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Will Hoge at Skully’s Music-Diner

Grant Walters Grant Walters Will Hoge at Skully’s Music-Diner
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Re-energizing his career with acclaimed album "Anchors", the Nashville-based singer-songwriter will be on stage at Skully's Music-Diner tonight with guests Augustana and Dan Layus

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The making of Will Hoge’s latest album, Anchors, was an exercise in partially deconstructing a career that had given him almost two decades of progressive success. Before inking a songwriting deal with BMG Nashville and taking his talents to Music Row in 2012 to write for other artists, he and his band had released seven albums and toured steadily for years. Hoge’s songs landed in the hands of rising artists like Lady Antebellum and the Eli Young Band, the latter of which earned him Country Music Award, Academy of Country Music, and Grammy nominations as composer of the number one single “Even If It Breaks Your Heart.”

But at his commercial halcyon, Hoge grew weary of writing in a proverbial vacuum for nearly everyone in Nashville but himself.

“You’re writing for failure, really and truly,” Hoge explains during a phone conversation from his tour van en route to Nashville from Seattle. “At least if I’m writing for my own records, the goal is always that you’re trying write a great song and trying to convey an emotion. What I started to realize was that you’re not conveying anything that’s really heartfelt or that means a lot to you, you’re just trying to make something that’s palatable to the most people, which, again, isn’t right or wrong, but it’s pretty unsatisfying. And then if Blake Shelton doesn’t record your song, it’s a failure.

So the whole thing is you’re just…it was almost just a comedy of errors in that you’d wake up every day and you’d go in and slam your head against the wall over something that 99 percent of the time was just going to fail. It was incredibly inspiring and liberating to get back away from that again. And even the songs that I had that were successful in that realm weren’t written in that way, they were always written from something in my records, you know, that someone had heard, liked, and wanted to record.”

In 2015, Hoge left BMG and retired his regular touring band. He’d spend the next year or so writing and performing solo acoustic shows across the US, hoping to reset his perspective and re-think his approach to making music. It was perhaps a risky move, but rediscovering himself as his greatest artistic product was a worthwhile gamble.

“You know, I was most encouraged that it wasn’t really difficult to get back to. Once the course was set, it was kind of like riding a bike. I think what I realized more that I was really trying to force a square peg into a round hole doing it the other way. For three years, going in and trying to write songs because your focus…it’s not really a complaint about that world, it’s just you’re writing for a very different reason.

It was a three-year lesson on why I should’ve done it the way I wanted to do it in the first place (laughs).

Anchors has been proclaimed widely as Hoge’s strongest effort to date – and rightfully so. Song for song, the record is a lovingly conceived reflection of those intersections where happiness and heartbreak often intersect. From the beautifully reflective “Cold Night In Santa Fe,” to the wistfulness of “17,” to the unpretentious romance of “Baby’s Eyes,” Hoge’s voice weaves stories with richness and conviction. Not that he needs the star power to hold up him up, but Sheryl Crow’s assist on “Little Bit Of Rust” is a worthy partnership.

His stop in Columbus tonight at Skully’s Music-Diner is the last of a string of US dates he’ll play before heading across the Atlantic again in 2018.

I really love the character work in the songs on Anchors. How do you create and develop their point-of-view as you write their stories?

“I tend to write from a first-person perspective the majority of the time. It’s just easier for me to get involved, even as a listener. I think those are the songs I tend to gravitate toward. The character stuff is important, and I think as you get older as a writer and you’ve written enough songs…obviously there’s still a lot of yourself in there most of the time in little pieces. And then the great thing about life is that it’s full of characters every day, if you’re paying attention.

One of my favorite things — again, as I bitch about how I didn’t enjoy the songwriting thing — there were things that I…I got to write with Don Schlitz a bunch of times, who is one of my favorite writers ever and just one of my favorite people. And he said, one of the very first times that we were together, ‘There’s a story every day if you’re paying attention. Everything you do is a story or a song. Every person you encounter, there’s a story to be told there if you just pay enough attention.’ And that stuck with me a lot and was inspiring. And I think that’s where a lot of this comes from.”

Through all of your success, and also the challenges you’ve experienced throughout your career, what’s something in your day-to-day that has remained constant regardless of context?

“What hasn’t changed is that there’s still a moment on stage every night…when it’s done really well and you have one of those nights when the band’s in the right spot, the venue’s right, the crowd’s right. There could be more than a moment. There can be hours of time of these sort of transcendent moments. Even in shitty gigs where that’s where you’re going for, still. That’s never changed. When that moment hits and it still feels as fresh and new and inspiring as it did the very first time when you played in a band. That’s never gone away, and I hope it never does. That would be really sad.

