Central And Remote: Hidden Highways
Interview with Hidden Highways.
“The cymbals flash, the drums they crash
The trumpets rise the song
The brass beton plucks it’s diamonds
From a glittering wall of almost dawn
The crystal chords they slash the wind
In humble majesty
And the velvet voices all shall join
—Townes Van Zandt, “The Velvet Voices”
Words & Illustration: Craig Carry
This Autumn marked the hugely anticipated arrival of “Old Hearts Reborn”, the debut album from Irish duo Hidden Highways. Comprising the hugely talented pairing of Carol Anne McGowan and Tim V. Smith, Hidden Highways create wondrously timeless folk songs, the kind of earthy, dust-filled music from some forgotten past recalling such folk luminaries as Mark Fry, F.J. McArnold or Jackson C. Frank at the turn of the seventies. Of course, perceived stylistic influences can only vaguely point towards a faithful – and accurate – picture of any band. For Hidden Highways – like the aforementioned folk musicians – one indispensable component of the band’s artistry is the huge importance it places on the value of time itself. Patience, as they say, is a virtue, and everything written by the pen of Hidden Highways revels in this simple fact. Nothing ever feels rushed, overcomplicated, compromised. Everything has its place, and yet that magical spark of spontaneity can always be felt close at heart. Like a silent witness, the listener never loses the warm intimacy of sharing the same space as Hidden Highways as they weave their impeccable artistry before our ears.
“I want to be there tonight” sing Tim V. Smith and Carol Anne McGowan on the album’s glorious opener “Empire Of Old”, the beautifully sparse setting provides the perfect backdrop for the magical chemistry between McGowan and Smith’s harmonies to set sail on their dusk-bound voyage. The finger-picking acoustic guitar is offset against the wonderfully restrained and crisp production (reminiscent of David Pajo’s self-titled 2005 LP or “Slightly Sorry” by P.G. Six) while the song could fit on Ryan Adams’ own solo debut “Heartbreaker”. “The Western Line” sees a shift in vocal duties, this time McGowan takes the lead (while Smith’s voice enters later) and serves a timely reminder of McGowan’s own gorgeous solo work “Songs From The Cellar”, the seven-track collection comprising live recordings made in a 500-year-old German wine cellar (and subsequently issued by UK label Apollolaan Recordings in 2010). The song magically distills some bygone time, while the subtle addition of a banjo and an extra guitar expands on the minimal arrangements. “I won’t take the devil’s deal / Just to board that wagon wheel” sings McGowan on the song’s chorus – where a slow-tempo harmony joins the fold – echoing the gothic folk tales of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
“The world began with a waltz / That’s how it’s going to end” sings Tim V. Smith on the opening to the dreamlike, steel guitar-aided “The World Began With a Waltz”. At this point, as well as the gorgeous pedal steel playing provided by Sean Harrod, there is also the first introduction of George Guilfoyle on double bass (the latter recalling M. Ward’s classic 2003 LP “Transfiguration Of Vincent” where Ward’s darkly intimate songs of loss and grief are played against a similarly forlorn – yet always intimately warm – sonic backdrop). To conclude side A, we are treated to the snow-swept ballad of “Do I Want” (the slide guitar recalling Ry Cooder’s timeless score for Wenders’ “Paris Texas”) and the McGowan-sung “Won’t be Goin’ Home” highlights the immensely talented lyricism on display throughout the album.
Side B begins with the breathtaking cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “The Velvet Voices” and – in similar fashion to last year’s glorious re-interpretation of Jeff Alexander’s “Come Wander With Me” – highlights the impressive depth of McGowan and Smith’s talents. The raw power of the song’s aching delivery recalls Alan Sparhawk and Low’s tendency for deconstruction in a stripped-back approach to making music. Townes Van Zandt would surely be impressed. The album’s title-track is next and – at four-and-a-half minutes in duration – is the album’s longest song and it’s carefully-played slow strum echoes the earlier “The World Began With a Waltz”. The song’s opening imagery of shaded rooftops recalls the earliest photographic rooftops taken by Daguerre at the turn of the nineteenth century and the song is yet another fine example of the band’s keen focus on the power of subtleties, where the song unfolds magnificently to it’s warmly intimate conclusion (recalling Damon Gough’s irresistible debut magnum opus “The Hour Of Bewilderbeast”). The magnificent “Wild Woe” follows next where a heavenly arrangement (banjo, guitars, violin and double bass) backs McGowan’s angelic voice, creating the kind of spine-tingling, ethereal music that never fails to stop you cold in your tracks. The song could soundtrack some future doomed tale by Cormac McCarthy or a redemptive narrative of John Hillcoat’s.
“My watch has stopped an hour ago / Guess it’s time to go back to sea” sings Smith on the album’s penultimate track “Time to go Back to Sea”, where the song’s central character must return to sea and give up on his hopes – and possibly dreams – in the process. One of the many album highlights is provided by the moment when McGowan adds harmony to sing “hold me up in your shining arms”. The vocal work is (like everywhere on the album) deeply immersive and proves truly moving in the process. The album’s closing track is the divine “Next Time Round”, where McGowan and Smith’s heavenly vocals are joined by reverberated and swirling sounds of an electric guitar while plaintive piano notes delicately sound in the background like some old, faded Henry Mancini film score (“Touch Of Evil”, perhaps). The resulting song is staggering in both it’s delivery and scope, and is Hidden Highways at their most beautiful.
