While many of his contemporaries have migrated from San Francisco to New York in search of musical fulfillment, Sean Hayes chose to navigate the opposing path. Born in New York and raised in North Carolina, Hayes spent his formative years playing a mix of Irish and traditional American music in a band called The Boys of Blue Hill. Having now been based in the Bay Area since the early ’90s, the singer-songwriter not only infuses the essence of his former ensemble into his musical mix, but he couples it with the primordial rhythms that first attracted him to music. His songs are both an intimate expose of life as he sees it and an entrancing musical prose that addresses-and rings true-to the masses. So if Hayes doesn’t inspire the Sings Like Hell audience to tap their feet as hard as they can on Saturday night, then it is likely nobody ever will.
You have been in San Francisco for 14 years now. What makes the place so special to you, musically? It’s a destination for people from little towns all over the place, I think because its history of music and literature has a big romantic pull-and because of the land and the city and the surrounding environment. I think the music scene comes out of all that. Even the weather influences the music. It’s a weird vortex of a place. Time doesn’t seem to pass the same way it did when I was on the East Coast, where you really notice the seasons. Here the seasons aren’t as pronounced and that impacts upon things too.
How does San Francisco infuse itself into your music? I think San Francisco has a do-it-yourself element. And it’s not a music industry place at all, so it has a more a small town, hands-on vibe to it. I think it also lacks a certain degree of ambition and that makes perfect sense for me! You go to New York or L.A. and you know why you’re there. Those places really focus people because life is a lot more difficult there. You have to be focused to survive. San Francisco is a smaller city than most people realize, and life here is easy and it’s easy to get caught up in that. San Francisco de-focuses people-me being one of them. [Laughs.]
But your latest album-Flowering Spade-seems very focused. That was created fairly quickly in a pretty big studio, correct? Yeah. That was the first time I managed to get into a nice studio to record a whole album. My process is such a documentary process compared to the way a lot of records are made, which are much more thought about and demoed and combed over. Because of limited resources, and also because of my aesthetic, my vibe is more going in and capturing things quickly. It is very snapshot orientated. And, even though that studio offered a little more of a controlled environment than in the past-where I have recorded in a living room or garage-ultimately, it didn’t really change the way I make a record that much.
What would inspire you change your approach? Maybe working with a producer or being able to spend much more time in the studio, which is something I am slowly working toward. I’m actually going through that process on my own right now because I have more equipment at hand, so I’m learning what it means to try a song a few different ways before you commit to it on tape. But I’m going back and forth because it’s also changing how I feel about songs. I think my aesthetic is more about very live experiences. So it’s a push and pull right now.
Do you think the way you traditionally record offers you a more honest approach? I think it has the potential for that. I have definitely heard good songwriters be overproduced and the production getting in the way of stuff. What I’m going for is just to not overdo things. I want the songs to speak for themselves and not dress them up too much. That’s always been a fear of mine-coming out with something that has the grit or vitamins taken out of it.
In not overdoing things you create a very intimate live show. But it is also a performance that has a gorgeous groove running through it. What accounts for that coupling? That’s both an interesting and dangerous thing to try and put together. I’ve always been attracted to rhythms and dance, as that’s what brought me to music. So my approach is almost drum-like, but my writing style and background is in folk music. The ability to do it with just a guitar and voice is something that has always run through what I have done. I just don’t know how else to express whatever is going on in my life or around me, and I think that adds to the emotional intimacy.
It seems to be something that has evolved organically rather than being something you’ve done consciously : I studied a little bit of theater, and what that taught me is that the closer you get to being yourself on stage, and not putting things on, is always the most interesting. You see people play at being a folk musician or a rap artist, they do all the cliches and are putting on what their idea of what it means to be a rock and roller is. And that gets really boring and you smell it really quickly.
Ideally, where do you like to listen to music? When I was growing up, some of my more enjoyable experiences were dancing to music. I was always looking for a way to lose myself physically in music and I think that now comes out in my own music. Then there are the times I toured with Jolie Holland, and I’m always impressed by how I can listen to her songs night after night and not be bored. They seem to hit some emotional spot in me that has nothing to do with getting lost-it’s about tone and craft and emotion-and are a more comforting thing. So there are those two worlds. And sometimes, if you are really, really fortunate, they might just hit you at the same time. That would be ideal.
Sings Like Hell presents Sean Hayes and James Hunter at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido) on Saturday, July 12 at 8 p.m. Call 963-0761 or visit singslikehell.com for tickets and information.