Music News & Reviews

John Hiatt unplugs to achieve a stripped-back, bluesy sound

Singer/songwriter John Hiatt says he delights in seeing a song unfold as it is recorded.
Singer/songwriter John Hiatt says he delights in seeing a song unfold as it is recorded.

John Hiatt isn’t one of those musicians who works out full arrangements for songs in his head or on demo recordings as he writes music. As he sees it, too much planning misses the whole point.

“I don’t do demos anymore,” Hiatt, 63, said in a recent phone interview. “I sing them into a little voice recorder thing on my iPad just so I can remember them. And then I just wait until it’s time to make a record and record them.

“All I ever hear in my head is the song,” he explained. “I don’t really have any kind of, you know, imagined arrangement or how it should go. My whole delight in recording is to see what’s going to happen when people start playing them. That’s the exciting thing to me. That’s what I call making music.

“This is just me, I know a lot of people have symphonies in their heads, but … It just wouldn’t be any fun to me. … I want to hear something magic and new and fresh and wonderful.”

Hiatt’s latest album, “Terms of My Surrender,” took that spontaneous approach to album-making to a new level – to the point that the record started to get made before anyone could call what was happening an album. It all started when Hiatt contacted his touring guitarist, Doug Lancio.

“I had just written this batch of songs and I was talking to Doug,” Hiatt said. “And Doug had a studio over in East Nashville for a long while, and I’d been over there many times and never done anything over there. It’s just a funky little place, in a little house. So it just seemed right. I said, ‘How ’bout I come over, and we just record some stuff?’ We didn’t even call it anything. I said, ‘I’ve got these songs. Let’s get the guys (from the band) over and we’ll just try some.

“I think we started with ‘Face of God’ and cut … ‘Long Time Coming,’ and I can’t remember what else,” Hiatt said. “And then I said, ‘This is good. So let’s just keep going.’ That’s kind of how it happened.”

Lancio ended up taking on production duties for “Terms of My Surrender,” which was released in July 2014, helping Hiatt and his band (Lancio, drummer Kenneth Blevins and bassist Nathan Gehri, plus keyboardist John Coleman on several tracks) create an album that contrasts notably with Hiatt’s previous CD, “Mystic Pinball.” That 2012 album primarily featured plugged-in, rocking tunes that made the most of Hiatt’s melodic gifts.

“Terms of My Surrender,” though, is stripped back and bluesy, with songs anchored around Hiatt’s vocals and acoustic guitar. That approach will serve Hiatt well this fall as he does a run of solo acoustic shows. His new songs should translate easily to that format.

A folksier kind of album, though, is nothing new for Hiatt. Along with rocking albums such as 1987’s superlative “Bring the Family,” 1993’s “Perfectly Good Guitar” and “Mystic Pinball,” there have been more-acoustic, rough-hewn efforts such as 1995’s “Walk On,” 2000’s “Crossing Muddy Waters” and 2011’s “Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns.”

Hiatt points to “Crossing Muddy Waters” as the album that most closely resembles what he created on “Terms of My Surrender.” But even then, the new album isn’t a repeat performance. In particular, on “Terms of My Surrender” Hiatt’s vocals sit decidedly up front in the mix, giving the album an intimacy he’s never quite achieved before.

Hiatt also sings in a lower register than on any previous album. The tone gives these bluesy, sharply written songs a lived-in quality that makes them feel that much more authentic.

Most important, Hiatt is in fine form as a writer on the latest album.

“Face of God” shuffles along to a smart, bluesy melody, while “Marlene” has a timeless country-blues feel. Some Dust Bowl/Depression-era anger puts an effective sting into “Wind Don’t Have To Hurry.” The opposite side of the emotional spectrum emerges on “Old People,” a funny take on the senior generation. Only on occasion does Hiatt go for more of a muscular, full sound, using washes of grainy electric guitar to add drama to the superb “Long Time Coming,” while a steady beat and chugging guitar give “Baby’s Gonna Kick” a great groove and welcome heft.

The stripped-back sound of “Terms of My Surrender” means those songs should translate well to the format Hiatt will use when he performs solo on his winter tour and puts his music in a more relaxed setting.

“I think the record has that quality of a little more of ‘come on it and sit down and listen to (me)’ kind of thing.” Hiatt said.

An Acoustic Evening With John Hiatt

When: 8 p.m. Sunday, March 13

Where: Harris Center, 10 College Pkwy, Folsom

Cost: $35-$55

Information: 916-608-6888,