Bring the Family
John and Lilly Hiatt on family, tragedy, and life told through songs
Photography: Michael Weintrob
For over four decades John Hiatt has served up his personal fusion of rock ’n’ roll, country, blues, and folk. With intimate, confessional songs, he has captured the joys, fears, and tragedies of life through the seemingly simplest turn of a phrase, earning him praise as one of the finest songwriters of his generation and the 2008 Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting. His daughter, Lilly Hiatt, made her recording debut in 2012 and is now a rising star thanks to breakout success of her 2017 album, Trinity Lane — an album that music critic David Menconi, writing for Rolling Stone, said, “portends even greater ones to come.”
In celebration of the forthcoming Record Store Day 2019 release of a shared single on April 20, father and daughter sat down with The East Nashvillian for a discussion of their mutual love of family, music, and a perfectly good cup of joe.
East Nashvillian: Before I ask any questions, do you have questions for each other?
Lilly Hiatt: I do. My first question for my dad is what coffee did you drink this morning?
John Hiatt: This morning I had a Peet’s Major Dickason Blend, the kind your mama drinks because we’re out of my Peet’s French Roast.
L: I know that’s your coffee.
J: That’s my go-to cup. It’s just a little rough around the edges, like me. (laughs)
L: I’m not a French roaster. I had Krispy Kreme light roast this morning. It’s new at the Piggly Wiggly. They now sell Krispy Kreme coffee.
J: Do you remember when we used to pass by the Piggly Wiggly and you used to say Pig-a-lee Wig-a-lee! Was that you or Georgia Rae [Lilly’s sister]?
L: It was Georgia, but I have a soft spot forever in my heart for Piggly Wiggly because of that. That was one of the selling points for the place I live in off Trinity Lane. My friend Sarah Potenza, who used to live below me, said, “The place has more of a Piggly Wiggly vibe than the Turnip Truck.” And I was like, “I’m there!” (laughs)
EN: John, do you remember a specific point where it became obvious that Lilly was really interested in having a career in music?
J: When she came home from the University of Denver, and she brought a band back with her, we were pretty convinced that she was serious about it. They had been playing around out in Denver, her songs were good, and she was trying to form a style of her own. I was pretty impressed. I can’t remember when you told us you were bringing a band home.
L: It was after I met with Ken Levitan on spring break, my senior year. Ken has managed my dad for a long time and now he manages me, too. I feel a lot of gratitude toward Ken because he so kindly took a meeting with me as a favor. He let me come in and talk to him for about 20 minutes, and I asked him if I should move back with my band. He said, “Yeah. If you want to play music, come to Nashville!” I went back and asked my band members, “Who’s coming?” We all moved to Nashville after I graduated that spring, and one of my band members even dropped out of college to come with me.
EN: John, were you proud of Lilly or hesitant about her decision based on your own experiences?
J: She didn’t really know what she was getting herself into, but I was thrilled for her. That’s the thing about music. I don’t look at it as, “You’ve got to make it or break it.” Music is wonderful however it pans out. If you wind up being successful and it becomes a way to make a living or if it’s just something you enjoy doing on the side. Whatever it turns out to be it turns out to be, so I say go for it.
L: My dad really imparted that idea to me. Music is wonderful, and nobody can ever take it away from you. It’s a really magical way to live when you just give yourself to it and let the love of music be enough, but it’s a crazy path if you want to make that a sustainable career.
J: It’s really hard work, and I think a lot of people don’t really understand that.
L: It is hard work. There’s times when you feel you’re really falling short, and there’s a lot of choices and sacrifices in your personal life that you have to make. But having a dad that has been through it and has done his own thing, and has let me do mine, it’s something we really connect on. For instance, stage me is a completely different person than home me, and getting to that other person can be weird sometimes. It’s interesting trying to find that balance, and I’m at a different point in learning how to maintain it than my father.
L: I have a question: What is it like to have someone you grew up listening to, like Bob Dylan, sing one of your songs?
J: It’s pretty cool. You just gotta pinch yourself and say I can’t believe this is happening. You recently shared a stage with Eddie Vedder, one of your heroes.
L: It was a surreal day. He looked in my eye and introduced himself and said thanks, and I could feel he meant it! Did you get to meet Bob Dylan?
J: I’ve met him a couple of times. He’s a funny guy. You know who he really liked was your mother, Nancy.
L: Well, of course everyone loves mom. She lights up the room and always has.
J: We were at this benefit that Barbara Orbison put together. Levon Helm introduced us, and [Dylan] cornered your mother. She came out of the room about a half hour later, and I asked her, “What were you two talking about?” and she said, “He just started telling me his life story!”
L: So if you want Dylan’s life story, get it from Nancy Hiatt!
J: I said, “Give me an example,” and she said, “He said, ‘You know that stuff they tell you when you’re a kid? You just gotta forget all that stuff.’”
L: (laughs) I like that. I’ve had to forget a lot of that.
J: (laughs) Sorry about that!
EN: Many artists grab a lot of attention with their debut album, while others take a while to achieve a breakthrough. I found it interesting that you both began recording in your twenties, but it took several albums to really find your voice — Bring the Family in 1987 for John and Trinity Lane in 2017 for Lilly. Is that just the Hiatt way?
J: (laughs) We’re just slow learners.
L: Yeah, we’re just late bloomers. We really are, but it’s okay.
J: It’s true. Yeah, I was 33 before you could say I really had a career, and I think you can definitely say Lilly reached that point with Trinity Lane. She’s a known entity now. She’s writing great songs, and people will come to see her. That’s what I call success. Our whole family felt that she really stepped up and hit a homer [with Trinity Lane].
