Perfect Sound Forever

Mr. Joseph Hazelwood

still from the video for "As the Storm Rolls In" by director Jace Freeman.

Interview by Edd Hurt
(August 2011)

I first ran into Mr. Joseph Hazelwood in the spring of 2007. He had made a record, Radio Noise, with his then-wife Raven. I ended up reviewing the record for Nashville Scene. Recorded under the name Ode Hazelwood, Radio Noise was an odd record for Nashville or for anywhere, although its superficially retro aspect--'30's blues licks meet feisty white-blues-mama vocals with the usual lo-fi production values--seemed to place Radio Noise and Mr. and Mrs. Hazelwood with the thousands of young people who had abandoned rock 'n' roll in favor of various pre-World War II styles of popular music. Still, the record's tense Skip James-style guitar licks, odd percussion and general air of decadence observed but not practiced--this was something beyond the ambitions of a sensitive Music City singer-songwriter or a mere revivalist.

Ode Hazelwood played shows to promote Radio Noise, and gained a fair amount of attention from press and various tastemakers. Born Oct. 7, 1977 in Kentucky, Joseph had been in Nashville for about a decade, while Raven Hazelwood came from eastern New York State. They'd met as students at Nashville's Belmont University--Joseph had started out as a drummer, while Raven studied singing and the violin.

No matter what various journalists may have claimed, Hazelwood wasn't anything like Tom Waits. You got the sense that Hazelwood was so far outside the usual pop-music parameters that he was making it tough on himself as a matter of principle. And soon enough, he and Raven split, leaving Joseph to figure out how to go solo. It took a few years, but Joseph released his full-length The Golden Age late last year under the name Mr. Hazelwood and the New Transcendentalists. Produced, as was Radio Noise, by Joe McMahan, The Golden Age sounded like a late-Victorian afternoon with the blues, complete with still, silent parlor rooms, lowering clouds and repressed sexual tension. It was an entirely original take on elements that have present in indie Nashville, and the record transcended mere genre-hopping.

I sat down with Mr. Hazelwood after the release of The Golden Age, and we talked about his upbringing in Kentucky, his ambitions and his passion for Emerson, Thoreau and Blind Boy Fuller. He's no bluesnik, but the man can play, and maybe the Industrial Revolution was something Skip James really could have related to.

PSF: Where did you grow up? You're from around Owensboro, Kentucky, right?

JH: It wasn't actually Owensboro. It was a little town called Robards, Kentucky, that's about half an hour from Owensboro. It's sort of remote from Henderson, Kentucky Henderson's where I went to high school. Robards, I grew up there, and I was in the same house from the time I was a baby until I was 15 years old.

PSF: Were you into music as a child?

JH: Robards was such a small town that I was really kind of insulated from a lot of modern culture. I've thought about that a lot. I think that's really influenced the way I think about music. I didn't really get exposed to the music that was goin' on at the that time, you know, in the '80's. It was all just record albums that my mom had. There was a lot of '60's music, gosh, '60's and early '70's. I can't even really think of anything specific right now. It was kind of a blur.

PSF: Do you come from a musical family?

JH: The only person in my family whom I've known to play music was my granddad on my dad's side. He played just about anything with strings, I'm told, and harmonica. He played on some radio shows and things, and was even offered an opportunity to tour with Ernest Tubb. But I think something about his temper kept him out of that line.

PSF: What about your father?

JH: When I was growin' up, he was a truck driver. He exposed me to Creedence [Clearwater Revival] and a lot of more country-based music. He likes country music, like Eddie Rabbitt kind of stuff. A lot of eight-track tapes--riding around in his truck listening to eight-track tapes, Kenny Rogers and Eddie Rabbitt, Ronnie Milsap, that kind of stuff.

PSF: What about when you got older?

JH: I never liked country until I was 16 years old. I felt a kind of rebellion from it in a certain way.

PSF: What were your early musical endeavors like?

JH: I was playing in the school band, just a snare drum, when I was 10 or 12. I got a drum set when I was 13 or so. And yeah, there was a kid who lived close to me I'm still good friends with, and he still plays music. We grew up playing together. He would play guitar in the bands that we were in. I was in a different band every month. I always wanted to play original music, and I was always pushing in that direction. I just became the songwriter by default a lot of times.

PSF: What were your early songs like?

JH: I wanted to write music that sounded like Creedence. That's what I gravitated to--this sort of folky-rock kind of thing. When I first started writing songs, they were just all these melody-based things. I came up with the melody first, and we'd fit words to the melody.

