Hayes Carll’s high-school teacher was one of the first to notice a particular quirk possessed by the Texas-born singer-songwriter: a penchant to look toward the endings of things, not the beginnings — and most certainly not the here and now.
“Every one of my poems and songs and short stories were about opportunities being missed and time running out,” Carll tells Rolling Stone Country. “And, for whatever reason, that’s always been on my mind. My teacher would write it in the notes: ‘This seems to be a common theme,'” he adds, chuckling a bit. “But writing about it is one thing. Doing something about it is another.”
For years, Carll — who is now engaged to songwriter Allison Moorer — never really shook that preoccupation with the passage of time, even as he ticked all the conventional boxes, and then some: success (including a Grammy nomination for Lee Ann Womack’s version of his “Chances Are”), marriage (and then divorce), and fatherhood, all of which he tackled artfully and intentionally on his last LP, Lovers and Leavers. But it’s hard to enjoy any of it, or even heal from it, when looking at everything in the context of its inevitable end. A watched pot may never boil, but a watched person most definitely still gets old.
“I’ve spent a lifetime obsessed with the idea that life was going to pass me by,” Carll says. “And, meanwhile, it was.”
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What It Is, Carll’s forthcoming sixth LP (due February 15th, 2019, via Dualtone), is an album that came from “getting off the sidelines.” Packed with plenty of his familiar dry humor while retaining the meditative voice he chiseled on his last record, it’s Carll’s testament to the power of slowing down and appreciating the moment: to having fun, to loving another, to parenting, to engaging with the world around him in a enduring and meaningful way. Some songs are declarations of commitment, some are reflections on the tempestuous political climate and some are those signature humorous observations all laced with a sense of newfound peace, like on “None’ya,” the track that opens the album and is premiering exclusively on Rolling Stone Country.
“It’s a song about Allison,” Carll says of the richly-picked track that starts out in simple front-porch fashion and crescendos as he sings its central message: “I try, because I want to.” Moorer, whom Carll refers to as his “creative partner,” co-produced the record alongside Brad Jones and co-wrote a handful of it, too. “She’s wildly eloquent but sometimes uses her own made-up language. She’s really practical, but will do things like paint the front porch ceiling turquoise because she believes it keeps the evil spirits out. She’s a unicorn and I just try to enjoy her magic and not screw it up.”
Carll speaks of all those beautiful eccentricities on “None’ya” (as in, “it’s none of ya damn business”) with the reverence of someone in awe of the person in front of them. While it’s built on his own relationship, the song also serves as a reminder to appreciate the people in one’s life for the little quirks and habits that make them special. There’s love, but there’s also intention. Less focusing on the end, and more on the present. Slowly, he’s getting there.
“None’ya” is also a meeting place between the Carll that became beloved for his humor (just listen to him propose a fight with the lord and savior on “She Left Me for Jesus”) and the stripped-down reflection of Lovers and Leavers, the latter of which Carll found to be something of a cathartic experience. “It was scary for me to put out something that had very few of the things that I had built my fan base with,” he says. “But it also felt so good to let go of those expectations.” On “None’ya,” and the entirety of What It Is, Carll combines that wit with tenderness to harness a powerful new voice.
Carll also pours his displeasure with the world around him into some of the smartest, most potent tracks of the year: “Wild Pointy Finger,” Times Like These” and “Fragile Men” among them. Begun as a reflection on the patriarchy his co-writer LoLo had experienced in her career, “Fragile Men” took on new meaning after the events in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“The image of those men marching at night and chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’ was chilling and surreal. We wanted to write something to make them feel smaller than they probably already do,” Carll says. “Those fragile, pathetic men who can’t accept that the world is changing around them. Who are trying so desperately to hang on to some version of the past because of their own weakness.” “It must make you so damn angry they’re expecting you to change,” Carll sneers as strings bring the tension to a max.
With songs like “KMAG YOYO,” Carll’s never been averse to taking political risks in his work, and he’s always done so with an eye for the lunacy on either side of the spectrum (on “Another Like You,” from KMAG YOYO, two singles with opposing political views get horny over their differences). On What It Is, Carll is as unforgiving to those “Fragile Men” as he is eager for some relief on the rollicking “Times Like These,” or to put those who constantly judge others without any sense of self-awareness to the test on the New Orleans calypso blues of “Wild Pointy Finger.” For Carll, being in the present has also meant being unafraid to tackle it with a critical heart and empathetic mind.
“I take stock of myself and the world around me and write about it,” Carll says. “Sometimes that’s my relationships, sometimes that’s my buddy at the bar and sometimes that’s political. This isn’t by any means a political record, but there are observations or my takes on certain things that are important. I understand a lot of people look to music as an escape, and it can be really upsetting when it feels like that’s disrupted. But I have a really low tolerance for the people who say ‘shut up and sing.’ It minimizes everybody’s voice. We are citizens, and we are artists.”
While Carll doesn’t resist seizing those moments as an engaged citizen on What It Is, looking actively toward a better future, he’s also finally stopped racing toward it himself. Like on the closing track, the slow-burning and tender “I Will Stay,” he’s learned to embrace the present without existing in the shadows of what’s to come. He’s trying, because he wants to.
“This record is made with the spirit of change, about my world and the world around me,” he says. “To let go of excuses. To find the courage to live life. To be in the moment.”
Carll will launch a tour in support of What It Is on February 15th in Houston.
February 15 – Houston, TX @ Continental Club
February 16 – Houston, TX @ White Oak Music Hall
February 21 – Austin, TX @ Continental Club
February 22 – Austin, TX @ 3TEN ACL Live
February 23 – Austin, TX @ Antone’s Nightclub
February 27 – Denton, TX @ Dan’s SilverLeaf
February 28 – Dallas, TX @ The Kessler Theater
March 1 – Fort Worth, TX @ Magnolia Motor Lounge
March 28 – Des Moines, IA @ Wooly’s
March 29 – Minneapolis, MN @ The Cedar Cultural Center
March 30 – Chicago, IL @ Lincoln Hall
March 31 – Ann Arbor, MI @ The Blind Pig
April 1 – Toronto, ON @Mod Club
April 3 – New York, NY @ The Bowery Ballroom
April 4 – Philadelphia, PA @ Ardmore Music Hall
April 5 – Pittsburgh, PA @ Club Cafe
April 6 – Washington D.C. @ City Winery
April 9 – Nelsonville, OH @ Stuart’s Opera House
April 10 – Louisville, KY @ Headliner’s Music Hall
April 11 – Nashville, TN @ The Basement East
April 12 – Atlanta, GA @ Terminal West
April 25 – Denver, CO @ Bluebird Theater
April 26 – Salt Lake City, UT @ The Commonwealth Room
April 27 – Boise, ID @ Neurolux
April 28-29 – Seattle, WA @ Tractor Tavern
April 30 – Portland, OR @ Aladdin Theater
May 2 – San Francisco, CA @ Great American Music Hall
May 3 – Los Angeles, CA @ Troubadour
May 4 – Pioneertown, CA @ Pappy & Harriet’s
May 5 – Phoenix, AZ @ Crescent Ballroom