Sean Hayes on change, solo shows and returning to the South
Singer-songwriter Sean Hayes has been crafting his soul-tinged tunes for more than two decades, and he has some commercial success under his belt. His “Powerful Stuff” got a lot of mileage in a Subaru commercial, according to Hayes’ bio. “A Thousand Tiny Pieces” was covered by The Be Good Tanyas, he’s dueted with Aimee Mann, and he recently toured with popular world-fusion/electronic outfit Beats Antique. Meanwhile, Hayes’ bio notes, “‘When We Fall In’ inspired pop star Justin Timberlake to blog rhapsodic.”
Nonetheless, the musician is still learning. “I think one of the challenges of working at home alone is you can get a lost in your own world,” he says of the new experience of recording in his own studio. But a forthcoming project is currently on hold for a string of shows that brings Hayes back to The Grey Eagle on Tuesday, May 6.
The New York-born, North Carolina-raised and San Francisco-based performer last came through Asheville with backing musicians Michael Coleman on keys and fellow Carolinian Eric Kuhn on drums. These days, though, Hayes is traveling solo. “I’ve brought along a sophisticated drum machine of sorts,” he says. “When I get a moment on tour, I’ve been trying to build up more tracks — old and new. It has also inspired me to ask my old friend and musical collaborator Etienne de Rocher [who recorded Hayes’ 2006 album Big Black Hole and the Little Baby Star] to send me more beats of his making. It’s an exciting idea to get different producers to arrange different beats for songs.”
Opening for Beats Antique in front of 1,000 people who didn’t know him, says Hayes, was a very different experience from doing his own smaller headlining shows. “Things keep changing,” he says — but he’s the sort of artist who seems adept at going with the flow.
“I feel like it’s become lots of smaller, niche things, which is cool,” he says about the current state of the music business. “The medium really is what you’re talking about — vinyl versus the air that is music now. Your phone is more important than your record collection. It’s a nebulous amount of music. … You used to have to give a record a lot of time, because you didn’t have that many choices.”
Still, Hayes pens songs that feel timeless and worth repeat listens. “Turn Around Turn Me On” pairs a reggae pulse with simple but deep lyrics. The not-yet-released “Found My Love” is also ruminative, following the singer-songwriter’s trajectory from North Carolina to California. In fact, that relationship to locality is a theme to which he often returns. “Alabama Chicken” and “Voodoo, Booday” tap Southern roots in a way that only a songwriter with some distance and perspective could manage.
“When I first moved out west, I did not feel much culture shock, as they say,” Hayes admits. But at the same time, “There is a certain sincerity toward music I feel the South has that informed me and still plays a big role. By sincerity, I mean a direct kind of experience between the player and the listener.”
That kind of authenticity runs like a current throughout the musician’s seven full-length records. And though he regularly dusts off older songs — at his last Grey Eagle appearance he performed “Mary Magdalene,” noting that he’d played it at the Black Mountain Folk Festival (the precursor of LEAF) when he was about 19 — his new work is energized and forward-thinking. Hayes recently posted a video for the dance-battle-themed “Magic Slim vs. Dynamite” off his forthcoming album. The song contains the verse, “I got moves the kids ain’t seen.” It could be a personal statement about his prowess as a seasoned writer and performer, though Hayes insists it’s just a fun line.
Nonetheless, he concedes, “I have been at it for a while, so I may be able to inspire some young songwriters to keep at it.”
The Grey Eagle, thegreyeagle.com
Tuesday, May 6, at 8 p.m.
$17 advance/$20 day of show