Hayden Calnin’s third album ‘What It Means to Be Human’ is a beautiful reckoning: A breathtakingly intimate, emotional album of acceptance and rediscovery, stillness and wonder.
“What It Means to Be Human” – Hayden Calnin
Stevie Wonder had Songs in the Key of Life; Radiohead had In Rainbows; Glass Animals had How to Be a Human Being; and now, Hayden Calnin has What It Means to Be Human. On his sweeping third full-length album, the celebrated Australian electro-folk artist dives into the depths of what so many before him (and surely many after him) have also done: Exploring deep philosophical and existential questions for which there are no solid or singular answers, and finding meaning in the chaos that is our existence. Ambitious in vision and epic in scope, What It Means to Be Human is a beautiful reckoning: A breathtakingly intimate, emotional album of acceptance and rediscovery, stillness and wonder. Hayden Calnin has spent years honing his craft and vision; here, he comes to life as a brilliant architect of stirring, cinematic folk pop.
I’m driving out through the dirty wind.
Stopped for a swim, are you far behind?
Middle nowhere, oh how I like what it means,
What it means to be human.
Let’s walk from here, it’s the end of the line.
Nothing ahead, I hope nature’s kind.
Our bags are full of another life.
What’s it mean?
What’s it mean to be human.
I’m running ahead now.
Cause I’m closer to death now.
So wake me up in the morning.
Wake me up with the story of your dream.
I can hear them talking.
Talking like this is all that we ever need.
– “What It Means to Be Human,” Hayden Calnin
Released September 10, 2021 via Nettwerk Music Group, What It Means To Be Human is Hayden Calnin’s first full-length effort in five years – a long-awaited longform follow-up to his double-album debut, Cut Love (Pts. 1 & 2). In speaking to Atwood Magazine so many years ago around his first LPs, Calnin expressed his artistry-defining desire to write stories and take his audience on a journey. “I want it to be moving, not get you moving,” he said.
“I’m not making the rules, I’m just making music. I chose to put them out as a double album because all the songs are reflecting on a certain period of my life and collectively tell one big story. They were divided according by the places in which I recorded them.”
At the time, Atwood praised Calnin as an incredible aural architect: “A masterful storyteller and sound sculptor whose music reaches unparalleled depths of emotion and humanity… Blending elements of folk and electronica (“folktronica,” as it were) has lent Calnin comparisons to the likes of Bon Iver, James Blake and Tom Odell, but there has never been a question of Hayden Calnin’s singularity. No matter where you look, ambient beauty is waiting to be embraced. Cut Love captures emotional upheaval and turmoil, transforming it into transcendent music that is as relevant today as it was a year ago, and as it will be ten years from now.”
Calnin has been prolific and kept a busy recording and release schedule over the past five years, joining fellow Australian artists Dustin Tebbutt, LANKS, and Xavier Dunn to form “indie supergroup” OK Moon and release a debut album of the same name (“a soothing, hopeful journey that breathes with its own emotional depth, warmth, and intimate sonic signature”). In addition, Calnin released his grieving and graceful EP Dirt in 2017, the gloriously vulnerable A Life You Would Choose EP in 2019, and the sweet Soon Forever EP in 2020.
All of this brings us to What It Means To Be Human, a deeply reflective and visceral experience that finds Calnin more up-close and personal than perhaps ever before. “What It Means To Be Human is the first record I’ve done that feels like it’s exactly what I want to be making,” he tells Atwood Magazine, noting that despite this being his third LP, it feels like his proper debut. “The double album debut Cut Love Pt 1&2 back in 2016 felt like I was still exploring and developing my sound as an artist. In contrast, now I’m feeling more comfortable in my music than ever. It’s progressive, orchestral infused, cinematic folk pop.”
“The album was recorded on a little coastal town on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, Australia. It’s a little pocket of the world I locked myself away in for a few years, trying to feel a little more connected to the Earth,” Calnin further explains. “I think this is what inspired these songs. I got to be away from the city, away from my safety nets and embrace a new environment and in turn a change in perspective in my mind. If I learnt anything through creating this record, it’s that the city life isn’t for me. I need the ocean and trees but a stones throw away. I had no real vision, just an urge to make a big body of work again. Putting single after single out just isn’t as rewarding as creating a full body of work. With the way that people listen to music constantly evolving and attention spans getting shorter and shorter, this is an escape for that trap if you find yourself in it. That’s all.”
