Even for a songwriter as seasoned as Hayden Desser, there’s always the opportunity to learn new techniques, as he discovered with his latest single, “Make Believe” (released August 12). Unlike he previous material – he has recorded under the name “Hayden” for more than 20 years, putting out numerous studio albums, EPs, and singles – this time, he took a true collaborative approach.
“Apart from borrowing screenwriter’s words in earlier songs (Steve Buscemi’s Tree’s Lounge and Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions), “Make Believe” was my first true collaboration as a songwriter,” Desser says. “My friend, novelist Colin McAdam, began sending me chapters of a new book he was writing [Black Dove, set for release in 2021], and “Make Believe” was based on a passage in the first section.”
As for what specific subject matter inspired Desser to write this sparse, introspective song, he says, “I found the idea of an old, tired horse alone in a field to be intriguing. The line that stood out to me, ‘true stories will always be much better than make believe,’ immediately became the main refrain.”
For Desser, this subject matter seems to fit these difficult times. “I’ve been having trouble getting used to the world as it is, even way before the pandemic,” he says. “The idea of people wanting to publicly show a happier, more perfect version of their lives has been wearing on me. Perhaps being the father of a child with special needs and the struggles it presents have made me accept life’s imperfections in a more straightforward way, I’m not sure, but the idea of presenting a glossed over version of the way things are is something I’m not interested in. Colin’s words were simple but rang true to me.”
While the collaborative experience was new for Desser, he says that the actual writing process followed his usual method. “As with most of my songs in the last 15 years or so “Make Believe” started out with me playing around on my piano, finding a chord progression that I find interesting and singing a melody that fits over it,” he says. “Sometimes I find words right away and sometimes I sing gibberish as a place holder. On this song I had Colin’s story right in front of me so it really came together quickly. And because of that, the music really suits the words. (In my humble opinion).
“I used a great sample of an old instrument called an Optigan playing a trance-like, scratchy drum pattern,” Desser continues. “I played the piano part on a Fender Rhodes with tremolo. One interesting thing that occurred in the arranging / production phase was finding the saxophone solo. I wanted to just see if sax was right for the song, so I opened a different song session I had recorded a few years back that never made a record. Because both songs were in the same key, I placed that song’s sax over this song and somehow it sounded close. In the end, I edited the shit out of the solo to fit this new song’s chord progression. I really like how it turned out.”
For now, Desser considers “Make Believe” to be a standalone single, though he says it’s possible it might end up on his next album (title TBD), which is being produced by Aaron Dessner, who has worked with The National, Taylor Swift, and Sharon Van Etten. “It would fit with my other new ones, as my albums are mostly made on my own, using my favorite instruments,” Desser says, “so they all end up sounding like they’re members of the same dysfunctional family.”