Dense, dark, tormented, emotional. The music of Texan songwriter Micah P. Hinson, one of the most interesting artists in the U.S. folk scene, is a fire of obscure passion that overwhelms souls and burns hearts up. Modest, shy, but also frank and friendly: in this interview the Abilene songwriter talks about his music projects, his relationship with popularity, his love for photography and his collection of typewriters.You definitely are one of the most promising songwriters of the independent music scene. So, a good way for starting this interview could be to talk about the process of song writing itself. How does Micah P. Hinson make a song “come to life”?
Why thank you kindly. I'm not sure I believe you, but it's awfully nice of you.
I think the process of making a song is reasonably easy. I think it comes down to just a few things: a set of chords, a set of melodies, a set of words, some sense of emotion. And not in that particular order. But, for me, the music always, always comes first. Music cannot form around words. only words around music.Where do you get your inspiration from?
These tiny little bullshit things that make up life. All the damn broken little parts that occasionally come together and somehow end up being worth a damn.What are your influences?
People that have written, created, and self-destructed.It’s remarkable you’re music is really popular in latin European countries like Spain and Italy especially if you compare it with the popularity you have your home country. Has it something to do with emotions and the way these people in these countries live feelings?
I remember growing up in school and the teacher looking down at me and saying: "Music is the one universal language". I had no idea what she was talking about. But the more and more I head over to those strange and interesting lands, I find her words more and more truthful. I imagine some of my biggest listeners have no idea what I am talking about. It's an interesting thing to try to wrap the mind around.A painful tension towards an ideal of absolute beauty seems to obsessively cross your music: in your opinion can beauty without pain exist?
Yes, it can. But humans are obsessed with pain, whether it is their own, or others.The atmospheres in your latest album “And The Red Empire Orchestra” seem to be “less dark” than in your past production. Does it also reflect a different mood (related to changes in your life?) or is it just a matter of stylistic choices?
I couldn't say it is either. With “The Red Empire”, I didn't set out to make any particular kind of record. All I knew is that I wanted to be clear as the day the day is long and more stringent than my previous attempts. As an example, in the past, I would record 10 guitar parts for one song, hell, maybe even 15. with “The Red Empire” I wanted to leave it at 1. Therefore that 1 guitar part had to be good. It couldn't hide behind 9 other sons-of-bitches. There would be no place to hide for any instrument. I thought this to be an interesting concept. And there it was, “The Red Empire”. I worked damn hard on that record and sat in many a small, sweaty room trying to get the bastard just right. Who knows if I accomplished it or not... we can see when the sales come in... ha...Gaining an increasing critical as well as public acclaim also means to be in the centre of attention not only when promoting an album or when playing at concerts but also in everyday’s life. You are becoming more and more popular, release after release. How does this fit your personality? In other words: how do you relate with popularity?
I don't relate very well to it. It is something I don't really want to think of. I have a feeling that the acknowledgement of one's popularity can only lead to an over-analyzation of one's self and give one a false sense of worth in the world. And I wouldn't want that, now would I? Value in the world is not based, in my eyes, on how many people know your name, or how many people bring you up in everyday conversation. That is ridiculous, and foolish. The thing that gives us worth in this world is how well we fought off the demons and what we learned from it, how well we treated others....so many things carry more weight than the concept, or accomplishment, of popularity.In your albums you have always shown to be a notably talented musician, playing a wide range of instruments. In “The Red Empire Orchestra” you even tried your hand with an amazing number of keyboard instruments: Hammond organ, melodica, grand and upright piano, Wurlitzer student piano, Rhodes piano, Casio keyboard and even a Jaymar children’s piano. What is so far the instrument you played that you had more fun with?
The piano. The keys are all just laying out there for you to play. You don't particularly have to know chords, or anything involving music theory, for that matter. I've never had actual piano lessons. I signed up for them in university, but failed miserably, as I refused to practice, hell, I could write songs... what more did I need? Growing up, my grandmother had a piano, which now sits here at my house, that I play on a daily basis. I remember playing that thing year after year. I always wanted to create something. I wanted to move things with my hands.Is there any instrument you would like to experience but you have not yet had the opportunity to?
The sitar.And what is the instrument that moves/touches you most?
The cello. It is the only instrument, I believe, that can actually convey true human emotion.
I'm not sure how it does it, but it must be the vibration of the strings, or the way the wood is bent and shaped, I'm not sure, but in my eyes, it is truly the most stunning and moving instrument man has ever made.You have worked and still work with many musicians, when recording as well as when performing live. What are the qualities you appreciate most in your music-mates?
