Analogue Music | Hayden


By Matt Conner

There was a bit more discipline this time around for Hayden Desser.

Thanks to a prompt from friend Leslie Feist, Hayden joined a songwriting circle for the first time, a disciplined exercise intended to force parameters upon his creativity in the name of seeing what might happen. As it so happened, a lot came out, with Hayden's overall response to the week-long endeavor yielding several songs that made the final cut of his latest album, Are We Good.

As for the album itself, we're not sure if the title is a query or not—the lack of proper punctuation makes us uncertain—but there's no need to even ask at this point. Hayden's songcraft is second-to-none and his latest singles punctuate his ability to capture the listener with substantive choices at every turn. It takes work, yes, and some of it is more difficult than others, but such resonant compositions are worth every effort.

We recently sat with Hayden to talk about his latest album, why Jeff Tweedy would be mad at him, and how he still loves the process of discovery as much as ever.

Analogue: I’m not sure what this will even prompt from you, but I wanted to just ask about longevity in this business and what it’s like for you to have the chance to make music or release albums after so much time in the industry.

Hayden: I still love it. It’s a common theme for artists, but that first initial chord progression you come up with when you’re just playing around on the piano or guitar and you find this combination of notes or a melody—it’s that second of discovery that I’m still always looking for when I’m playing music. It’s a feeling I can’t duplicate anywhere else in life.

Putting it out into the world is a whole separate thing for me. That’s always something I’ve struggled with. Sometimes there’s a personal level to what I’m writing about. I’ve always struggled with putting it out into the world, but maybe that’s one of the reasons why a small amount of people who like what I do is something they like about it. So I’m aware of that, too. But I have a weird relationship with it.

Analogue: I love hearing that’s true for you, that the love of this hasn’t waned.

Hayden: Yes, but the moments and the sheer time that I get to be in a zone where I can have those discoveries, those have gone away quite a bit. Over the last 20 years, anything from how much is inside your head when you’re 50 versus 25 [Laughs]… there’s a lot going on and you somehow have to clear that to get into the zone of being creative. I’m sure everyone in the middle or later portions of their life, it can be harder to get into that creative time, but it’s no less important when you’re older.

Analogue: Given the time between albums and that we were sheltered-in-place for some of that, was there a lot on the cutting room floor for this album?

Hayden: Yeah, this one was a weird one and that’s why it’s been six years or so. I don’t really love the term “writer’s block.” I’m not the kind of person who sits at a desk, even though Jeff Tweedy would be mad at me, with pen in hand and force myself to write a certain amount a day. I love that. I love Jeff Tweedy and think his work is incredible and some of my friends as well work that way. It’s unbelievable how much they get done and it doesn’t even mean a lack of quality. I’m just not like that.

I really need to have a good chunk of concentrated time to be able to create something. Lyrically, I kinda need something to happen to make me think, ‘Okay, that’s worth writing about.’ [Laughs] I have to be so moved that I have to write it down. So yeah, there were many stops and starts to this record. It was two steps forward and one step back. Many songs that were created are just sitting on a hard drive now.

So the 11 songs that made it are the ones that rose to the surface for me. They felt right together.

Analogue: Does anything unify them other than internal feel?

Hayden: It’s just that. They sit well together. There are definitely common themes, but sometimes also when you’re putting a collection of songs together, you’re looking for varied rhythms or varied instrumentation. For instance, there are two songs I wrote on the record on bass guitar. There was internal discussion in my head as to whether they should be on the same record because they have a similarity, but in the end, I gleaned they were different enough to be on the same record. So there’s a few criteria I go through.

'Lyrically, I kinda need something to happen to make me think, ‘Okay, that’s worth writing about.’ [Laughs] I have to be so moved that I have to write it down."

Analogue: I read you had a songwriting circle for this new album.

Hayden: Yeah I hadn’t heard of anything like that and I actually don’t know much about it. I only did the one. But yeah, Feist invited me. She’d done a couple before, I think. It’s just an email group of 18 to 20 songwriters. The moderators send an email to everyone that says, ‘Okay we’re starting now.’ For seven days, you write a song from scratch and record it, whether it’s on an iPhone or if you have a studio or whatever. At the end of that day, you email it to the group. By the next morning, the moderator sends all of those recordings out to everyone in the group and then you start again the next day. So the idea is to be inspired, listen to your contemporaries that morning with your coffee, and then get back to work.

Leslie told me about it. She knows me and knows I’m a weirdo. [Laughs] I think she probably maybe thought I’d be like, ‘There’s no way I’m doing that.’ But I’m thankful she did suggest it. I’m in some ways proud of myself for being up for it. It was extremely rewarding and it did kick my ass during the pandemic. My wife took over with the kids, who I think still were not in school. So I was thankful to be able to have some days to just concentrate on music again, which is sometimes rare.

Anyway, it was great. I think three or four songs ended up on the album that came from that. So that exercise created a new album, and in my mind, a better one.

Analogue: You said you’re not disciplined like Tweedy would want and yet the moment that you do, the songs come pouring out.

Hayden: [Laughs] I guess it sounds confusing, but I should clarify that musically, I don’t struggle or have a problem getting down to work. I guess it’s more lyrical. I don’t sit down with a pen and paper to write ideas down. But it’s classic for me, since the beginning even though I care about the lyrics and what I’m writing about, it’s not easy for me. The music side is a lot easier. So when I say that, I’m not disciplined with lyrics and that part of it.

To go back to the songwriting thing, most of what I came up with in the group was music with a melody on top. Over the next few months after that songwriting group, I had to really go back and find words to most of the songs. “On a Beach,” for some reason, the lyrics did come that day.

Analogue: Was that the most immediate song you’d written in a long time? Hayden: With lyrics, yeah.

Analogue: Back to what you said earlier. If you struggle with the release of things, what keeps this from being a hobby where you keep the music to yourself?

Hayden: Well, now it’s hard for me to picture what else I would do. And the older I get, the more I realize that everyone doesn’t like parts of their jobs but they still forge ahead. I’m very aware that I’ve been extremely lucky to not have another job for 29 years or something now. It’s insane. I just want to keep that dream alive. [Laughs] So yeah, I release the stuff for my ego because I want people to say how great they think it is and because I want to be able to keep doing this.

VISIT: Hayden

*Photo: Christie Greyerbiehl