PSF: How did you wind up in Nashville? You moved here for a while and then moved back home the first time, right?

JH: I moved here and didn't stay here very long at all. It was such a shock to me, and such a big place, because of where I came from. I couldn't stand leaving the house and knowing I wouldn't see somebody I knew. Now I think of it, and Nashville's not that big of a city. I was coming to play drums. I didn't know what that meant at the time. I wanted to play drums for big stars.

PSF: How did that work out?

JH: Well, actually my mom moved here when I was in the eighth grade. I moved with her at that point, the first time, and went to McGavock High School for a month. After high school I tried again, and I did get a gig playing drums for [New Grass Revival vocalist] John Cowan, at some party. I think I was kind of awful, but that was the first time I received money for playing music--they gave me $50. And by that point, I'd played drums in a bunch of cover bands in Evansville, Indiana. In that scene, that's all you've got. Playing for some pretty big crowds, corporate parties, whatever. But I think that was good, because I had to learn all lots of music.

PSF: And you had day jobs?

JH: I'm an electrician by trade, and I traveled for a year or two doing live sound for this company up in Evansville. I guess we were sorta hired out to do these different shows. I did sound for David Lee Murphy and for Busta Rhymes one time. Lots of Christian-rock artists.

PSF: And the songwriting began to evolve?

JH: With bands like CCR or Lynyrd Skynyrd, now and then there'd be a track on the record that was all broken down, and they were tryin' to play like old jug bands. I was really turned on by that--there was something about the simplicity of it that drew me in. I remember I went to a music store and bought this book called The Anthology of Country Blues. There were these Mississippi John Hurt tunes on there, Rev. Gary Davis and Blind Boy Fuller. Lonnie Johnson, I think he was in there. John Hurt struck me as something special--the feeling of that music, it was more like I was remembering something than it was hearing something new.

PSF: So now you're in Nashville, you meet Raven, and you begin planning Radio Noise.

JH: Thinking back to it, it wasn't Americana I was doing--I didn't even know the term--but that's what I really sounded like. I met Joe McMahan somewhere around 2003 and I approached him. I was working at home and had a little computer setup, and I was gonna make a recording. I was was driving myself crazy because I couldn't be objective. Joe had just finished his very first project as a producer, which was Jennifer Niceley's first EP [2004's Seven Songs]. At this point, I was with Raven. We weren't really trying to have a duo. She came over there with me, and she sang a little bit, and it just kinda fell together. Joe kind of enforced her being a part of that project, in a way.

PSF: She added a lot to the music.

JH: Just a part of her personality was that she was very in-your-face. Doing what I do now, it was a hurdle to overcome, because I don't have that sort of performer thing. I was very comfortable hiding in the shadow.

PSF: Did you tour behind Radio Noise?

JH: We played [Nashville club] the Basement a few times, and we traveled some and went all over the South. In New Orleans and Lafayette [Lousiana] and down there, people ate it up. But we would go other places where they would be sort of wondering what was going on.

PSF: How does The Golden Age relate to your admiration for writers such as Emerson and Poe?

JH: The New Transcendentalist thing all goes back to my holistic way of looking at the world. I really aligned with Emerson, his writings, and I read a lot of that material. I just started readin' a lot of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, lots of 19th-century literature. The nature aspect of all that fascinates me, and the way those people looked at art, making art, seems really pure to me. Art was at some sort of apex that, after industrialism, has never been recaptured.

PSF: Was The Golden Age done quickly?

JH: Honestly, I didn't think much about music--the record was inspired by these aesthetics and ideas and words. Literature. But yeah, there weren't a lot of pre-arranged things on that record at all. It was all so impromptu and so unrehearsed. A lot of what you're hearing is [keyboardist and guitarist] Ryan Norris. He's amazing at coming up with melodies that aren't there. There were very few overdubs at all.

PSF: It's a unique record--I really like "As the Storm Rolls In." It could have been made yesterday or 150 years ago, given technological differences, of course.

JH: I purposely was not gonna use slang or colloquialisms in the lyrics. That was very deliberate. Blues music being injected into your society and then rehashed and then rehashed again, over and over, has worn a lot of that out for me. So I was trying to get back to deliberately using words in certain ways. I like elegance. And I think that a lot of society is programmed to operate according to what's normal, quote-unquote, and not what's natural. More often than not, these things are out of sync.

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