Michael Hedges Interview 10/10/95
1995 Naked Eye Press

Michael’s fall ’95 tour was his first in 18 months without accompaniment by Michael Manring. While on the one hand the Manthing was missed, on the other, MH really stretched out in a way he hadn’t in awhile. The tour featured: an extremely slick black acoustic harp-guitar; his first vocal tune with harp-guitar (“Torched”); two new cover tunes for harp-guitar (The Stones’ “No Expectations” and David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair”); a new grooving acoustic solo piece (“Elements”, which later became “Oracle”); the resurrection of his rib-rattling cover of Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance”; mega-energized performances of fingerstyle pieces including “Ragamuffin”, “Rickover’s Dream”, “Eleven Small Roaches”, “Aerial Boundaries”, and “The Rootwitch”; and a conspicuous lack of any keyboards. All in all, a typical Hedges tour, i.e., not what anyone expected. We spoke backstage at the Odeon while devouring several bowls of noodles and veggies with copious amounts of hot sauce.


Tell me about the new harp-guitar you’re using this tour.

It’s another Dyer. It’s just one that has a different sound. I wrote “Torched” on it. It’s amplified with a FRAP [Flat Response Audio Pickup] and a magnetic auto-harp pickup. Plus it looks cool [laughs].

Have you ever written anything for your Klein harp-guitar using both the TransTrem bridge and harp strings?

No, but I do intend to write something for the Klein harp-guitar. I just haven’t done it yet. It’s home resting…and mutating [grins].

Is your new tune “Elements” based on the five Chi Kung elements you told me about?

Yeah. I got the idea for it this summer when I was at a Taoist yoga lesson. My teacher had us walking around in a circle trying to emulate the different energetic elements. I thought it would be nice to remember this by writing music that would do the same thing. It starts out with water which transforms into wood, wood goes to fire, fire goes to earth, earth to metal, and then back to water. I play it with a pick on acoustic guitar, not the harp-guitar.

Could you give me an example of a piece where you had something fairly specific in mind that you wanted to express in advance of composition as opposed to one where you were just drawn to make the music and figured out what it was about as you went along.

“Torched” is the first time I came up with a title before writing any music. Never before have I done that. Actually, my two recent ones, “Torched” and “Elements”, both had prior intent. Sometimes pieces transform. An example would be when I wanted to do that cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and it turned into “Nomad Land”…or maybe it was the other way around. That’s what happened with the harp-guitar. I wanted to write something of my own and all of a sudden I got “No Expectations” by the Stones [laughs].

Do you feel you now have as much of a voice on flute or keyboards as you do on guitar?

No. I had to kind of pull them back in. I was working on that for awhile and then I stopped. I started working on the harp-guitar and now I’ve got three harp-guitar tunes—“Torched”, “No Expectations”, and “Almost Cut My Hair” [by David Crosby]. David’s in Bali right now. By the way, I think you’re right.

You may be the only one. What about?

What you said in Hot Type about my keyboard sound. I wasn’t quite happy with it either. I haven’t found my keyboard sound yet.

Ahhh. I was hoping you wouldn’t be pissed at that comment.

Nah! My keyboard voice isn’t there yet.

Have you been letting new compositions gestate longer before recording these days or is that just because of the logistics of Road to Return?

I always try to perform something as soon as I can. As soon as it’s done, I want to take it out on the road. I had a backlog because The Road to Return was like…well…reflection.

I guess I’m thinking specifically of “Jitterboogie”. When you first started playing that in early ’92 it was a different arrangement in a different key and played on the low-strung Lowden. It’s so different now.

Yeah. It didn’t work tuned low. Dunno why. I tried to play it and it just didn’t work out right so I tuned it back up and did it on Barbara [his Martin D-28, so named for spending so much time in bars].

All things being equal, your new tunes like “Ignition” and “Dirge” seem much simpler than something like “Aerial Boundaries”, but I think convey even more emotion. Do you think you’re saying more with less on guitar lately?

Hmmm. I dunno if I’m saying any more, but I’m doing less. Well, those tunes aren’t finger-picked. I haven’t written anything finger-picked in a long time. That’s why they seem simpler. They’re not really. They look simpler. I’ll probably go back to fingerpicking soon. I just started playing “Ragamuffin” again.

