Five years ago, a friend eagerly demanded I catch some guy named Sean Hayes in concert. At his behest, I went along, curious to hear something new. That night, among a half-full room of curious listeners and legitimate fans, an unknown-to-me singer/songwriter delivered a set beautiful enough to still hold a place in my list of all-time favorite music memories.
For those who have yet to catch wind of Hayes, his music is a curiously unadorned mix of acoustic guitar–driven neo-folk and groovy, danceable backbeats. Lyrically, his songs bob and weave between the poignant and the celebratory, never dwelling too long nor taking themselves too seriously. Most important, though, is Hayes’s sense of rawness, emphasized most obviously by his warm, slightly hiccupped vibrato.
A touring musician first and foremost, Hayes has been plugging away in and out of his hometown of San Francisco for well over a decade. In person, his wild salt-and-pepper hair and piercing eyes have a world-weariness to them, and his stories — both in song and in person — indicate a tireless artist who, at the end of the day, would not have his life any other way. Last month, on September 11, Hayes released Before We Turn to Dust, his seventh and most insightful studio album to date. Written mostly on piano instead of Hayes’s signature acoustic guitar, Dust is filled with personal stories delivered with matter-of-fact frankness, an approach that he attributes at least in part to his new digs.
“I had my own music studio for a while,” he explained recently via phone. “It took me forever, but I finally found this space behind a café. I also had access to a piano for the first time. I’m a terrible piano player; I don’t really know what I’m doing, but it was a place to go and hang out and work before and after we had the baby. To be able to sing at any time, it’s a tricky thing.”
On the lyrical front, Hayes didn’t have to reach too far for inspiration; in between Dust and his last record, 2010’s Run Wolves Run, he got married and welcomed his first child. On the album, these major life milestones come into play on tracks like “Miss Her When I’m Gone,” a bittersweet number about the life of a touring family man, and “Innocent Spring,” the record’s closing lullaby.
“Having a baby come into my life is massive. It’s not something I can really ignore with the way I write,” he said. “These upcoming tour dates are the longest I’m going to be gone since he was born, and it’s a lot. It’s going to be hard, but it’s also what I want to do. It’s what I signed up for, but it’s definitely a different weight.”
Different, but not all that far removed from the themes touched on in Hayes’s back catalog, which is littered with the kind of true-to-life songwriting that makes his music resonate. “I’ve always said that, at its worst, my writing is like someone’s bad journal,” laughed Hayes. “But at its best, it hopefully reveals something or inspires and lets people realize that we’re all in the same boat.”
For those in the know, it’s the very reason why Hayes remains one of music’s best-kept secrets. It’s also the reason why you should head out and catch him live this Friday. And bring a friend.
Sean Hayes plays SOhO Restaurant & Music Club (1221 State St.) on Friday, October 12, at 8 p.m. Call 962-7776 or visit clubmercy.com for tickets and info.