Fifteen years into a career and Will Hoge continues to do what he does best on his tenth album, Small Town Dreams, which will be released on April 7th. A songwriter with the ability to write genuine story songs that while personal, are also accessible to the every man (or woman), Will graciously took the time to talk about the album, the desire to write really great songs and adjusting one's dreams.
So ten albums in, what, if anything, did you do differently for this album than the previous ones?
I haven’t worked with a producer for the last four records, so for this record in particular it was interesting to be able to share that responsibility, give up that responsibility really, to Marshall [Altman]. That freed me up to concentrate on just being an artist which ultimately made the album more complete.
He definitely retained the Will Hoge sound on the record, but what specifically did he bring to the record to make it stand out?
Well thanks for saying that because one big thing for me was that I still wanted to make a Will Hoge record. I didn’t want to have a departure from who I am or what I’ve done or built a career on, so I’m glad that that rings true. A big part of what Marshall does is with production. I’m still a band guy. I like the band to be in the studio and have a particular sound where it sounds like a bunch of guys sitting in a room playing together. I know that sounds dated and old, but that’s important to me. That’s something that I do well myself as a producer, and I think Marshall did a good job of maintaining that. Also Marshall, he’s great at the after the fact stuff; he can go in, look at the big picture and inject little bits of things here and there like a guitar part or counter melody. He does things uniquely in that way and helped with the overall sound of record. He glued everything together in a way that I felt was pretty special.
Small Town Dreams definitely has a theme; did you go into the album with that in mind or did it happen more naturally?
It happened more naturally. As I write over the course of the year, songs tend to group themselves together. I put them in piles; some in this group, that group or a whole new group, and then what happens is eventually you get four or five that kind of stand out in a group, and then I focus on those as a record. I work around those writing other songs or putting other pieces together to feel natural with it. This is more organic than me sitting down and saying ‘hey I wanna write a record about what it feels like to grow up in a small town and what that feels like…. go.’
Was there one song that you wrote that started the whole process of the record?
One of first was “Better Than You,” and that really spurred the whole process along. We had written it and done a demo, which I really loved. We were leaving a festival, one of those big radio festivals in front of 6000-8000 people, which was pretty great, actually it was really great, and at the end of night my drummer [Brian Kilian] said that if we had a driving song, we could have really pushed it [the performance] over the top. I said, ‘well check this out,’ and I started playing the song, and he loved it and said ‘that’s what we need!’ It was then I thought maybe I am ready [to record a new record] and started focusing on some of the titles and songs, and next thing I know, here we are.
The songs, about love small towns and dreams, are unified, but they are also generally happy songs. For example, even if one's dreams have to be abandoned or altered for new ones, the experience is seen as a positive one. Is that a reflection of how you feel?
Yeah I think it is, and again, thanks for picking up on that. I don’t know if that was somewhat conscious, but I think that it’s true. When you are younger there’s a belief that things will work out the way you planned, and if they don’t it’s a failure and everything sucks. As I’ve gotten older and have a family, I realize things always happen the way they’re supposed to. It may not always be the way you want it to or think it should, but just because a dream didn’t work out the way you wanted, it doesn’t mean it didn’t work out the way it was supposed to. I think there’s some beauty in that if you can get enough distance to figure it out.
Have your dreams shifted over the years?
I think anybody that starts out in this business doesn’t think they’re just gonna be a working songwriter; you want to believe there’s going to be stadiums full of people that are going to sing your praises and you’re gonna live on a yacht in Caribbean or something like that. None of those things have happened for me yet, but, yeah, mine have changed. When I was younger, the dream was to be a “rock star,” but now the dream is to be able to do what I want to do for a living, for as long as I want and still be a great husband, father, son and citizen. I feel like there’s a real balance between those things at this point. That’s far more interesting and sounds more rock starish than running all over the globe and acting the fool. Let’s see how tomorrow works out though (laughing).
You wrote with a lot of different people on Small Town Dreams including Chris Stapleton on a song called “The Last Thing I Needed.”
Chris and I got sat at a table at the BMI awards two and a half years ago. We were both fans of one another, but had never met. We hit it off, as did our wives, and have since become good friends. It’s nice to have friends who are artists who also have rug rats that you can go over their house and make a mess and not worry about it, and they can come to yours and do the same (laughing). He’s also one of finest writers and singers in this town, and we get on real well together when we write. We come from very similar places artistically, not necessarily in the way we sound, but in our attitudes, which is my favorite thing about co-writing with him. We both want to try and write really great songs. There’s not a lot of fault other than that, so it opens a lot of doors creatively to inject what he does.
You co-wrote two songs with Adam Hood, “Postcards and Payphones,” which is on his latest record, and “Desperate Times” on Small Town Dreams. How did you decide who got which song for their album?
I don’t think it was totally decided who would get which song. I think that when he was making his record that song fit, and then that’s exactly what happened with me for this one, which is cool because both got a song out of the deal.
I love both of those songs and Adam did a great job with “Postcards and Payphones.” I’ve got a version I play that would fit a more acoustic record at some point down the line. Again, Adam is a guy who ultimately at the end of the day just wants to be great, and I love that mentality, especially with a co-writer. The minute he starts working on something, he’s not thinking well I don’t know if Luke Bryan would really sing this or not. A great song is the ultimate goal.
There is another song on the record, “All I Want Is Us Tonight,” which was co-written with Eric Paslay and Dylan Altman. That song in particular sonically seems a bit different for you. Do you think that’s true?
I think so; I wanted it to be. Over the last few records, I focused so much on writing, writing, writing, and obviously writing is the most important thing on the record, but I wanted there to be some moments that were really vocally oriented, which was one of the things that Marshall and I talked about when making the record. I wanted it to be this driving, eerie sounding thing, and I think the dumb comment I made was, 'I want this song to feel like Jeff Buckley made a redneck record,' which sounds really stupid, but it kind of makes sense for what we were talking about in the studio that day. I like the driving guitar and the solo Rob played, which is something I still love every time I hear it. I like the big soaring vocal, and the call and response is just a real cool part of it. The song is something I’m really proud of. It does push the envelope for what I’ve done in the past a little bit, but it’s something that ten records in, if I want there to be an eleventh, I have to do that.
The first leg of the Small Town Dreams Tour was just announced. You’re playing big cities, small cities and venues of varied sizes. Are you doing anything new or different for this tour?
We are going to a few new cities, but the first leg is sort of breaking in all of the new stuff. We’ll try a bunch of our new songs and see how things work. After seven years, I have a new bass player so that changes the band’s dynamic a little bit; we've had to learn to play together again which adds some excitement.
I always love playing, but it feels very new to me again, which fifteen years into this isn’t something that happens very often. I’m excited about the live show, getting out in front of people, playing a bunch of these new songs and bringing back some of the old songs in different ways.
Finally, if you had to describe the album in five words or less what would you tell someone?
Honest. [After a few seconds of silence] That’s less than five, how’s that? (laughing) We'll go with that.
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