Photo courtesy of Christie Greyerbiehl
When I was a teenager I witnessed Hayden Desser, an acoustic guitar-toting singer-songwriter from Thornhill, achieve godlike status. In the mid-1990s, Southern Ontario’s music scene was reflective of the alternative rock mushrooming across America’s musical landscape. On this side of the border, Hamilton’s Sonic Unyon Records helped usher in a new wave of local indie rock that mirrored what Murderecords, Cinnamon Toast and Sappy were doing out on the East Coast. While there was plenty of variety – Shallow North Dakota’s sludge metal, Sianspheric’s space rock, the Killjoys’ power pop, Grasshopper’s noise pop, and Tristan Psionic’s anthemic indie rock, all of which sounded distinct from one another – almost every single band featured guys making noise with electric guitars. Hayden changed all of that. He was a solo artist, who quietly provided his audience the same rush at one-quarter of the volume. Before he would take the stage, whether he was on first, second or third, his fans would assemble in seated formation, untroubled by the beer-soaked, gum-sticky floors beneath their butts. Hayden was a Pied Piper-type figure with a multitude of die-hard followers.
When he released his debut full-length, Everything I Long For, in 1995, Hayden became the subject of a heated bidding war. It was the talk of the music scene for a while, and became a regularly covered story in Billboard and the alternative press. It was no wonder considering the reports that not only were there contracts being offered by labels like Geffen, Epic, Interscope, Warner Bros. and Dreamworks in the seven-figure range, but that Neil Young, an obvious hero, was looking to lure him to his newly minted imprint Vapor Records. As he told MTV at the time, “I’m just a fucking guy playing songs from Toronto.” And once all of the hoopla died down, that’s exactly how Hayden carried himself, consistently releasing album after album of muted, wistful folk rock that sounds like nothing but Hayden.
In 2013, Hayden released his first album for renowned Canadian indie label Arts & Crafts. And although it came as a surprise to him, Us Alone, acted as a reminder for some of his lost fans that he was still alive and kicking (despite an edit on Wikipedia that suggested otherwise). Now two years later, he’s back with another album for the label titled Hey Love, which “addresses the widest spectrum of love as its muse.” We called up Hayden to discuss how his new album is “the same old shit,” how hard it is to turn down Neil Young, why he will never use degree in Radio and Television Arts, and how he befriended Steve Buscemi.
Noisey: Congratulations on becoming a dad again. How is that helping you get ready for the new album’s release?
Hayden: It kinda makes me not think about it too much. I don’t have time to think about an album.
The press release speaks of love as the album’s muse. Love is almost always the muse for a singer-songwriter. How is love treated differently on this album?
It’s not, it’s the same old shit! Just from my point of view. It’s a weird thing for me, because I’ve just started doing interviews and people ask me about the theme and did I go into the record with an idea in mind of what I want the songs to be about, and I hate it a little bit, I hate myself a bit because I always end up saying the same thing. It’s always kinda true. Whenever I go into writing songs I never have a plan, they always just come out. And my record is suddenly about what it’s about. And unfortunately, after doing this for so long, I do know what my strengths and weaknesses are. I mean, I definitely know what my weaknesses is trying to talk about an album I’ve just finished. I’m just not good at it. If I was a professor of psychology, I know I wouldn’t be the one the CBC would call if they need a specialist. I would be in my office, or teaching the kids.
You recorded the new album in a cabin. To me, that seems like the most Hayden thing Hayden can do. What did that setting bring to this album?
What I actually did was I wrote the record in four or five-day stretches, and recorded some of the basic tracks quite quickly after I wrote the music. I would say the main thing it did was give me uninterrupted time, and be able to continue a thought from beginning to end. It didn’t really matter where it was, I just needed that time and space to get into the songs.
Even though I take a lot of creative liberties in lyric writing and storytelling, the basis of most songs is about me and my life and the people I love, so when I look back at all of my records, it’s a really interesting thing for me to look at what I was thinking about and talking about during those different stages. This is different because it’s a reflection of things I was exploring as a 43-year-old person with a family.
For your last album, Us Alone, you signed to Arts & Crafts, after releasing your albums for over a decade on your label, Hardwood. How did you find that switch change things for you?
