Never mind the Dylan-esque harmonica, the denim and the mug like T-Bone Burnette — Doug Hoekstra is not your typical singer/songwriter. The voice is a little too Lou Reed, the songs shaded a bit more subtly and radically, a la producers Daniel Lanois and Craig Street. And as Hoekstra proves on his latest CD, Make Me Believe (One Man Clapping, 1999), he isn’t the least bit afraid to make full use of the studio’s sonic possibilities.
“It’s like tools,” he observes. “A lot of folks in the singer/songwriter genre tend to be kind of purist about arrangements and whatnot, like we’re all following the Woody Guthrie mold. I mean, that was another time. Now we have the wherewithal to try things, and if you can use that to give your songs different textures, it’s perfectly valid. It seems silly for some purist to say he can’t use a synthesizer on a song, or cut and paste. It’s technology that we have today, and the technology is in the hands of the users.”
Billboard once compared Hoekstra to Leonard Cohen and Ray Davies, while the Belgian magazine Roots Town dubbed him “the godfather of the narrative alternative folk.”
“I got quite a kick out of that,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t know who all my comparisons are to be ‘the godfather of narrative alternative folk,’ but I’ll take it.” And, though Hoekstra does touch on serious subjects, there’s a decided lack of angst in his music: “A lot of my songs deal with disadvantaged folks, and there are moments of melancholy and things like that. But [the songs are] not angry, and they’re not hopeless. That’s the underlying thing — they’re not mopey,” he maintains.
Hoekstra’s independently released debut effort, When The Tubes Begin To Glow (Back Porch, 1994), was a mostly acoustic outing recorded in Chicago. He began to experiment more on Rickety Stairs, which was nominated for the Nashville Music Awards’ Best Folk Album of 1996. Make Me Believe features deeper arrangements and more studio enhancements; Hoekstra plays acoustic guitars, harmonica, melodica and organ, and employs some fine rhythm-section players, strings and vocalists. “This [album] is the most realized,” he asserts. “There are a lot of narratives, which I do commonly, and I just wanted the music to expand and grow along with that.”
Great songwriting has long been Hoekstra’s deepest inspiration: “That was what really made me want to start playing music — writing songs,” he recalls. “I never wanted to be the fastest guitar in town. My older brother hipped me to Beatles records, and that got me going. Dylan was probably the most important [influence on] what I’m doing, because he expanded the songwriting mode in so many ways. He has always tried to bridge the gap between literature and music, and I think that’s really cool.
“A lot of people tend to focus on Dylan’s early period,” the singer continues, “and I think that’s great — but I like a lot of his later stuff. I think my favorite record is Desire . It’s got a lot of range, and musically, the production is unique. I’ve read that Bob isn’t always cognizant of how he wants to produce his records, like trying to get organized chaos, but Desire has a real interesting sound. And I like Infidels  and Oh Mercy .”
Chicago was Hoekstra’s birthplace — and his initial proving ground: “Chicago is a very band-oriented town. I learned about trying to collaborate in that environment,” he explains. “I’d been in a band and we’d run our course, so I was going to do something on my own. I knew that Nashville was a place where the emphasis was [on] songs and songwriters. There’s a great pool of musicians here and a lot of songwriters that work with each other. There’s a good work ethic and a real focus on the songs.”
The move south did require a few personal adjustments, however: “We had to learn that things close early on Sunday in Nashville, and that it’s hard to get a good meal out on Christmas, things like that. But I’ve collaborated with people here from different parts of the country, be it Chicago or New York or California, so it isn’t as foreign, in that sense. Nashville’s kind of like a mini-Atlanta — it’s expanding culturally and in other ways besides the music. And I knew the music here was a lot more than just country.”
On Make Me Believe’s “Sam Cooke Sang The Gospel,” Hoekstra blends the atmospheric gospel vocals of K.K. Falkner with jangly organ and harmonica; on “Choices,” he employs flanged drums and melodica. And always, his breathy, understated vocals hover just above the action: “We were in the studio, and I was coming at the vocals real quiet. The engineer thought that was cool. He goes, ‘Your lyrics are good, and that kind of brings people into it more. It makes me lean in more.’
“I liked the way my voice sounded that way,” Hoekstra confides. “It’s funny — we get used to a prototype. On most records, to convey emotion, somebody has to scream or get louder. I don’t know if that’s necessarily valid. [Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos] Jobim either had somebody like Astrud Gilberto or himself singing, and a lot of times it was very quiet, [with their voices] snaking around each other. I’ve decided to try to do more with that. It’s contrast … it’s like tension. And the way narratives develop a lot of times, the story is tension and conflict, and it resolves or doesn’t resolve, and I think [this understated approach] helps mirror that in the music.”
Songwriting may be Hoekstra’s first love, but he also enjoys writing prose and short stories. “Sometimes, there are things that you can develop further when you’re working in a different mode,” he explains. “It can be good just to put your head in a different space. Some musicians are also painters, and some painters write prose. In essence, you’re drawing on the same emotions and ideas, just using different tools to do it.”
Hoekstra is now in the midst of a Southeastern tour, with guitarist Pat Meusal and percussionist Chris Minnis. “It’s great getting the feedback and letting the songs develop, and playing off the audience and the band,” says the multifaceted artist.
“And it’s also cool to go in the studio and play the mad scientist,” he adds naturally.