I read this quote about composition by Brain Eno in the same issue of Musician that you were interviewed in [November ’95] and I was wondering if you relate to it:

“Even though I’m probably quite an intellectual person in the way I think about things, my decisions are nearly always guided by my sensual responses. I have to be seduced by them in some way. No matter how intellectually defensible they are, if they don’t work on that level, then I think something’s not right about them. A friend of mine used to say, ‘The body is the large brain.’ I really believe that. I want to think with the whole organism, not just with the bit that knows that it’s thinking.”

That’s true. That’s definitely true. Yeah, I try not to think so much. Or I just don’t…I don’t think that much because I trust my intuition. I know that I’m capable of thinking about the music, but I’d rather not be aware of my thinking as “thinking”. I’d rather just use my mind to do what it does best and not try to compartmentalize too much.

That being the case, do you think you would, or could, write something like “Aerial Boundaries” today? I mean, that took you a month just to arrange for guitar. Would you have the patience for that today or would it be too much thinking and not enough grooving?

Oh yeah. I’ll definitely write something else like “Aerial Boundaries” again. I just gotta get through something first. I’m not sure what it is. Maybe it’s patience [gives inquisitive look]. I want to write a longer piece that’s more organized, maybe even for orchestra, but I don’t think it’s gonna come until I do something else first.

But you don’t know what?

Nope. I just gotta keep movin’. I do see it in the future. I just don’t have any plan for it.

In general, how far ahead do you plan? Or do you even try to plan?

I want to do everything that seems attractive to me. There are lots of things. But I’d rather not organize because the minute I do, something’s gonna change it anyway.

I was re-reading a lot of older interviews and noticed you constantly mentioned that you wanted to groove more…

That’s my joy, man—to be able to come out and groove all night. But I’m kinda lookin’ for somethin’ else now too.

So you feel like you’ve reached that goal?

Yeah. I’m groovin’.

What else do you think you’re looking for?

Well, as I say, if I spent too much time thinking about what I’m looking for then that thinking would probably cloud the vision that would see it. I’m trying to cultivate my vision so that when “it” presents itself I can see it. It involves a certain amount of trust—trust that things will flow the way they need to. I’m presenting myself to fate’s and nature’s evolutionary process. To me, the best thing I can do to enable my own evolution is to remain open and to see things as they come. If I plan things they’ll never come the way I plan them. And then if I work so hard to make my plan work I’ll realize that there’s a bigger plan at work. So it’s a trust. It’s trusting in something that’s higher.

With that approach, do you ever hit what you feel are dry spells?

Not really. I don’t think that just because I may not be writing that it means I’m dry. If I was writing all the time I wouldn’t have any time to live or to observe. I wouldn’t have anything to write about.

Kind of like your guitar playing. Like you say, if you hadn’t gotten away from it and worked more with other instruments these great new guitar solos wouldn’t have happened.

Definitely. Well, even songs like “Phoenix Fire” or “Sapphire”—you can hardly hear the keyboard in ’em on the demos. But I had to write them on the keyboard and then I had to perform them on the keyboard to let them grow.

That reminds me, what happened to that keyboard song “Rhythm of Fiction”?

It almost made it onto Road to Return, but I had enough slow ballads. [Blows nose, wipes eyes.]

Sure you got enough hot sauce there?

Mmmm. It’s…whew…very good.

Speaking of Road to Return, I was listening to NPR on the way here and they played some of it as a segue on All Things Considered.

Cool. What section?

The opening before the vocals.

That’s nice. I never intended that flute part to be on the record, but it just sounded good after awhile.

How come you’ve dropped your regular flute in favor of an alto?

I played regular flute for a long time then finally I got enough courage to play the alto. It demands a little bit more air and focus. Then I just made the jump and took it out by itself.

Ever try bass flute?

Nah. Bass flute’s pretty limited.

And expensive. Ian’s playing one on his solo tour.

Yeah, it’s nice to hear him playing new flutes these days. When I record, I sometimes put a harmonizer an octave below the alto flute so it goes even lower than a bass flute would. On several of my demos I have octave alto flute.

Isn’t the tracking difficult for the harmonizer?

It can be, but on the lower register of alto flute it works great.

I hear you’ve contributed a song to a Frank Zappa tribute album that Dweezil is putting together.

“Sofa #1” is on that. I don’t know how much of it he’s gonna use. It’s a big editing project. He’s been working on it a long time.

I heard about it from Bill White Acre. Have you heard his music?

Yeah. I thought he was really good. He slaps a lot right?

