It’s breakfast time at The Nashville Biscuit House, and there isn’t a parking spot to be found. The scarred Formica tables inside the Gallatin Avenue tradition are filled with old school locals, the kind of people most might call “real” — moms with kids, working people getting a late start or an early coffee break. The energy bristles, and the conversation is its own buzz.
Tucked at a two-top near the back, Lilly Hiatt’s boasting a 400-watt smile, black T-shirt floating over a whip-thin frame, a tumble of black mermaid mane that falls across her shoulders. With eyes that drink everything in, she lights up in greeting and offers thanks for meeting.
It’s 8:30 a.m. on an early August morning. Anything but rock star hours, and Hiatt is effusive, waving the waitress over — and making suggestions. In some ways, the child of rock songwriter royalty; in another, just another East Nashville girl who’s part of the texture in the most creative part of 6-1-5.
Trinity Lane, Hiatt’s latest from New West, is about to be released. After the critical response to Royal Blue, the media chores could feel like so much burdensome ponder, but the 33-year old songwriter/rocker seems to be a champagne cork on the water. Ebullient, seeking, funny; you’d never know talking to her that this is a breakup album.
“There are no negative feelings,” she begins. “You move in with someone. You try to be a grown up. It doesn’t work out.”
Not that it’s ever that simple. For Hiatt, Trinity Lane paints a buzzy guitar lashed and lacerated roots take on how breakups really go. “I get bored so I wanna get drunk,” she sings as the title track churns, “but I know how that goes/So I ain’t gonna touch it/ I think my neighbors are sellin’ drugs, I know how that goes/I ain’t judging nothin.’. . . ”
It’s the little details that give these sketches their real. Suddenly, we can see the breakup apartment, the container for the post-fairytale fallout. With dignity, white knuckles, and fierce determination, Hiatt dug in. Writing, ruing, sorting. A survivor, as much pain as she might’ve been in, the spider monkey in her wasn’t giving in.
“I knew I had a bunch of shit I had to deal with,” she says, shaking her head. “I left feeling really heartbroken. You get older, and your capacity for love gets deeper. So when it doesn’t work out, it leaves a bit of a scar. . . . Love can take a lot of forms, but it doesn’t mean a happy ending. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s not real.
“But any form of rejection is painful. As humans, we’re not wired for it.”
Aaron Lee Tasjan, fellow East Nashville musical force, toured — to excruciatingly small crowds — with Hiatt during “the inspiration” for what became Trinity Lane. “It was a funny time,” Tasjan says. “She came to pick me up, and as I was putting my guitar in the car, my roommate came out with this letter that said we had two weeks to move — and she was dating this guy who played guitar in her band, and they were clearly having trouble.
“So, I was losing my home, she was breaking up with this guy in her band, and we have these five-, 10-minute moments where we’d tell each other everything. In those limited amounts of time, the quality of information you exchange you’re really aware of.”
Whether it’s the wide-open country tug of “So Much You Don’t Know,” the dreamy pop of “Sucker,” the walking invective ’n’ tortured noir blues “Everything I Had,” or the minor keyed Joy Division-evoking “The Night David Bowie Died” that recedes into a minimal drums and guitar confession, the musical colors swirl around this rumination on loss, but also a soul-examining and life-affirming consideration of a personal crossroads. Not one to blame, but also never shying from the truth, 20 songs emerged.
“Two very strong-willed minds, fiery minds,” Hiatt admits. “I don’t take very well to being told what to do, even though the intention was benevolent — and came from a good place. You have to let me do my own thing. Plus, I was trying to be this perfect person, very put together, very organized. Probably put pressure on myself, I definitely lost sight of myself.
“I’m a strong woman, with a strong mind,” she continues. “I’m not a vanilla ice cream cone; I’m a rainbow sherbet kind of girl. I’ll cook bacon at midnight; I’ll leave my books all over the house. I’m rough around the edges, and I’ll always be that way.”
There’s no apology, but there’s also no challenge. She confesses, “There was a moment when I knew, ‘This isn’t gonna work, and I’ll write my best songs.’ ”
There’s a definite tension to “The Night David Bowie Died”; beyond the way the music is so taut, there’s the desire to pick up the phone — which unravels everything about the person you’re refusing to call. Wide open vocals, she runs through so many other moments, regrets, wants, and veers between conversational and a gulping chorus that sweeps all the confessions over layers of synthesizers into the realization, “what we had wasn’t good enough.”