I hope it shows where I’m heading with my art. Sonically, my world is changing all the time in each release, but I’m finding a comfy little spot in the sonics of this record and they felt right to be all part of the one package.
The album takes its title from the penultimate track, whose chorus is home to some of the artist’s favorite lyrics across the entire LP:
Feel it crawling up my spine.
Spider legs but I’m feeling fine.
In your web you’ve redefined what it means,
What it means to be human.
For Calnin, these lines “sum up” the album – capturing its overall message and mission. In truth, What It Means To Be Human is a deep dive not into the concept of humanity, but into Calnin’s own raw identity and being. The title speaks to this notion in broader terms; it’s a rhetorical question and answer all at once. “We are curious creatures,” Calnin says. “What makes a human a human, besides the physical? I’ve played this question over and over in my head and it really just summed up the ideas explored in this collection of songs. I’m a person that is inspired by the environment I surround myself in, and I’m searching for something that feels like home.”
Highlights abound throughout this stunning eleven-track affair with our very existence. The 90-second long orchestral introduction “Start” sets an inspiring and wondrous tone for the LP’s first half, with its electrifying successor “Lightning” striking an immediate chord through a slew of colorful and sweet flourishes, dynamic percussive hits, elegant harmonic accompaniment, and Calnin’s own radiant, emotional singing. When you start to break it down, there’s a lot going on in this and all of What It Means to Be Human‘s songs, but Calnin’s music nevertheless feels light and spacious – never full, and certainly not overwhelming. “I’m alive as the world slows,” he sings over dulcet, bright piano chords to open the record. “My whole life I’ve kept my hands closed. When it all runs down, will I find my ground? God this lightning’s loud, I really feel it now. I’ve waited…” As Calnin grounds his feet, his music begins to soar.
Whilst this record deserves to be listened to in full, there is no denying the sheer impact of certain songs. The dramatic “Politicians,” with its massive wall-of-sound vocals, makes for an invigorating and energizing (if understated) anthem; the vibrant and glistening “We Got Gods to Blame” marks a moment of ethereal wonder, as Calnin calls out organized religion for the evils – from corruption to war, and beyond – it’s brought into the world. “The Parts I Hid Away,” previously premiered on Atwood Magazine, captures in its three-minute run the tenderness, the vastness, the passion, and the beauty that define Calnin’s overall endeavor: Rising from soft, dark depths into a mighty, majestic electrofolk roar, the soft song builds elegantly to a cathartic crescendo.
This same process occurs with even more intimate passion and visceral ache in the ballad “Oh What a Mess I’m In,” a truly breathtaking standout that has (to date) racked up over half a million global streams on Spotify alone. “The universe is chaos,” Calnin says of this song. “Life is too. That’s all I really wanted to say in this song, just in my own way.” His lyrics are poignant, direct, and few in number – and just like the song itself, they grow slowly into something bigger and bolder:
How’d you know?
How’d it show so soon?
Held me down.
Held me ’round for so long.
I know this might seem a little less alright.
But here I find a little place to hide.
Oh, what a mess I’m in.
Meanwhile for Calnin, one song has long had ahold of his heart – although he admits the entire album is very special to him. “‘In The Beginning’ is probably my favourite on the record,” he notes, citing the fragile and urgent fifth track, whose deeply expressive and fragile opening tones ultimately give way to a feverish and explosive overhaul. “It was a serious task to get this track down the way I thought it deserved,” he relays, “and it’s those challenges that I love about making records. I wanted a classic build song, with a pay off at the end, and I think it got there in the end.”
For Calnin, this album was about creating a greater work of music that held weight and meaning. He has certainly accomplished that for himself, and now he surrenders it to listeners’ hands (and ears). “Hopefully What It Means To Be Human hits everyone different,” he shares. “Take from it what you want – it’s not a guide to follow, but hopefully something that you can put your own meaning to.
