Lilly Hiatt finds her own path to success
My father gave me my first guitar when I was 12,” singer and songwriter Lilly Hiatt says. “I still have it. It’s my favorite, a beautiful 1953 parlor- size Martin. I immediately put stickers all over it and a picture of Eddie Vedder because I loved Pearl Jam. I thought I was making it pretty, but I totally defaced it. Dad never gave me any crap about it. He was like, ‘Okay . . . .’ That’s how he’s always been. He encouraged me to be me.”
While that type of parental encouragement is valuable for anyone, it’s especially true for Lilly Hiatt. As the daughter of renowned singer-songwriter John Hiatt, she faces both the advantages and challenges of being a “legacy artist.” It’s a common predicament in Nashville, a town where sons, daughters, grandkids, nieces, and nephews of musical legends are in ample supply. While her genetics may be a conversation starter or a point of interest, when it comes to her chosen career, it’s the music that matters.
Over the past few years, Hiatt has been finding her own path to success as demonstrated on her 2013 recording debut, Let Down, and now her new album, Royal Blue. Born in Los Angeles in 1984, she spent little time in the City of Angels before moving to Nashville with her father. Growing up in the Music City, Hiatt experienced a different relationship with her father from the standard Mondaythrough- Friday, workaday schedule of most parents. Especially after the breakthrough success of his 1987 album, Bring the Family.
“I remember when things started to pick up because it was exciting,” she says. “He was on the road a lot, and I missed him, but he was always very present in my life. It’s not like a 9-to- 5 job where you only see your dad at night and he’s tired. When he was home, he was really involved. It was never like ‘Where’s Dad?’”
Although he was very focused on his family, his work remained an important part of home life. “There was always music in the house,” Hiatt says, “records being played or live music. From a really early age, I loved singing. I never made a conscious decision that it was what I wanted to do. I thought of it as ‘just what people do.’ I really wanted to play music. I never felt any pressure to take up music, but I was really shy about singing in front of people.
“When I was 12, my dad signed me up for guitar lessons, and I hated it,” she continues. “I was super lazy about practicing; I did not want to learn the stuff I was being taught. I just wanted to play the songs that I was hearing on the radio, and I eventually figured out how to play on my own.”
In high school, Lilly found confidence in numbers, performing in chorus and school musicals. She eventually worked up the nerve to perform solo as part of Battle Ground Academy’s prestigious Artist Guild program. “I first auditioned my junior year, and I was so nervous I totally blew my audition,” she recalls. “I remember going to see Emmylou Harris at the Ryman that night and thinking, ‘I bet she never failed an audition.’ My chorus teacher really encouraged me to try again. I auditioned again my senior year and made it.”
After graduation, Hiatt headed for the University of Denver. But even a thousand miles from Nashville, she found her interests still turning toward music. “I played some open mic nights here and there, but I didn’t play a real show until my junior year of college,” she says. “I met my friend Eric Knutsen, and he encouraged me to start playing out. Denver is a very musical place, but it’s a different kind of scene from Nashville. I guess it was easier to start playing there than at home.”
In 2006, Hiatt graduated with a degree in psychology, but her primary attention had turned to Shake Go Home, the band she formed with fellow D.U. students, and that was a road that led back home.
“I convinced my band to move to Nashville,” she says. “Denver is a really hippie/jammy world, and it was a really different scene in Nashville. That was a weird time trying to get a grip on the differences. We had no idea what we were doing, but I really thought that in a year or two, things would be off and sailing.
“We had really good players, but we were all over the place in our influences and couldn’t seem to merge them into something bigger. We were trying to be a democratic band without one guiding voice because I didn’t know how to step up and be that. We practiced and worked really hard, but we just didn’t have a focus. After about a year and a half, we went our own ways.
“Right after the band broke up, I started playing solo a lot, and that forced me to figure out where I wanted my songs to go,” she continues. “I started writing a lot. I wanted to start fresh without the mindset of ‘I’m writing songs for a band.’ I started playing with a lot of different people. I met Beth Finney and Jon Radford. Jon knew a lot of musicians in town. I started trying things out with different people and that led to a pretty solid group.”
In addition to Finney on lead guitar and Radford on drums, Hiatt recruited Jake Bradley on bass and Luke Schneider on pedal steel. With her band in place, she brought them into Doug Lancio’s East Nashville studio in 2012 to cut her first album, Let Down. The record clearly displayed her solid songwriting and enticing vocals that could slide between the steel-reinforced rock of “Big Bad Wolf ” and the twang town charms of “Young Black Rose.”
“I’m really proud of the way that first album came out,” Hiatt says. “As for the twang in my vocals, I don’t know where it comes from. My dad doesn’t have a Southern accent. I don’t have one speaking, but it comes out in my singing. Even when I think I’m disguising it, my voice is so twangy. I guess it’s just growing up in Nashville. [My band and I] all grew up not really being into country music, but we were surrounded by it, and I’m proud of that. That ‘Southern thing’ is more in me than I realize.”