“It’s the end of the road / It’s the end of the line” sings Carol Anne McGowan on “Won’t be Goin’ Home”, echoing themes of underlying regret and disappointment which form a recurring motif for the seemingly exiled and lost characters across “Old Hearts Reborn”. The glorious “Old Hearts Reborn” is the first waltz by Hidden Highways, and, as the sailboat sails forth on it’s maiden voyage into the dusk under a starry sky, we await in quiet wonder for the band’s many future returns ashore.
Interview with Tim V. Smith & Carol Anne McGowan.
From the opening acoustic picking of “Empire Of Old” to the haunting closer “Next Time Round”, “Old Hearts Reborn” is a stunning achievement and a majestic album. You must both be so proud of it. Since it’s release in September you have been promoting the album, how has that been for you?
TVS: Thank you. It’s been great to get out and play the songs all over the country in different venues – most with amplification, some without and just let the songs speak for themselves. We started introducing electric guitar to songs in the live set so that’s probably been the biggest change within the last couple of months.
What I love most of all is just how many breathtaking moments that are arrived upon across the album and how they reveal themselves so beautifully across repeat listenings. I suppose, on the one hand, it’s like that “less is more” kind of approach where such emotion can be evoked from quite sparse and stripped-back arrangements. But within that set of parameters there’s so much subtle variation to be found, like, for instance, how the double bass – and later the steel guitar – enters for the first time in “The World Began With A Waltz”; the magical moment Carol Anne’s voice singing “it’s the end of the road” opens on the incredible “Won’t Be Goin’ Home” or that magical spark contained in the folk-inspired “Wild Woe”. The list is endless.
What was the writing process like for the album? How did the recording sessions go?
TVS: The writing process was like a correspondence course! We’d drop box demos to each other and we’d add our respective instrumental/vocal parts and return them. The sessions were quite often far apart but we were lucky to be working with Ian McNulty who knew exactly what we were trying to do and was right there with us. We tracked a lot of material live so sometimes we had time to experiment with ideas. Some worked, some didn’t, but we learned a lot. “Next Time Round” was recorded last and on that I think you can hear how comfortable we’d become producing a more generous and darker sound.
It’s immediately apparent just how much time and consideration went into this album. Like many other debut albums, what often makes them so special is how the songs themselves have often been conceived over a long period of time and stretch back a long time. Are the songs on “Old Hearts Reborn” an amalgamation of a long period of time or were they written specifically in the period leading up to the recording of the album itself?
CAMG: When we decided to make a collaborative album, we wrote most of the songs with that in mind. One or two were older songs but most were written in 18 months before the recording. We put a lot of consideration into what songs what would really fit together as a record. We were still deciding what songs to choose as we recorded over the 12 months it took to finish the album. We left a lot of breathing space between each session. I think that worked in our favor and helped the album come together more organically.
TVS: Mostly they are from the period leading up to the album. There’s a couple that are older. “Next Time Round” was a scrapped demo from three years ago for example but the vast majority were for “Old Hearts” specifically.
The title “Old Hearts Reborn” is such a wonderful album title. And the photograph on the sleeve is really evocative and captures that sense of nostalgia and mystery that is spread throughout the album’s ten songs. I would love to know where both the album title and sleeve photo originated from?
TVS: The title is from the song “Old Hearts Reborn”. It was Carol Anne’s suggestion to use it as the title-she felt it kinda captured the spirit of the collected songs and I agreed. The photo came from looking for something to inspire cover art. We hadn’t decided on what it would be – photo, painting or text. I saw that picture for sale amongst a load of old discarded snapshots and family photos and it just clicked. Carol Anne thought it was apt too. It’s a tiny picture in actuality-about the size of a passport photo.
The vocals really are the source of so much magic across Hidden Highways’ songbook. It is as if any one of the songs from the album (or indeed, last year’s E.P.) could be performed with voice alone and it would still hit the listener with just as much impact. I know when we last spoke, you mentioned how you tend to sing live mostly, was this the case for the album “Old Hearts Reborn” too?
TVS: Yes, for the most part – very much so. It really makes a difference to the feel of the recording.
I love how there’s so much textures you both create in terms of “singing” and how many various vocal deliveries are present across the album: firstly, of course, the use of both vocals as a harmony (“Empire Of Old”), that haunting backing vocal of Carol Anne’s beneath Tim’s lead vocals on “Do I Want”, the double-tracking of Carol Anne’s vocals on “Won’t Be Goin’ Home”. The possibilities with voice alone must be something you both think a lot about and closely consider when making a set of songs?
CAMG: I think we both wanted to explore what we could both bring vocally to the project. It’s great to have another voice to work with, you can really experiment with it and be a little playful. There’s so much you can do with harmony alone, it can really lift a song and give it a certain atmosphere. We wanted to keep the sound mainly about the voices. For me, there’s a lot of inspiration from old folk music where vocals really take centre stage. In particular the harmonies in those three songs are a bit of a nod to old-time harmony laden gospel hymns and vintage choral backing vocals.