His own takeaway is one of a renewed sense of purpose. “Basically, [it’s] that I still love making songs,” he affirms. “I’ve been doing this so long now that there are definitely days where I take my job for granted and forget that I get to do what I love every day. So if anything, this album is reassurance that I am still very much in love with this art form.”
Lastly for Hayden Calnin, there’s the question of this album’s answers and discoveries: What does it mean to be human, and did that answer change over the course of this album’s creation process?
“I still don’t know,” he says. “It’s a life-long question, but something to always keep in mind. The one thing I have learnt along the way of making this record is that I am most certainly shaped by the environment I put myself in. Surround yourself with things you love, and you’ll get love returned.”
Experience the full record via our below stream, and peek inside Hayden Calnin’s What It Means to Be Human with Atwood Magazine as the artist goes track-by-track through the music and lyrics of his third album!
Stream: ‘What It Means to Be Human’ – Hayden Calnin
:: Inside What It Means to Be Human ::
An orchestral instrumental piece that’s here to set a mood for what’s to come on the album. It’s a ballad that should get you feeling relaxed, strapped it and ready for a little sonic escapism.
Lightning is a look on time and being bound to its flow. We have a short time here on Earth, and I am often reflecting on what it means to be a part of it and what I should be doing with that time given. Am I where I should be? Why is there a should be at all? To sum up, it’s a song about grounding your feet, feeling your rhythm, and questioning yourself along the way. There’s no right way to do this, and life can feel as sporadic as lightning.
A song about loss. I’ve lost a few people in my life over the last little while and this song was more of a processing of those emotions than anything else. Things got pretty weird in the studio with this one, but it was a great reminder of why I love what I do. Music and songwriting can help you grow and move through so much.
Frustrated by the current political climate in my country, this song is a call out to everyone to wake up, communicate and come together to filter through all the bullshit. I’m embarrassed by my government and the way they behave, and so are a lot of people. This is a song to push discussion and share my opinion, not to solve the problem.
IN THE BEGINNING
Where did all this begin? No idea, but here’s me thinking about it asking more questions than giving answers. What’s our purpose? Do we have one at all? Couldn’t tell you, but again, here’s a song about it. I had a lot of fun making all the sounds throughout this one. My personal favourite on the album.
A midway point. Another orchestral instrumental piece and a moment for you to take a breather, grab a cup of tea and begin the second half of the album.
WE GOT GODS TO BLAME
Religion, although bringing communities together, can also push them apart. We put so much weight on our beliefs that we sometimes forget that we are all the same. War. Money. Power. All dip their toes in our desire for answers, and can tear us apart just as swiftly. As a species, we are really good at blaming, rather than fixing. Let’s work on that.
THE PARTS I HID AWAY
This was an old song that never quite made the last EP I put out. It just didn’t fit with the rest of the songs and I’ve been hanging on to this one for a while. I re-worked it for the album, and it’s become one of my favourites on the record. It was a song about getting a hand up when you are feeling down, and feeling the earth between your feet.
OH WHAT A MESS I’M IN
The universe is chaos. Life is too. That’s all I really wanted to say in this song, just in my own way. I’m often finding myself getting way too up in my head about what life is and how everything is part of this infinite, massive, complex and chaotic universe. What an experience to not only be a part of that, but to also have the capability to process and think about that very fact. Oh, what a mess we all are in.
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN
Between two very long lockdowns in the State of Victoria in 2020, some friends and I went hiking and camping in the Victorian Alpine region, to regather, to reflect, to move our legs and to breathe new air. I spent a lot of time there reflecting on what was happening in the world, and the things I wanted to focus on from that point forward. It was a very important time for me to digest the global climate and what was going on inside my brain.
This is the closing track to the album. It’s my way of waving goodbye and saying thank you for listening to my work. I tried to sum up the whole record in one piece of music and this was the result of that. It captures most of the instrumentation used throughout the record, as well as the overall tone of the journey. Hopefully it leaves you feeling lighter than when you began. Question your existence, think about it. What’s good for you? What isn’t?
— — — —
📸 © Emma McEvoy
:: Stream Hayden Calnin ::