L: Aww, thanks, Dad! I wrote about a lot of different things on Trinity Lane, but something we both share [on those two records] are our struggles with addiction. Our journeys have been different, but it’s a shared bond. I would feel like I was cheating if I didn’t bring that to light. It’s something we both care about and don’t want to dominate us. Something about my dad that is really impressive to me is that he’s done this sober for years and never gloats about it. That’s something I want for myself. I quit drinking a while ago, and I’ve had ups and downs, but it’s really important to me to maintain my sobriety. There’s been times on the road, especially in this last year, where it’s been very close to me, and I realize this isn’t something you just get over. This is something you have to live with for the rest of your life. I’m grateful that I have my dad as a sober person in my life.
J: Well, I’m grateful that I have you. I’m grateful for all the sober people in my life, and all the people that pointed out to me that I had a problem. And I’m grateful I could get help. It’s not something you can combat on your own, and I don’t take credit for my sobriety because it takes a lot of help from a lot of people for me to stay sober one day at a time. Addicts and alcoholics are everywhere, but this industry and the road takes its toll on us in particular. I’m glad Lilly brought it up because it is possible to make music without taking drugs and alcohol. It’s actually quite wonderful.
EN: While we’re on a serious note, I wanted to talk about Lilly’s song “Imposter” from Trinity Lane, which is a devastatingly beautiful song in both its sadness and hope, touching on a number of subjects, including her relationship with you and the suicide of your first wife, Isabella, when Lilly was a baby. Is the song’s opening line, “He said, ‘I feel like an imposter, took me ‘til 62 to realize I’m good at what I do,’” also drawn from real life?
J: I can’t hardly get through that song without crying. I did actually say that, and I was 62 at the time, and I did sort of feel that way.
L: He has a song called “Adios to California,” and I kind of wrote this song as a response to that, but “Have a Little Faith in Me” also swirls in there.
J: It’s funny how those three songs are connected. Mine talk about the time when I was struggling with her birth mother’s death, and Lilly’s song harkens back to that time and talks about the pain she’s had to deal with over not really knowing her birth mother.
L: It was an interesting time when I wrote that song. We were having a feel-good day at the pool when Dad said he’d felt like an imposter for most of his life. I was 32, and I was coming to terms with a lot of stuff concerning my birth mother who struggled with mental illness and killed herself when I was little. I was an adult, who was now older than she was when she died, and I had struggled with my own anxiety, depression, and addiction and seemed to come out of it okay. It was a reflective and somewhat scary time. But there’s also some funny memories from that time period. We had a serious talk around that same time because I was crying over the fact that my career seemed stalled and I wasn’t the flavor of the month, and dad said, “Lilly, we will never be hip. We’re just not those people.” I really took that to heart.
J: (laughs) Well, it’s true. Let me ask you this. What role does family play in your life now?
L: Our family is so deeply inspiring to me. I could write so many songs for my family — it’s you, my older brother Rob, my little sister Georgia, and our mom Nancy. I call us a patchwork quilt family, but we are very close. We need each other. I’m not happy if I’m not in constant communication with my brother and sister. My sister is incredible. She works with homeless people, and I’ve written a billion songs for her. Our brother builds houses and also helps people. My mother listens to everybody’s problems and tells them why they’re going to be okay. There’s nobody like her. I’m glad we’re getting to talk about them. Dad and I talk a lot about each other, but Georgia, Rob, and Nancy
J: I think they feel the same way. We’re extremely family centered. We really can’t do without each other. I think we’re each other’s favorite people.
L: We are, we drive each other a little bonkers sometimes, because we’re all eccentric and we’re all artists. So it can be really intense, but it’s beautiful.
J: That’s the way I feel. I met your mother and Rob in 1985. About a year later Nancy and I got married. You were two and Rob was eight, and we had Georgia two years later. It was a trip trying to make this family of yours, mine, and ours work. It’s not like Rob and Lilly asked to be brother and sister, and then Georgia came along, and these two did not care for that because all of a sudden she was the baby and could do no wrong.
EN: You wrote the song “Georgia Rae” about her shortly after her birth. Did that song ever cause any trouble in the household?
J: It may have. (laughs) It may have.
L: That’s a good point. Just being the daughter of John Hiatt means I get a lot of dad questions. It’s wonderful, and it’s weird. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me “Are you Georgia Rae?” And other people say, “You didn’t get a song about YOU?”
J: (laughing) Well, Lilly, it’s comin’!
L: But it is special because that song is awesome. She is Georgia Rae from the song!
J: It was a group effort to make this family work. In a weird way we all raised each other. We all had to figure it out, and that’s what makes it that much sweeter.
L: We’ve really hit our stride as adults. Some people ask me, “How’s Georgia Rae?” and I tell them she’s 30. That makes people feel old!
EN: Tell me about the new single. I understand both of you covered a song written by the other. How did you decide which songs to cover?
J: I recorded “All Kinds of People.” I loved that she chose that song to open Trinity Lane, and I love the wistful vibe, the guitar riff, and what the song says. And it has a cool sing-song thing about it.
L: I’m glad you hear the sing-song because I think of it as a pirate song.
J: That’s exactly it!
L: I chose “You Must Go” from his album Walk On, which is a special album to me, from a special time in my life, 1995. It has our first dog, Lila, on the cover. I recorded it in my boyfriend’s studio, and it’s a song that my boyfriend used to listen to with his dad.
J: I didn’t know that. That’s great.
L: The restlessness of that song has always resonated with me. I made my guitar player play drums on it. It was kind of intense at first, but I told everyone, “WE’RE HERE TO HAVE FUN!” and we did!
J: I have one final question for Lilly. Have I ever given you any kind of a leg up in terms of getting you this deal or that deal? You’ve done this all on your own, haven’t you? Am I correct in assuming that?
L: Well …
J: Yes you have. You’ve done it all on your own. That’s all I have to say about that!