‘Packed with several gems of emotional nuance and sly wit and humour, the album doesn’t stray too far fromthe low-fi, grassroots charm that Hayden first established.
By Nick Krewen
Special to the Star
Even when you enjoy a career as low key as Paul Hayden Desser and his music, eight years between albums is quite the delay.
For the artist who plies his trade by his middle name – Hayden – and will support his just-released opus Are We Good with a performance at Massey Hall this Saturday, the reasons for the interruption are numerous.
“It’s a bit of a long-winded answer,” Desser, 52, admitted over the phone late last week. “First, I worked on an album for a year with a novelist friend who was writing a book at the same time and we were going to do a project together.”
Desser said that the project with Hong Kong-born, Canadian novelist Colin McAdam was initially going well.
“It was great,” he insisted. “Sometimes I go through periods where – although I never have issues writing music, as I’m always inspired to write melodies and chord progressions and fiddle around on instruments – but sometimes with lyrics, I’m not feeling it.
“I don’t like to write about nothing, so that project at that time was amazing for me because he’s a brilliant writer. I was just going off of his beautiful poetry. That was great for a year – but he scrapped the book, unfortunately.”
While the 15 songs Desser wrote for the McAdam collaboration will probably find a home someday, the musician decided to start from scratch and work on his first Hayden-only effort since 2015’s Hey Love.
But as he progressed deeper into the album, he had his doubts.
“I just went through some periods where I just didn’t know if I had anything that was great or exciting, but I just kept chipping away and accumulating, ” he explained. “Then, all of a sudden, I was in this mode where I was collecting songs and recording.”
However, the thought of shilling his music once it was completed became somewhat repugnant to Desser…so he further bided his time”I had seen my contemporaries promoting their records in the new age and I was just so turned off about what it would be like when my record came out and I would be selling it on Instagram.
“So, I became in no hurry to put something out. It didn’t mean I wasn’t loving my craft: it’s just that I wasn’t excited trying to sell it.”
Part of the issue is that when Desser is ensconced in his home studio, he doesn’t feel much like talking to anyone outside his immediate family and peers.
“You get stuck into a zone,” he admitted. ” When I get into a creative zone, I go through periods when I don’t want to even answer the phone. Being social and being out there is contagious in the opposite way of going into hermit mode.
“So, once you step out of the house, have a couple of conversations, you slowly ease back in. For the longest time, I couldn’t think of how I wanted to communicate in a new age where artists are so accessible to their listeners, many whom know what they’re having for breakfast.
“I came from a time when people were writing me letters and I wasn’t even reading them because it was a weird disconnect. I guess I didn’t want what people were saying to me to get in the way of what I was writing about and what my music was. I had no relationship with “my fans” back in the ’90s. It was a one-way street for sure. So, things have changed a lot that way.”
Also helping him ease off the gas pedal to completion was the arrival of the pandemic and the immediate suspension of live music performance due to imposed lockdowns.
“I went back to the drawing board during that period because there was no point in rushing during that period to not tour, you know?”
Despite all those justifications for prolonging the delivery, here’s the good news: Are We Good, was thoroughly worth the wait. The style doesn’t stray too far from the low-fi, grass-roots charm that he first established with 1996’s Everything I Long For, although it’s far removed from the initial impressions of slacker pop that Desser first conveyed.
Packed with several gems of emotional nuance and sly wit and humour, songs like “East Coast” (featuring Leslie Feist), the intimate “Nothing Wrong” and the ingenious “Miss Fort Erie” offer a lot of profound depth and vulnerability, especially if you’re willing to look between the lines as Desser stirs the topics of happiness with struggle, stress with relief, humour and isolation, expressed through visible bonds of unconditional love and devotion to his wife and family.
For example, “Miss Fort Erie” is a great portrait of the music business, and the fallacy that life on the road is nothing but one big party, where Desser jokes with his partner that he was busy entertaining Miss Fort Erie in his motel room to masquerade the reality that he had just performed to 20 people in Buffalo, NY and was relaxing post-show in front of the TV set.
In the song, he lets his wife in on the joke.
