Chris Hickey Talks About Love Away and Sings About Strummer, Cash, Whitley, and McLennan
Chris Hickey’s Love Away (Work-fire Recordings) was one of my favorite albums of 2014. I was introduced to Hickey in 1987 with his DIY lo-tech but not lo-fi album Looking for Anything  and I’ve been a fan ever since. Love Away finds Hickey, some 27 years later, still searching for answers and still writing songs with amazing depth and detail. With a poet’s eye (or is it a poet’s ear?) Hickey writes without wasting words, as he reflects and describes his thoughts and feelings in a series of short two- to three-minute songs.
Hickey “straightens up a few things” and “takes out the trash”. What needs to be straightened out? What needs to be thrown out? “So Little Time”, the final song on the album, laments the loss of Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer, Chris Whitley, and Grant McLennan, and might be depressing if the line “getting closer to the back than I am to the front door” was not preceded by the critical modifier “so little time for posturing anymore”. “We’re all getting older, our time is limited, so don’t waste it,” is a truth for anyone of any age. Hickey’s given us a personal album about reflecting on and trying to make sense of the imperfect world we live in. His delivery falls somewhere between the spoken and the sung and is the perfect instrument to deliver these meditations on life, relationships, and the passing of time. The Zen-like lyrics recall the phrasing of both Jay Farrar and Michael Stipe: “standing on the groundless ground”, “black and white rainbow”, “fragmentary desert”, and “a walk on the beach in an ordinary dream”. Unlike the minimalist DIY Razzmatazz (2009) Hickey adds an assortment of instruments and guest musicians this time around but this still probably isn’t a disc to play for a group of friends at a party. Love Away deserves the listener’s complete attention to fully reap the rewards to be found within its fourteen contemplative tracks. Highly recommended.
Hal Bogerd: Another great album, Chris. I feel like I’m listening to a set of very personal reflective poems set to music. I hope it is obvious I mean that as a compliment. The music complements but never gets in the way of the words. What comes first? The words or the music?
Chris Hickey: Thanks, Hal. The words first and then whatever melody comes directly to mind. Once I’ve written the words, I pick up a guitar and play the song. For better or worse, no effort goes into the melody.
Songwriting is kind of like poetry existing somewhere between fiction and non-fiction.
I have written a few fictional songs in my life, but almost all of them are personal, non-fiction.
Sometimes people don’t want to look back to their older stuff. Looking For Anything is just a great, timeless disc. There are plenty of discs from 25 years ago that don’t hold up. It’s just a fantastic album.
Thank you. It’s a little mysterious to me. People seem to really like those first two records more than anything I’ve done since. I made a thousand LPs of each, and this was well before the Internet, so that was it. But they really found their way around. I had wider releases on major labels, but it seems like those first two LPs reached more people. They were recently rereleased on one CD by Sound Asleep Records in Sweden, and I will put them up on iTunes and other digital distributors before long.
That was the time of college-rock. College radio was where the cool stuff was.
Back at that time, it was so much smaller, simpler. You didn’t need to have a radio promoter or a label behind you. You’d mail a record to a station, and if they liked it, they’d play it. At some point, college radio became a target for major labels.
Razzmatazz (2009) was just you and your guitar, sixteen songs in sixteen days, but you’ve got some help on Love Away: Sally Dworsky, Anne McCue, your son Charlie , and a host of various musicians on an assortment of instruments including zither, cello, violin, saxophone and trumpet.
Walter Zooi, my friend and the owner of the South Pasadena Music Center & Conservatory, invited me over to his new studio to sing a few songs, to break it in. That continued for about two years. Walter produced the record and played many of the instruments including the yali tambor. His wife and former Mountain Goat, Rachel Ware Zooi, played stand-up bass and sang; his son, Max, played clarinet and saxophone. Also, some of the teachers from the conservatory are on there, including cellist Alison Chesley. So, yeah, a lot of help this time, and I have Walter to thank. And Charlie Hickey, my son, and his mom, Sally Dworsky, both beautiful singer-songwriters, are there too. And many more…. Buy it now! Supplies are limited.
“Kerouac” is a track on Razzmatazz (2009) and Jack appears again on Love Away (if only a lover’s t-shirt). He’s obviously a big influence.
I imagined that Kerouac would be too psychedelic or something for me, but he softened my heart.
Ginsburg and the other Beat poets? I hear their influence in the wordplay on “Tossup”.
It’s entirely possible, and I appreciate a lot of that stuff. But Kerouac and Bukowski…
You have an album Release. Release is a concept that shows up in Buddhist teachings. And on Love Away “Broken” includes some spoken word from a dharma talk. Those teachings must be important to you on this journey.
