To coincide with the release of his debut album ‘Beginners’, singer-songwriter Christian Lee Hutson spoke to us about songwriting, literature, and finding the belief to bring this record to life.
Some artists make music with priority placed on the sound, the instrumentation, samples, beats being ingredients for an intricate recipe intended for the ears to feast on. Others allow the lyrics to take centre stage, narrating stories over a gentle backdrop. LA-based singer/songwriter Christian Lee Hutson is an example of the latter, with his songs being nostalgic snapshots of life’s small moments and encounters. On his debut album Beginners (released May 29), the songs roll into one. There’s a consistent pace maintained throughout but their meanings are each different.
We are introduced to different characters throughout. ‘Katie leans over my lap, looking out the window for a glimpse of the house we were kids in. She says, “I hated it then, but now I kind of miss it,”’ goes “Athiest” while in “Lose this Number”, we are incorporated into the narrative as a subject despite them remaining a mystery to us. ‘Bobby helped me track you down cause/ I just saw your name in the paper/ You said “of course that reminded you of me/ Don’t you know that’s how a name works”’. Hutson has a way of bringing us into his group of friends, referencing people like we are recounting moments together, as highlighted with lines such as ‘You’ve been away for months/ the bands finally breaking up/ Charlie’s a fucking tool / Says he’s going back to school’ in “Twin Soul.” We don’t know anything about these people but their names, making the songs both incredible real and fictionalized at the same time.
I’m pretty busy
So please forgive me
If I forget to
Not forgive you
The way that I see it
You’re no longer needed
and if I’m not mistaken
your ship never came in, anyway
I’m a chip off the old block
’cause I’m all talk
– “Talk”, Christian Lee Hutson
There are light waves throughout the album, however- subtle characteristics that bring a change of pace. “Lose This Number” has a haunting quality emitted through the deepened vocals, a sense of regretfulness under dark grey skies. “Talk” has dreamy plucks and violins, the mind wondering while outside upon summery scented grass. “Get The Old Band Back Together” has an intensified singalong element, as though jamming with buddies around a campfire or at a living room hangout. “Unforgivable” is a rounded example, sweetly tuneful yet sweeping with melancholy. ‘We had a pretty good run but I just can’t fucking do it anymore’, Hutson admits in the chorus- the last words getting slower and slower in a tender state of hopelessness.
Songs being simple, like they are with Beginners, take from the familiar. Debut single “Northsiders”, with its vocal tone and guitar style, recalls the sad musings of Elliot Smith- a comparison that could also be made with “Seven Lakes”.
Our cheeks were frozen
Watching the storm roll in
We missed the ferry
Got stuck in the city, barely
covering our heads
With a coat, when you said
We could be more than friends
It’ll never be this good again
I’m gonna hurt you and myself too
Cause that’s the only thing
that I know how to do
“Twin Soul”, Christian Lee Hutson
Describing a live performance of Hutson’s back in May last year, I wrote that he takes the position of storyteller, maintained seated throughout his set with guitars and microphone and telling humorous tales in between songs. Live or listened to via the record, the effect is the same. While Beginners has the added drama, the orchestral arrangements that add a grander sense of atmosphere, the listener is still sucked in with intimacy. Perhaps it’s also because Hutson’s musical position is pretty intimate. He’s a collaborator, working alongside other musicians on stage and off (most notably recently Better Oblivion Community Center, Boygenius, and Ethan Gruska). It was Phoebe Bridgers who produced this album, her musical approach and his going hand in hand. Beginners oozes a sadly-tinged comfort and further creates an atmosphere/ fantasy that the listener is amiably part of their gang of poetic coolness.
Atwood Magazine caught up with Christian Lee Hutson for a call while he, like everyone else, was spending their days in their homes. We spoke of songwriting, literature, and finding the belief to bring this record to life.
Stream: ‘Beginners’ – Christian Lee Hutson
:: A CONVERSATION WITH CHRISTIAN LEE HUTSON ::
Atwood Magazine: I saw you live in London in May last year when you supported Better Oblivion Community Centre and when I listened to your album Beginners for the first time it filled me with such nostalgia because that evening was so special for me.
Christian Lee Hutson: Aww, that was a really special show for me for several reasons.
I loved that you were a support act because with you being a member of the band it made the whole event seem sweeter, like hanging out with a bunch of friends.
Christian Lee Hutson: Yeah, the whole tour was fun. That European part of it, especially. But yeah that venue was somewhere I have always wanted to play. That’s like where the Dixie Chicks said that they hated George Bush.
: Haha! At your show, there were also the live illustrations by Chris Riddell that were projected on the screens during your set and I was wondering if you got to keep these illustrations?
