in the emo-rock leaning band M.I.J., Hanson, 26, has been going
it alone since 2000. Aside from scattered local performances (he plays roughly
four local gigs a year) Hanson prefers life on the road and in his apartment
and is the first to admit he doesn’t keep up with independent music trends
(“I heard my first Death Cab for Cutie song four days ago,” he confides
at one point during our hour-long afternoon chat).
The ever-elusive Hanson is poised to step back onto local stages, however, to
celebrate the release of his highly anticipated self-titled sophomore album
later this month. Recorded once again with the Mogis brothers at Presto Recording
Studio in Lincoln, Neb., Jeff Hanson is the opposite of the dreaded sophomore
slump. Splitting the albums 10 tracks down the middle between ornate full-band
sounding efforts and solo acoustic numbers, Jeff Hanson LP No. 2 comes
across as the moodier contemplative cousin to its recorded predecessor.
Rather than going for the immediate hook, the album takes it time. Hanson’s
evocative voice and sturdy acoustic guitar playing steer the course alone on
the initial verses of the epic album opener, “Losing A Whole Year,”
before dropping in an understated rhythm section, stately piano and, as a final
touch, dollops of swooning strings during the second half of its eight-minute
running time. A similar transition from acoustic nakedness into full-bodied
orchestral pop takes place elsewhere, and Hanson’s virtuosity as an arranger
gains strength from his restraint (there are markedly fewer overdubbed vocal
harmonies here than on Son). The ethereal acoustic laments that make
up the other half of the record manage to remain compelling in their nude presentation,
with Hanson wisely saving his strongest lyrics and stealthiest fingerpicked
runs for the songs in which his voice and guitar are the only sounds present.
Given that Hanson’s pedigree comparisons to Elliott Smith are inevitable
anyway (Kill Rock Stars was Smith’s indie-label home in the pre-“Good
Will Hunting Days”), it’s a testament to his skills that the comparison
actually holds merit. Anyone who thought that Smith’s combination of mellifluous
melodies and tremulous compelling vocals were gone for good with his untimely
passing will find plenty to fall in love with all over again when giving Jeff
Hanson a spin. Like all top-flight talents, however, Hanson is best appreciated
on his own merits (he favors a markedly more direct lyrical style than Smith
and one would be hard-pressed to find a Smith tune with the same buoyant country-ish
pop touch as Hanson’s “This Time It Will”). The bottom line
is that it takes a truly unique talent to readily stand out in the overcrowded
field of wounded-boys-with-acoustic-guitars, and Hanson has that rare something—in
his combination of genetically freakish windpipes and ear for classic melodies—that
sets him apart immediately.
I recently chatted with Hanson over early evening pints about how he fits into
the local music scene, the importance of self-confidence in the recording studio
and the dangers of listening to your own music on repeat at 6 a.m. while drinking
heavily, amongst other topics.
Pulse: One of the things that strikes me as strange about the Twin Cities
music scene is that it seems like musicians tend to follow one of two very different
paths. There are artists who play around town and self-release records that
do very well locally but don’t really tour or get known outside of the
Cities, and then people like yourself who have toured the country and record
on a larger indie-label but may actually have a higher profile in other cities
than here because you don’t play out around town very often. Do you feel
like a man apart in some ways? You’ve lived here for a number of years
and your first record did really well in the national press but it seems like
a lot of local music fans still don’t know who you are.
Jeff Hanson: It’s interesting because a lot of the bands that
I’ve toured with experience the same things in their hometowns. I’ll
be in the van and they’ll say something like, ‘the next two nights
should be good, but the third night won’t draw well because that’s
where we’re from.’ It’s not that I don’t enjoy playing
in Minneapolis or St. Paul, because I do, but I also really enjoy touring. I
just don’t want to be that guy who plays the same club all the time, especially
playing solo acoustic it would be so easy to get caught in that open mic scene
playing four nights a week in front of the same people. With touring I get to
play different clubs all the time and play in front of different people all
the time. I like to play sparingly around town, I think it makes it more special.
If someone likes my record they usually make a point to go and see me play rather
than say, “oh I just saw him a month ago.”
Pulse: I know you’ve been finished with this record for a number
of months and sitting on it waiting for release. Is it a pretty exciting and
anxious time now that everything’s finally happening and you get to put
the record out there and hit the road?
Hanson: Oh absolutely. When I did the first record two years ago I didn’t
really know what to expect. The stuff I had done before [with M.I.J.] was on
smaller independent labels, and with Kill Rock Stars being a larger indie I
didn’t really know how it was going to work. When they started explaining
about publicists and that kind of stuff I was just super-excited. Now I sort
of know how the system works.
You’ve been on the racetrack and waiting for the starting gun to go
off for this record awhile now.
Hanson: I recorded it this past summer and was finally finished at the
end of August. So there has been that kind of sitting and overanalyzing period
of, “this sucks” and then the next day feeling, “oh, this
isn’t that bad.” That’s just the way I am naturally. To get
me to like anything that I’ve ever done is amazing. I’m always up
and down. Depending on how I’ve slept I either love or hate the record.
