Emile Hirsch Reaches Artistic Apex With Second Record, ‘Denihilism’

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Emile Hirsch turns 36 this weekend (March 13), and he’s going through some things. Weird life / Is this really on / Like a younger me, appear nice / But we were wrong, he rips his voice through a puff of smoke. “Let Them Walk” is a slice of cosmic fantasy, the kind of edge-of-the-universe exploit that finds our central protagonist punctured both by a lifetime of worry and impending doom. Vocoder drapes, shroud-like, around his voice, and it feels both confrontational and freeing.

Hirsch, most known for such film work as Into the Wild and All Nighter, mines growing older, clinging to youthful pastimes, and waves of existentialism for a brand new record. In collaboration with The Frenchman (a.k.a. Mathieu Carratier), the artist/producer duo known as HIRSCH dig deeper and grow brighter on their second release, the aptly-timed and -titled Denihilism, a term which refers to “the refusal to acknowledge both empirical fact and forensic evidence in defense of ideology.”

One could argue we’re living in the Age of Denihilism─and you’d be right─but the 14-song project speaks more deliberately to “much of what I felt in my own life,” Hirsch tells American Songwriter over a Zoom call this week. “I still like to go skateboarding. There are certain elements of not putting away my toys in growing up that I feel. So much of this record chronicles the twists and turns of my life, love, and relationships.” 

From the blippy razzle-dazzle of “Miracle” to the chest-pounding yearning in “American Dreamin’,” Hirsch carries the listener through “the entire arc of a relationship,” managing to conjure up a world that’s far more universal than first thought. “When it comes to love, there are a lot of blind spots we have,” he continues. “There are things that are plain in front of our nose that we choose to ignore and not wanting, and then try to get back.” 

Where the duo’s first record, 2019’s Mnemonic, certainly left a mark, Denihilism rearranges the “retro and nostalgic” aesthetic for more striking and more focused designs. The application of elemental ‘80s synths, poking through a modern fabric, allows Hirsch to teeter between the past and present with a gripping slyness.

Working with Carratier, whose work can be found on soundtracks like Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and The Transporter Refueled, is something of a godsend. “His sensibility and style had this sweet spot for me,” says Hirsch, who stumbled upon The Frenchman’s work after hearing Alexiane’s “A Million on My Soul.” The stars slowly aligned, eventually locking into place one fateful Thanksgiving Day, and the two have basked in intense synergy ever since.

“I had a collaborator who made songs in a style I would jam to. He was also obsessive in a way I am. I can sit for an hour going over modulating a vocal tone or something. We will sit and go through hundreds of sounds and debate each one,” the songwriter reflects, with a chuckle. “He just has that kind of personality. If he were a director, he’d be like Stanley Kubrick doing a million takes. That’s a quality I can really get down with.”

There is an attraction Hirsch possesses. A reedy timber writhes amongst sweetened production, calling you forward like flies to a honey pot. Throughout his career, the singer-songwriter has mastered a host of genres─from freestyle rap in his Santa Fe youth to the one-off bluegrass album Simple Things, recorded under the moniker Hysterical Kindness (a play on musicians hired to play musicians in 2017’s All Nighter comedy). His music journey has been wild and perhaps starts from the very beginning─birth.

Born in Los Angeles, he lived a pretty idyllic childhood. “We used to drive around a lot with my dad. One of the things we did in the car was have singing contests,” he recalls. His sister Jennifer was quite a pop aficionado, so she would naturally pulverize him with the lyrics, so he “used to just make up my own songs” instead. “And I learned at a pretty young age that I could freestyle rhyme. I could sing these funny songs pretty easily, and I would keep going forever.”

He later moved to Santa Fe with his mother and met a kid named Buster who would totally change his life. “We had this little rap group that we called The City Boys, and we’d write rap songs. We were listening to Chris Cross and Cypress Hill at the time,” he says. “We transferred each other’s tastes and sensibilities back then.”

