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There’s an honest moment on Lilly Hiatt’s new album, Lately, when Hiatt tells us everything we need to know about how she’s been coping with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the song “Been,” a loose and leisurely country-tinged stroll through her day-to-day life at home and off the road, Hiatt sings with a warm Southern drawl, “And if you ever come out with me / You’ll love all that you see / Not meant to stay in one place / Stillness just steals my grace.”
The song sounds fairly mellow upon first listen, but Hiatt’s voice is thick with frustration. You can almost hear her jaw tighten a little more with each verse, as she begrudgingly sings about having to stay home and do mundane tasks like grocery shopping and chores. It’s not the life she wanted, nor is it the life she’s known since childhood.
Hiatt was born to move, explore, and create, first as the musically inclined daughter of legendary singer-songwriter John Hiatt, of course, and then as a talented artist in her own right. The pandemic didn’t just put a temporary hold on her music career, it uprooted her entire identity during a pivotal point in her promising future.
Since releasing her first solo album Let Down in 2012, Hiatt has toured the country with Drive-By Truckers, John Prine, Justin Townes Earl, and Margo Price. She’s worked with notable producers including Doug Lancio and Michael Trent of Shovels & Rope, and after 2017’s critically acclaimed Trinity Lane, she was nominated for Emerging Artist of the Year at 2018’s Americana Music Honors & Awards.
In February 2020 Hiatt was poised to take one more big step as she prepared to release Walking Proof, her fourth full-length album (and second for New West Records). Produced by former Cage the Elephant guitarist Lincoln Parish — with guest appearances from Aaron Lee Tasjan, Amanda Shires, and Luke Schneider — Walking Proof is arguably the best work of Hiatt’s career.
“Little Believer,” featuring Tasjan, starts as an upbeat rock ‘n’ roll love song brimming with layers of fuzzy guitar and handclaps. It’s fun, crunchy, and poppy. But by the end, Hiatt uncharacteristically cuts loose, spiraling into a Seattle-circa-1993 maelstrom of urgent guitar and drumming while incessantly and breathlessly repeating the phrase “I wanna be your little believer” until her lungs are out of air.
On the album’s title track, Hiatt comfortably nestles into her country roots to contemplate life on the road. Over mellow twangy guitar and the steady hit of what sounds like a woodblock, Hiatt sings, “Lord, release my hands / I have joined a rock ‘n’ roll band / And it’s put me on the road / Away from everyone I know.” The Highwomen’s Shires provides backing vocals and playful fiddle that give the song a carefree and inviting porch jam vibe.
At the end of the record is “Scream,” a haunting and sparse track where Hiatt reclaims her own space in the world with the chorus, “Year after year running from home / I want someplace that’s just my own to scream / And I ain’t slowing down for nobody.”
“I think we’re entering an era of just going for it, whatever you want to do, try it out. Do it. Push the envelope.”
Hiatt had two months’ worth of Spring shows booked across the U.S., and Walking Proof’s first few singles, “Brightest Star,” “P-Town,” “Candy Lunch,” and “Some Kind of Drug” (featuring John Hiatt) received a flurry of early praise from national outlets including Rolling Stone, Spin, NPR, and Garden & Gun. Impressive to locals, the singer’s face was also painted larger than life on the outside wall of East Nashville’s beloved record store, Grimey’s. You know you’ve truly made it when your face graces Grimey’s.
But then came the stillness.
Walking Proof was released on March 27, days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. While the record still sold and earned vital praise from critics — it was the first of Hiatt’s albums to chart on Billboard, making both the Tastemakers and Top Album Sales lists, and the notoriously picky Pitchfork gave it a 7.6 — there was no party and no tour.
Hiatt’s favorite aspect of releasing new music, performing the songs live, was canceled and the at-home performances she attempted to film to connect with fans in place of touring only seemed to make her feel worse.