That’s Noah Levine on “Broken.” He’s been the main voice of the teachings for me; I’m so happy to have him on there. I formally started getting into Buddhism about five years ago. The Release record precedes that. But even when I was very young I had the feeling that I’d get around to Buddhism, knew that I would be a meditator eventually. On Release (2003), I was in some pain and confusion, looking for a way out…“something to feed on, I need release,” which I found in Buddhism at the age of 50. It was what I’d been looking for, and I found it, which was a surprise. Like when you’re looking for something around the house and you really don’t expect to find it and then you do find it. I hesitate to get into the whole dharma thing, but the release that I’m pointing to is about letting go. By “letting go” I mean allowing things to be as they undeniably are in a given moment. There is a quote that I hear often that is attributed to Ajahn Sumedo, a Theravada monk: “Right now, it’s like this….”But to answer your question, yes, the practice is important to me. As Noah would say, “This shit works!”
We’re about the same age so I can truly appreciate the sentiment in the closing track “So Little Time”. “Getting closer to the back than I am to the front door anymore.”
Yeah, we’re approaching the far turn…could be any time though, eh?
“So Little Time” mourns the loss of Joe Strummer, Johnny Cash, Chris Whitley, and Grant McLennan. I knew the first three guys but I had to look up Grant McLennan and that led me to The Go-Betweens.
Show of Hands toured around the U.S. with The Go-Betweens. We loved that band and got a little bit close to them, and I hung out a few times after that with Grant. He came to Sonora Recorders in L.A., where I was recording, and added vocals to some things, but I’ve lost track of those tapes.
Before your solo albums you were in a band Show of Hands and released one album. Almost 30 years later Secondly appears in 2013. How did that album see the light of day?
Randell Kirsch, the founder of Show of Hands, sent me a message and asked if it was okay to put it out and I said yeah. He pretty much engineered it and produced it himself. I’m not sure anyone noticed it, but it’s out there. Our first album was on IRS Records. We actually escaped from IRS. They didn’t renew our contract on the date they were supposed to, and we weren’t happy there, so we took advantage of that and got free. Then we recorded the second album and got a couple of offers from record labels, but the band broke up in the midst of those negotiations. And that’s the story.
I know you made a trip to China in 1989 with “Show of Hands”. I know that was a long time ago but that must have been a unique experience.
We flew in through a mist over rice terraces and it might have been Mars. My oldest daughter was there too. She was a year and a half old and she trick-or-treated in the hallway of a hotel. We gave a bunch of people candy to give her. She drew crowds. When her mom stopped to change her diaper in a city square, a large group gathered around…. Show of Hands played for 100,000 people over nine nights in Shanghai, and we sang out on Tiananmen Square for 20 minutes before the police stopped us. Lighted pool tables lined busy streets in Beijing, and there were giant mounds of cabbage on the sidewalk for the taking.
You had an early connection with The Indigo Girls.
Show of Hands toured the U.S. and Canada with them. They were very supportive, so generous. I’d never really encountered anything quite like it.
Your son Charlie sings on “Eye”.
Yes, and Charlie made a record this year too, an EP, Odds, which is up on iTunes. He’s playing shows regularly and getting a lot of attention. Look out!
Free association (Answers Not limited to One Word)
I was driving to work (substitute teaching), the voice on the car radio said poet Charles Bukowski is dead…. That was a shock. I hadn’t contemplated a world without Bukowski.
I saw them first on a little outdoor patio at UCLA. Michael Stipe sang mostly facing the other way, his back to the crowd. They gardened at night; they did a lot of things that people usually do in the day at night. How many thousands of bands did they influence?
Joe Henry’s “Monkey” (the only cover on Love Away)?
I first heard Joe’s newly written “Monkey” live at The Mint, a small club in Los Angeles. I loved it and I thought he had written a hit song, a pop song. But Joe didn’t make a pop record out of it, and now neither have I.
Dharma buddy and real deal. I first heard her on a “Lucinda Williams picks her favorite records” record. The song was “These Things.”
Many glorious Clash shows but always in my head his voice on “Redemption Song” with Johnny Cash…. “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery….” God bless him, please.
Mark Mulcahy, Langston Hughes, Jeff Mangum, T Bone Burnett, Loudon Wainwright III, Jessica Lea Mayfield, Noel Gallagher, Lee Mavers, Joseph Arthur, Michael Penn, Elliott Smith, Ron Sexsmith, W.H. Auden, Gwendolyn Brooks, Siddhartha Gautama…
Do you play out at all?
No. It’s possible that I’ll play out, but I haven’t done a show since Uma (1998).
Do you not enjoy it? Is it just too difficult to do?
I enjoy it, but there isn’t much of a demand for it.
I’m often amazed at how small the crowds are when I go out to see live music. Why are there only thirty people here to see this guy who has released a dozen albums?
Yeah, the last time I saw Chris Whitley was in a small club near San Diego, a few months before he died, and there were about thirty people there.
 If you haven’t heard Looking for Anything (extreme bonus points if you have) it is worth a listen if only for Hickey’s “Langston Hughes”, a moving and ever timely homage to Hughes’ “Theme for English B” (it would be great if it was required reading for the police and the protesters in these troubled times).