When Will Hoge’s new album landed in my inbox, I was very confident that I would find expertly-crafted songs. Anchors, which came out August 11 (Thirty Tigers), is a fantastic collection–sharp, funny, and authentic. Will is bringing these new songs to the Middle East on September 21. We had the chance to chat about the new album, songwriting, the crossroads in his career, and Will’s new venture, Nashville Electric Transportation.
RLR: My first question isn’t an actual question. “Anchors,” the title song, reminded me of a James Baldwin quotation, and I’d like to share it with you and just get your reaction to it: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
WH: Well, one this is the first interview I’ve done that has led off, or even included James Baldwin, so thank you for that. Yeah, I think that’s an interesting perspective as we all grow up – my wife and I talk about it all the time, there’s this sort of duality. Our parents give us lots of really great things, and there’s things that you consciously emulate, and there’s things that you don’t, but when you do them you think, “That is so my dad; that is so my mom,” and in a good way. It’s totally this sort of passed on thing that is the miracle of genetics. But then there are also these moments that I lose my temper with somebody or there’s this thing I swore I would never do that I’m doing. Yeah, that’s a powerful statement, and I would say it’s pretty true.
RLR: It seems like there’s a thread on this album of looking past surface impressions, sometimes to harder truths that have been there for a while, like on “Cold Night in Santa Fe,” or “This Grand Charade,” and even, in a different way, on “Little Bit of Rust.” How do you think about some of the conversation between these songs on the album?
WH: I just felt like they all played into the narrative of adulthood. That’s the best way to describe it. The thing that is great about adulthood is you’ve learned some lessons. The other thing that’s hard about is that if we’re lucky enough to get to a certain point, you have to start to really dig into your own flaws and the things you don’t do well. They don’t have to be life ruining things, they’re just these moments where you go, “Oh shit, I kind of suck at that, and I need to do better.” Not that these songs are all autobiographical by any means, but the thing I noticed in my own relationship and in other relationships, there is this moment where you’re gonna do better, and work to get better, but it doesn’t mean you instantly get it right. I think the realistic struggle of adulthood peeks through in all those songs, even the happy ones, there are those moments of reality, because happiness isn’t the absence of any problems.
WH: The root is always autobiographical. The emotion is. In my years of joy, sadness, and pain and all the things human existence brings you, I think I’ve taken that rollercoaster ride. So it’s not a stretch for me to say, this song is heartbreaking, how do I sing about heartbreak? I’ve had my heart broken plenty of times and seen it, so the root, the seed, of all that is from an autobiographical place.
The trappings around that, the pictures, the colors you paint it with can be: what would you frame this with to tell an interesting story? That doesn’t need to be autobiographical, it just needs to be believable and emotional. And that’s easier as you get older; I don’t know as a young writer, how capable any of us are of that–there tends to be more heart on your sleeve emotion. But to continue to grow as a writer, you have to be able to tell a different story. I think that’s the only way to continue to do this.
RLR: You’ve had success as a songwriter for yourself and for other people too–Eli Young, Lady Antebellum. Do you think differently about that songwriting process when not writing for yourself?
WH: There was a period where that was happening, when I had this publishing deal here in town, where I was writing ‘for’ other people. And it was pretty apparent, the minute pick-up trucks got mentioned, I just assumed it was someone else’s song [laughs].
I don’t ever personally write thinking “This is for George Strait.” I write, when I sit with a pen and pad and a guitar or at the piano, it’s to write a great song and to tell a great story, and I don’t think any larger than that. And that’s not right, wrong, or indifferent, that’s just the way I operate. These folks in Nashville are totally different than that. And it’s a really Interesting process. I’ve learned a lot of what to do and what not to do, and things that I like about songs. There are those people who can sit and go, “Well, I don’t know if Tim McGraw would say that in a song,” and I’m not near bold enough to know what the hell Tim McGraw would or wouldn’t say.
There are some, where you’d come in with this great idea and there are some you’d really fight for. There were some that were my idea and I had this 60% dream of where the song would end up, and they’d start taking it into tractor land and you fight tooth and nail to make sure that doesn’t happen. There’s other ones where you’re in there, and it’s somebody else’s idea and you need to see their vision, and then I feel like it’s my job to get a line or two lines that are interesting. So if somebody records the song and I have to stand there at the number one party, I can say, “I did those two.”
