Will Hoge Interview – February 3, 2018 Aboard The 2018 Rock Boat
Interview by Jonathan DeWoskin and Bonni Kaplan DeWoskin
Will Hoge has quietly amassed quite an impressive catalogue. Anchor’s which was released on August 11. 2017, was Hoge’s tenth studio album in the span of 20 years. Will speaks openly about touring, writing, recording and his awesome wife and kids. Will also opens up about social injustices that are going on right now and why he feels a responsibility to get the word out that we need to find a better way to interact.
WH = Will Hoge BKD = Bonni Kaplan DeWoskin (TwangriLa 1) JD = Jonathan DeWoskin (TwangriLa 2)
BKD: First, thank you.
JD: Yes, thank you for sitting down with us. We’re going to post this on the Twangri-La website.
JD: Congratulations on your latest album, Anchors. It’s your ninth studio album. Tenth if you count the Spoonful material. I think it may be your best yet. After this many albums, do you find it difficult to come up with new material to write?
WH: No, I’ve heard a lot of writers that I really respect talk about writer’s block is just being a lazy writer. There’s always something to write about. And that doesn’t always turn out good, but that’s sort of the whole point, is that it’s better to—you’re always better off to finish a bad song than you are to just sit and wait on great songs.
JD: It sounds to me like you probably have a whole catalogue of stuff that.
WH: Yeah, there’s a pretty big—yeah, there’s a huge trash heap for sure (laughter).
BKD: What are your biggest motivators?
WH: I mean, that gets into lots of different stuff. I mean, one, I have to feed my family, have to work. So that’s a fairly big motivator. I mean, artistically it’s just—there’s a lot of—song writing is less expensive than therapy. (laughter) So that’s probably a big part of it, yeah.
JD: So you find it cathartic?
WH: For sure.
JD: When you write music, what’s your process? Are you words first, music second? Vice versa, it depends?
WH: It’s different. And it’s really different every time. I mean, I think a lot of the times, the favorite ones, for me you get these sort of lucky moments where it all kind of comes out together. You know, you sort of—
JD: Like wake up in the morning and it’s there?
WH: Yeah, it kind of plays easy or you pick something and you immediately kind of come up with a melody and a lyric and it all builds from there. Those are always really exciting because it kind of is this moment of—you feel like you’ve sort of tapped into some weird cosmic thing. It’s, like, yeah, when you’re turned on, trying to do it as quickly as possible. But then there’s other ones that you work on for—you have a piece of music for two years that you can’t ever put a lyric to, and you still come back to it. So it—but yeah, it’s just different every time.
JD: All right, do you consider yourself more of a studio musician or a live performer or a bit of both?
WH: A bit of both. I mean, my natural comfort level is with live because I don’t think you can—very few people anyway, like, the studio’s a very uncomfortable place. Music is—I mean, to me, is, like, a live presentation. That’s how it started. Nobody—I mean, if you go back to the start of music, nobody was recording music when we started. It was a live performance. So when you start a band, I don’t think there’s any teenagers that go, “I want to be a great studio musician.” You want to play in front of people and get that fix. So it starts there, but then as you do the studio you get more and more comfortable. So now they’re really just two different things. It’s kind of like an actor saying, do you like doing movies or do you like doing stage presentations?
JD: So you’ll perform, you get a feel for which songs work and which ones don’t?
WH: Yeah, I mean, and then I think as you get better at both, I mean, they certainly both feed one another pretty well.
JD: After looking around and feeling the electricity from the crowd, I would assume that you like the energy of a live performance a bit more, is that true?
WH: Yeah, well, that’s—there’s instant feedback with the live performance. I mean, pretty quickly into starting a song if it’s a turd or not.
BKD: Have you had that happen?
WH: Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s the great thing about live performing. You know, we always talk about with live performances, I use the NASCAR analogy a lot which is, they don’t go to see them race. They go because they might crash. (laughter) I mean, and that’s what a live performance to me should be.
JD: No one’s hoping for a crash in a live performance. (laughter)
WH: No, but they are hoping that you will put it so close to the edge that they’re, like, there’s no way this is going to work. And then when you pull it off, I mean, that’s the high wire. For me, live performance should be that high wire act where you’re going, this guy’s—there’s no way the band’s going to get through this. Or there’s no way they’re going to get out of that, or it’s something different every single time. I mean, that to me is what I love about—as a fan, that’s what I like. So I hope that that comes across in a performance too.
