This edition of duologues features Minneapolis-based pianist, John Hayes whose sophomore solo album The Last Best Place was written during a difficult period of uncertainty in his life which found him coping with the loss of a friend and adapting to a new studio space. The title refers to a long-standing nickname for the state of Montana, a place cherished by Hayes’ friend Bradley Johnson to whom the album is dedicated. In the recent premiere of the single “The Things That End”, I opined that listening to the record felt very much like talking through the night with a friend thanks to the intimate recording process and Hayes’ ability to articulate complex emotions through his compositions. I am grateful to John for taking a few minutes to talk to us about his musical journey.
First of why don’t you tell us a little about the path you’ve taken to making the music you do now. I understand you had classical training but eventually adopted a self-taught style of composing and playing?
It’s funny, I feel like I didn’t have much say in the matter when it came to playing the piano. I must have been around 7-8 when I started taking lessons. I can’t remember precisely. I remember the routine though; get home from school, have a snack, and then straight to practicing. I remember getting so bored of this routine and being bored with the music I was playing. I would have way rather been outside playing with friends, throwing the baseball, biking around the neighborhood. After a few years, I finally started to figure out what I was doing when I sat down at the piano, and from there assigned materials went out the window. All I would do is sit down and try to play a piece from a movie I had seen recently or try to come up with some little melody of my own. This was all just to show my Mom “hey look what I can do!” but when it came time for lessons, I would find myself in trouble because I hadn’t been practicing… I had a few teachers growing up, towards the end I transitioned to the same teacher who taught my Mom when she was growing up. She was quite strict and I remember being really intimidated going into lessons with her. After a while, I decided that I was going to leave these types of lessons behind and go down my own path.
You’ve shared that your latest album was a reaction to both a transition in your life as well as an unexpected loss of a friend. How did the music come about and at what point did you realize you it could come together as an album?
I started writing this album around springtime of last year. I was in the process of moving into my own studio space and really being on my own and living by myself for the first time. During this period, one of my friends died very suddenly from a heart attack. I think this really shocked my system. I had spoken to him just a few days ago and now he’s gone? The finite nature of things and how they can just end so abruptly really kicked my anxiety into overdrive. I was having panic attacks left and right, it was really not a great time. Once I got to my new place, I have this really lovely large room where I put my piano and made my studio. I didn’t even have any equipment in there at the time, I was just trying to write a little melody to calm my nerves when I started to feel anxious or down. I wrote the melody to “The Last Best Place” at that time and really quickly started to build off this creative, for a lack of a better word, desperate energy I was feeling. After a while, I took two days where I recorded all these pieces and they became the body of the album.
Did the making of record or releasing it out into the world help you gain a sense of closure with any of the emotions your were trying to process?
I think in a sense I felt some relief. Once I had everything recorded I was in a much better place mentally. Now that it has been released, I feel really happy. My friend Brad, who the album is dedicated to, always used to joke with me about wanting to be on my next record. Now his name is on all the vinyl copies of the record and hopefully, it does his memory justice.
Tell us a little about the actual making of the record. Do I understand correctly that you recorded everything at night?
For the writing and recording part, yes. During the day its all about sound design, figuring out how to make the piano sing the best that upcoming night, almost like a glorified soundcheck. I love this process almost as much as I love the actual recording and writing. There is something about the still of night that really resonates with me when writing. I am not much of a morning person so the late-night hours are my peaceful times. Times where there are no other distractions, just you, the piano, the microphones, and some crickets chirping outside.
The artwork by Moriah Wolfe is so striking and complements the album just beautifully. How did her work come to be associated with the project?
It really is fantastic, she is so talented. I feel really grateful we were able to work together on this. I was put in contact with her through Kyle McEvoy (Sonder House) and that really got the ball rolling. I am so happy how it turned out. It makes me smile every time I look at a record.
Having followed the genre closely for a few years now, I am always amazed at how distinctive and personal so many musicians can sound while playing the same instrument. What would you say are the keys to the development of your own sound?
Since I started recording my own music, I have become quite obsessed with sound. Everything that goes into the recording process is fascinating to me. One tiny detail here, one minuscule tweak there, it all adds up. I spend quite a bit of time making sure I have all these things in order. I think when there is attention to detail in these things, that is when you can start to create your own sound. The pianists that I am always fascinated with have found a way to create this atmosphere where when you hear the first note, you can tell exactly who it is. I like to work with this feeling of familiarity and make it my goal to have this reflect in my own recordings. I think one of the biggest compliments a pianist can receive is that they have found their own sound.
Last year a wonderfully diverse collection of reworks of music from your debut album ‘By the Woods’ came out. Was that your first experience in having your work reinterpreted by other artists? I am curious what that experience was like.
It was! That was very humbling. Mainly from the fact that so many artists decided to jump on board right away. Again, I felt very happy and fortunate that so many decided to contribute. All the credit goes out to those artists. Some of them were friends previously and I’ve actually made some great friends just from that project.
Finally are their any projects in the works or planning stages you can tell us about?
I have a few things in the pipeline that I am quite excited about. Some collaborations with artists like Chris Bartels (Elskavon) and Maxy Dutcher that I have spent the better part of the last year and a half working on. Both are artists that were contributed to the “By The Woods Reworks” mentioned above.
The Last Best Place is available from Sonder House in two vinyl LP editions – standard black and a limited white edition of 200 – as well as digital download. The album was mastered by Martyn Heyne.