Christian Lee Hutson: Aww yeah I have them all here. I’ve been wanting to get them framed. He did like 35 illustrations from the time he showed up at the venue until the time that we said goodbye at the end of the night so I’ve been trying to decide which ones to get framed.
Aww amazing. And your songs are very narrative driven and I feel like in your head you have a clear picture of their meaning. What was it like to have them interpreted in this way?
Christian Lee Hutson: It’s always really interesting to hear what other people see in their heads when they listen to it. Especially for Chris and to see him draw in short a span of time as well.
Mmmm. Did you have a favorite one? Although I guess you just said you were trying to choose.
Christian Lee Hutson: I think the one that he did for this song called “Talk”. I like that one and yeah another song called “Athiest”. That I REALLY liked.
Yeah, I remember the “Athiest” one was because wasn’t that on the aeroplane? Because I remember you commenting on it during the set.
Christian Lee Hutson: Yeah, that was a favorite one. And that’s one of my favorite songs on the record.
Nice. So with the record, how long did it take for the album to come together? Had you already had most of the songs written for a long time or were some developed more recently?
Christian Lee Hutson: I had been working on it for like almost five years actually. I didn’t really know what I wanted it to sound like and I just wasn’t very confident in my own ability to arrange things so I just kept making different versions of all the songs. The oldest one I wrote in 2014 and the newest one I wrote probably in the studio.
Ahh ok and which ones were which?
Christian Lee Hutson: The oldest one is “Talk” and the newest one is a song called “Twin Soul”.
Nice. When you released the single “Northsiders” it instantly felt very reminiscent of Elliott Smith, somebody I know that you’re a fan of. Growing up were you always drawn to singer-songwriter style artists or was this something you grew more appreciative of when writing your own songs?
Christian Lee Hutson: In a way, yeah. Elliott smith was really big for me when I was like 13 or whatever when I found out about him. I dunno if I was necessarily drawn to singer-songwriters but those songs were really important to me. Definitely that is a high compliment if it sounds anything like it.
Watch: “Northsiders” – Christian Lee Hutson
Are there any authors who particularly inspire you? I interviewed Sofia Wolfson, who I know you’re friends with, last year and she said how her writing is largely influenced by short stories especially those by Raymond Carver so I was wondering if it is similar for you.
Christian Lee Hutson: That’s really funny because when I was writing a lot of this record lyrically I wanted them to all be like little short stories and I was also reading a lot of Raymond carver. But yeah I love George Saunders. I love his short stories. I’ve been reading Murakami and I just read both of those Sally Rooney books. They make me really inspired to write and come up with more stories.
What tends to be your songwriting process? I imagine you to have loads of journals full of anecdotes and observations that you then revisit to transform into music.
Christian Lee Hutson: Yeah it is sort of like that, only I try to make a plan to only use journals and not use my phone anymore and then I always come back to using my phone. So I just use the notes section of my phone to make little observations of any interactions I’ve had or a movie I saw or a misheard lyrics from the radio or something like that. And then just kind of slowly pull them together until they feel like something that happened.
And you said you’ve been making this album for like 5 years so was there anything you had made note of and forgotten about and then came across again and was like, ‘Ohh yeah I could use that’?
Christian Lee Hutson: Like lyrically? or musically?
Lyrically or both.
Christian Lee Hutson: Yeah I think there were a few actually. Like sometimes what I will do is combine parts of songs that I’ve written at different times that didn’t work for some reason. There is a lot of that on this record where I’d written like 50 or 60 songs for it in total and whenever the ones that didn’t work (and there’s still a bunch of them) that I have taken anything from I would take them apart and see if a verse from this would work with this chorus that I wrote on another thing. So there are a few songs that are kind of frankensteined together like that. I can’t hear the difference anymore.
Similarly, how personal are the songs on this record? For example, you mention names like ‘Bobby helped me track you down’ (in “Lose This Number”) and ‘Katie leans over my lap’ (in “Athiest”). Are these real people or are their names fictionalized?
Christian Lee Hutson: Yeah so all of the names on the record are of real people but sometimes the things that they do are not necessarily what they did. I scrambled up their identities a little bit in some cases. A lot of them are like a hypothetical situation that I’m imagining or something, but all the names are of friends. Bobby in “Lose This Number” is definitely a real person. That’s like the starting point of that song. That is probably the closest song to being all real stuff.
Yeah because I remember that “Get The Old Band Back Together” was inspired by a situation with friends from the past.
Christian Lee Hutson: Ohh yeah. Yeah I changed all of the names from that to be none of the existing names of the real people. So I just used my friends’ names from Phoebe’s band, my friend Harry who plays guitar in Phoebe’s band. It was initially like a joke about this band that I grew up with but also a joke about how I filled in playing bass for Phoebe’s band on the first tour. It was about a week long, the intention was never for me to be in the band but I had this running joke with the person who inevitably came in full time that I was original member and it doesn’t sound the same since I left the band [laughs].