BKD: Maybe there was a little bit of that last night when the wind was so loud you probably couldn’t even hear yourself sing. (laughs)
WH: There was some of that last night, yeah for sure.
JD: When I listen to your earlier material, I would categorize it more as more alternative music. And now it seems to be more what is categorized as singer/songwriter/folk. Was this a conscious transition? Or more of an organic change?
WH: No, it was probably more organic. And when I first started there was more of a permanent band in place. And so I think that that was—we put everything together. I come in with songs and we would work up an arrangement. It was kind of collaborative.
JD: You’ve had band member changes (laughter)?
WH: The band members have changed a ton over the years. And so there’s been a point where it became a bit more of a solo project I think after a couple of years of that. So that’s probably more of a reflection of that artistic stuff more than hey, let’s go make this kind of music or anything like that.
JD: Right, but you’re the driving force in the change. I would imagine that you’re the one who bring in new people [cross talk]—
WH: Yeah, and that changes every time and that’s not a bad thing. I think people a lot of times freak out, this is going to change. It’s supposed to. I don’t want the guys that I play with now to play like—we still—we play a lot of the songs from our very first record, and none of these guys were involved in that. But they don’t—I don’t expect—I don’t want songs to just be direct representations of what they were on the record. If you want to hear that, go play the record.
JD: Go play the record. Same every time.
WH: Yeah, so I want the players to—there’s certain signature parts or something. I may say, hey, we really need to get that in there for the performance. But for the most part it’s figure out how this song goes with this batch of people, and it changes with each batch.
JD: I hear a fair amount of Van Morrison and some Elvis Costello in your musical delivery. Were they your influences at some point in your musical development?
WH: I still have a ton of respect for both of those guys. I mean, Van’s kind of—he’s really just a soul singer in a lot of ways. I mean, not in a lot of ways, he just is a soul singer. So I’ve always liked that sort of interpretive just emotion that he puts across as a singer. So that was a big—and a lot of what influenced him I think probably influenced me. I’m a huge Otis Redding fan, huge.
JD: Just about to ask that.
WH: Soul, that kind of music I think is probably a huge factor in both those things. And Costello’s stuff was—I always liked the funkiness of his—especially the early records, where it was really punk rock, but still really literate and had a lot of—not necessarily a lot to say politically or anything like that. But it just—there was a lot going on there. It wasn’t stupid. Punk rock a lot of times I think can be just—you say that like it’s this throwaway thing. People just want to break their instruments and piss their parents off. And I don’t—there was some of that in the attitude, but it was still done in a really musical way. And then he sort of had another foot in the McCartney, Beatles, pop melody world, which is cool.
JD: That’s true. That’s right. Anchor’s such a great album. Do you have plans for a follow up? Will your next album follow in the same style?
WH: I don’t know. I mean, there’s a political record that we’re going to do in probably February or March, get that recorded. And then that’ll come out I think in August. And then from there, yeah, I mean, I don’t know. I mean, there’s still more material for another album too. We’ll have to just sort of address that as we get closer to it.
JD: Of your entire catalogue, which album is your favorite? It sounds to me like you—that the whole thing is rewarding for you. But is there one that you think back on, like man, that was a lot of fun?
WH: Well, there’s a lot. I mean, there’s really—the great thing about those is, even the ones that were hard to make, with enough distance, you kind of always look back on them in a good way. I mean, I guess if I had to pick something, I mean, as far as for me, I’ve done Carousel and then I got signed to Atlantic, had a major label deal and we did Blackbird. And then I was pretty unsatisfied with how that was all going, and I wanted to do this political EP called The America EP that we recorded. And when I turned it in, the label just said, “If you’re going to try to make—not try, if you want to put out music like this, I don’t know that this is the right situation for you to be in.”
And I think that as an artist, there was an important moment for me where I could either sort of play the major label game and try to be a star. Okay, what is it that you want me to do? Or I could go, well, this is just what I want to do. So I did that and then ultimately was removed from the label. So that one was a—I think—and when I say an important record, I don’t mean important in the grand scheme of art. Important for me because it was a moment that I realized I was going to make the records I wanted to make and do it the way that I wanted to do it. So that one—if I had to just sort of pick a thumbprint moment, that was a pretty big one for me.
