Hayden is still alive, thank you very much. In 2010, some joker decided to edit the singer’s Wikipedia page to say otherwise, but the less said about that the better, probably. The fact is, though, the Toronto musician born Paul Hayden Desser does seem to drop off the face of the planet when he doesn’t have a new record out—and sometimes even when he does. Hayden released his sixth album, the country-tinged The Place Where We Lived, in 2009, but he didn’t go on tour or do any interviews to promote it.
In retrospect, he says, he realizes that it might have been a good idea to at least let his fans know he had something new out. On the other hand, he figures that since he didn’t have much to say anyway, he was doing us all a favour. “I think the world would probably be a better place if people didn’t talk about stuff when they really didn’t feel like they wanted to, or feel like they had something important to contribute to the dialogue,” Hayden says when the Straight rings him up in Austin, Texas, where he’s playing three shows as part of South by Southwest. “When I made that record I didn’t feel like talking, and I thought I was doing a service to the world to not be sitting there in interviews begrudgingly talking about my record so that maybe it would sell 10 more copies, you know?”
It’s a different story this time around. Hayden is all too happy to discuss his brand-new LP, Us Alone. (And he’s even hitting the road, backed by multi-instrumentalists Jay McCarrol and Taylor Knox.) In an oeuvre marked by restraint and deliberateness—“slow and mopey” is how Pitchfork uncharitably described it recently—Us Alone might be the most subtle yet. That doesn’t mean it’s free of hooks, though: the single “Rainy Saturday” is a softly chugging indie-popper with an uplifting chorus, while “Blurry Nights” is a melodically rich, if a tad dour, duet between Hayden and his sister-in-law Lou Canon.
On the whole, it’s a wonderfully understated listen, with spacious arrangements built from an intentionally limited sonic palette. “It just sort of happened naturally,” Hayden says. “I had one song that had a particular amount of instruments that were miked in a particular way. I just listened back, and I was like, ‘This is a sound I love. It’s not cluttered; everything has its place. When this guitar comes in at this section, it’s relevant and it’s beautiful because it’s coming at a spot where there aren’t a ton of things, so you notice it even more, and it becomes significant.’ So I just had this song that I used as the basis for the record, soundwise. I decided the loose concept for the record was that I would use those same instruments on every song and not add a trumpet here and a boys’ choir there, that kind of thing.”
As if it needs to be said, he quietly adds: “I’ve never used a boys’ choir.” The man has a sense of humour so dry that he’s taken to pointing out when he’s made a joke. But more about that later.
So which song was it that provided Us Alone with its blueprint? “Well, here’s the kicker: it didn’t make the album,” Hayden admits. “It was the one extra song that didn’t make the album. So that’s a little strange, eh?”
Of the songs that did make the cut, several make reference to Hayden’s young daughter. And while the 41-year-old tunesmith is wary of mining parenthood for too much of his material—“I despise the term ‘dad rock’,” he notes—he acknowledges that the songs on Us Alone are things he could have written only at this particular point in his life.
“Yes, absolutely,” he says. “But I feel that about all of my albums. I think that, because I’ve gotten into the strange pattern of not playing live and really just living my day-to-day life in a way outside of the music business in between albums, when I am sort of formulating songs and stories, that each album becomes a reflection of my life at that time.”
Hayden released each of those previous albums, beginning with 1995’s Everything I Long For, on his own label, Hardwood Records. For Us Alone, though, he signed with Arts & Crafts, home to such indie-world heavyweights as Broken Social Scene, Feist, and Dan Mangan. That doesn’t spell the end for Hardwood, but it does mean that the label will be geared more toward promoting Hayden’s back catalogue.
“I definitely want to reissue on vinyl, maybe with some remastering,” he says. “I have to figure it out. I was trying to focus on the new record. But that’s kind of the nature of Hardwood now. And of course when Arts & Crafts drops me, I’ll come back on Hardwood.”
There’s that dry wit again.
“If you write that, you have to say ‘he laughed’ afterwards,” Hayden insists. “I’ve noticed that I make a lot of jokes in my interviews and there’s never any mention of my snickering. So people will read them and they’re like, ‘Is he serious? What a weirdo.’ ”
And yes, dear reader, that last bit is also accompanied by a self-deprecating chuckle.