“I hadn’t heard that (kind of arrangement) from her, then she surprises and delights,” Tasjan marvels. “From the first eight bars, you’re just trapped in the song. There’s a real clarity, where sonically, you get the clear sense of what’s going on — the instruments, but also the emotions.
“So, you listen and you’re surrounded by all these little pieces dancing around each other. You can hear every part. But then when you listen to the whole, it kicks in. You’re transported.”
Hiatt, who’s worked with Doug Lancio (Patty Griffin, Matthew Ryan, Todd Snider) and Adam Landry (Deer Tick, Rayland Baxter, Middle Brother), sought to — as she did with the writing — get out of her comfort zone.
Enlisting Shovels & Rope’s Mike Trent, she went to Johns Island, S.C., to make Trinity Lane. If it seemed extreme — Hiatt is after all a true Nashville creative — the circumstances dictated a deeper kind of seeking. As she does when it really matters, Hiatt asked an expert: her father.
“She was worried about going and getting something that didn’t work,” John Hiatt remembers. “Going all that way, and being stuck. I thought it’d be interesting at the very least, and she’d learn. Lilly’s never been precious, and she does rock, so what did she have to lose?”
By jumping into the void, the young woman who’s decidedly band-driven came up with her most diverse and ambitious album yet. Fluid, she marks her bruised feelings with the roiling pop of “Records,” a true bromide of transformation and freedom that comes with listening to the music that saves you.
Even when the ex drives by and the gut punches land, “desire doesn’t know it’s wrong.” Salvation is close. With a few acoustic chords, the song continues, “So I came home and put the record on/I heard the backbeat, I sank into the groove — and suddenly, I wasn’t worried about you/ I turned it up so loud, it buzzed my ears, but that’s alright ’cause I’m the only one here.”
Like her father, she understands wringing out great truths against pop modalities. Just like that, Hiatt’s — and so many other people’s — bottom line emerges: “I’ll take lonely if it means free/It’s never how you thought it’d be.”
Hiatt, in spite of her sunny disposition, is deep. She may be friendly, engaging, and understanding, but don’t write the guitarist with the delicate fingers off as an effervescent kewpie doll. A fan of Bob Dylan, Lightning Hopkins, Pearl Jam (“always”), Lucinda Williams, Howlin Wolf, Drive-By Truckers, it shows in her musical eclecticism.
But there’s more to it. Always a seeker, the psychology major works to create deeper understandings of the events that shape her and the people around her, sometimes reckoning with the deepest stuff in her songs where the recordings whip listeners into a foam of delicious happiness.
Twenty-seven years ago, during a visit to the Hiatt house, the gorgeous dark-haired child climbed up on a couch in a room filled with natural light, locked eyes with me and introduced herself. “My name’s Lilly.” Before I could offer my own, she took my hand and said, “My Mommy killed herself.”
It was so guileless, so startling, I wanted to pick her up. She was living with wildly creative people who truly adored her, encouraged to think and learn. And yet. We had a conversation about pain and sorrow, letting go of precious things.
“It must’ve really hurt for her to leave you, because I know she had to really, really love you,” I offered. The serious 5- or 6-year-old listened, took it all in like she was 30 years older. Then she locked eyes again, smiled a little, said, “Do you wanna be friends?”
That resilience is deceptive. Her talent makes her someone you know is special. Her wide-open heart pulls you in, makes you cherish her in ways few people in our lives ever resonate. Hiatt feels — much like Mary Chapin Carpenter — like the woman friend who understands everything, feels your pain, and knows just what to say.
But Hiatt works complicated corners, comes from a life few of us understand. As Tasjan says, “I’ve been in bands with Sean Lennon, hung out with Lizzie Jagger, Theodora Richards, and Lilly is so unpretentious and down to earth. You’d never know. When I heard Royal Blue, I loved a bunch of the songs — and it never dawned on me she might be John Hiatt’s daughter, she’s so her own thing.”
