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Jeff Hanson on misconceptions and Madam Owl

Illustration for article titled Jeff Hanson on misconceptions and Madam Owl

Over his lengthy career, St. Paul singer-songwriter Jeff Hanson has had two misconceptions dogging him: Many wrongly assume he's one of the Hanson brothers based on his name, while others wrongly assume he's a woman based on his delicate falsetto. Still, none of that's stopped Hanson from crafting aching, elegant folk songs in the singer-songwriter vein as a solo musician over three albums since 2000. His third release, 2008's Madam Owl, doesn't differ much sonically from its predecessors, but adds flourishes from a variety of new instruments. While on tour for Madam Owl, Hanson spoke to Decider about his new album, putting out a hypothetical metal record, and which misconception he wishes people would subscribe to. Hanson and his band will play a show Wednesday at The Frequency.


Decider: The press release for Madam Owl quotes you as saying, "I want this to be a Jeff Hanson record." What does that entail?

Jeff Hanson: [Laughs.] I just feel that in this line of work you get put in with a lot of other people and a lot of other names are mentioned when people listen to your music. Whether it's my voice or it's my songs, I really feel like it's my own record, and I feel that, to me, it's just a complete Jeff Hanson record. I feel like that if you listen to it—not that I don't have my own influences or anything—but I really feel like as far as developing my own style, it's a pretty personal record for me, whether it seems like it or not. It definitely feels more personal than the previous two, that's for sure.
One thing people haven’t picked up on is I have a song called “Your Only Son,” which I wrote in response to the war. I haven’t heard one mention of that. It was actually a response to the story of the architects of this disaster in Iraq, who were setting this all up, and we know why they’re doing it, the profits they’re getting. We’re sending all of our family out to die. You take somebody like the Cindy [Sheehan], or some mother who steps out and says “I can’t believe I lost my son for this,” And the media demonizes this person, saying, “What a horrible human being you are. It’s downright un-American.” That was definitely the approach with that song, and I was surprised I didn’t see anything written about that.
It wasn’t even about the invasion itself. It was simply the absolute, horrifying experience of looking at a nation being thrown into this, and actually having the people who put this whole thing together tell us we’re not allowed to say anything bad about it. You may have lost a kid in this thing, but you’re not allowed to stand up and say you’re not happy with it. That’s completely unacceptable. That struck a chord in me for sure.

D: In other interviews you've mentioned not going to shows. Is that a badge of honor for you, or more a reaction to how clique-ish music can be?

JH: It's just because I'm a big nerd. I sit at home with my wife and our favorite thing to do is take the dogs for a walk, go out to dinner, and rent a movie. I can write a song, but I don't know how to talk to someone about it and make it out to be super-cool to someone else. I put my music out there because it's important to me and it's what I do, but I don't expect anything. I don't feel like anything is owed to me. Wherever it goes from here, we'll see.

D: Everything on Madam Owl is acoustic except for the electric bass on "The Hills." Why was that the exception?

JH: I just think that it was more [of a] driving song. That song seems a little more intense to me.

D: Did you want everything to be as acoustic as possible?

JH: I did. When I went into writing this record I was thinking it was going to be acoustic. That's how it started. So these songs were written so bare and stark, but once I went into the studio it just started heading in that direction. A lot of things are just spur of the moment. Like on the first song, "Night," we really were just going to have a standard drumbeat for that. Then out of nowhere, [producer] Rob [Bartleson] mentioned maybe we do just two floor toms instead of a normal drum sound.

D: It sort of sounds like metal drums almost.

JH: Yeah, yeah. We were like, "Let's almost make it like double-bass sound-y." Stuff like that made this record really interesting for me to make, too. On the previous records we just didn't have time to do that kind of stuff. So I think with this record we took our time and thought our way through each song a little bit more. I think that's the way it's supposed to be. I guess I could have come out with a record just totally out of left field.

D: What would that be?

JH: I have a real strong sense of melody in my songwriting, and that always seems to come out. I don't know how that translates into death metal. You know how great that would be, though? If my next record was just straight-up fucking hard-ass rock? [Laughs.]


D: What would you call it?

JH: What Happens In Mom's Basement Stays In Mom's Basement. I'd probably be on the cover on the hood of a Camaro. I'd have a mustache. All my tours would be sponsored by some energy drink.

D: Which do you prefer: For people to assume you're a woman or to assume you're one of the Hanson brothers?

JH: Now, which Hanson brother? You don't want to be that older brother that was like 29 when his brothers were 14. You don't want to be standing there in that situation. I would definitely say a woman. 
The one thing I disagree with the most is saying my singing voice is an acquired taste. Nothing anyone would say about my singing voice will bother me, good or bad. I’m totally comfortable with it. It is me, so what am I going to do about it? It does kind of bother me if someone mentions that it is an acquired taste because if my name was Jessica Hanson, it wouldn’t be considered an acquired taste.


D: You've credited your singing style to singing in an elemtentary-school play.
JH: That was the first instance that I realized I had a different singing style. The female lead couldn’t sing very many of her parts because they were too high, so I stepped in and did them for her.

D: What play was it?
JH: I should remember. It’s a horrible story when I can’t remember the name of the play. It dealt with Little Red Riding Hood and a mix of all those characters and the Woodsman and I was the Boy Who Cried Wolf. That was interesting as a ten-year-old. I had to wear these knickers with the high socks, and I’m singing the female lead in fifth grade, so anything anyone wants to throw at me now, I’ve heard it all.