WH: It’s really pretty benign in a wonderful way. I’ve got kids and my wife, so it was interesting in the writing of this record, because I feel like it was the first time I was able to take full advantage of where I am in my life. So it was waking up early, 5:30, and get the kids ready and get the three of them out and to school. From there, it was being able to go to the gym and start my day, and come back home by 8:00 and sit in front of the piano and guitar and work until 3:00 or 4:00 when the kids come home. And then put the stuff away and come back after dinner and bedtime and work until I go to sleep. It became very regimented. For years, as a single guy and even without kids, you could write whenever, whenever the muse struck you, which is fine too, but this is a lot more realistic and has enabled me to focus more.
RLR: There are people who are constantly singing into their phones. As you’ve shifted into this place with your kids and have had to balance that way, have you been able to cordon off the writing time?
WH: I’ve become more of what seems like a crazy person. The voice memos in my phone are insane. There are some that just sound like a cat dying, some shit I hummed in the middle of the night. Or I’ll have notes – and there’s a grocery list, and also the first verse of a song.
When the muse strikes, the cool thing about having an iPhone is you don’t have to look for a piece of paper, and as you’re doing your thing you put the idea down. But if you don’t get back to it fairly regularly, there’s moments you truly question your own sanity, like what in the hell is this?
RLR: You made an album in 2012 called “Modern American Protest Music” and it seems somewhat prescient now with more artists becoming more publicly outspoken and channeling their music toward politics. What role has protest music played in your development as an artist?
WH: Protest in general has always meant a lot to me. I’ve always really been drawn to artists where there wasn’t a line between what they believed and thought and the art that they made. For me, personally, it didn’t do my career any good. It’s a terrible career decision to try to make political and topically themed records. Best case scenario, you’re going to alienate 30% of your audience. But as a human, I don’t want there to be these moments, I don’t want in hindsight for there to ever be a question on where I stood on any of this.
The first protest record was The America EP, which came out in 2004, right after my major label debut. I wanted to make that records, and Atlantic said we can’t promote this, there’s nothing we can do with political hot-button music, so if this is what you want to do, we need to let you go. So I said, “OK, you need to let me go.” For me, as an artist, that was a really important moment. It was a crossroads: do I do what I want to do, and just continue to chase it; or do I say this is a business, and I need to stay in this major label game? There’s not necessarily a right or wrong, it’s just I’m not very comfortable with that. There have been those songs throughout my career, and there’s more coming–I’ve got another batch of ‘em and we’re just trying to figure out the when and where.
I think part of my job is to keep challenging people, but it’s not to make those songs for people who agree 100%. I know I have a fanbase of people who don’t all feel the same way that I do. But I believe people are smart enough to hear a well thought out discussion from somebody with opposing point of view, and to say, I never thought about that. And that’s one little bit of change.
RLR: Speaking of impact, I’d love to hear a bit about Nashville Electric Transportation –how you got started with that and how it’s going.
It’s been interesting. My best friend from childhood and I have always been car guys. We’re big into electric cars and Elon Musk and Tesla. We’d each been talking about buying one as they become more and more accessible. Through all the traveling I’ve done, you have these moments when you realize, my ride sucks, and I wish I could just get a consistently good ride. And we were back home in Nashville, and this city’s grown so fast and the infrastructure just can’t keep up with it, so we hatched this idea for a rideshare service.
It’s a higher end situation, where all the drivers are FBI background-checked and screened so you don’t have to worry about your wife or kids getting in the car. You know it’s going to be a Tesla, you know it’s good for environment. Not only are we doing point-to-point rides, but we’re working with businesses to pick up 6-7 employees on the way to work, so you’re taking 6-7 cars off the road. It’s a big bold plan at this point, and we’re six months in, and we’ve learned a lot and are continuing to grow.
RLR: I’ve heard some musicians describe themselves as small business owners–do you feel like those things translated for you to some degree as you started this company?
WH: I’ve joined independent business group here in Nashville, and one of the things they’re hellbent on is: you’re not a small business, you’re an independent business owner. Your goal is not to be a “small” business.
I didn’t have ideas that I would start another business, I’ve always looked at myself as a songwriter. But to continue to do this for 20 years, you have to develop some sort of knowledge of business, and a lot of that is knowing what you don’t know and being able to handle that. But starting your own business also becomes artistic in a whole different way. My focus is obviously always going to be on being a singer/songwriter, but to have this other thing to focus brainpower on and to watch grow is really fun and nurturing in its own way.