“I was so bummed about Walking Proof and not getting to play it,” she says while sipping an iced chai outside Inglewood’s Sip Cafe. “I was really invested in those songs. I had these visions for them live. I’m making all these videos and getting really frustrated with my video skills and getting in my head about how I looked and how I sounded — things that you don’t do when you’re playing with four people. That took a while. That did a little number on me.”
As all her hopes for Walking Proof faded, and the pandemic’s negative impact on our day-to-day mental health weighed more heavily, Hiatt’s year only seemed to get worse. In April singer-songwriter John Prine, a man Hiatt has known since childhood and who she credits for inspiring her to become a writer, died from complications due to COVID-19. In August, Hiatt’s friend and former tour mate Justin Townes Earle died of an accidental drug overdose. She also went through a break-up.
Hiatt sinks down into her chair a bit when asked about the heartbreak, which she addresses on Lately — “It was hard,” she finally offers. “It was a hard thing.
“I write songs so I can deal with my own life,” she adds. “That’s maybe very selfish of me, but that’s why I write, because if I didn’t I don’t think I’d understand my life. There were days where I just couldn’t — I felt so incredibly uncomfortable with myself, like I literally felt like crawling out of my skin. I didn’t have anywhere to go or run away to or things to distract me. That’s something I’m not great at. I don’t like to be uncomfortable.”
But this time songwriting, her usual means of escape when she’s unable to go anywhere else, wasn’t coming easily. “I felt [the songs] creeping up but I wasn’t sure what it was, so in that sense, I just didn’t feel very sparked from those songs,” she says. So to get through the days, Hiatt started to take exploratory strolls around her East Nashville neighborhood. She walked down side streets she never really noticed before, indulged her curiosity, and got to know her neighbors. And, she says, she got “really into flowers, people’s porches, and wondering what [her neighbors] do with their lives.”
“There was a tenderness to it all because last year was really hard. I felt like in my neighborhood everybody was a little more into asking, ‘How are you doing?’ and talking about what’s going on and how we felt because you kind of had to.”
Hiatt baked, cooked, and listened to records. She appreciated how listening to music — something we’ve all taken for granted at some point in our lives — helped her feel connected to the music community she so dearly missed.
“I listened a lot to Jeremy Ivey’s record, Waiting Out the Storm. Kid Cudi put out a great record last year, I listened to that a lot. I loved Margo Price’s record. ‘South Gotta Change,’ by Adia Victoria, and her most recent record [A Southern Gothic] is just amazing, I’m just blown away. Bully put out an awesome record.
“The cool thing is that so many of these records, and so many of these things I was listening to, they’re people I know,” she adds. “Those records felt like my friends.”
Hiatt also did what so many others did when faced with a quiet house and too much time on their hands… she got a dog. A puppy, actually. His name is Elvis — as in Presley, not Costello — and he’s an adorable black lab/pitbull mix.
“He’s cool. He’s a little handful, but he’s awesome.”
At one point in 2020, after writing through her grief, heartbreak, and boredom with lackluster results, Hiatt felt a spark with a song called “The Last Tear,” a mid-tempo country song about being tired of crying about a break-up.
“I kept writing because I know that sometimes you have to just purge the mediocre stuff — get it out — at least in my experience. I just kept writing. Finally, I was like, ‘Ah, there’s something that feels like what I’m trying to get at.’”
“The Last Tear” is more simple and stripped down, especially compared to the dynamic songs on Walking Proof, but it unlocked something within Hiatt. She learned she didn’t have to chase inspiration by constantly rushing around from one place to the next — inspiration can be found in stillness, too.
“I think something cool that’s been really freeing for me is I used to search for my inspiration,” she says. “Now I know you can just kind of conjure it on your own. Get inspired! Find something to get inspired by! Discovering that, learning it was there and you just have to start talking with it, that was cool.”
“The Last Tear” was just the beginning. “Been,” the song in which Hiatt chides the stillness that left her questioning who she is when not constantly touring, came next. Before long, Hiatt realized she had a whole new record on her hands. To capture the confessional, personal nature of the material, Hiatt turned to her friend, drummer and producer Kate Haldrup.
