“I decided I was only going to write in stories,” says Josh Haden, founding member of the band Spain. He’s speaking from his home in Los Angeles, discussing the material that shapes the sixth Spain album, Carolina. The songs touch on America’s past with intersections in the present and with Haden’s own life.
“Tennessee” is the dramatic tale of a homesteader who loses his house and land to a cattle baron. Within a matter of five minutes the listener has traversed several generations and found themselves bound up in a love/lust story that may or may not involve tangled webs of deception and revenge. “Apologies,” arguably one of the loveliest pieces on the entire album, finds Haden recalling a party he attended some years ago in the Hollywood Hills that was reportedly a wake for LSD guru Timothy Leary.
“The Battle of Saratoga” is set in the New York city of Kingston. The town was burned by British troops during the revolutionary war but lives on today, offering visitors a good cup of coffee and the kind of pleasant streets and shops not uncommon throughout the Hudson Valley. It also offers glimpses of Haden’s personal history as he recalls stories his father, late jazz bassist Charlie Haden, told him about living in New York City and taking gigs out of town to help pay the rent. Haden’s uncanny ability to create convincing narratives and characters owes something to the musician’s interest in literature. As a younger man he studied at UC-Irvine. Enchanted by the writing of Michael Chabon, he attended the university’s undergraduate writing program. Having read the works of Charles Bukowski and Dadaist André Breton as a young man, his teachers found his writing “too avant garde.” He soon took solace in philosophy and the writings of Jacques Derrida, the French writer responsible for the field of criticism known as deconstruction.
Through it all Haden kept writing. When Spain’s first run came to an end around 2001, he enrolled at CalArts intending to earn his MFA in fiction writing. Lured back to music by friend Dan the Automater, literature once more became a secondary pursuit. “I’ve been working on my short stories and novels unsuccessfully ever since,” he says.
He admits feeling a tug of war between literature and music, saying, “Music usually wins.” Some of that, he adds, is that he feels an obligation to pursue music fulltime in part because it’s the family business. In addition to his father, Haden’s triplet sisters, Rachel, Tanya and Petra have distinguished themselves in the music industry.
His songwriting has become the beneficiary of his literary gifts. “I love reading and I love books and I want to be able to contribute to books as a writer,” he says. “But music’s not just the writing and creative part and bringing it to other musicians and collaborating. It’s also the world of, ‘How do I promote it? How do I get my music out there?’ That’s really the most time-consuming part of it. That’s what takes me away from sitting down at the computer and writing my book.”
For Carolina he teamed with another musician whose passion for letters also runs deep, producer and mixer Kenny Lyon, who Haden calls a “brilliant short story writer” who has also written a few novels.
Lyon opened up his apartment in The Gaylord, a Los Angeles building that has a history of its own, one suited to Carolina’s subject matter. The Gaylord sits across the street from The Ambassador Hotel, where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated and around the corner from the club where Haden’s father saw one his key collaborators, Ornette Coleman, perform for the first time.
“I didn’t pick any of that on purpose,” Haden notes. “It’s just where Kenny lives.” The majority of tracking, with Haden on bass, acoustic guitar and vocals, was done there. Drums were tracked in Joshua Tree, somewhere around two hours outside the city. “It’s beautiful,” he says, “and it’s kind of spooky.”
The sessions began with a single titled “I Do,” released in October last year. It is a piece of music informed by Haden’s sense of social justice. Upset by reports of Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, Haden decided to release the song and donate proceeds to the cause of marriage equality.
“There are horrible things that happen in the world, to varying degrees of severity. I don’t have a voice in those things because they happen halfway around the word,” he offers. “This was something very close to where I lived and something I felt that I could have a voice in.”
With a successful tour of Europe behind him he’s eager to play gigs closer to home.
“I have label support for tours in Europe but I put out the record here myself,” he notes. “I can tour fairly easily in Europe. I can’t really do that in the States. Not because I don’t have fans here but because it’s such a huge landmass. I’m doing everything I can to put some sort of tour together for the U.S. this year.”
Carolina is out now via Glitterhouse Records. You can learn more about Josh Haden and read some of his recent blog entries via http://www.spaintheband.com.