Mitch Hayes has always had an ear for a good melody and a good song idea. On his sophomore release Heroes, he takes his audience down a road of personal reflection about the many heroes that have inspired him to reach for the stars, and to strive to ultimately be a good man. I can only imagine the turmoil this late-in-life singer songwriter has gone through to get to this point in his life. To his credit, he helps us to interpret and understand where he has been through his music. Here is some of what we talked about.
How much has your worldview on music shaped the person you are today?
To me, the worst thing that ever happened to music is that it became an industry. I grew up in the 60’s and early 70’s, a time when music was the voice of a generation and the songwriters of that era were it’s poets and it’s prophets. Music was “Art,” and we were the artists. Record labels, promoters, producers were willing to take a chance on an unknown artist, if they liked their sound or their lyrics. A budding Bob Dylan could walk into a studio with a briefcase full of lyrics, play a song or two and get signed. Today, it’s a big machine run by giant conglomerates with but one governing factor, will it sell? It’s about mass marketing, sex appeal, and cookie-cutter production. Don McLean said it best, Music died. It has been replaced by a comodity that is packaged and sold like a pack of cigarettes or a six pack of beer. How has this affected my music world view and affected who I am, today? I write for myself, and to connect with people. If I write a song and play it for people, and it touches someone, I’m happy. Sure, I like to make money playing music, it puts food on the table and a roof over my head. But to me it’s more than that, it’s about art and people.
Is there a particular song from your album or musical passage (melody) that never fails to move you emotionally?
Not to be facetious but all my songs move me emotionally. That’s because I write from the heart about things that really matter to me. However, there are a few that have a greater impact on me in that way. “Home Again” is a song about personal struggle with addiction and loss. I feel very vulnerable whenever I perform that one. “Life Goes On” was written for my Mom and Dad, looking back on life from one’s twilight years. “Ashes & Dust” was written for my daughter. At a time when I was lost emotionally, mentally and fighting depression, she rescued me by bringing me out of the closet so to speak. I was living in a bad marriage that was toxic to me and was basically just existing. I had given up on music, trying to be the person my wife at the time wanted me to be, not the person I was. My daughter got me back playing and singing again, writing again and helped me to find “me” again. She and I now gig together and it’s the most wonderful blessing I could have asked for. Not many Dad’s get to do what I do, that’s for sure. I’m very blessed.
Who are some of your favourite musicians and bands from the past and present that have inspired you? And can you elaborate on one?
“Favorite Artist” questions are difficult for me to answer because I have so many and my musical tastes are so ecclectic. My favorite artists from the past would be the classic singer/songwriters, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Cat Stevens, Jim Croce and the like. Their songs are Evergreen, timeless. The issues and themes they wrote about, never seem to be outdated. Some contemporary songwriters I like are Ed Sheeran, Dave Grohl, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Lamontagne, and yes, Lady Gaga. They still write from the heart about issues of the heart and about social consiousness. Those kinds of songs speak to me. But I would have to assign the greatest influence on my songwriting, to Bob Dylan. He has always been equally adept at speaking to social issues as he was commenting on love and life issues, issues of the heart. His melodies are simple yet haunting and inciteful. To me, he was and remains the greatest American songwriter of all time.
Can you tell me which one song from anyone of those artists (or others) you have mentioned that is your favourite and why?
I can’t pick one favorite song, there are just too many that have spoken to me over the years. My “short list” would have to include “Suite Judy Blue Eyes,” by Stephen Stills, “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” by Bob Dylan, “The Weight” by Robbie Robertson, “American Pie” by Don McLean, “For Everyman” by Jackson Browne, “Refugee” by Tom Petty and Mike Campbell. The why is simple, these songs touched my heart at such a deep level. That’s the way I am about songs I like. If they speak to me and the lyrics and melody haunt me, they get added to my “short list,” which isn’t really that short.
How do you set up for a live show? Is it always just only you as a solo artist or is collaborating or surrounding yourself with fellow musicians (which would include your daughter Erin in that mix) just as important to you?
When I set up for a live show, I try to have in mind the audience I’m going to be playing to. If it’s a noisy, rowdy bar where people are more interested in partying and drinking, I do a heavy mix of cover tunes. Unfortunately, those are usually the gigs that pay the best. But they afford me the opportunity to play songwriter shows that often pay very little or nothing at all, sometimes just tips. But those are the shows where I can truly play and sing from the heart to an audience who is there just for me and my music. Those are the shows I live for. I enjoy doing solo shows, but I am most happy and fulfilled when I’m on stage with my daughter. I do enjoy collaborating on shows with other talented musicians, especially my friend Mike Alicke, who is simply the most amazing guitarist I know. His artistry takes my songs to a whole new level. My friend Don Eidman is probably the best songwriter I know, locally and nationally. I enjoy swapping songs with him in a Songwriter session.
Many musicians have their own personal demons or a life story that they often pen as a means of release or redemption. How personal are your songs or do you look more externally for interesting antidotes or stories to tell?
