Lilly Hiatt on Control, A Clean House, and the Making of ‘Lately’
Photo by Dylan Reyes
It feels almost criminal that Lilly Hiatt’s phenomenal record Walking Proof was released in late March of 2020. Her first album since 2017’s critically beloved Trinity Lane, Walking Proof was a bright standout in a dark year, filled with shimmering pop rock anthems about learning to love yourself and overcoming self-destructive habits. It sounded big, like Hiatt was ready to take on anything. Anything, that is, except months and months of isolation and stillness.
In addition to the heartbreak that comes with canceling an entire tour, and the fact that this stellar record that deserved to be heard in crowded venues with loud guitars was reduced to virtual performances, Hiatt didn’t take to the newfound time off too well.
“I cleaned my house a ton — I had a really clean house,” she recalls.
As it happens, though, she also wrote and recorded another album, Lately, out Friday.
A low-key, no-frills collection of songs exploring what happens when we’re too idle for our own good, Lately is, in some ways, the opposite of Walking Proof. Where Walking Proof featured glossy flourishes, Lately is bare bones and straightforward, even down to the mostly one-word track titles. Created with a small group of friends — including Hiatt’s drummer Kate Haldrup, who also produced, as well as Hiatt’s partner Coley Hinson on guitar, and his father Steve Hinson on pedal steel — Lately comes from a place of quiet comfort, borne out of a time of great discomfort.
“I was writing because I love to and I was bored, which I realize is a luxury, but I had to do something with myself,” says Hiatt. “To go from being all over the place and then to not, it just felt counterintuitive to me. I like to move around and, really, I was irritated that I couldn’t enjoy this space that I had to just be. ’Cause you don’t always get that.”
While much of what she was writing last summer wasn’t sparking inspiration, eventually she landed on “The Last Tear,” the first entry of what would become Lately and ironically its final track. “It made me excited about my own songs again,” Hiatt says. A song about closure and the impossibility of getting it the way you might hope, “The Last Tear” starts slow with a soft wave of pedal steel before cresting into a gorgeous, melancholy country rocker. Hiatt’s angelic voice sings:
Keep on the go to try to outrun your heart
And things that happened before you could say your part
Ink that’s indelible from every fire you’ve lit
Asking for answers that you’re never gonna get
It is a fitting end to an album that deals with some pretty dark stuff. But Hiatt has never shied away from the dark stuff, in fact, she excels at speaking truth to the shame and doubt to which we’re all susceptible. Lately is the proof. The low hum of anxiety peaks in “Been,” a song that finds Hiatt confronted with the nagging sense that she isn’t being productive enough in the free time afforded to her by the pandemic. In it, she buys a new rug and nourishing food, conjures memories of travel and freedom, and compulsively cleans to distract herself from the nothingness. “Not meant to stay in one place / stillness just steals my grace,” she sings, practically through gritted teeth.
The album’s title track may breeze in, light and airy, but in it, Hiatt is weighed down by the lure of a no-good relationship, with nowhere to turn. “Forget what I said / I want you baby,” she coos. The push and pull nearly drives her mad:
One day this will all be a distant memory
But right now it’s living inside of me
Wanna buy a pack of smokes
I wanna drive to the river
This city’s got me beat
And I have nothing to give her
“I Can’t Stop,” Lately’s understated showstopper disguised as a tender love song, is actually about the tragic imbalance of a partner that takes advantage of her goodwill. “Better,” with its jangly guitars, treads similar territory as Hiatt puts herself where she knows she doesn’t belong, flirting with toxicity and trying to save something that may not be worth a damn. Anyone who has ever been in love with the wrong person or fallen into the cyclical trap of an unhealthy relationship will see themself in these songs. “I just want to be there for the listeners,” says Hiatt. “If they can relate, that makes me feel good.”
Though it probably sounds like Hiatt fell into a tunnel of sadness and regret in 2020, she found solace in the smiles of neighbors, a new love, and the voices of friends and family, and she came out the other end with a load off.
“I think that I put the majority of my energy into my musical life and I still give a lot to that, of course, and I always will,” she says. “But my eyes opened to the fact that the things that feed that musical life … there’s a lot more to it than just the songs themselves or the albums themselves. There’s a whole world outside of it that needs nurturing. Finding a place there is liberating, cause you’re like, ‘It’s here, it’s always here and I don’t need to put all these parts into place to make anything happen. I just have to live.’”
This Lilly Hiatt is in a better place. She’s laid back. She doesn’t feel pressure to do or be anything that doesn’t feel good. “If I’ve learned anything it’s that I’m not the one in control, so I’ll just do my best,” she says. “That’ll be that.”
We hear this inner peace on some of Lately’s loveliest songs. “Simple” is the recollection of reuniting with her family for the first time in months to celebrate her brother’s birthday. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and to hear Hiatt describe it, “it was powerful” hugging her parents and siblings, seeing them healthy and happy. In Hiatt’s thoughtful, capable hands, the day becomes poetic:
I can’t watermark the memory, it changes with the moon
And every soft smell makes me think about you
The people that I love, they are always in my heart
Even when we don’t talk, I know where ya are
Gentle guitars accompany Hiatt’s dreamy, rose-hued vocals on “Ride,” a love song that finds uncomplicated joy in just taking a drive together. Even as signals of a past life creep in, Hiatt remains unfazed in the moment:
Lights in the breeze
Once had my name
Nothing’s the same
I love to ride with ya, honey
Nothing else matters when you’re with me
Last year induced fantasies in many of us — quitting our jobs, living off the land — but Hiatt didn’t get sucked in, grounding herself in what she’s always known she loves to do: “I just wanna give people music,” she says. “It’s something I can do.”
Once she got going, she couldn’t stop, recording demos with her phone and bringing them into Death Ladder Studio in Nashville the very next day, never overthinking things. Right on theme, she kept it pretty simple. “Usually by the time they’re coming out, they just have to,” she says of her songs. “I don’t try too hard to make a song happen. It’s gonna happen or it’s not.”
Hiatt also added more guitar solos than she ever has and hopes to keep that playful spirit now that she’s finally back on the road, whether by herself or with a full band. And despite 2020 feeling like a lifetime ago, she’s eager to play songs from both the new records. “They’re partners, those albums,” she insists. “Walking Proof is the before times and Lately is the after times, and that’s that.”