Playing it fast and loose

Singer/songwriter John Hiatt doesn't overthink his music

Staff writerJuly 16, 2010 

  • Who: John Hiatt

    When: 8 p.m. Thursday

    Where: Cat's Cradle, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro

    Cost: $35

    Details: catscradle.com or 967-9053

It's not unusual for bands to spend years or even decades (see Axl Rose) making an album, laboring over every last sonic detail.

John Hiatt doesn't work that way. Ask him about the song-shaping that goes on in the studio with his band, and he laughs.

"The way we approach this is to run the song down and start rollin'," Hiatt says, calling from a tour stop in Minneapolis. "We'll get about three takes and then we know it too well, and it will start sounding bad. So we go sit on the porch, get some coffee, talk about some kinda [expletive]. Then after a while we'll say, 'Let's go listen to those first three takes again' - and usually, it's one of those."

As creative processes go, it sounds about as low-stress and no-nonsense as recording gets: Line 'em up and knock 'em down.

"Yeah, that's about the size of it," Hiatt says. "That's how much we put into the building. It's pretty much just straight-up live recording, although we might have to go back and fix something here or there. But if we don't get it in the first few takes, we're past it. We're not very good once we know the song. We're better when we're in the dark."

Nearly four decades into his career, Hiatt (who turns 58 in August) is still better-known as a songwriter, having penned hits for Three Dog Night, Bonnie Raitt and even erstwhile "American Idol" judge Paula Abdul. But over the past decade, he has settled into a relaxed groove as an artist in his own right, with a series of solid albums like his latest, "The Open Road" (New West Records).

As always, Hiatt's sandpaper rasp is front and center in steady-rolling blues-rock songs about things in motion - motor vehicles, freight trains, hearts. The album sounds just like a collection of tunes that friends might bang out in the circumstances Hiatt describes above, and it's got plenty of first-take mojo.

Yet the seemingly contradictory part is that, given the on-the-fly nature of Hiatt's recordings, his songs get better when they're played every night on the road. Hiatt and band are on tour and will demonstrate Thursday at Cat's Cradle in Carrboro.

Change is good

"You do go through a process when you get out and play," he says. "We try to change the set every night, because it gets to feeling tired and robotic if we don't. Keeping the music alive is all I've ever tried to do. It was either Miles Davis or James Brown who said that the first job of a musician is to get past your instrument. I know exactly what that's about, getting out of the way. If you don't, you can get trapped and you're not making music, but some other thing; I dunno, math equations. I just try to keep it from turning into math equations, although my math teacher always said that everything is math equations."

As to when Hiatt's next set of songs might apparate, Hiatt says that is largely beyond his control.

Touring for "The Open Road" will take up the rest of this year. That's plan enough for now.

"I have absolutely no control over songwriting," Hiatt says. "I just sit around and play, and if I get lucky, I get lucky. The best I can do is have the tools at hand, keep in the habit of playing and hope that something will come.

"As I get older, so much of my day is devoted to self-preservation - taking care of myself, saving enough energy. Because it's all about the show, you know?"

david.menconi@newsobserver.com, blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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