I touched on this question when you asked about songs of mine that move me. Some of my songs like “Home Again” or “Life Goes On” are intensely personal. Some of my songs are social commentary, like “All Fall Down,” which is a social commentary on violence in the streets. My song “Firewater,” which has not yet been recorded, is about all the heinous and unspeakable horrors being committed against children, abuse, drugs, etc. Some of my songs, like “The Hardest Thing” are about matters of the heart, love and loss, personal disappointment, all timeless themes, there. And then some, like “Hole in My Head,” also not yet recorded, are just plain silly, for the sake of being silly.
What do you turn to most, for comfort or inspiration, when you are at home?
For comfort and inspiration when I am at home or anywhere for that matter, I turn to Patti, my girlfriend and the love of my life. She gets me. She is the kindest, most unselfish and giving person I know. We have NO drama, we just love each other and put each other first. I’m a very fortunate man, blessed beyond all comprehension to have her in my life. A close second is my art. Music sustains me, inspires me, gives me purpose and grounds me emotionally and mentally.
Tell me something surprising about your early days playing in bands with friends and colleagues?
My most surprising moment came when I was around 14 or 15 years old. My younger brother was trying to put together a little garage band with one of his friends. They met to practice one afternoon and I tagged along, just to listen. There was a drum kit in the room just sitting there, but no drummer. I don’t recall whether they were my my brother’s friend’s drums or his father’s. But they were unoccupied and I could feel the beat and thought to myself, “I can do this.” So, I just got on the kit and started playing. It surprised both me and them. My parents came to pick us up as practice was winding down and they looked at me and said “when did you learn how to play drums?” I answered, “today.” So, I became the drummer of the band and a couple of months later, my folks bought me a kit for my birthday so I wouldn’t have to use a borrowed one. I was the drummer for that band all the way through High School. Of course I eventually put down the sticks and picked up the guitar. I can still play the drums, though.
What are some of the most influential concerts you have seen?
I’ve been to a lot of concerts in my life, but there are a few I would put up there as truly influntial. It wasn’t a concert, but when I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964, I was truly mesmerized. Then my actual first concert was “Buffalo Springfield” with “The Beach Boys” and “The Strawberry Alarm Clock,” in 1968. My next concert was Jimi Hendrix in 1969. They don’t get much more influential than those two. Seeing Buffalo Springfield made me realize I wanted to be a musician.
Mitch, when did you realise you had a real voice – or knack as a singer?
I started singing in High School. I sang in the school chorus in the church choir and with that little garage band. It was around that time that the whole Coffeehouse Singer/Songwriter scene was becoming really big so I picked up the guitar and started teaching myself to play. I had several outlets through which to develop my abilities. My father was a minister and would lead a weekly youth group in our house. I played and sang, often leading the worship time. Around my Junior year in High School, we started bringing our guitars to school and during lunch break would get together to play and sing. And as I said earlier, there were also several good coffeehouse scenes around town that I would frequent, with some really talented players and singers performing. I became a sponge and just soaked up everything I could from them and eventually became one of them. Then, I think it was about the time I was in college that my voice began to mature and I went from being a tenor to more of a barotone. It was around that time that I started writing and performing my own songs.
What has been the best and worst thing about learning how to play the blues or your eclectic blend of Americana?
The best thing about Americana is that it’s such an open and eclectic musical genre. It can be used to describe or to label just about any kind of music that doesn’t fall into one of the well defined categories such as Metal, Hip Hop, Rap, Blues, etc. It embodies elements of Country, Folk, Blues, Rock & Roll, even Pop. This gives the artist so much freedom to create, so many avenues to explore, musically. In one of my shows, you will hear any and all of these styles and often a mix of several in one song. And Americana is as eclectic lyrically as it is musically. You’ll hear everything from a sweet love song to an angry protest song and anything in between. But this is also the worst thing about it, that it’s so descriptively wide open. It makes it difficult to explain to people or to booking agents when they ask “what kind of music do you play?” I get this question a lot from people milling around while I’m setting up to play a gig. My answer, Americana, often needs further clarification so I have to say “well, sometimes it’s country, sometimes folk, sometimes rock and sometimes all of the above.”
Finally, where do you see Americana music in ten years time? (It has been somewhat urbanised over recent decades and it continues to expand and influence a lot of inspiring new artists.)
That’s an interesting question. The one constant in music is change. What’s popular now may not be so in ten years and vice versa. And within genres there is so much change, year to year. Look at Country Music for example. The New Country of today bears almost no resemblence to what we now refer to as the Classic Country of the 50’s and 60’s, even the 70’s. It’s really more Pop-Rock with a twang. Yes, the twang is still there, the same instruments are still there, but that’s about as far as the comparrison goes. Often the guitar leads sound more like a Rock song than a Country song. But from a marketing standpoint, I get it. This change has brought millions of new fans into the Country fold that formerly would not have been there, especially the younger generations. And back to my answer to your first question, sales, including everything from music to merchandise has skyrocketed over the past couple of decades and Country Music is probably the most profitable genre to be in. And Americana, because it can often be lumped in with the whole Country Music scene has probably benefitted monetarily, as well. And I think because of it’s eclectic nature, Americana will undergo less change over the next ten years. But who knows, right?