Honesty. Compassion. Empathy. Passion. Without these things, more people would die out on the road. Do you mainly have a soloist approach or do the other musicians you work with have any influence on the final recording choices?
I listen to people. I don't close my ears to people ideas or opinions, but when it really comes down to it, I try to do it all myself. With my first record, the Earlies
had a big hand in helping me with that. They provided most all the backing instruments, other than guitar, some piano, organ and drums. They were damned amazing and I think we made something to be proud of, but as far as all the songwriting, the backbone of the bastards, I had those already worked out in my mind or on tape. With “The Opera Circuit”, I recorded and wrote all that at home here in Abilene, and a friend, Eric Bachmann
, wrote the string and horn arrangements. Then, with this last “Red Empire” record, I got the assistance of my pal, T. Nicholas Phelps, and a few other choice people. With “The Red Empire”, I think I gave up the most amount of power I had ever given up before, as far as how the songs physically sounded, not the arrangements or the structure of the songs. I recorded it with John Congleton of the Paper Chase
and he was a different breed of fella than I had worked with before. But yeah, long story short, I call the shots. Ha....The musicians who took part in the realization of your albums are grouped within music ensembles with curious names: “The Gospel Of Progress”, “The Opera Circuit”, “The Red Empire Orchestra”. How did you get this idea? And where do the three mentioned above names come from?
The idea to name records in this fashion came to me a damn long time before I ever had the luck of being signed up to a record label. I was in University at the time and was playing with a drummer friend of mine. I had called our little outfit "MPH and The Opera Circuit". I thought it was a new and interesting way to approach a title and band name. It covered two things: the title of the record and the title of the band. Clearly people in the past had titled their band, "Blahblah and The Blahblah's" but never had I seen that name change, and with every record. I feel it gives a different feeling to each record and is able to separate itself from all the other recordings. It also gives each band a separate identity.On your last European tour you were with a smaller band (just Nick and your wife). To what extent was it possible to recreate the atmosphere of your music as it usually is when your band is at its full?
I haven't had a proper full band since I was touring with the Earlies years back, when they used to back me up every night. After that, it's just been a different set of 3 or 4 people out on the road at one given time, and even sometimes, I've been known to go out on the road on my lonesome. I know that sounds ridiculous in this day in age, with all these massive bands and loud sounds. I'm not gonna lie, but this is mainly due to finance. With this music thing being my full-time job, I have to somehow be able to make money through it, and touring, clearly, is the best way of doing that. I find it better to keep a small band and pay them well and have them well-fed, than have a huge band and everyone is paid under-par for what they are worth. Also, I think a small tight-knit group helps with the general sanity of being out on the road. It's hard to keep one's sanity out on the road, so it's important to surround yourself with good people. I'm sure people come out to the gigs and expect some enormous 15 piece band to be able to pull off these recordings I've made, but that isn't what they are gonna get. I find it important to mix things up. Give people something different. If the recording was a 10 piece band, I'll play it by myself. If the song was recorded by myself, we'll put a huge drum part behind it and some distorted hammond organ and all is well with the world.What are the different emotions you want to trigger in your audience when playing the songs live?
In the end, I guess i aim to hit all the triggers, cause there are a lot of them to hit. If you get them all you will get a mix of all things: the ups and downs, the goods and the bads, the gorgeous and the ugly. I find that to be a beautiful thing.During your tours it sometimes happens that you play for small audiences of about 50 (anyway enthusiastic) people. Is it worth doing it, knowing that critics are very positive but people stay away?
It's all worth doing. hell, I’ve played for less people than 50. I find incredible that 50 people in a country I have rarely been to, to a town I have never heard of, is a sight to see. It's this kind of stuff that warms my insides. It's these kinds of things that make it all worth it. Playing this music I hold dear to those souls who will listen. Incredible.Sometimes, when on stage, you look like another Micah, a more aggressive one…
It is easy to be confined inside a microphone, or a recording. There is only a certain amount of space. live, I find there to be more elbow room, more space to knock around, more energy to create, more atoms vibrating in the air, more everything. I suppose what I do live is just a bit more explosive than my recordings.How do you live the relationship with your audience, when you are on stage?
