For Hayes Carll, Songwriting is About the Journey, Not the Destination

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

“I had been writing for a few years—since What It Is came out in 2019, I’ve just been working on songs,” Hayes Carll began. “I didn’t really have a purpose, I didn’t sit down and say ‘I’m going to make a record.’ But I was getting better at writing and having fun and, at a certain point, I had come up with some songs I was really proud of and wanted to share them with the world. So, I felt I was ready to do an album.”

The release of Carll’s new album You Get It All on Friday, October 29 marks the beginning of a new era of sorts for the 45-year-old Americana artist. First conceived in 2019 and forged throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the record-making process constituted a fruitful season of growth in his artistry and style. 

“On my last record, I was writing a lot about my ambitions in life, just exploring what it’s like to be present,” he explained. “So, I felt like I could apply that not just to my life, but to my songwriting as well. Now, I’m interested in the craft in a way I wasn’t before.”

This shift in Carll’s writing process began to occur in the early days of quarantining when he, like many of his peers, started up a weekly livestream. “I was shut up here doing these live streams, but after a certain number of episodes where I was playing my own songs, I thought, ‘Well, this really isn’t sustainable,’” he said. “So by episode 40 or something, I started to put cover songs on, which allowed me to dive into all these writers that I grew up on, but had sorta drifted away from.”

Going back through the catalog of songs he used to play back in his early days proved to be an eye-opening experience for Carll. “When I first started, I was a cover artist—that was the only way I could get work, and I loved it,” he said. “Then, as you start writing your own material and putting it out into the world, there’s less and less room to play the music that influenced you. I had kinda gotten to a point where I just wasn’t doing any of that, I only played my songs… but I didn’t realize how much I had missed playing those songs, I didn’t realize how important they were to me. So, to spend a year pulling out all the songs I used to play was really good for me—it was good for my soul and for my writing.”

Listening to the 11 tracks lining You Get It All, you can hear a sense of growth—from the heart-warming title track (complete with intimate references to Carll’s joys, regrets, and “old Guy Clark cassettes”) to “Different Boats,” a bluesy exploration of life’s many relationships, to “In The Mean Time,” a goosebump-inducing duet with Brandy Clark, there’s a palpable sense of depth behind every measure, word and note. 

“I think I relied a lot more on inspiration when I was younger, which worked to a point… but I wasn’t really using my work to explore my own shit,” Carll said. “I have friends who I’ve seen use their work as a way to figure out their own lives—to figure out their marriages, their relationships, their space in the world. I always admired how they did that, but didn’t connect with the approach. But now as I get older, not doing that feels less and less meaningful.”

With that in mind, Carll made an effort to write with purpose, using the opportunity to dig into some of the more consequential themes in life. “I think that the change of emphasis on the craft is a result of growing older,” he reflected. “I didn’t want to keep being unsatisfied with writing about the same things or putting the same level of effort into it. It’s more meaningful now.”

Perhaps one of the best examples of this shift is the album’s opening track, “Nice Things,” which tactfully straddles a line between personal introspection and universal socio-political commentary—just read the lyrics below:

“Nice Things”

God came down to Earth
To enjoy what She’d created
Took a fishing trip to Georgia
To see what She could see
Cast out a holy line
Thought She’d hooked a big one
Reeled in a oil barrel
And said, “Oh my me!”

This is why your whole world is on fire
This is why you can’t drink from your own springs
This is why, this is why, this is why, why, why
This is why y’all can’t have nice things

So She walked back to the highway
Flagged down a passing stranger
An old man with a kind streak
Who offered Her a toke
Just as She was partakin’
The blue lights started flashing
As they slipped the handcuffs on Her
She thought this must be a joke

This is why y’all are all strung out to Christmas
This is why I left you all them seeds
This is why, this is why, this is why, why, why
This is why y’all can’t have nice things

So She walked out of the jail
With a rap sheet and no money
Went lookin’ for a coffee
And passed by an angry mob
They were yelling about people
Who should suffer pain eternal
She asked one for a dollar
And they said, “Sinner, get a job”

This is why (This is why) I blessed you with compassion
This is why (This is why) I gave you empathy
This is why (This is why) I said to love your neighbor
This is why (This is why) pills don’t grow on trees
This is why (This is why) I gave you all salvation
This is why (This is why) angels lose their wings
This is why, this is why, this is why, why, why
This is why y’all can’t have nice things
Oh, this is why y’all can’t have nice things

“I had the idea for this song in my head for a long time, but I was initially thinking about it in the context of a relationship,” Carll said, telling the story behind the tune. “I got together with the Brothers Osborne—who I love and really respect—and John said, ‘Why don’t we widen out the lens to make it about the world at large?’ That was a great idea because it gave us a much bigger canvas, and after that everything sorta fell into place. I’ve always enjoyed writers who can write stuff that’s not about preaching to the choir or condemning everybody, but they can just say things in a way that feels sorta undeniable. I’m not saying I’ve been successful at that, but I admire people who can do it. I always quote Todd Snider, who said, ‘I’m not writing these songs to change anybody’s mind, I write them to ease my own.’ I’ve always really appreciated that approach.”

Now, getting to share these new, even-more-meaningful-than-before tunes with the world, Carll feels humbled by his circumstance. “I’ve learned that trying to predict the future is futile,” he said. “I just try to live in the present. Right now, I’m appreciative for the opportunity to make this record and put it out into the world. I’m proud of these songs and I’m excited about sharing them with people—it feels good. It feels like the ending of one process and the beginning of another. So, I’m just gonna try to be in the moment and see where it leads.” 


Hayes Carll’s new album You Get It All is out now—watch the music video for “Help Me Remember” below:

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