Hal Ketchum may be one of the most well known and admired songwriters in country music circles, but his creativity runs even deeper than song. In the years before his music career took off, he worked as a cabinet maker and continues to express himself not only in carpentry, but sculpting and painting as well. His art work is shown at the Pena Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
His first album with the Curb label, Past the Point of Rescue was released back in 1991 (though he technically released Threadbare Alibi first in 1989 on the Watermelon label under the name Hal Michael Ketchum) and he continues with them today. Nine albums and twenty-two singles later, he shows no signs of slowing down.
With his new album, One More Midnight getting its U.K. release February 12 (with U.S. release to follow in March or April), he has been playing concert dates these last few weeks as he kicks off a U.K. tour, which will be followed by a more extensive tour of the U.S. Hal took some time from his busy schedule for a phone interview where we discussed the new album, how he prepares (or doesn't) for the road, and his creative soul.
You were under the weather last week. Are you feeling better?
Yeah, yeah, I had a little dental work done. That's always a deal, you know. I'm trying to get things done while I'm home, and I'm only home for like two days at a time. So, you know, I just got to keep moving.
You've just launched this tour. Are you playing songs from One More Midnight yet?
Wow, so you're playing most of the new one then?
Yeah, I'm doing most of the new record. We played some really great folk rooms up in Massachusetts last weekend and I tried out "Poor Lila's Ghost," which is like fifteen minutes long and twenty six verses. It was interesting to play that live. The response was really good and I was really happy with it. People were willing to sit and listen to it.
I planned to ask about "Poor Lila's Ghost." It's quite an epic story and song. Did you have any concerns at all about it being such a non-traditional length?
I just thought it was worth it. It was worth recording. It's such a journey; I really wanted it to make the record.
The beauty of doing a European record is they are very open to… song length is not an issue. I knew from my previous work in the U.K. that the English don't get hung up on how long a song is. So, it seemed like a good way to get it out there. And now that I'm playing it live, people are into it and it's really okay. People are going to either really love it or really hate it.
You're right about the song really being a journey. I really enjoyed the track, but immediately wondered about how it would translate live. It's good to hear it's being received well.
It was surprising how well it was received, yes. It's really a joy to play it. I did it with just two guitars and it really worked out. People hung in there and it was fun.
Another song on the new album is "Forever Mine." There's a story in the PR sheet for the album about how you wrote the song around something you overheard your wife say. Is that the first time something like that happened?
Oh no! That happens all the time in some capacity. It really does. Sometimes it's a misunderstood phrase on an airport PA or maybe it's a half conversation overheard. You know, eavesdropping is a great way to get material. A lot of times, it might not be exactly what somebody might have said, but that inspires a phrase that just works for me.
Do you find most of your songs are built around lyrics then?
Usually it's lyric first, but sometimes it's melody. And I carry a hand-held recorder everywhere I go so I can just hum or whistle a melody if one hits me. Sometimes it's both simultaneously – lyric and melody at the same time – those are a little confusing to me, but sometimes it comes in that form. I just feel like I have my own little radio station and sometimes the static clears and something beams in from out there.
And some days it's really fuzzy reception, right?
(Laughs) You know. You're a writer, you know. You just can't chase it. The beauty of it, for me, you can't make it happen. That's the beauty of it; I have absolutely no control over it. It's not mine to manipulate. If I'm quiet and I sit down and clear my mind, it will present itself.
That's the intriguing part, it's free. Isn't it? You can't go buy it. You can't sit down and say, "I think today I shall write."
It doesn't work that way.
No, that's usually the kiss of death, for me anyway.
We were talking about "Poor Lila's Ghost" from One More Midnight, if you go further back through your albums there is "Someplace Far Away" and "Daddy's Oldsmobile," which are also really well-crafted stories as well as songs. Have you ever considered story or novel writing as another creative outlet?
You know, I have. I have. I have a whole pile of short stories that I… you know. I just don't know. I think songwriting is my niche. That's what I do, write those little movies. I don't know if I could pull something off in novel form. I'm just not sure.
With my short stories, I try to find resolution with everything so they're a little too clever, I think. They're not really stream-of-consciousness. That's a hard thing to do.
I don't think there's such a thing as too clever. Do you really think there is?
I don't know yet. I just don't know.
Do you have a favorite song?
No. I've probably got twenty favorite songs. They become old friends. I've been doing this so long that they really do become old friends. And it's fun. You mentioned "Daddy's Oldsmobile," someone hollered out for that about three months ago and I hadn't played it in a long time, and it came right back. They're just always there.
Is there a certain song or artist in your iPod or MP3 player that your fans, and our readers, might be surprised to hear you listen to and/or like?