“Get The Old Band Back Together” – Christian Lee Hutson
That’s fun. I love that. So musically I imagine that you probably own quite a few guitars. Is there one that was like your-go to for writing the songs? Like they feel like the kind of songs that came alive on an old battered acoustic guitar or whatever.
Christian Lee Hutson: All of them come out of different guitars. But yeah I do have a bunch, mainly because I like to use a lot of different tunings for things because I get kind of bored or I feel dumb about the chords that I’m using for a tuning I’m not too familiar with. A lot of them I wrote on this tiny toy classical guitar. I wrote a bunch of these songs when I was visiting my dad who lives in Ohio and he bought this like $25 toy guitar that I wrote a bunch of the songs on. I don’t know why. It feels small and like no-one can hear me.
That’s the kind of thing I need because I have really small fingers and whenever I try and learn guitar I just get frustrated.
Christian Lee Hutson: I think they’re great. They’re really more approachable sometimes than like a really nice guitar because you just can’t take it that seriously, especially when you’re a big guy.
Yeah, the image is funny to imagine. You’ve played in bands before and this is your first solo record. Had you always had it in your mind that you would release your own solo stuff? You said before how you never really felt that confident so when was the moment when realized ‘oh yeah I can make this record’.
Christian Lee Hutson: I’d always been trying to make solo stuff and I was just I guess really paranoid about not making it right or something. And then along the way I ended up accidentally in a bunch of people’s bands just by proximity of my friends or something. I ended up playing with Jenny Lewis literally by fluke, not really intending to play the guitar with anyone.
So wait, how did that come about?
Christian Lee Hutson: Her and I became friends. I filled in on that tour playing bass for Phoebe literally because there was just nobody else to do it. And then, I dunno, a couple of months later Jenny just ended up asking me even though we had never even played. So then I kept getting gigs in that way. All the while, I was just trying to work on the solo record but kept getting derailed by like ‘oh im going to go tour with jenny’ and ‘doing this and that’. I found the confidence in this being the right version of everything through working with Phoebe. We just had similar taste in things and she really helped convince me that the songs were good enough to not be arranged in like a really fancy way.
Yeah I was going to ask actually: What was her actual role within the creation of the album? Like, how hands-on was she and to what extent did she influence the outcome of your songs?
Christian Lee Hutson: Well she produced it obviously and arrangement-wise she had different ideas about ‘oh this one would be really cool if it had strings on it’ and you know like that sort of stuff. For me the biggest thing with it that was definitely that she was a voice of somebody I really respect saying that this is good enough to exist. Yeah, I dunno, that permission is really important for me. I don’t know why I haven’t figured out how to give it to myself. But yeah I mean in other ways she also just made it all possible. I mean, nobody really wanted to make this kind of record with me.
Christian Lee Hutson: So she influenced the outcome of it by literally making it so that it could exist in the first place.
That’s sweet. And I know you’ve also done a lot of songwriting for other people - recently, for example, Ethan Gruska. Are there any other notable collaborations from the past people should be aware of?
Christian Lee Hutson: I wrote a song with Boygenius, “ketchum ID”, and then for Phoebe’s record that is about to come out I wrote a bunch of the stuff. One of them is already out, “garden song”, which we wrote together with Marshall (Vore). Then I’m sure there’s other stuff also but honestly it’s hard to remember when it takes so long for the stuff to come out. I can’t ever remember what is out already or what isn’t going to be out for a long time.
Finally, how are you keeping sane in this current period of isolation? can you recommend any books that people should read or music they should delve into?
Christian Lee Hutson: Yeah. I’m keeping sane by literally filling every second that I could be worrying about something with like an activity like reading or watching a show. I’m trying to think of stuff that’s I’ve read. I read the big insanely long Murakami book “1Q84” because I figured I had time. That was really great. I mean we all have time.
How long did that take you to read?
Christian Lee Hutson: It took me about 50 days. I started at the beginning and then I just finished it maybe a week or so ago. Then also I read another 2 more Murakami books, “Norweigan Wood” and “Cargo on the shore”. Music I have been listening to… I just like cycle through. I’ll become really obsessed with somebody’s and listen to it for like 3 years straight and never again. But there’s this guy called Paul Buchanan who made a record in 2012 called Mid Air. He was in a band in the ’80s called The Blue Nile that’s also really good. Yeah and then just like friends music that has been coming out that I’ve been really enjoying.
Cool. It’s good to have that balance. Well congratulations on the record because it really is sweet so you should be proud!
Christian Lee Hutson: Thank you so much. Thank you for listening to it and talking to me.
📸 © Gus Black 2020
:: Christian Lee Hutson ::