Well, only occassionally. You’re probably thinking of “Snap Dragon” or “Artichoke Banister”.

Right. I heard those. He’s really great.

Are you still planning a live album?

We just record live stuff, ya know, and whenever I get enough that’s decent we’ll do it. The reason why it’s probably gonna be live is because there are some tunes I just don’t think I could do in the studio. Some record sometime in the future will either be live or cover tunes. There’s a lot of cover tunes I haven’t released.

I was just gonna ask you about that. During the sound check I came up with this list of over thirty unreleased covers you’ve done.

There’s a lot of ’em. There are a lot of tunes I could release, but it’s also nice to have some unreleased material too—to only do certain stuff live. Some of my covers I think I could arrange, but most are probably best as solo pieces.

How did “Good Times, Bad Times” work out?

I did a demo if it, but I just decided to leave it alone. It might surface sometime. Depends, you know, if I get hot for it or not.

Speaking of hot, tell me about “Torched”.

“Torched” is of volcanic inspiration. It’s “up from the Earth”. It uses volcanic metaphors. I was trying to figure out how metal energy transformed into water energy—into flowing, fluid energy. From the way it was explained to me I just thought, “Well, when metal gets hot enough it becomes fluid.” So a volcano is the Earth’s natural answer to that.

Given the topics of recent tunes like “Dirge”, “Phoenix Fire” and “Torched” is it safe to say you feel reborn?

Well, I think that’s a process that happens to you probably every day.

But I mean in a broader sense.

No. Well…I guess I don’t feel like it’s happened all at once. I feel like it’s been happening. And then you realize that it’s happening. Realizations happen, but in a bigger sense I think it just keeps going.

I don’t think I’m phrasing the question correctly. What I mean is that many people, including me, have commented that on this tour in particular you seem more energized, focused, healthier, and happier. Like maybe Taproot was a catharsis and The Road to Return was metamorphosis and that you’re now reinvented, rediscovered, re-energized, or whatever you want to call it. I mean, you’re definitely in the zone these days. Am I misinterpreting this? I don’t think I am.

Not really, no. But for me, I always feel like I’m metamorphosing or evolving—like I’m always arriving. If you want to look at my product, for example, look at Aerial Boundaries. I feel like I arrived somewhere with that too. I felt like I arrived somewhere when I did my first vocal album. Same with the live album. I just always feel like I’m arriving somewhere new. Maybe you’re just sensing that I’m getting more of a spiritual path. Not that I never had a spiritual path, but I wasn’t as focused on it. That’s becoming more and more important to me.

So what are your plans for the next release? I hear you’ve dropped the title Phoenix Fire.

Yeah, it’s called Torched. It’s simpler and less metaphorical or mythological. “Phoenix Fire” is still gonna be a tune on it, but that’s just one way that you can become torched, I think.

Is there a general sound you’re shooting for?

Not yet. I don’t think I’ll really find that until I continue recording after this tour.

What do feel you’ve learned from doing Road to Return all alone?

I learned a whole lot about production. That’s what that album was about. It was me learning how to do it. I was an infant in the studio and now I’m a…[smiles]…an adolescent.

What tunes will be on Torched?

“Torched”, “Phoenix Fire”, “Sapphire”, “Dirge”, “Jitterboogie”, “Rough Wind in Oklahoma”, “Death to Distraction”, “Promised Land”, “Ignition”, another instrumental called “When I Was Four”, and “Free Swingin’ Soul”.

[At the time, Michael was working on a sort of combination of what became Oracle and is becoming Torched. So obviously, some of these won’t be on both.]

Have you ever approached Joni Mitchell about playing together?

At this point, I would rather talk to someone like…hmmm…well…I dunno. It would be fun to work with her after being her fan for so long, but when I think of having other people on my record I just keep thinking, “Well, wait a minute. Ya know, I’ve got a lot to say myself. I think I’m gonna concentrate on what I have to say before bringing other people in.”

Do you think that’s because your music is perhaps more personal than most folk’s? Less commentary and more “expression of witness”.

Hmmm. In a way. A lot of my music is a reaction to growing pains, but not necessarily always about something specific. It’s more of just freedom. Just finding freedom.

What’s on your mind for writing these days?

I probably won’t write any more until this record’s done. If I write any more I’ll have to choose what to leave out and I don’t want to do that.

OK. Thanks for dinner and for being interrogated.

You bet. I still have just enough time to do my yoga before the show.


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