I mean, there are other things that 20 years into doing this and for whatever success I’ve had…I’m still in the back seat of a 20-passenger van on the way home from Seattle. That part hasn’t changed (laughs). And that’s not a complaint. This is the game. If you want to play it, you have to take the whole ride.

And I guess that in and of itself is something I never really expected. To have really the level of success I’ve had…if you’d told me 20 years ago ‘Sign up for this, right here,’ I would’ve cut off an arm to sign as fast as I could, you know, to have a house and be able to support a family and have kids and play with great musicians and see the world. You get caught up in the rigamarole a little bit, but if you can Google Earth it back enough and get some perspective, it’s pretty bad ass. I feel really lucky.”

I almost hesitate to ask this because I know I’m boxing in the genre a bit unfairly, but there seems to be a resurgence in broad critical and pubic respect of country music as an art form these past couple of years, at least in the form of roots and Americana. When I was growing up, country was legitimized because it had crossed over so much into pop and rock, but now there’s this new appreciation for more traditional iterations of country. As someone so ingrained in the industry, does that surprise you or seem correct from your perspective?

“You know, that’s sort of a two-edged question because there’s what you get into from a national perspective of ‘What is country music?’ and ‘This isn’t country music, anymore!’ As a Nashvillian, born and raised there, that’s a conversation that, when I hear people going back and forth about it, I laugh because it’s literally a conversation that happens every 12 years. It happened in the 50s, and once Chet Atkins started putting strings on records, it was ‘Well, this isn’t country anymore!’ And now, it’s classic country. And then it went through the urban cowboy thing, and that was terrible. But then that led to the late 80s resurgence with Dwight Yoakam and Clint Black where you go back to sort of ‘traditional’ country. It’s a total cyclical thing within the four blocks of Music Row in Nashville. So that’s nothing new.

As far as country goes outside of that, it’s such a great American creation, and you see it so much almost more so outside of country music. The Rolling Stones went through a huge period where they were influenced by country music. Neil Young made a lot of records that are incredibly country. Ray Charles also has made country records. Chris Shifflet [lead guitarist] from the Foo Fighters is a huge country fan and has a whole side project and a podcast about it. So I think that’s always been there, too, and I think at the end of the day if you can get outside of Nashville, everybody’s…it’s greatness we’re all trying to achieve. Most musicians really love and respect different types of music.

The country thing outside of Nashville, like you were saying with roots and Americana, there is a resurgence in that just because I think pop music is so electronically driven at this point. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s just…you don’t put on an EDM record to think about the subject matter. I mean, it’s great. You can dance to it, and there’s talent involved. I’m not knocking it. But at the end of the day, as much as you might love that, there are people who still want to hear somebody tell a story that makes you hurt or makes you laugh or makes you cry, or both.

And that’s what country music was built on: great storytelling and imagery. That making a resurgence at any point is always a good thing.”

You mentioned in an interview recently that you’ve become a more concise songwriter coming out of this career transition you’ve made. That’s really interesting to me because I’m trying to imagine how you edit yourself and pare down something that’s such an emotional and personal process. How do you achieve conciseness as you sort of pour yourself into a song?

“There’s all sorts of emotional growth that has to come with that when you start being able to fire your bad ideas. That’s something you just have to continue to get better at. Some of it is a physical limitation for me. I try really hard to make sure, and it may sound stupid, that it works on the page physically. Editing out what you don’t want. There are some songs that are rambling stories that may take two or three pages of notebook paper, you know, but if you can’t make the words all fit on a piece of paper in so many words (laughs), I mean, that’s as good a limitation to put myself under as anything.”

In the bio your publicist sent over, there was a quote: ‘Am I as far as I want to go? No. Am I further than I ever imagined being at seventeen? Fuck yeah.’ Thinking about the former, what are some of those things you still want to accomplish?

“Speaking artistically, there are a lot of things. I mean, outside of that there are things, too, but from an artistic perspective, I can always write better songs. That’s something that never gets old. You can always try and find a way to write a chorus that sticks with somebody longer or develop a character that is timeless, or makes people feel like that’s them you’re talking about. That doesn’t change, I don’t think. And continuing to grow a touring base, you know, we’re making a lot of headway overseas and seeing us grow on a global level is really cool. I got to take my kids and my wife to Italy and Spain and the UK last year through the summer.

Really, there’s nothing that’s not a continuation of what’s already sort of rooted, which is a nice place to be. I don’t have to win the lottery to get these things to happen, it’s just continued hard work. Those are really the big goals at this point — just getting to continue to do this for another 20 years.”

Will Hoge will took the stage at Skully’s Music-Diner in the Short North, 1151 North High Street. Will’s latest album, Anchors, is available via his official website.

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