Matt Hillyer‘s If These Old Bones Could Talk delivers seasoned storytelling (the title track) and buoyant melodies (“A Little Less Whiskey”). The Eleven Hundred Springs lead singer spoke with CMT Edge about songwriting, influences in the Texas music scene and his new solo album.
“This isn’t completely off the beaten path from Eleven Hundred Springs but it felt independent from the group,” the North Texas resident says. “I started off in 2012 and by 2013 was pretty well into recording. I did it with [producer] Lloyd Maines and had a blast. He’s a real joy to be around.”
Fans, note: The Eleven Hundred Springs website says the band will be playing “limited events and club dates in 2015.” Meanwhile, Hillyer launches the year’s solo tour at the vibrant Texas music festival the MusicFest in Steamboat, Colorado (Jan. 5-10; themusicfest.com).
“I’ve never done Steamboat before, but it always looks like a good time,” Hillyer says. “Year after year, it’ll pop up on people’s news feeds and I’ll kick myself thinking, ‘Why am I not there?’ So many friends will be there making music and I love that. I’m excited.”
CMT Edge: Did you write all these songs specifically for a solo album?
Hillyer: One of the songs is an older, older cut that we did for Eleven Hundred Springs at one time, but we rerecorded it. I just had written a new batch of tunes and when I was in the process, it felt like some of the subject matter seemed like something I was trying to say myself.
Tell the story behind writing the title track.
“If These Old Bones Could Talk” is loosely based on my grandfather, who died when my mom was a kid, so I never met him. The only thing of his that I had was his dominoes. My grandmother realized in my 20s that I liked playing dominoes and said, “Well, you can have these.”
I always wondered what kind of conversations went on around the tables, what situations they’d seen. I was really pleased with the way it came out, especially dealing with four different songwriters — Mark David Manders, Dave Perez, Steven Berg and me — involved.
Do you prefer co-writing to writing solo?
I’ve always had an easier time writing by myself, but I’ve been having fun trying to do more co-writing. I am dipping my toes into that water a whole lot more. I think it can be a really rewarding, fun experience if you trust the person you’re working with to be honest whether it’s good enough or not and trust them to spend a little extra time to make sure you’re getting the right stuff.
What songwriters are you drawing from?
I’m blown away by the talent pool in Texas in general. Jason Eady‘s really ringing my bell these days. I dig where he’s coming from. He’s not writing songs in a chart. Max Stalling‘s always gonna be one of my favorites. He uses words in a way that nobody but Max Stalling’s gonna do. Hayes Carll‘s someone I’ve always dug a bunch. I also really dig Drew Kennedy and Owen Temple and Adam Carroll.
Describe Owen’s greatest strength as a songwriter.
You know, when a lot of people in this scene were picking up steam and growing into a whole rock show, Owen was focused on writing tunes and still is. I love that he says things in his own particular voice.
I also love that he’s good enough of a songwriter to create this whole character of Gary Floater. The gag is that the songs are supposed to be bad, but they can’t be all that bad if they’re constructed so well. Owen and Adam are doing it as a goof, but that speaks volumes about the caliber of their writing. I know artists in the scene who would be lucky to have some of the songs that Gary “wrote.”
Tell the story behind writing “A Little Less Whiskey.”
When we started playing music, people had actual cameras to take pictures and they would bring prints to shows for you to have. Sometimes you find some really good pictures in there. Over time, you accumulate a lot of photos and they all look the same with you posing or drinking beer or making a toast.
If you looked at enough of them, you’d think, “That’s my life. I’m just constantly partying.” You end up with more pictures of that than your actual life, and the song’s a reflection on that. It’s going, “Golly. Do I have a drinking problem?” (laughs) “Do I actually live a real life?”
Explain how these songs represent your evolution as a songwriter.
When you’re writing for an outfit like Eleven Hundred Springs, whether you’re aware of it or not, you start writing for the sound of the band. I think that’s natural. I don’t have any grandiose notion that these songs are a huge departure, but I’m really proud of these songs.