Tish Hinajosa: Pens Songs of Truth

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

With the release of Sign of Truth on Rounder, Tish Hinajosa has reached a milestone in her personal and artistic career as a singer/songwriter. It’s been a long road of trials and tribulations for this Mexican-American poet native of San Antonio, Texas. She has played the Northern New Mexico club circuit where she was hooked up with southwestern songwriting legend Michael Martin Murphey. She’s tried her hand at writing for the Nashville music industry, even becoming a promising artist for the Warner Bros. label.


With the release of Sign of Truth on Rounder, Tish Hinajosa has reached a milestone in her personal and artistic career as a singer/songwriter. It’s been a long road of trials and tribulations for this Mexican-American poet native of San Antonio, Texas. She has played the Northern New Mexico club circuit where she was hooked up with southwestern songwriting legend Michael Martin Murphey. She’s tried her hand at writing for the Nashville music industry, even becoming a promising artist for the Warner Bros. label.

Eventually, she found herself back in her hometown of Austin, Texas, soul-searching and questioning her direction as a writer and musician. After a trying divorce experience and subsequent legal battles with her manager/husband, Tish has found a new ray of hope in a renewed relationship with Rounder Records, which had been her home in the early ‘90s.

These days’ things are looking a lot brighter for the too-often-misunderstood Hinajosa. This place of peace came with a price and that’s what her new album explores in depth. There is a real honesty in her writing on Sign of Truth that comes from afflictions not only of the romantic kind, but from the longing of a wandering soul searching to find a sense of purpose in a world of confused messages, unkept promises, hollow idealism and carnivorous commercialization. As I talked with Tish I got the feeling that she might now have found the truth, but she has seen a glimmer of it in the honesty of a lyric that explores all sides of the human experience.

“I had written many of these songs in the new album within the last four to five years,” she explains. “I wasn’t able to record any of them because of contractual obligations that I had with my ex-husband. It took until the divorce was settled for me to have the freedom to move on and record these tunes. So many of these songs speak of a journey’s passage from one place in life to another.”

The break-up of a twenty-year marriage can be painful and the lyrics of this record really speak to that pain and feeling of loss. One of the particularly deep personal statements is found on “Fence Post” where Tish sings about the hopelessness that goes along with this kind of experience.

“I was feeling really bummed,” she says. “It was a difficult time during the divorce and one day I was driving on the highway and I saw an old fence in an old rail year. I really identified with that visual image with what was going on in my life. I hadn’t played piano in a long time and I just sat down with that fence post in mind and the entire song wrote itself in about 30 minutes. The melody and words just came out.”

In the song Tish sings of a heart that’s pinned down. She writes, “I’m wired standing up, broken and cut but I just can’t seem to fall down.” She then speaks to a sound by the rail yard that kills her. “This is the sound that is quiet but always present, that low hum from the trains. If you listen closely you can hear the low synthesizer in the background. I equate that to the soundtrack of my life for the past few years, something that keeps tugging at me, playing in the background.”

Besides going through the breakup and the emotions of loss and emptiness that she writes of in Sign of Truth, Tish endured the difficult decision of leaving the Nashville-based Warner Bros. label and record producer Jim Ed Norman. “Jim Ed and I disagreed about what kind of music I should be doing. I became frustrated trying to write songs that other people wanted me to write. I was trying to please everyone and I ended up pleasing no one. They always wanted something more and that’s actually where the song ‘Sign of Truth’ came from and the line ‘someday still wants more.’ It seems that we all want something more than what we have and in my case the label wanted something from me that I couldn’t give.” Tish decided to leave Warners because they refused to let her go, but they wouldn’t release any of her music either.

In the title song of her new album Tish says she has, “laid some words out on the table, painting flowers on my door and a bright tomorrow in the distance, but someday still wants more.” She then takes that personal message and applies it to a world of greed and oppression where “saint and sinner pound the earthen floor where our banners sail above our conviction.”

It’s ironic that some have taken this song at face value meaning the opposite of what Tish intended. “I was trying to be honest about myself and what the music industry wanted of me and how I tried to please them. We all want success and money and youth, but at the end of the day we find ourselves looking for the truth in our lives. Some people took that line the wrong way thinking I was no longer an idealist.”

In the past the Tejano/American singer has often been reluctantly considered a political activist. “I lend support to causes concerning especially minority children and self-empowerment of those who have no voice, although it is flattering to be asked for help, it’s easy to fall into the cause circuit, and I frequently have to reprioritize my career profile, which will ultimately better help the causes I believe in.”

Much of the truth that Tish has found with her new release is in the way she approaches the writing process. In the past she had often tried to please others, but now she is going with her own instincts. This openness has created some interesting diversions in form from the typical rhyming and hook-driven music of her Nashville days. In “Mona Lisa By The Rio Grande” she saves the title for the last stanza and in the process creates a song with a paradoxical form that reminds one of a Miguel Martinez painting of a sad Spanish woman shoved into the foreground with the beautiful landscape behind her. This juxtaposition bodes well for the contrasting emotions in Tish’s lyric. She sings, “Her life has been a mission built with her own hands, her eyes could tell a story but she holds it in.” “I don’t know what I was doing,” Tish says humbly, “this song was autobiographical to me. A song about a lonely woman. I had the idea for the title and just couldn’t fit it in anywhere until the end.”

Another song that evolved out of this free hand writing process was the wistful gem, “The Dreams I Have Seen.” The song is a bittersweet take on the ideal of perfect love. “this song is really about love that remains unrequited. It’s that vision of what love should be.” In the song the lover leaves the singer with a lasting impression of perfect love that she can never find in her life. The images are particularly striking and dreamlike, especially in the final stanza where she sings, “When heaven paints the end of the day in cerulean and gold shades I hold my breath to make it stay.” I wondered where the cerulean came from.

That’s a word I had around for years and always wanted to use in a song. Cerulean is a certain shade of blue and I just loved how it sounded in the song.”

There is one more road sign that Tish has often faced in the past that she addresses on her new release. That is whether or not to sing in Spanish. She has many Mexican/American fans and she didn’t want to disappoint them with her new recording, but she also didn’t want to be stuck in a rut of being the Tejano girl singer. “I made a conscious decision not to do a bilingual record this time,” she says, “I included a spoken word piece at the beginning of ‘Roses Around My Feet’ for the basic audience, but I wanted to do a straight shot record this time, and the intention was not to make a big statement with the Spanish side.”

Although most of Sign of Truth plays to the bitter side of a difficult time in Hinajosa’s life, she points out “Wildflowers” as her favorite song on the album. This first struck me as odd, but now as I listen to the jaunty tune I realize that Tish is a girl who simply “loves old songs, believes in what the yare saying…like the history they are saving, like Wildflowers in the sun.” Every great song is a document of an artist’s life, not just a pat answer to a culture benumbed by shallow escapism. It’s a real treasure to find an artist like Hinajosa who is unafraid to document her life truthfully, for in the truth lies a sign of life, a flicker of hope that lets us move on to a new road, a new journey and a greater appreciation for the struggle of humanity.


3 Comments

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Ray Wylie Hubbard: Hubbard Way Beyond ‘Redneck Mothers’

Rodney Griffin: Songs Are Messages