Hiatt Surrenders to His Muse on New Album

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John Hiatt‘s Terms of My Surrender showcases the legendary songwriter in peak form. The longtime Nashville resident’s new collection deftly doubles down on deep-browed blues (the title track) with typically sharp storytelling (“Wind Don’t Have to Hurry”).

Everything simply works, and Hiatt says the record took shape naturally.

“I usually write a batch of songs, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, hey, let’s make a record,’” he tells CMT Edge. “These were all written in a year or year and a-half period. OK, it’s time to record. I don’t make demos, so I have to get them down somewhere.”

CMT Edge: Why don’t you do demos?

Hiatt: I just don’t see the point. I don’t like doing things twice, for one thing. (laughs) I mean, I sing them into a little voice recorder on my iPad when I write them so I can remember. I like to take them into the studio and get the guys together and see what happens.

Tell the story behind writing the title track.

Well, I steal everything. (laughs) Like Guy Clark says, “You can’t make this shit up.” So, I stole the title from talking with a buddy about burning the candle at both ends — and the middle — when we were younger and running and gunning and trying to have our way. He said, “Yeah, I was out there trying to negotiate the terms of my own surrender.” I said, “Yeah, but there are no terms. You’ve just gotta surrender.”

That became the album’s common lyrical theme, didn’t it?

Yeah, that became the modus operandi. Surrender’s what it’s all about. It’s about in music how you have to surrender for it to happen. You can’t get hung up on your instrument, and you can’t get hung up on your singing. You have to give it up. You have to give up for it to happen. So that became the vibe: Get out of the way. I can’t remember what jazz guy said this, but he said the first duty of a musician is that you have to get past your instrument. Get it out of the way for the music to happen. I love that.

That’s not necessarily easy.

Well, you know, if you’re a primitive like me, it’s pretty easy. (laughs) I guess it’s not, though. It takes practice. That’s the discipline, I guess. You have to discipline yourself. I play guitar every day, and from that discipline comes the song. I don’t have a lyric idea. I just pick up the acoustic — because I’ve done that since I was 11 — and some music will inevitably come out. If the muse is smiling, something will happen if I’m not in the way. Which I am a whole lot. (laughs) I’m only human.

You’ve said you wanted to feature your guitar and voice more on this album. Explain.

Yeah, it was about getting back to what’s me, what I do. That’s how I write songs and what I started out doing — folk singing or blues singing or whatever the hell. It’s me and my voice and my guitar. That’s me. Doug [Lancio, Hiatt’s longtime guitarist and album producer] and I talked about it, and we wanted to push that stuff forward. Let’s make that the focus. I think we achieved that, for better or worse.

Tell the story behind writing “Wind Don’t Have to Hurry.”

It’s interesting. Doug’s got a little studio in his house, and I was out in the room and I was running down the song so the guys could pick it up. The song actually had chord changes, and then I came into the control room and Doug was playing the first chord, which is a minor chord. Kenneth (Blevins) was tapping on the banjo drum head with his drum stick. I said, “That’s it. That’s how we’re gonna record it.” We set up a mic in the control room, and I kept the same melody, but we never changed the chord. We left it on the one chord. (laughs) It was one of those serendipitous things.

Describe working with Doug.

Oh, man. He’s just so musical. He’s walking music. He gets out of the way and he’s soaking in music. When he plays, that’s Doug. … I love him like a brother. He’s wonderful, a great musician, a real musician.

The record comes with a live DVD. Did you purposely include more of the older songs on that?

We made the thing last fall at the end of six months of touring. We initially made it to have a DVD and, yeah, the idea was to do songs people know and put a couple of new ones on and hopefully expand the audience a little bit and get some airplay, as well, which has happened. I don’t know if you noticed, but it’s hard to get noticed these days. (laughs) There are about 150,000 CDs coming out every week and they’re hard to sell, so we thought we’d include a concert on this one. Also, I hadn’t done a DVD since the Austin City Limits DVD [Hiatt's 2005 release of a 1993 performance].

“Drive South” didn’t make the ACL DVD, but it’s on the new one. Tell the story behind that song.

You know, I came to Nashville when I was 18. Every good thing that’s ever happened to me happened when I came south — Nashville, the music, finding a home. I love my city, and Tennessee is my home. I left Nashville and moved out west for five, six years, and I love Los Angeles. I had a great time, but I had some rough times by my own hand. When I came back to Nashville in 1985, again driving south, my world changed dramatically and wonderfully and I met my wife.

So, it was about that. The line “drive south with the one you love” I stole from this French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who wrote at the turn of the 20th century and was a real character. It was a line in one of his poems: “When in doubt, drive south.” That was his recommendation. I thought it was a good one. (laughs)