I find the audience to be a strange thing. I don't find it it to be individual faces staring back, I find it to be one heaving mass. One organism. And sometimes it can be happy with you, and sometimes it can be angry with you. And it's when it's angry with you... that can be the best of times.It’s obvious that your real life reflects in your songs. Looking at your songs from a historic perspective, do you think that they reflect different episodes of your life?
Not every song on every record was written under the album titles. some songs come from as far back as when i was 16 or 15 years old.... and then some were written weeks before the records were completed. Life tends to move in circles, so things that were true 10 years ago, can still ring true today. Though the words change meanings. Though the songs change here and there. But, in the end, I can look at any of my record covers and i can get a certain feeling, a certain energy, off of each, so yes, i suppose they do represent all those chapters.What are your (music) plans for the near future?
I've just finished a covers record for my UK label, Full Time Hobby Records. It's mainly older songs. Folks such as Patsy Cline, Leadbelly, John Denver, Santo & Johnny, Roy Orbison, the Lovin' Spoonful, etc. I recorded with an old friend of mine in Dallas, Texas, at a place called Tomcast Studios. It should be out right before this summer hits us in the face. I've also been working on a side project with my pal, T. Nicholas Phelps, under the name "Broken Arrows". We've been working pretty heavily on that and will hopefully convince someone to release it in the near future; fingers crossed. So far it's the loudest, strangest thing i've done to date. I guess I'm just exercising some demons. I've also been releasing a set of three EP’s with my spanish label, Houston Party Records. I've released 2 so far, and have recently finished the 3rd with the help of T. Nicholas Phelps; all one-take, live-studio recordings with vocals, acoustic guitar, and banjo. Not exactly sure when this will be out, but once all 3 are out, i'm gonna re-record the bastards all over again, mash the bastards all together, push the bastards around, and then release a full-length world-wide of the finished product. After that, I suppose I will begin work on a new full length, and will shoot to have that out for winter of 2010. But yeah, that's it....Let’s talk about your artworks. The portraits of women in your albums are all taken with Micah P. Hinson’s camera. How and when did your passion for photography start?
I suppose I've always found photographs fascinating: the idea of life being stolen onto a piece of paper with the help of some strange machine. I took a class in high school for photography and would leave the campus in my car, taking photos of things I ran across, smoking low-grade grass and cigarettes... That's when I started.
As concerns the writings on your album, you always use the same “typewriter” font, which together with the dark tones on the digipack and the black & white pictures of female figures represents a leitmotif in the today Micah P. Hinson production, giving the artwork a dark sensuality and an “old-fashioned-style” elegance. Is there a(n intended) link between the graphic choices and the atmospheres in your albums?
I find it necessary for things to run together and have a theme, or an idea pushing behind it all, as far as cover art goes. I wouldn't say there is a link between the songs themselves and the covers, clearly, as not all my songs are about women, or black and white scenes. I just wanted something as strangely dark as I felt in my songs. Also, the typewriter "font" I use is no "font" at all. Each individual album used a different typewriter I found here in the thrift stores of Abilene. The first was on a old 1930's Royal typewriter, the next was a 1950's Remmington typewriter, etc, etc... I still have them all, taking up space and getting dusty in my garage. I still write daily on my Remmington, though. I swear the ribbon must be over 40 years old, but it never seems to dry up. It was given to me by my late grandfather, L.J. Nichols, rest his soul. Hopefully it will live forever. It's a beautiful machine, made back when people still cared.How would you evaluate “The Baby & The Satellite” in this regard?
This record, and the 3 spanish EP's, don't fall into the category, for me, as proper full length releases. They are things on the side. Things that I want to be heard, but don't fit into my ideas for the LP's. They are a way for me to express and show a different side of myself. The black and white woman noir is saved only for my proper full-length records and the singles off those records.The famous American photographer Paul Strand, talking about his work once said: “Your photography is a record of your living, for anyone who really sees”. Do you agree? Would you feel like to extend this statement to music and to all art as well?
I think anything a person does is a record of their life, whether they take photos, or lay bricks, or add numbers, or take calls, or write songs, or drive trucks, or deliver food.... We just live seem to live in a world society that doesn't uphold to everyday human, the everyday man, woman, and child. We all take a select few and hold them in the highest regard, failing to realize that each and every once of us has traits far superior to the ones we carry above.The last question is a “open question”. Is there something we haven’t asked that you would like to share with us?
I have two dogs. Bandini and Totiana. They look like small bears and fight as such.
(15/04/2009)The above interview is also published on the Dutch site Stilllife.A special thanks goes to Patrick Kuiper, without whom making this interview would not have been possible.