JD: I respect that’s a big decision because you’re walking away from studio money to do something you want to do—
WH: Yeah, and there’s a safety in the major label thing in some ways. But then there’s also just a—it’s kind of a sharecropper’s mentality. I don’t know that that’s—that’s not really my thing.
JD: Sure. I had to write that down, “sharecropper’s mentality.” You’ve written songs for the Eli Young Band and Lady Antebellum among others. Do you find it difficult to write songs for others? Do you ever get attached to any of those songs? (laughs)
WH: Well, yeah, the thing is, anything that’s ever been recorded by the ones that you just mentioned, those were all things that I had recorded and put on a record first. So those guys all heard my version of those songs and then recorded it. So that’s not hard at all. That’s very simple. I have not had any luck trying to write songs for other people. I mean, I’ve done it and I’ve—but they’ve never led to anything. So I guess that’s probably harder than I thought. (laughs)
JD: You seem to be on the road quite a bit. How many shows do you play in a year?
WH: Not as many as we—we used to do—it was 200’ish for a long time, which is just miserable. It’s probably—depending on where we are with a record, somewhere between 50 and 80 a year. Kind of like I said, depending on where we are. If there’s an album it tends to be on the higher side of that. If there’s kind of in between cycles, we’re closer to 50 probably, which is still a pretty good number.
JD: How do you manage to juggle family life with being a touring musician? Although if you’re not playing 200 shows a year, it’s probably a lot easier.
WH: Yeah, well and that’s—I mean, that’s a big part of—I mean, one—I have a fucking awesome wife. So that helps. This was not something—I mean, I was deep into doing this when we met and got together. So we did a couple of years of the 200 kind of stuff, and then once we kind of settled down and started having kids, that cuts into that number because you just don’t want to be gone as much. But she’s really understanding of it. The kids are understanding. And they’re getting to a point now at ten and seven where—I mean, they’re our here on the cruise with me at this point. So they’re able to—they went to Europe and did Europe with us last year. As long as it’s kind of in the summer, well, we get them out of a week of school for this. But summertime’s, they get to come out a little bit. So that makes it easier here and there too. But there’s not really a—there’s not a magic—that’s the—that’s one of the known things that sucks about this job. And there’s not a real solution. I mean, I guess there is if you’re Brad Paisley and you have a private plane that can fly you home after every show. That’s a pretty cool solution. I don’t have that yet.
JD: Yes. (laughs)
WH: Maybe soon.
JD: Do you plan to take some time off, more studio work, vacation, travel?
WH: No, I mean, work kind of always stays. I mean, there’s—like I said, this record that’ll come out this year, we’re back in Europe February and March. Then we’ll have another probably too, a release of that political record in the fall. And then from there, I don’t know. Hopefully be back here on the high seas in January of next year and then talking about what we’re going to do next.
JD: The name of that album?
WH: Still untitled.
BKD: What’s it like performing on the Rock Boat versus just any other concert?
WH: It’s cool. I mean, the—this really does have—and we’ve done a couple of other—a couple, we did the Cayamo cruise also, which is another six man event. And they’re just always—it’s people that have paid a lot of their hard-earned money to be here to see music. And so they’re really invested in the experience. It’s just a great audience to play for and in front of. The bands are always cool. Everybody is supportive. There’s none of that weird band competition thing you get in certain aspects. So it’s a cool thing for all of us I think involved. The bands get to actually spend a week—and we pass on buses and stuff, occasionally we run into somebody in the same city and you can have a dinner or a beer after a show.
JD: It’s cool to see you guys just trade members on stage though.
WH: Yeah, and so it’s really fun. I mean, that—yeah, this is always a highlight of every year.
JD: All right, so let’s get back to that high wire act that we were talking about before. One of the first songs I heard you play, after Middle America, was the Ballad of Trayvon Martin, which just immediately got my attention. It’s one of the first songs I heard you play on the Rock Boat. In a country where injustices like this happen all too often, I admire that you, a country artist, picked that story. Did the subject matter make it easy or more difficult to gather the lyrics and melody? How have your fans received it?
WH: I feel like I’ve been outspoken enough, if you used the term “fans,” they’re not just people that have bought a record. Those are two different things. Every person that’s bought a record hasn’t loved it. There’s a lot of people in there that don’t necessarily see those injustices the same way as I would. I feel like people that are fans have—even if they don’t agree with everything I think or feel, they’ve at least gone, okay, this guy’s going to say certain stuff. It’s going to make me think. I’m not always going to agree with it. But I’m also not going to have it beaten down my throat. I mean, I’m not going to turn my shows into a political rally. So it’s been received fine. I think I’ve put enough out there to kind of make people go, okay.
