In Conversation with Christian Lee Hutson
Talking Music, Writing, and the Touring Life with the Los Angeles Folk-Pop Singer-Songwriter
Rare is a songwriter who deftly combines aging memories with sharp observation, soft devastation with frank beauty. All the while, Christian Lee Hutson’s lyricism maintains a sense of self-aware humor that alleviates just the right moments. Throughout his solo work and subsequently bleeding into his collaborations, his words contain a stylistic signature that’s easily identifiable, unique yet familiar. Upon first listen, I felt as if I’d already heard his songs before, quickly finding an affinity in the pure truths conveyed; later, I would be repeatedly surprised at how many lines had never been written prior, but I felt like they had always existed. Still, that distinct voice melds to a multitude of other artists’ music (Samia, Phoebe Bridgers, Conor Oberst), who enlist his help to join forces in their own writing process.
A blend of stark contrasts, the songwriter opened up on some of these collaborations, as well as the aspects of his writing that will pull eager audiences to this year’s shows (that he will be co-headlining with friend and fellow singer-songwriter Fenne Lily).
So this is the first tour date. Are you excited to tour specifically with Fenne Lily? Yeah! I love her music so much, and it’s cool to get to … I don’t know … I’ve been really lucky and have pretty much only gotten to tour with people whose music I like. I produced a song on her record, and I just for years have thought she was really good and … it’s nice to get to hang out with people. Most of touring is like hanging out and not getting annoyed by the people that you’re with, and it’s an added bonus when they’re also really good at music. So I am excited for it in that way, yeah!
Do you have a favorite song of yours off of Beginners? It changes…. If I’m doing solo tours … there are songs that are fun to play by myself, and then there are songs that are fun to play with the band. I think off of Beginners, all of the songs … with the band, it’s really fun to play stuff where I can watch everybody play to it; it’s fun to get to pretend like I’m in a band for a second. It’s less fun to play the solo songs when I’m on a band tour, but on a solo tour, it’s kind of just fun seeing what people respond to…. I wrote all the songs so long ago that it’s fun seeing that anybody hears about them, and it helps me care about them again. But, I don’t know, “Northsiders,” “Lose This Number” — those always feel really good to play and they don’t take a lot of effort.
Oh, yeah! That makes sense, because you’ve probably played those the most since you stick them on every setlist. Yeah! And they’re just fun to play. Like, I’m proud of them, so I think that they are … sturdy enough to be able to go on a setlist. [Laughs.]
Speaking of “Northsiders,” I don’t know if this is too personal a question… Oh, you’re good!
…but the line about the brake lights, was that based off of someone you know who passed? Or was that someone else’s story, or just made up? Oh yeah! Based on a few different people. I had a few people in my life, like a decade ago now, that … that didn’t make it in bad car accidents. I’ve spent all of my twenties on tour, and I always think about when I’m driving myself on tour, in a little sedan, how easy it is to just die. [Laughs.] Yeah! And I had friends that were on tour that got in bad accidents who died … a lot of my songs are amalgamations of different experiences. But that was, I think, a few different people.
You drive yourself around on tour? Not anymore, thankfully! But I used to a lot, and yeah. I don’t know. It’s not my favorite way of doing things. [Laughs.]
I started listening to your music because my friend had an extra ticket to the Largo show, so I went to it, and I wanted to ask about that line earlier, because when you played “Northsiders,” I was like…woah. Right around that time, [I was dealing with something similar]. The way it builds up to it, it feels like a collage in the verses … and then the resolution right after was so beautiful and just … made me feel some closure about it. Or … that it could be beautiful. I’m so sorry…. It’s really fucking weird … when you’re young, there are all these different paths you can take. And every possibility of how your life could go is open. So you meet all these different people and you’re like, “My life could have gone in a direction where we moved to New Hampshire or something,”‘” you know? Everything feels like an option. And I always think about the people that I knew when I was young and that didn’t make it, that I was like … it’s so weird I could have lived a whole life next to you and I didn’t … I still think about it. And, I still am like … the friends that I have that aren’t around anymore, I feel like I see them all over the place. And it’s very weird how you can be here and not be here, and also still be here.
