Sean Hayes believes in a raw approach to music—not just the sound, but the emotion, too
Sean Hayes takes a raw approach to recording his albums. As the San Francisco-based singer-songwriter tells it, he “throws four or five people in a room and stays out of the way.” He likens it to a documentary style of making records.
“A recording is just more a snapshot of what’s going on in my life rather than, ‘Oh my God, we have to make this sound like a million dollars,’’’ he says, explaining that he prefers authenticity over putting on airs. “Don’t dress the song up in a fancy suit if it can’t afford it.”
This no-frills approach to music-making runs through Hayes’ work, from his lyrics and albums to his live performances, where he strives to be as real as possible.
His experience with high-school theater in his native North Carolina introduced him to the art of being on stage and taught him the difference between playing the part of a musician, and simply being a musician. Good actors, he learned, rise above the temptation to stereotype, digging deeper into themselves to find their character. But novice actors tend to lean on cliches. Hayes sees this play out in music as well, with people “kind of playing at being a folk singer, or playing at being a genre.”
“It smells bad,” he says. “They’re not being not true. They’re pretending to be hip-hop or they’re smiling a lot and being folky, but it doesn’t smell right.”
Hayes’ striving for authenticity in his own music has made him an artist who is hard to pin down to one style. He started out playing traditional American and Irish music, and his sound is definitely rooted in those styles, but at any moment Hayes might pull in elements of jazz, rock, electronic, or soul. His catalog ranges from acoustic folk tunes to beat-driven songs that toe the line of being pop to soulful ballads that spotlight Hayes’ emotional and stylistic range. He’s had famed House DJ Mark Farina remix his song “Dream Machine,” folk outfit the Be Good Tanyas cover his tune “A Thousand Tiny Pieces,” and his song “Fucked Me Right Up” picked up by the HBO comedy Bored to Death.
The connecting thread between all of Hayes’ songs is his straight-shooting songwriting style. He is honest and refreshingly open, singing about love, sex, emotions, and big-picture topics such as living a good life, and being open to different people and experiences.
“At its worst, it’s like somebody’s serving you a really horrible dinner with way too many genres,” he says with a laugh. “At its best, hopefully it all fits together.”
Hayes describes what he plays as folk music because when stripped down, it’s “a voice and a guitar and it can survive on a porch somewhere.”
“It’s not folk music like Mighty Wind or Bob Dylan,” he says, “it’s just that, at its root, it can be played by myself.” He adds that, by that same definition, hip-hop is folk music. “You sit on your porch and beatbox and rap. It’s very elemental and basic.”
From those essential elements, songs can grow into just about any style or sound. “It’s really about how you want to dress them up after that,” he says.
With seven solo albums to his name, Hayes is now working on his eighth, with plans to release it next spring. At the heart of the new collection of songs is a tune called “Magic Slim vs. Dynamite,” a retro groove about two men battling on the street for money, fame, and the affections of a woman. When asked about the overall feel of the new album, Hayes hints that it has a classic, sensual soul vibe (Hayes has drawn comparisons to soul great Bill Withers) but that—true to form—it extends into several other styles as well.
“It goes a little bit, at times, into this soul thing,” he says, “But it has more of a folk vibe … there are some moments when it gets a little dance-y.”
He eventually distills his description of the new songs to “R&B, bluesy, soul, folk jams.”
“We’ll see,” he says, “if it all sticks together as a whole.”
Sean Hayes will perform at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 10 at Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. $24/adv, $27/door. 603-2294.
HAYES DAY Sean Hayes plays Don Quixote’s on Saturday, Oct. 10.