Folk That

Sean Hayes both defies and revels in the supremely punchable folksinger stereotype.

Folksingers walk a line so thin you could floss your teeth with it. The smallest misjudgment — a clichéd couplet, an overemotive vocal — and they become coffeehouse casualties, unbearable warblers who deserve the rotten tomatoes flung at them.

On the surface, Sean Hayes seems to cross that line. The San Franciscan does, after all, pepper his songs with celestial imagery, religious iconography, and Shakespearean metaphor, while singing in a trembling tone perfect for ponytails and ripe fruit.

And yet somehow Hayes pulls it off. He makes topics like fire and rain — subjects as old as James Taylor, if not the Middle Ages — sound as fresh as a bushel of daisies. He turns heartbreak into poetry, draining it of its purple prose and maudlin sentiment. He brings hipsters and hippies together in a roiling mess of walleyed grins.

Such accomplishments took time and effort. Hayes developed his talents over many years, from his days in North Carolina learning Irish jigs from Jewish kids and his nights in Colorado practicing funk riffs with jam bands to his first SF moments nursing a shattered heart. He has learned from bluegrass hoedowns, acid cabarets, and fortune-telling chickens, in addition to collaborating with house DJs and master improvisers. And he has paid special attention to the lessons of the masters — you know, true folk artists such as Nina Simone and Marilyn Manson.

You see, Hayes didn’t set out to be a folkie. In fact, growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina, in the ’80s, he listened mostly to classic rockers like Steve Miller and Led Zeppelin. He wasn’t even aware of old-school Americana until he went off to study theater at Eastern Carolina University in 1989 and started hanging out with music majors. “The first times I heard bluegrass, it took me a little while to get it,” he recalls. “And then one day it hit me: ‘Wow, that’s incredible!'”

Hayes was drawn in by the raw authenticity of the tunes — so much so that he dropped out of college and hooked up with the Boys of Blue Hill, a bunch of Jewish kids who performed bluegrass, folk-country originals, and Irish jigs. The ensemble did well, but one day Hayes flipped out. “I didn’t want to be in anybody’s band — I didn’t want anyone depending on me,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Guys, I gotta go, and I don’t know if I’ll be back. ‘”

Hayes went rambling across the country for six months, settling briefly in Boulder. When he returned to the East Coast, he took to playing solo shows around the area, performing his own originals as well as Van Morrison and Nina Simone covers. (He admits Simone and Jeff Buckley were heavy influences on his tremulous singing style.) Hayes also began listening to jazz and the qawwali singing of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, discovering an interest in improvisation and “the idea of trance and spirituality and losing yourself in music.”

Then the absolute worst thing happened: He fell in love.

On New Year’s Eve 1992, Hayes moved to San Francisco to be with the woman of his dreams. Six months later, she left him for another musician. “My heart got pretty fucking splattered,” he admits. “I’d never felt that kind of pain before. I’d never understood how people got so messed up from love.”

The next couple years were a blur. Hayes took a series of cafe and bar jobs, writing songs about his broken heart while trying to stay out of the clutches of the kind of temptations that nip at the heels of most music scenes. Every once in a while, someone would show interest in furthering his career — one producer wanted to record him as a big-budget, “Hollywood soundtrack-type thing,” Hayes recalls — but he didn’t think the setting fit him.

By 1999, he’d grown tired of waiting for the right contract, so Hayes cobbled together the cash needed to release a collection of his early, heartbroken songs, which he called A Thousand Tiny Pieces.

Soon afterward, singer and violinist Jolie Holland moved back to town from Vancouver. “Sean is one of the best musicians I have ever heard, living or dead, far or near,” she raves. “He is a master at presenting a moment of sound.” She introduced Hayes to musician friends like drummer Dave Mihaly and saw/banjo player Enzo Garcia. Over the next few months, a thriving new SF folk scene sprung up around venues like 50 Oak St., Momi Toby’s Revolution Cafe, and the Rite Spot.

Faced with a backlog of material and a wealth of new songs, Hayes went to a friend’s house and recorded his second disc, Lunar Lust. Like A Thousand Tiny Pieces, the album is a über-minimal affair, featuring just Hayes and his guitar. But whereas the debut had a claustrophobic vibe, Lunar Lust allowed for a measure of hope. “I was transitioning — I was single again and meeting people,” he explains. (In keeping with his quirky nature, Hayes promoted the CD by slipping unmarked copies into coat pockets at thrift stores.)

By 2002, Hayes was performing new tunes with a revolving cast of musicians, and he felt he wanted to document the proceedings. “Andy Goldsworthy’s film [Rivers and Tides] really influenced me,” he says. “That movie is such an example of how you create art, and it’s going to be destroyed. We don’t have that much time with the people around us.”

So Hayes gathered Holland, Mihaly, Garcia, bassist Garth Wells, and drummer Will Waghorn in a Mill Valley living-room studio and unleashed the players on his songs. The resulting Alabama Chicken is a revelation. While Hayes’ past records felt more like mere notations of the tunes he was playing live, Alabama Chicken is gorgeously fleshed out, swinging between lush and stark, warm and weathered, jaunty and mournful. There’s the old-time fiddling of the title tune, the cowboy lope of “Little Maggie,” the dust-blown harmonica of “Walkin’ Down the Line” (a Bob Dylan cover), and the jazzy marimba of “The Rain Coming Down.”

As for his words, Hayes will be the first to admit that he writes from his own experience: “It annoys me some that my lyrics are so journalistic and personal and typical singer-songwriter, so ‘Oh, shoot him in the head, please kill this guy.’ But I just can’t help it.”

Still, on the new record, he avoids the navel-gazing trap many folkies fall into. “Moonrise” and “The Rain Coming Down” are more qawwali trance than singer-songwriter confession, crafting beauty from mantra-like repetition. “Here We Are” is an epic narrative that moves from bar life drudgery to Burning Man insanity to moon-swept self-actualization; “Alabama Chicken” recalls a day spent with renowned folk artist Butch Anthony driving a Cadillac hearse art car, wearing a suit made of forks, and watching a chicken tell fortunes. Certainly there’s more whimsy than on Hayes’ previous affairs, including an actual dancefloor anthem, “Rattlesnake Charm (Dream Machine),” which local house DJ Mark Farina reworked for inclusion on his Air Farina CD, scoring big airplay on Los Angeles’ influential radio station KCRW-FM.

Of course, Hayes would be doing listeners a disservice if he avoided his melancholic side altogether. Luckily, there’s “Balancing Act in Blue,” which captures the feeling of being torn between a new love and an old one, and “Diamond in the Sun,” in which Hayes makes freedom sound like the saddest concept ever concocted.

But perhaps the best example of Hayes’ successful tightrope walk comes from a recent song not included on the album. Inspired by Marilyn Manson’s interview segment in the film Bowling for Columbine, the as-yet-untitled tune paints a grim picture of the state of the country, with Hayes offering, “I can see the fear in your eyes/We’ve all got to survive.” Then he delivers the tart punch line, the modern folk singer’s ultimate threat: “If you don’t buy my music tonight, you’ll surely die.”

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