“She became my confidant,” says Hiatt. “I felt like I could trust her with these brand new, raw sentiments and not be judged. Usually, I want to wait a little bit to get [songs] to the studio, but I took them right to her, and I just knew that with Kate we could make something that was different than what I’ve done.”
Hiatt also put together a new band, with Mike LoPinto on guitar, Robert Hudson on bass, Haldrup on drums, Micah Hulscher on keys, and Steve Hinson on pedal steel. Coley Hinson does some guitar on a couple of tracks, too.
Lately was released on October 15, 18 months after Walking Proof, and to call it a pandemic project would be a superficial take on what is actually a deep exploration of isolation and longing — in all its forms.
The opening track, “Simple,” paints a warm, beautiful picture of a time when Hiatt was gathered with family for a birthday — there are hugs, cake, and her dad playing records — but the song aches with longing and weepy guitar. It’s just a vision.
Hiatt sings softly, with the bittersweet knowledge that reliving those moments would be impossible now, “I can’t watermark the memory, it changes with the moon / And every soft smell makes me think about you / The people that I love, they are always in my heart / Even when we don’t talk, I know where ya are.”
The song “Gem” is about a different kind of longing, the kind that comes after reluctantly ending a relationship. While previous songs like “Simple” and the syrupy love song “Ride” rang out bright and clear, Hiatt’s vocals and guitar in “Gem” are both distorted, thick with the same kind of fog that can settle in your brain when reeling from fresh heartbreak. “I just sit around and blink / Dishes piled in my sink / I won’t ask you to come by / I won’t let you see me cry,” she sings.
Lately lacks all the confidence Hiatt captured on Walking Proof, but that just makes it more honest and relatable — whose self-esteem hasn’t taken a hit in the midst of this hellscape?
Now, as Hiatt hits the road for the first time since releasing both albums — she’s spent the last half of October and the first half of November traveling through the Southwest and up the West Coast on an 18-date tour with Lydia Loveless — Hiatt is carrying with her two versions of herself.
There’s the Lilly Hiatt who wrote Walking Proof, a rock ‘n’ roll record that’s filled with friends and free of the weight of unprecedented suffering, and the Lilly Hiatt who wrote Lately, a collection of songs composed while still making sense of a new world, one that carries the heaviness of loss and weight of survival.
“How do I merge those worlds? Because I’m not the same me as the last two years,” Hiatt says. “And that’s good! I’m glad I’m not. I want to grow and evolve. In a way, I feel confidence from a different place, but there’s just a bit of shakiness that I’d be lying if I said wasn’t there.”
Another positive to come from the past 18 months? The gatekeeping of country music has continued to chip away as more artists collaborate, mix traditional sounds with unexpected genres and, frankly, stop giving a fuck about what the good ol’ boys think.
Hiatt has never been one to follow a set path, musically speaking, and now her shows will contain even more multitudes as she makes room for both Lately and Walking Proof to coexist. How this dichotomous experience will impact her future songwriting remains to be seen, of course, but all bets are off. Hiatt has learned to embrace the stillness, to see what’s waiting for her there, but she’s also a rocker at heart — expect to hear more from both sides.
“I think we’re entering an era of just going for it,” she says, laughing. “Whatever you want to do, try it out. Do it. Push the envelope. You want to put some crunchy crazy guitars on something and you’ve never done that? Do it! If you want to work with someone you feel really completely inspired by, join forces, ask them! I say this to myself, too, to muster up my own courage to try new stuff, whatever that may be. Just go for it. I don’t even know what that means, just try to have some fun.
“I feel like people more than ever want to enjoy things together — and feel part of things together. And that’s a really exciting thing. Like, let’s all get together and have a good ol’ time, and do the things that make us happy.”
Lilly Hiatt’s latest release, Lately, is available now on New West Records via all streaming channels. It will also be out on cassette tape, as well as vinyl, in the near future. Stay tuned to lillyhiatt.com for more.