Though still in his mid-20s, St. Paul singer-songwriter Jeff Hanson is a rock veteran, having fronted the indie-emo band M.I.J. starting at age 13. His solo career got a boost when the influential label Kill Rock Stars signed him based on an unsolicited demo tape; that sort of thing rarely happens, and it speaks to Hanson’s facility for pensive, folky, Elliott Smith-inspired songwriting. The most immediately apparent weapon in Hanson’s musical armory is his impossibly high-pitched, angelic voice, but it’s not all he’s got going for him: He played most of the instruments (with the exception of piano and strings) on his second solo album, simply titled Jeff Hanson, which came out earlier this year. Hanson spoke with The A.V. Club about living the high life. (This interview first appeared in our Twin Cities print edition on June 30, 2005.)
The A.V. Club: You’ve been a solo act for a few years now. Do you prefer that to being in a full band?
Jeff Hanson: I do, I guess. I definitely enjoy it. I’m a solo artist in just about every aspect of the word—playing all the instruments and writing the songs. You have to have confidence in what you’re doing, [since you don’t] really have anyone else there. It forces you to make all the decisions and rely on yourself. Sometimes it would be nice to have other people to bounce ideas off of, but this was a conscious decision for me, and when I decided that I knew exactly what that would mean. But I enjoyed the time that I was in a band. It was a good way to grow up.
AVC: Do you get tired of the focus people have on your voice? It’s sort of the obvious hook for your music, but I can see how you might feel that it overshadows other aspects.
JH: You know, my singing voice has been the topic of probably every interview I’ve done, and it’s been in every review that I’ve seen. I don’t know if anyone has ever passed that over, and I think it’s great. A lot of people say, “Doesn’t it bother you if somebody mistakes you for a woman?” and I say absolutely not. But you always run into that, no matter what you’re doing. “Guy With Guitar: Here’s who we think he sounds like.” I’m so used to it, you know—that’s the way I’ve sung for a long time, so to hear people talking about it, and how much it’s brought up, I’m reminded that this doesn’t sound like what they’d expect to hear from a man. But there’s an unfortunate side to it, where you see how stuck in our gender roles we all are—because if I was a woman, there probably wouldn’t be the discussion. It would just be, “That woman has a pretty voice.” I want to completely strip my music of that kind of gender role, especially vocally. Just focus on what you’re hearing rather than who’s doing it. I don’t want to sound like somebody else, and if somebody says I sound more like a woman than a man, I’m just fine with that.
AVC: There are certainly male singers that have taken the same sort of approach in the past, like Art Garfunkel and Roy Orbison. There aren’t a lot of people who sing like you right now, though.
JH: To me, that’s absolutely the most important thing, because what I’m doing as a singer-songwriter… There are a lot of singer-songwriters out there. If I can have a different approach to something that’s been done a million times… If somebody says, “That’s not what I’m used to hearing,” I’ll take that every time, rather than “You sound just like Bob Dylan.”
AVC: When you’re writing songs, do you consciously think about singing them in the high register?
JH: If I did think about it, it wouldn’t work. It isn’t so much like writing for a high voice, it’s just writing for me, natural for what I do. I’m just going to write a Jeff Hanson song.
AVC: Are you a very autobiographical songwriter? How much do your songs come directly out of your personal experience?
JH: I think with this new record, the perspective was me, totally. I really can’t find any way around that. But at the same time I also don’t want to take the approach of making everything autobiographical; I think that leaving things kind of up to the listener—as clichéd as that sounds, I take that approach as well. I’m not really big into writing a song that just completely explains every idea. That takes away from allowing other people to listen to it and develop their own feelings. That’s important—that’s why I listen to music, and why I enjoy it.
AVC: Do you have a favorite song on the record?
JH: “Something About.” That one was pretty much exactly what I wanted to do. You know, I don’t hear any of the [fully arranged] songs until we start recording them. I don’t demo anything—all I have is a guitar in my apartment. So I go to the studio with a song, and I just have this idea in my head of what the drums are going to play, what the bass is playing. When you’re hearing it on the record, that’s really the first time I’ve heard it all together as well. I record all the instruments in different parts, so you do the drums first, and then the guitars, then the bass, then the vocals and strings. Everything is layered. So to actually get a real idea of the songs, they need to be completed. You just hope that it turns out like you had hoped it would.
AVC: And the fact that you play so many of the instruments probably quadruples the time you spend on any one song.
JH: Absolutely. I’m sure it’d be possible to bring in another drummer or a bass player, but I really enjoy playing all of the instruments. I know what I want the drums to do, and I figure if I can do that, I’ll do it. But you’re right, it absolutely quadruples the time and then, before you know it, you need to be either satisfied or unsatisfied with what you have—but you still have to move on. And I think that helps, knowing that I don’t really have the opportunity to go back and do something 20 times. When it all needs to be done today, that definitely pushes to create a vision. So it’s a matter of nailing it right away, and that aspect of it can be frightening, but at the same time, you also feel really good about it when it’s done—you feel like you’ve accomplished what you’ve wanted to accomplish, and obviously you feel like you’ve played such a big role in what you’ve created, so that when you put it out there, it’s a very personal thing, something that just came directly from me.