As singer/guitarist with Peel-favourites Hefner, Darren Hayman cemented his position as one of the leading lights of British indie-pop-folk songwriting at the turn of the century. The band's four albums on the Too Pure label led to adoring praise from listeners and musicians the world over, and although band split in 2002, Darren's subsequent solo work is attracting just as much acclaim. His seventh record, January Songs was recorded - one song a day, each with a video to accompany it - in Jaunary of 2011 (with a little input from some friends), and the limited physical release is out now.
Did you really write and record January Songs in one month?
I really did. There were two things that might be considered a cheat. The chorus to 'I Hung The Monkey' was something I'd had in my head, and I remember singing part of it to Dave Tattersall and I remember him saying he liked it, so I sort of had that in mind for the Wave Pictures. But I still had to write the verse, and structure it all, and make it into a song. The other cheat was on a day when I made some music with Mark Brend, and Mark Brend said "I'd love to do some music with you, but there's no way I could do a song in a day". So what we decided to do there, was that he made the music. So for all I know he might have spent three months on the music. I think he spent a few days or a week or something on the music, but the idea then - to try and keep it true to the idea - was that I didn't listen to the track 'til the day, and so on that day I had to write the lyric for it and record it, so it still felt like I was doing all my work in a day. So apart from that, it was all done in a month. There would be no point in not doing it, really. If you set yourself the challenge... How can you cheat when it's a competition with yourself? What would the point be? It'd be pointless. The whole thing was about me being interested in what I would do, so I had to stick to it.
So you wrote and recorded the album in January of 2011. Did this herald the beginning of your most productive year, musically? It seems like you did a lot last year.
I think that, in some ways, it felt like I didn't make that much music last year actually! It felt like I released a lot. I think there's been years where I've written more songs, and I think 2011 was more about me trying to clear a backlog. January Songs was that in itself, in that creativity can be quite quick for me, it's not always quick - I can spend a couple of years on a song sometimes - but sometimes you do something so quickly, and you're so excited by it. You have a great day in the studio, and you want to turn around and show people instantly. Sometimes the problem with the release process is that by the time you've got something out, you're already on to the next thing.
So 2011 was about releasing things, and particularly January Songs, where I hoped to, hopefully, pass on the excitement of making things quickly, and them being finished quickly.
Is January Songs an album, or is it a compilation? A compilation of your thoughts over a month, maybe?
Yeah. That's a good question, I like that question. It doesn't really feel like an album to me, and I find myself wondering if I did the right thing by deciding to release it (physically). It's a silly thing to say when I'm doing an interview to promote it, but I'm a little bit unsure whether that was absolutely the right thing to do. It was people asking, and people persuading me to, that made me do it. It felt like the point of it existed within those thirty days, and it seemed like it was something that was very suited to the internet, very suited to uploading and downloading. Something that couldn't be done previously, due to us not having internet.
Ok, I see.
Or even certain sites becoming available in the last few years, like Vimeo and Soundcloud and Bandcamp. Even though we've had the internet for... How long have we had the internet for? Thirty years? Twenty years? So no, it doesn't actually feel like an album. Perhaps it's starting to now, since I've been doing these shows. There doesn't seem to be a theme linking it other than the process. But I'd still like people who buy the record to go online and look at all the video diaries and stuff. That seems to me to be a big part of it.
Do you think your idea to hand-draw 1,500 sleeves helped you make up your mind about releasing it?
Yeah, absolutely. Because I think, a lot of people's idea - and a couple of labels that approached me about it - their idea was to make it very lavish, the idea was to have a DVD and a book with pictures. And that seemed to not fit with the spirit of the project. One review I got of it was a fair review, but it wasn't particularly glowing, because it was saying that the idea was better than the actuality. I think that's fair, but it's also my fault for releasing it, because now that I've released it I'm asking for it to be viewed next to an album that I might have... Do you understand what I'm trying to say?
Yeah, it's now a real Darren Hayman album, for sale in shops.
But it is only concept. It's all concept. It's not necessarily quality, it's whether you like the idea of it or not. So consequently, I wanted the release itself to be conceptual, and in some ways reflect this theme of hard work. I'm still really pleased with that idea actually, so that's definitely the idea that made me release it. I thought that idea was very funny. Very silly.