But she is. “Imposter,” a spaghetti Western of a song, explores the complicated truth of a rock-soul songwriter with his own complicated life. Weighing her father’s own doubts against how the mother she lost during her infancy influences who she is; it is the kind of talk so many parents and children never have.
It is a song of questioning who we are as people, the weight of family dynamics, and how ultimately they square to fate. Unflinchingly intimate and wildly honest, “I wonder if we’d like each other, I wonder how I get so mad/Is that the same red temper that she had? There’s shame and there’s hard luck/ She gave me some tougher stuff.”
It is mesmerizing. With a chorus that muses, “I can try to make it better, I can pray it don’t get worse/I can wish you will forget her, I can hope you break this curse . . . after what we both went through, I count on you,” the listener might think this is recriminatory or beseeching. But really it’s a prayer to the life that becomes a blessing and a benediction.
“You are not an imposter, you’re the real thing/It’s the guiding light when I heard you sing/She’s never coming back/I think we both know that.”
Hiatt doesn’t exploit the emotions, doesn’t wring this out for good measure. Shrugging her shoulder, she offers, “It’s hard to keep your head above water when you’re a sensitive little person. This (record) definitely did some deep digging: Why is this so hard to let go of? Why am I so afraid of someone leaving me? The idea that everyone leaves, I mean, my mom left — so feeling deeper pains.”
She pauses, for a moment. The questions raised in “Imposter” probably needed asking. We’ve all had those moments of doubt, but her details are literal. “It made me sad that she couldn’t find that strength for herself,” she explains of the mother she lost as a baby. “You wish you could turn it off sometimes. She couldn’t — and I don’t know that she believed it would. She was strong and sensitive and very artistic, intelligent, and sweet, but troubled.”
In burrowing into her breakup songs, Lilly dug deeper. What emerged has an immediacy of emotions, a courage to face what’s there. Though she had no masterplan, she was determined to write her way through the pain that brought her to the ramshackle apartment fellow writer/artist Sara Potenza turned her onto.
“She really isolated herself when she was writing these songs,” Tasjan remembers. “Seeing Lilly out was like seeing a white owl walking a unicorn. You just didn’t, then she emerged with this album.”
“Writing isn’t always a comfortable process, but it’s invigorating, especially when I’m locked into something with my guitar,” Hiatt explains. “Sometimes I’m surprised by the words that come out; surprised like ‘Oh my God! That’s how I feel about that?’
“And the feeling that comes after is peaceful. That sense of ‘You got it out.’ ”
Neither relief nor satisfaction, Hiatt finds grace. She recognizes the delivery in the process, and it fires her art. As her father says, “It’s more than a career. She’s a lifer. Lilly came out of her bedroom at 16, and we didn’t even know she sang. She did ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘Angel from Montgomery’ at her school talent show, blew us away. She’s been at it ever since. She has to write songs, and she’s had to have part-time jobs to keep herself going, but she keeps going.”
Grit and tenacity underscore her utter cheerfulness. When the going gets rough, Lilly keeps going. During that tour with Tasjan, the singer remembers a night playing to 30 people in Covington, Ky., “clearly a retirement party with no interest in us,” and finding himself doubting his decisions.
“I remember calling my mom, saying, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this?’ ” Tasjan says. “Maybe I should be doing something else: teaching, playing guitar for somebody else. I got off the phone, and watched Lilly sing her set with that same fearlessness she always has — to that same set of retirement people — and this Pippi Longstocking adventurer thing where she goes with the music is just fearless. She has this vibe onstage, how she stands, moves her one leg around. It’s very comforting.”
Tasjan obviously stayed. But taking the long view of Hiatt, he sees her singularity. “The thing about Lilly: She’s creating her own place as an artist in a genre where those comparisons are so heavy and quickly made. Even Jason Isbell is being teed up to be the next John Prine. Her records and songs allow her to stand on her own, to just be Lilly. That’s a real trick!”
Hiatt finds her father’s example valuable. “There’s this disbelief, because he’s my father,” she says. “He’s an icon of our generation, too, and he’s still here. Beyond the music, there’s this reaffirming place when there’s no one to talk to about these things, but he can because he’s been there.”
John Hiatt is a fan. “I admire her work,” he says. “She’s a great writer, and a really great guitar player. Her groove is very much a part of her work. … You know, I might be opening for her one day.”