Yeah! The notion of life being able to go in so many ways is like the branch lyric [in “Northsiders”] how they reach away from each other. It’s kind of like how college is for a lot of people. Or how I felt in college was, I was just like, “Oh, you just go and you’re on your path and then you may run into each other in 10 years, and then sometimes you don’t run into people in 10 years.” It’s weird.… The good thing about life is that it’s long and you think that the people you meet in high school are the only people … you get so many other chances to do it again. And go through so many phases of life … where you get more chances to just do the same thing that you did in high school and make new friends. You think that that’s gonna be your only opportunity to make your friends for life and then … life is just long. It always will surprise you.
You’ve done this multiple times in your writing, on Samia’s album as well, where you invert the expectation of what the word’s going to be. The steeple one, the haystack one as well. Oh yeah! Oh it’s so fun for me. [Sings] Finding a needle in a stack of needles…
Is that just something that you noticed someone else do that you wanted to implement? Or is it something you started doing yourself? I just thought it would be funny; I always like to fuck around a little bit. It’s a good way to break the tension of needing to write a good song … to write a lyric where you’re like, “That is purely gonna be a fuck-around lyric that really just breaks the tension of needing to be perfect.” It lets everyone off the hook and is also just funny and everyone can take a deep breath. Like, “Ah, it’s funny, we’re listening to a song, and it’s all real people, and we’re all just having fun and being ourselves.” I don’t know. I think it’s funny. Any opportunity to make a joke, I am always pretty in for it. Unless the song really doesn’t call for it. But it usually does.
That’s 100 percent what it does. Is there anything else you do in songs to alleviate tension or draw back on the seriousness? Any kind of joke, beyond just subverting the expectation of a thing, makes me feel more comfortable. Like the song is a more inviting place to live. I don’t know if I have any other tricks … I’m always in the process of learning how to write songs.
Do you have a funny lyric that you’re most proud of? The stack of needles one is pretty close. That’s one of my favorite moments where I’m like, “Ah! This is fun to me.” But I have some new songs that I’m also feeling like, “Ah! That’s going to be such a cool moment like that,” you know?
Are you expecting to release new music sometime soon? I’m gonna try and make a new record by the end of the year and then, hopefully, some time next year, yeah!
Do you ever feel weird when you give away lines you like, or are you happier? No! Because I’m lucky and get to work [with] artists I actually really like, so it always feels worth it. And I never have given away something that I feel was really personal to me that didn’t go to someone who I was already a fan of. … I just want to write the best song, even if it’s not on my record. It’s so cool to see the lives that different songs live.
I know Phoebe [Bridgers] produced Beginners; does she ever help you write your songs? Not with my songs, but I work on a bunch of her stuff. With my songs it’s kind of just like, she’s just a supportive friend … And then outside of that it’s just like, we work on a bunch of her stuff together. I actually … I can’t imagine a world of working on my stuff in that way with her. But that’s nice. I think she has such a specific voice … we have a lot of common influences.
Was opening for her cool since the crowds are so big? Yeah! It’s been crazy. I mean, she’s my best friend, and I love watching her. It’s just always cool to see the people that you love get to do the shit that they always wanted to do. That is the thing in maybe in my entire life that makes me the most emotional, is watching her play for bigger and bigger crowds, and see[ing] her play songs that we sat around and fucked around on in my living room for, like, 70,000 people. Fucking blows my mind.
That’s so cool. Do you have a favorite song from Stranger in the Alps? “Funeral” is my favorite … And I think Phoebe would hate to hear that because I don’t think that she …likes that song that much. But I think that that song is so good. And that was the first thing I heard that I was like, “Ah, this is amazing.”
Do you have confidence in your ability to play and write? I kind of feel like with performing, I’m like, “Whatever fucking happens, you’re here for it, and if it’s not good enough, then that’s fine.” [Laughs.] And, maybe you’ll come back but maybe you won’t. And it’s kind of the best I can do. So it’s fun. I think it’s all supposed to be fun. And some of my favorite shows to watch when I was a kid were when people were playing and they were fucking up and they didn’t know what they were doing, you know? So I don’t have that much of an ego with most things relating to music, yeah … I think I’m good at certain things, but if you put me in different scenarios I’m not like, versatile. But I can do some things really well. And I like that! [Laughs.] I just do the thing that I do really well. And even playing with Fenne tonight, I was like … “Ah! Playing piano is very difficult for me sometimes.” [Laughs.]
Christian Lee Hutson is currently touring nationally with Fenne Lily. For more information, visit christianleehutson.com.