JD: I was trying to think of an equivalent in terms of—what kind of emotions that it evokes when you hear it. Gordon Lightfoot had a song called—I’m forgetting the exact title, the Edmond Fitzgerald.
WH: Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald.
JD: Yeah, you hear that, it just brings tears to your eyes. And I didn’t know anything about that. I just went and looked it up, and I think that’s what you’re doing with this song. Twenty, thirty, forty years from now, people are going to hear that—not going to know anything about Trayvon Martin. Just Google it and you get the answer.
WH: Yeah, well, I mean, that was just—that was such a strange—there’s injustices in that—I mean, people of color that are in the shitty end of—bad policing often. And that’s—
JD: Or bad law in this case as well.
WH: That’s a real thing. I can’t write a song about every single time that that happens or I would just literally not write about anything else. So the Trayvon thing was just in so many people’s faces, I think at that point, which is good. Sort of that Emmitt Till moment. At the time, I mean, because my kids—my kids were young. I mean—but I just—that’s what I think of. And there was a kid at the time, my next door neighbors, they had a son that was about 12 or 13, an African-American family. And he was a little bit older than my kids, but they would play together in the yard and the driveway. I would just see his face. I would see all of the kids that I grew up with in that same face. So it was just something that—it just struck me really—
JD: Right, especially when you know someone, you make that connection.
WH: Yeah, so that was tough. And the music for that song was really easy. I liked it—one of the things I think that’s interesting about that song, we talked about it after we played it on the Rock Boat the other night, it’s a great riff. It’s one of my favorite riffs that I’ve ever written just musically. And you play it live and I think there’s some people that don’t even—if they don’t catch the first bit, I don’t necessarily—they’re just, like, this song rocks. What is this? So that’s kind of an interesting thing too.
JD: So you had the riff ahead of the lyrics.
WH: No, but it just kind of—it’s one of those that started, but the minute the riff started, I was, like, this is cool. I would—then the lyrics—that’s another thing that we laugh about. People say, well, I don’t like that song. Or, you don’t know what you’re talking about in that song. And the thing is—I mean, with the exception of the last verse where I talk about hopefully we can all get together and fix this, there’s not any opinion in what it’s saying in that song. It’s just telling the story of what happened. And I took it from the police report. It’s not something that I’d made up things. I mean, that was one of the first songs that I really went, like, okay, I’m going to research so I get the names right, where it happened right and all those things.
JD: Do you think people were saying it because you’re white so you can’t really write about the injustices?
WH: No, I think it’s more people that are just saying, there’s nothing wrong. You get a lot of the people, like, well, he wasn’t an innocent kid. He had it coming. He should have blah, blah, blah, blah. But that answer just doesn’t hold much weight for me. I don’t know what I would—what would I tell my kids to do if they were minding their own business and some guys started following them around and chasing them? I mean—and then you’ve got to factor—it’s such a small minded thing for any white person to act like they really understand what that’s like. I mean, we—none of us have the reality of having hundreds and hundreds of years of going from being a slave to a sharecropper to continued police brutality. I don’t have to sit my kids down JD: Yeah, that’s what—that’s actually what President Obama did. Just pointed that out, that has to—he had to have that talk with his own kids.
WH: Right, and for us to—as white folk—again, do I tell my kids, if you’re stopped by a police officer, you be respectful? Yeah, I say the same way that I would say if somebody else says something to you, be respectful. But I don’t say that with a thought in the back of my head that—
JD: That something bad might happen.
BKD: They can get shot.
WH: That they’re going to get shot for it. I mean, you may get a ticket. That’s what’s going to happen to my kids. They’re going to get a ticket, and maybe the guy’s going to say they’re a punk or whatever. I could deal with that. But they get to wake up in the morning. So to act like that’s not a real thing for an entire race of people is just being misinformed.
JD: That’s willful ignorance.
WH: Yeah, I mean, that’s really it. It’s just—yeah, we’re not going to admit to that, which is silly.
JD: How can people buy your stuff and find out about you?
WH: Willhoge.com. Yeah, and then everything will—Twitter, all of that stuff.
JD: I want to thank you for your time. I wish you much success in the future.
WH: Thanks. Hope you enjoy the rest of your Rock Boat.