By the time he was 11, Hirsch tried his hand writing rock songs and stockpiled countless journals with handwritten scribbles and bits of songwriting. In middle school and high school, his genre tastes again shifted quite dramatically, as he began “freestyling all the time and I’d spend endless hours writing these ridiculously vulgar raps with compound syllables. I was trying to out-rhyme myself. That was right around the time Eminem was blowing up. There’s a duffle bag filled with these rhymes. Most of them are just terrible.”

When All Nighter came around, Hirsch was well into adulthood, and bluegrass was never something he imagined himself writing. “I quickly realized I could transfer the more rap/rhyming composition I could do to rock and bluegrass melodic writing. It was a quicker transfer,” he says, first expressing reservations on if it would even work. “I don’t play any instruments. I had already been playing with melodies. And that was such a big part of it. I hadn’t quite made that connection.”

“The bluegrass record was cool, but it still felt like a character. It wasn’t my genre, necessarily. Then, when I made these rock songs, I liked them and the intensity and drive of them, but they felt, again, not quite me. It wasn’t quite in my lane of something I would play and listen to over and over.”

Even as his Hysterical Kindness collaborators Chris Sayre and Brian Cohen drifted apart, Hirsch kept feverishly writing. When he got the itch again to make an album, he started by “just putting feelers out there” to find a producer. “I wouldn’t say I shopped around,” he says.

That’s when he found the Alexiane song─and the rest is history.

HIRSCH’s Denihilism tears open with surprising poetic prowess, particularly with songs like “Say Adieu,” a plaintive unraveling about a “pretty painful breakup.” He was on a flight from San Francisco to L.A., already armed with the instrumental, when the misery swelling in his chest poured out of his fingertips. Just tell me the truth, and I’ll be on my way / We got nothing left to lose, and nowhere left to stay, his words ricochet across the universe.

His voice, haunted and bruised, casts a cool shadow. He lingers on that very specific moment “when there’s nothing left on the table,” he says. “If you just tell somebody the truth, sometimes, that’s the nicest thing you can do for them. Sometimes, when you’re trying to protect people’s feelings, it ends up backfiring a little bit.”

Hirsch is the most daring with the aforementioned “Let Them Walk,” co-produced with Mark Foster (frontman of Foster the People), who also worked on “Remember Days When.” I’m making a move to you, sometime soon we’ll bloom / Stay in a mood til you showed me I had nothing to prove, he sings, scattering his emotions like glitter. 

Originally, Hirsch and Foster were bored one day and “just wanted to do something,” and Foster started sketching out the instrumental. “In two and a half days, we mapped out the whole song,” offers Hirsch. “It’s almost like a cat and mouse game, lyrically. And it was incredible to see Mark work. He’s a wizard on all the instruments. I wanted to have a build into the explosion in the chorus and then have a soaring, creepy quality.” 

When you think you know what to expect, Hirsch tosses in a curve ball. Closing track “American Dreamin’” arrives as a meteorite spitting fire across the sky, as scorched rock and space matter hurls straight for earth. There’s a universe that separates us now / Why can’t I kick the habit / To search for someone else now hurts, I found / Guess I’m just too dramatic, he exposes raw nerve. His emotions always pulse around the edges; he never shies away from telling his truth as honestly as possible.

Between glossy edges, Hirsch, now a single father to a seven-year-old, pleads for the “nuclear family that I didn’t have growing up” while exploring “the idea of trying to have perfection, the American dream, and not quite getting exactly what you expected but learning to accept that that’s OK,” he says. “It’s a hard song for me to listen to. It gets me in the feels.”

One of the year’s most surprising releases, Denihilism not only stands on its own but demonstrates Hirsch has plenty to say, artistically, outside of his film and television roles. “I don’t have a lot of experience doing other things. The acting I’ve done has always been connected to making money. So, to be doing something truly on the side, with no record label or anything… It was truly making songs because we love making them. Having art totally separate from commerce feels like a healthy, exciting thing. It was nice to know that I’m still fired up making art when there’s no money involved.”

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