TVS: Yes, everything else, to a greater or lesser degree sits behind the voices. Again we are both lucky to be working with Ian McNulty who has a real ear for texture – whether we were using carbon mics, ribbon mics or very classy, high-end condensers.
How do you both decide on who sings which song and how the vocals are ultimately shared across the album? Are these decisions firmly made on tape or 4-track prior to entering the recording studio? I imagine it must be challenging to capture the precise “take” when recording the vocal tracks in the studio?
CAMG: Most of the vocals were decided by demos beforehand.
In the studio we would try out some more ideas, come back to them later and in some cases strip them away again. With the live takes, although at times challenging, can make the decisions easier in that you only have a certain amount of takes to choose from. I find that sometimes overdubbing vocals can become more painstaking as you can to get too wrapped up in the idea of trying to get the perfect take and sometimes you can loose a bit of the spontaneity and feeling that you get when you track live.
TVS: Like Carol Anne says the demos decided a lot and live takes limited our options at times-but that’s not a bad thing. It’s harder for sure – but more rewarding. Obviously being only two people we can’t track every instrument live but getting vocals down and guitar down live was key.
From a writing perspective, there’s a real sense of longing and regret on the album, together with a sense of passing of time. It’s really so touching too how fragile the characters in the songs seem to be, yet there’s also a real sense of perseverance in there too. Yet there’s a kind of redemptive feel to the album and there’s a real sense of hope there too, very much like those great road trip kind of movies.
What was the framework in mind for the writing of “Old Hearts Reborn”?
TVS: I don’t know that there was a framework of what would work for it-more an acute sense of what wouldn’t work. There was songs and they fit together. There were other songs they didn’t. I can’t quite explain it-it was instinctual I suppose.
I love the choice of Townes Van Zandt’s “The Velvet Voices” as a song to cover, it really is a stunning version. It reminds me of Low and the power that can come from stripping a song back to its most raw and basic parts. Of course, the Jeff Alexander song “Come Wander With Me” appeared on last year’s self-titled EP which was such a heart-stopping rendition of that special song. I’d love to know why you chose that particular Van Zandt song? It seems like such a perfect fit to the rest of the album. I love too how he wrote those musical references throughout the verses (violin, strings, chimes, drums, trumpets, and so on) and it really suits the atmosphere of “Old Hearts Reborn”. Have there been other songs you’d hope to reinterpret someday?
TVS: Yes, but I think Low beat us to most of them! A demo of The Smiths “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” was knocking around before we decided on “Velvet Voices”. We’ve been doing the Rolling Stones “No Expectations” live a lot over the past couple of months so it’d be nice to record that sometime. We also discussed recording Richard Hawley’s “Don’t get Hung Up In Your Soul” too come to think of it. Covers are very important, it’s how I discovered a lot of music. For example; through Slowdive doing “Some Velvet Morning” I discovered Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra.
“Next Time Round” is such a fitting and special closing to the album. I love how every part of the song hangs together so perfectly, yet it sounds so spontaneous and “of the moment”. There’s so much emotion and feeling distilled in the song and has such a magical dreamlike quality to it where every musical element – including the vocals – combine together so beautifully. I’d love to know when this song was written and at what stage in the making of the album? It really is such a timeless and moving song.
CAMG: It was a very early demo that happened to get overlooked. We revisited it quite late towards the end of recording the album and I’m very glad we did. I think all of the elements that we had been working with in other songs reached a sort of conclusion in this song. So it ended up being a very fitting closer for the album.
TVS: It was a fragile and forgotten demo that ironically became the biggest sounding song on the album. I’d even gone so far as to delete it – Carol Anne still had the mp3. There’s so much going on in there between reverb/tape feedback, wine glasses, piano, baritone guitar, spanish guitar, autoharp. It was recorded in the last session and we were both pretty wrecked by the time we finished tracking it. It really marked a progression from the first song we recorded.
What were the albums and music you listened to while recording the album? Were there any particular albums or musicians that influenced the making of the album?
CAMG: I was listening to a lot of M. Ward – there’s a romantic old-time feel that resonates through his music. It has a beautiful warm analogue sound with a lot of layers; twangy acoustics and slide guitar, textured vocals and harmonies.
I’m really drawn to music that references the past but still seems to hang somewhere out of time. Richard Hawley is the perfect example of timeless. I listened a lot to True Loves Gutter in particular, it’s heart wrenching. And of course Gillian Welch & David Rawlings are always a big influence.
TVS: I absorb things really slowly and can’t manage to take in a lot at once. Richard Hawley’s “True Loves Gutter” was a real slow burner. I got stuck in Limerck Junction on the way to a wedding and listened to it on repeat there for hours. The sense of space and how instrumentation is used is just perfection. Also, Damien Jurado and Richard Swift’s collaboration “Other Peoples Songs” was something I returned to a lot. During the later sessions and mixing I got hooked on William Tyler’s “Impossible Truth” album.
“Old Hearts Reborn” is available now on Out On A Limb Records.