I think it was a little hard to tell because there was some confusion where people thought it was me looking back on my career, and with me being dead on Wikipedia, that was what inspired me to write again. But that wasn’t the story. The truth of the story is that it made me take the career side of what I do more seriously. I always write, and I love that, but I just realized that I could do more, and I should be doing more to be able to keep this as my career. In some way my move to Arts & Crafts helped me put myself out there a lot more. I created Facebook and Twitter accounts, y’know, way later than anyone else I know. And I was talking about it to more people and made myself available to more touring. I used to get comments at shows from people like, “I listened to you in the ‘90s and I didn’t know you made any more records since the first one!” So there was a bit of rediscovery happening with the last album that I found interesting.
Yeah… I was one of those people. And I have to say it was nice to rediscover you.
Oh nice. That’s cool. I like that.
You have a degree in Radio and Television Arts from Ryerson. Have you ever put that to any use?
There were basics of what I learned there that I applied to some videos and vignettes that I make for my songs, that I’ve made for years. But apart from that not really. I went to Ryerson because while I was in high school, for some strange reason, I got my own radio show on York University’s campus station [CHRY 105.5 FM] called The Independent Study. And I was really influenced by this great CBC show called Brave New Waves, so I kind of had my own version of that. I made arrangements to interview some bands as they were coming through town and go backstage. I would do these long, in-depth biographies of bands like Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr. before that became almost mainstream music. This was about 1992. Yeah, so I was really into it and after high school I thought I would try and learn it in university. But after a year at Ryerson I quickly figured out that radio is not at all like college radio! You’re basically told what to say and how long to say it. I mean, there are exceptions. I don’t want to put down people in radio, but it wasn’t for me and I wasn’t going to get a paid job doing what I did on college radio. And then I stuck around for the TV part, but was then more interested in film. It’s a strange degree to have.
Who were some of the musicians you interviewed?
Two I remember doing were Mike Watt, which was really kooky, and the singer from Faith No More [Mike Patton]. They’re probably on cassette somewhere. This is before the internet or before computers had memory big enough to hold interviews! They’re lost, I guess. And that’s probably a good thing because it was a terrible version of Brave New Waves.
Honestly what happened was my friend Noah [Mintz], who was in the band hHead [with Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene], leant me his four-track machine. He was in my high school band – I was the rhythm guitar player and he was the singer. And right when hHead were taking off in that Sonic Unyon scene with Treble Charger and that, I was inspired to get back into music because I saw how much fun he was having exploring that creative side of himself. And I had kinda stopped when I began at Ryerson. So at night I would just start recording songs on this four-track and they slowly became these things that I was intrigued by and excited to hear. I was having fun. It’s a bit blurry of what the steps were but once again, perhaps with the Noah connection I started playing shows, opening for hHead. I think I got noticed because I was this guy up there with an acoustic guitar playing grunge music, instead of just another band.
Ha! My next question was actually about how you offered something different when everyone else, like Grasshopper, Tristan Psionic, hHead, were all playing noisy guitar music.
Yeah, exactly. The strangest thing was at that time there was only a handful of younger solo artists in North America. I still think to this day that the only person I was compared to was Beck, and I was convinced that was because we were both young and not in a band. It’s so different now, but I guess I stood out in some ways for what I wasn’t.
The first few times I saw you play in about 1995 everyone in the club would sit down for you. A band would be on before you and people would be crowd-surfing, but then when you were about to play they would sit down, like good, obedient children.
I’m not sure if they sat down when I was opening for heavier bands. Do you really remember that?
Yes. At the X-Club in Hamilton, to name one.
This is weird. Man, people are lazy, what can I say? Maybe it’s because I was sitting. I think I liked it because they were paying attention more and caused less talking.
I remember there was a bidding war after Everything I Long For, and Neil Young’s Vapor imprint offered you a deal. Which you turned down. How hard was it to say no to someone like Neil Young?
It was very difficult. And if someone had told me the year before I was in that situation, that it would be my predicament I would have lost my mind. At the time everything just became relative to what happened before it. By the time that took place I was in such a bizarre state and in so many strange scenarios, and I had to make a decision that was the best for the artist that I was and thought I needed to be. Y’know, just what made sense in business and emotional ways. It was a heavy, heavy decision.
You met with Neil Young though, correct?