“There’s a big non-glamorous situation going on, with my style, for sure, ” he agreed. “You’re on a bus most of the time, it can seem more like the 1970s or perhaps not. That song, I get a chuckle out of it too and there’s a definite reality to that because my wife and I – we struggle a lot in our home life because our daughter has developmental disabilities and we live a certain kind of parenting life here, so when I do find myself out on the road, there is a fine balance of me not feeling really guilty for leaving my wife with what can be a hard situation here.
“So, I have a tendency to come back and be like, yes, ‘ the rooms are great. I ate a roast beef sandwich off my chest one night’…painting a grim picture on purpose. That was the impetus of that song.”
Then there’s “We Danced,” a waltzy tribute to the late Leonard Cohen.
“Leonard Cohen is a huge influence on me,” Desser admitted. “He’s at the top of the heap for me. The song is about a dream I had where Leonard sort of announced he was dying. There’s a line in it that talks about his sense of timing and I think he died a week before (Donald) Trump became president.
“I just felt that there was a turning point there. Something happened when he died and there’s a theme on darkness and about the state of the world on this record as well. It’s about relationships, but there’s an impending doom about society and people in general. So, that creeps in in several places – and also the end of the world.”
It’s obvious through the music that Desser marches to his own drummer, and what has allowed his career to prosper largely unobstructed by outside interference was a huge U.S. record deal that he signed in the late ’90s rumoured to be north of six figures.
“After I’d done things in a pretty grass roots way in Toronto and in Canada, there were a few American labels that became interested: one, of which was Neil Young and his manager’s label (Vapor Records),” Desser explained.
“In the end, I didn’t sign with them – I signed with a label called Outpost – which was three industry guys, one of whom was Scott Litt, R.E.M.‘s album producer. They started a label and so I went with them and yes, it was a lucrative deal and it was very high on creative control for myself because of the position I was in. It was one of the last real great record deals. I’m very thankful for that. I was at the right place at the right time, for sure.”
In fact, his career has been a D.I.Y. case study, learning the ropes musically and professionally as he progressed.
“Luckily, I was always – since the very first song I’ve ever recorded, I’ve been calling the shots – for better, for worse – maybe sometimes a little push from a record company might have been helpful,” he chuckled.
“I started by myself in my parents’ basement recording and teaching myself how to record onto a cassette, four-track and most of that stuff from me learning the craft is what made up my first record. I was completely hands-on…driving by myself to all my shows… designing the t-shirts and all of my artwork, with some friends along the way.
“I started so hands-on that I couldn’t let go of that, even when I signed this big deal in the States, I was sort of obsessed with keeping the control that I had from the start, much to the dismay of my record label, probably.
“It helped me always make records that I’m still proud of to this day and not make decisions that I was pushed into. Absolutely, that’s the bonus of the situation.”
Desser – who will be supported at Massey Hall by long-time band members Jay McCarrol, JJ Ipsen on guitar and Dwayne Gretzky‘s Adam Hindle on drums – also worked with The National‘s Matt Berninger as co-writer on three songs, including the title track: an unusual move for the usually solitary writer.
“Matt and I have been throwing things back and forth for almost 10 years,” he revealed. “He’s the only other person I’d do that with because I am very hands-on with the music – and he’s the perfect guy for me to do this because I’m such a huge fan of his writing.
“His sense of melody and his phrasing are extremely interesting to me, so the fact that I’m co-writing songs with basically the guy who is writing my favourite songs right now – it can’t get better than that. It’s a perfect situation for me.”
Aside from a six-day tour to promote Are We Good, and a fall date – again at Massey – for Dream Serenade, the charity concert he and his wife annually hold as a fundraiser for Toronto’s Beverley School – a facility that accepts and embraces children with exceptionalities and one for which they’ve raised over $300,000 over the past eight years – Hayden Desser says he doesn’t like planning too far ahead.
“Unfortunately, I’m not a visionary person,” he stated. “I rarely look back, unless I’m doing some kind of reissue thing – and I have an incredible ability to not think about the future too much. I try to enjoy the present… which I rarely do, as well.
“So, I’m in a weird position here – I don’t like the past , the future or the present,” he laughed.