Pulse: The cliché is always that you have your whole life to
write your first record and then a year to write the second …
Hanson: (cuts in laughing) That’s totally true!
Pulse: Were there any of those hurdles to get over in terms of feeling
pressure to live up to the positive reception your first album got?
Hanson: I didn’t run into a problem writing songs but I really
had a difficult time with the recording process in the studio this time around.
From the first record to my second record the playing field was basically the
same in terms of resources. I had a slightly larger budget, but I wanted to
do a little bit more. With Son the attitude was kind of just, “let’s
go in there and do it and we’ll see what happens. I think it’ll
be OK, but who knows.” With this record I had such high expectations and
I knew how I wanted it to sound but it was just a matter of making that happen.
Because I play all of the instruments and we layer it piece by piece, it became
a situation where I became fixated on something like a drum part at the start
of constructing the song and forgot how it would fit in the context of the rest
of the sound. I just started really losing sight of the songs and becoming less
and less confident in what I was doing. Finally by the end I either had to stop
being completely crazy about it or just quit recording —because it just
wasn’t doing anybody any good.
Once you’ve lost any kind of perspective on what you’re creating,
it seems like things could get dark pretty quickly.
Hanson: It’s a slippery slope. As soon as you start lacking confidence
in what you’re doing it just gets worse and worse. It’s hard to
come back from that. Lack of sleep and alcohol probably didn’t help and
started to get to me after awhile. There’s nothing quite like sitting
there listening to your same song over and over again until six in the morning
while drinking straight vodka if you want to make yourself go crazy. (laughs)
Pulse: You’ve already endured countless Elliott Smith comparisons
(because of being a singer/songwriter, having a strong Beatles influence, recording
for his old record label). There is one similarity between the two of you that
really interests me, however, that I’ve never seen discussed. Elliott
was a technically fluent guitar player who wrote musically complex songs but
also wrote really simple and straightforward melodic songs. You’re one
of only a handful of other songwriters I’ve come across with a similar
writing style in that regard. When you have that technical facility how do you
know when to pull it in? It seems like there would always be the temptation
to throw in extra notes even if you’ve got a simple song that already
works, but you manage to avoid doing that.
I think the one real thing that A.J. Mogis had to work with me in the studio
on while making this record was noticing those places where we could have added
a part and choosing not to do it, just keeping things varied. We would have
really spare songs but there would also be a song with four-part harmonies that
broke into a big mid-section. I would hear [the sparer songs] sometimes and
feel like, “oh, this is boring.” The thing I realized when listening
back to it, though, is that you can always add more, I could always throw a
glockenspiel on there, but that doesn’t mean I should. I’m not in
a million years putting myself on their level, but the reason I’ve always
been the biggest Beatles fan is that they always knew exactly what to add and
when to add it. Even from when I was a little kid I remember hearing a snare
drum on track one and thinking how differently it sounded on the next track.
And you know back then they had to totally fuck around with the room just to
get a different sound. They somehow knew that’s what the song needed.
Pulse: Now that you’ve been doing the solo thing for a number
of years are you ever tempted to explore the possibility of working with a band
again? Are you curious to see how a group dynamic would impact your songs since
you’ve been doing something so creatively insular for your first two solo
Yeah, for sure. Playing in [M.I.J.] was awesome and it was a great way to grow
up. Being 17 in a van somewhere in Missouri on tour, that was great. But as
soon as the band broke up, I realized I had been doing the band thing for a
long time. So starting and working on my own stuff I wanted the absolute opposite
of a band set-up. I also didn’t want to make 12 straight acoustic songs
on an album, because I felt like if I could play other instruments and make
it a bit more interesting that would be great. The goal for me, I think, is
to start touring with different lineups. Maybe go out in March solo acoustic
and then do the next run with a rhythm section and the one after that with a
cello. Just try different things. Unfortunately that really boils down to scheduling
and funding to make that happen.
Pulse: As someone who was touring the country and putting out records
in their teens, do you feel like your relationship with making music now is
very different from when you started?
Hanson: I think when I listen to the stuff that I was doing when I was
younger I’m glad that I started when I did. I think it takes a long time
to actually come to a point where you’re comfortable when you sit down
to create a song. I think the process of songwriting is like anything else in
life—you get more comfortable with it as you get older. I mean when you’re
16 what the hell are you comfortable with? You’re not comfortable with
anything. I mean I was 4’11” at 16—really! (laughs) So if
you’re doing music at that age you feel awkward in your own skin, let
alone your artwork. In the end I’m glad that I started so young because
by the time it came down to signing with Kill Rock Stars and going into the
studio to make music, I felt like, “hey, I’m OK with this, I can
withstand the heat.” ||
Jeff Hanson plays his CD release show on Wed. Feb. 23 at the Triple Rock
Social Club with the Ashtray Hearts and Neva Dinova. 10 p.m. $6. 21+. 629 Cedar
Ave. S., Mpls. 612-333-7399.
For more information on Jeff Hanson check out his official
website at JeffHanson.net.
Download an mp3 of Jeff Hanson’s song This
Time It Will courtesy of Kill Rock Stars.