I don't know if they'd be surprised by this behavior, but I listen to a lot of Steely Dan records. I'm crazy about Steely Dan. My tour manager just got me an iPod and I'm about as technically advanced as a caveman, so he set me up. He downloaded a bunch of songs.
I've got a lot of things that are probably obvious, not much outside the box right now. But, I have been listening to a lot of classical music lately for some reason. I used to do that a lot when I was doing cabinet making in New England. I've sort of returned to that for some reason. That might be surprising to people.
It's pretty well known that besides being a songwriter you're also a talented carpenter and artist. Do the three creative outlets work together?
For example have you ever had to stop in the middle of a painting to go write a song, because what you were painting inspired a lyric?
Yeah, of course. That's all right brain stuff. It's all primal forms of creativity and, for me, they come from exactly the same place. There's no difference and there is no way to differentiate those things. They all come from the same place.
So, do you get especially stir-crazy when you are touring, or are you still able to tap into that side of it all?
No, I'm really good on the road. I travel really well, I really do. I become very sloth-like. I don't get in a hurry. I don't worry if the airplane is ten minutes late and I don't care if they lose my bag. I just expect these things to occur because I travel so much, I mean millions of miles, and consequently things are going to happen. I have absolutely no anxiety about it whatsoever. (laugh) It really pisses off the guys in my band.
(laughing) I can imagine. You wouldn't travel well with me then?
What? Do you get uptight when you travel?
I just worry about all the little details.
Nah! You can't do that. I mean, I leave the house in basically the same clothes I'm going to come back home in. It’s sort of like a Mennonite, you know one suit of clothes, I put those clothes on and go do my thing. I literally get away with a shaving kit.
If I go for a month, I'll take two pair of jeans and six shirts and I'll wear that first shirt everyday until someone shames me into washing it.
I was going to ask how you prepare for an extensive tour like you're getting ready to do in the U.K. at the end of the month, but you don't. Do you?
(laughs) No, I don't. My wife prepares for an extensive tour. I'm taking my nine-year-old daughter to Ireland with me on this trip. We're leaving on the 20th for like five weeks and Fana Rose is coming with me. So we're having to be more specific about the planning of that part of it: her outfits, her rain boots, her coloring items, and all of that stuff. But go Dad! You know, I'll just have a coat and strap a guitar on and I'll be ready. Toothbrush and a credit card, that's about it.
Your wife and your younger ones are staying home then?
St. Jude's used "Stay Forever" one year for their annual fund raiser. What was your reaction?
It's fantastic. I was down there again last year and it's just tough walking into those rooms and seeing those little babies, you know. It's not easy, but what I find is my typical approach, and I've done it a few times now, is I go in and visit the families and visit the kids, get back out of there and have a good cry, and I reflect on the strength and courage of those kids and their families. They are really something; they really are.
It is probably the best place in the entire world for the family to feel really cared for. People don't have to worry about anything but the wellness of their child when they are there. They don't have to worry about buying laundry detergent or toothpaste, it's all provided. The living space is provided. St Jude takes care of the entire family and it's absolutely amazing. I can't say enough about it.
You've had bit acting parts in a couple of movies, is acting something you would like to pursue on a larger level?
No, not really. I get offers once in awhile, but I'm not an actor. I'm really not. I'm sort of a prop, not an actor.
What about the music for the soundtracks?
Yeah, I do like to do that. I love getting songs into films. I found out the other day, matter of fact, that Albert Ruddy is producing a movie called Camille with Sienna Miller, Scott Glen, and David Carradine. It's an independent film and they are using "One More Midnight." That happens once in a while, people sort of stumble onto my work. I'm real happy when songs get into films.
It's great that the song has already been picked up. The album is just getting its U.K. release this month, right?
Yeah, that's right. It's mighty fine.
Did you have a specific marketing strategy behind releasing this album U.K. first?
At this point in time it was really important to get a record out over there, before the tour which starts February 22. I have five weeks in Ireland and Scotland. I have a great relationship with the label in London, Curb U.K., so it just seemed really appropriate since I mastered all these songs and they were ready for release that they go there first. It will be followed up here, I would think, by March or April of this year.
And then you will be touring in the U.S. when you're are done in the U.K.?
Oh yeah! My calendar is filling up already. We're looking really good. In May I'm very busy.
As our Featured Artist coverage continues this month, look for a review of One More Midnight and a closer look at his songwriting. As Hal said, he will be touring extensively this summer. If you are able, get out and see a show. His official website is currently being updated, so check back often and keep up-to-date at his Myspace which has streaming MP3s available including one for "Just This Side of Heaven" from One More Midnight.