When I heard of this idea, I expected it to be squiggles, but it's far from it.
Well, they're not all good! Like the songs! When I was doing the songs, one rule that I didn't necessarily make public, was that all the songs must be something that your mother, or my mother, would call a 'song'. In that I couldn't necessarily do 'soundscapes', you know? Or odd art experimental music. Not saying they're not songs - I love that music too - but it had to have rules, and so it had to be something that anyone would recognise as a song. With a verse and a chorus. A traditional song. So likewise, I felt that the pictures had to be that way. I couldn't throw a bucket of paint across 50 sleeves. They had to be recognisable drawings, which I guess is an experiment of constraint, making me more conservative, but there you go.
Today is supposed to be 'Blue Monday', the most depressing day of the year. Did you write the songs with each day in mind, or did you come up with stuff one day that you used another day?
The Blue Monday thing is a complete fabrication. I was reading about this yesterday, it was invented about three or four years ago. What was the company...
I think it was a travel agent.
Right, yeah. Umm... What do you mean? Do you mean "Was it a blank page every day?"
No. I suppose in that sense it's a bit album-like. I was still thinking of it as a sequence, so I'd be thinking about how it would contrast, so if I'd done a run of fast songs I'd be thinking about that, and there was a desire to not repeat myself so as it got towards the end I did start doing things like spoken word, and I did an acappella song. So I think I wanted the fatigue, and the desperation, and the difficulty of it to increase, to make it more interesting.
The first few days were definitely easier, although actually the last few days weren't necessarily the hardest. The hardest bit was actually just about a week in. Days five, six and seven were really hard for some reason. Then I guess I found the rhythm after that.
What are you listening to just now?
Literally, what was on the computer as I came off to answer the phone, was Guided By Voices. It wasn't the new one, I know they've released a new one - it was Alien Lanes. It the Alien Lanes line-up that's reformed, isn't it? I like that album a lot. But in general, I've been listening to quite a lot of jazz, which I didn't think would ever happen to me. But I think it happens to everybody. Or every man, anyway, at a certain age.
I heard you've been listening to a lot of stuff on ECM lately. I suppose if you're listening to jazz, you might as well get right into it with some ECM.
Yeah, I kind of bypassed the easy stuff, really. Straight away I was kind of drawn to things like later John Coltrane, or Ornette Coleman. I always used to sort of resent it, because I thought of it as an egotistical music. On one level it is, I suppose, with all the solos, but now it almost feels the opposite. It almost seems 'egoless'. Because everyone solos all the time, there seem to be no rules, almost the opposite. It seems incredibly collaborative, and it seems a music where the bass player is definitely as important as the pianist or the saxophonist. That's kind of what I've been thinking about as I listen to it - that actually now, rock seems much more about the ego than jazz. And that's not what I used to think.
What's been happening with your live shows? Was it half the album last week and half next week? Is that right?
I didn't play absolutely everything (from the first half), I did about twelve or thirteen from the first fifteen, and I'll do the same next time. I felt that for the audience's good it just need a little editing, you know? There were a few there that they could do without, so I took it upon myself to at least make it a comfortable set length! Fifteen or sixteen songs is just a bit too long for a set.
Do you think playing it live bookends the whole thing for you? You made it in January of last year, and now you're closing the book on it by actually playing it live.
Yeah. I'm keen to move on from this one. Like I say, the idea was originally to stop the bottleneck, but what it's done is put another record in the release schedule. So I do feel that I want to draw a line under it, so I'm thinking that I won't play those songs in my regular set. It's not that I'm not fond of it - in fact I'm really, really pleased I had the idea, I've got no regrets about doing it - but I just like that the idea of it having this little separate life, like 'that funny thing he did once'. So I might retire the songs at the end of January.
What are your plans for 2012 then?
I have an album coming out in the spring, called Lido, which is my first instrumental album. It's not jazz! But maybe that taste informs it a little bit... There was a certain looseness in my approach to it. I would never say it was jazz.
But if somebody called it jazz, would you be disappointed?
I think I would actually. I think I'd say "You don't know what you're talking about!" But you can never tell how these things seep through, how things things influence you, can you? If you're listening to that much of something then it must make some impression on what you do. I make instrumental music a lot, and it's the first time I've had the guts to release it.
The full January Songs story can be found here.