With her penchant for country-rock fusions, and unpretentious and honest writing built around a solid turn of phrase, the comparisons to her father’s songwriting were inevitable. It’s a yardstick that Hiatt has no problems standing beside.
“I didn’t realize ‘John Hiatt’s kid’ was such a thing until my career started picking up, and then every person mentioned it,” she says. “It makes sense though, and it never struck me as offensive. My dad and I have a really good relationship, and I think that helps. I suppose it might be a sore spot to have that constantly reinforced for kids who are estranged from their ‘famous parent,’ but he’s been a guiding light for me. It’s not like I’ve tried to ride his coattails or take advantage of my name, but it’s a real thing, and to deny it would be silly.”
One way that familial connection benefited Hiatt was gaining an audience with the powers-that-be at Normaltown Records, a subsidiary of New West, the label that her father has called home for more than a decade. After self-financing Let Down, she pitched the album to Normaltown, who signed her and released the album to critical acclaim and moderate financial success.
“I’m lucky to have them behind me,” Hiatt says. “Let Down was everything I could have wanted for a first record. A little part of me was hoping maybe I could quit my day job. That didn’t happen, but I did get to do a fair amount of touring, word started to get out, and it was warmly received by a small but satisfactory number of folks. It made people interested enough that they asked, ‘What’s next?’ ”
The answer to that question was delivered recently with the release of her new album, Royal Blue. While still growing from rootsy soil, the album also marks Hiatt’s excursion into a wider sonic landscape. Working with local producer Adam Landry, she recorded Royal Blue at his Sylvan Park studio, Playground Sound. The album mixes elements of dream pop synth and indie rock guitar fuzz to propel sharp, incisive, and occasionally sardonic examinations of affairs of the heart.
“Working with Adam was a lot of fun,” Hiatt says. “Going in, I didn’t think I wanted synth on my songs, but Adam introduced that concept and it was really weird and cool. I loved trying to get out of the box, but not in some contrived sense of wanting to make a record that sounds like this artist or that artist. I went in wanting to make a record that sounds like me. I’m a singer-songwriter, but I enjoy listening to grunge, noisy stuff, indie rock — my influences are all across the board. When it comes to blending influences, I think now is the time that anything goes.”
That swirl of influences reinforces her songwriting through the dreamy daze of dissatisfaction found in “Far Away,” or the twangified and pragmatic wit of “Jesus Would’ve Let Me Pick the Restaurant.” Hiatt’s songs are dispatches from the rocky road of relationships — tales of bruised hearts and the wisdom that is left by the passage of pain.
“I think a lot of my writing is now coming from the realization that the world isn’t black and white,” she says. “There is a lot of gray, but there can be peace in accepting that not everything works out.”
Although critics and fans frequently see connections between a songwriter’s work and their personal history, Hiatt has found that being the daughter of a successful songwriter has only reinforced those perceptions. The song, “Somebody’s Daughter,” has been singled out by almost every reviewer as a slice of musical autobiography. It’s an assumption that Hiatt finds amusing.
“I love reading people’s takes on songs,” she says. “I had a feeling that song would get pinned as that, which is fine with me. I think it ties in some to that, but I was really questioning more about God and bigger picture stuff — where this character fits in universally. But people should interpret it the way they want. I don’t like to get into, ‘I wrote this to mean that.’
“I heard Bruce Springsteen say something along the lines of ‘the beauty of a song is that the meaning changes from person to person.’ So why take that away from people by spelling out how I wrote this exactly about that? I’ve done that, but I’m starting to lay back on it a little. A song can mean so many different things to different folks. I have some songs that I wrote when I was 24, and now that I’m 30, some of the meanings have changed for me.”
Since its release, Royal Blue has received both positive notices and a few of the usual less-than-stellar reviews from Internet critics. It’s a common reaction that most artists face to their sophomore effort, especially for those looking to expand the direction followed on their debut. But as with the relationships she writes about, Hiatt has learned to accept the good with the bad.
“You’re not supposed to read the reviews of your album,” she says. “But now we have Twitter that notifies you. And I get emails that say ‘you’ve been mentioned.’ How can I not click and look? I called my dad the other day in tears, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, don’t read them, just stop.’ But then I read the good ones, and it’s like ‘yay!’
“You have to believe in yourself more than anyone else,” she continues. “You have to believe in what you do. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be doing it. In regards to the negative stuff, at least it’s making someone feel something, so I’ll take that.”
Although Hiatt is still navigating her own road to success, one of the earliest lessons she learned from her father is the one she values the most. “The best advice he gave me is don’t try to be something else, just be you,” she says. “I always think of that every time I get frustrated with all the crap in the music industry. It’s pretty simple but straight-up advice.”
It’s that advice that she’s carried with her all the way from that first “perfectly good guitar” that she defaced as a 12-year-old Pearl Jam fan. “Well, later down the road when I was in college, he got that guitar cleaned up for me,” she says. “It’s proof that even when you’re standing on your own, it’s a good thing to have your dad looking out for you.”