Yeah, I met him. Vapor was started by his manager Elliot Roberts, who is an incredible man. And they invited me to his ranch, to come and hang out and meet him and talk about the idea of putting my record out. We met there and I guess a few months later I played the Bridge School Benefit near San Francisco. It was very cool.
A bidding war like that doesn’t happen very often now, does it?
It wouldn’t happen now, in the same way. It was an interesting thing. I was able to look at it with a clear head at the time, actually. It wasn’t lost on me that some of the people involved, maybe even most of them, were just in a cockfight. They weren't really madly in love with my music. They just knew that the other guy was trying to get me. So I had to navigate that, but in the end it wasn’t super hard to.
Any regrets in choosing Outpost?
Now that I look back, I think in the end I still like and respect the people I worked with. But the time in my life from 1997 to 2000 was a big fucking distraction. And even though The Closer I Get is an album I’m proud of, it was a very difficult time for me to come out with a piece of work I felt was my expression. Trying to get it to that spot took a lot out of me.
How much pressure were you feeling when you were trying to write the next album?
I don’t know, at some point between Everything I Long For and The Closer I Get, I think this thing Hayden took over my life in a way that I wasn’t comfortable with. It wasn’t the idea that I wanted to get bigger and famous. I wanted to keep it something I felt comfortable with and be represented properly in an un-embarrassing way, and keep my integrity. That became a full-time job. I became obsessed with keeping it small and the way it was in the beginning with those first few years in Canada. That was a challenge to keep it in a comfortable area for me. And it kind of wore me out. The same with [The Closer I Get]. I went to a few different studios with a couple of different producers to sort of see if I could work that way, knowing that there may never be another opportunity in my life to work like that. So I felt I owed it to myself to try these opportunities knowing I might live to regret it if I didn’t. But I still found it challenging to keep the project as my expression.
What do you remember of your experience working with Steve Buscemi on Tree’s Lounge?
It didn’t happen in the best way, but it ended up being the best way ever. The seed was that some label putting out the soundtrack said to him, “There’s this guy who would be good to put on the soundtrack because Billboard magazine is talking about him.” I think that’s more or less what happened. And they sent me an early cut of the movie, and the night I watched it I wrote the song, recorded it a day later and sent it to them, who sent it to Steve, and he kinda freaked out over it. And from that we became friends and co-directed the video together. It became a really great, rewarding project for me because I’m a huge fan of his.
To me, your 2001 album Skyscraper National Park stands out as a pivotal album in your career. Like it seemed to be the album people expected after Everything I Long For.
At that stage I didn’t know, I purposely became out of touch with everything that had to do with my career. I had these two managers I was quite close with, and we went through the bidding war together. I didn’t even pick up the phone to talk to them for months. It was that kind of thing. I didn’t keep my career going in any way. So Skyscraper was more everything kind of stopped and I started writing songs because I wanted to. It all happened in a very natural way. I just came back in with a step by step process without having anything too far in on my calendar, or making any kind of deals with labels, or any sort of schedule.
Skyscraper also seems like the album of choice for your fans. Is there one album you feel stands out amongst the others?
Not really, but when you single out Skyscraper I probably feel the same way. It was a very easy process making that, and it felt good. I think I found a sound that I kinda go back to, a certain warmth. I would say that one. Just the other day I was at the merch table on the Dan Mangan tour meeting people… Actually it’s nice on this tour because a few people have come up to me and said, “Where are you guys from? I’ve never heard of you before. Which album do you recommend as a starting point?” And I recommend Skyscraper.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Everything I Long For. Are there any plans to re-release that the way you did Skyscraper National Park and The Closer I Get?
Yeah, I have thought of it, and I need to do something. I should do that right now actually. But I really want to delve back a bit. Not just like Skyscraper and The Closer I Get – that was more just to have them on vinyl again in nice editions. But this I would really love to have a companion record of songs I had done leading up to it that had come out on cassettes.
You mean go way back to the In September cassette?
Yeah, exactly. There were two versions of with different covers and different versions of songs. So maybe put those out. But that’s a tough one for me too because those are the sound of someone learning how to write a song, learning how to sing for the first time, so it’s rough fare. So putting it out there again for scrutiny makes me feel a little sick. There are definitely people that got into my music then, so it’s for them.
Cam Lindsay is a writer living in Toronto - @yasdnilmac