MUSIC

Hayden: An elusive Toronto musician drops back into sight

The Globe and Mail

Musician Hayden is photographed in Toronto Jan. 10, 2013. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Guitarist and gun nut Ted Nugent was buried in effigy on Twitter last week, under a heap of mocking eulogies tagged #RIPTedNugent. Toronto singer-songwriter Hayden knows the feeling: He spent a year in and out of the grave on his Wikipedia page, under at least two different death dates.

“I read a post from a fan who stumbled upon it,” he says, “probably wondering if I still played music. I found it amusing when I went to Wikipedia and saw that I had been deceased for months, and no one had noticed.”

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His wiki death might have been an honest mistake: Jacksoul singer Haydain Neale really did die close to one of the dates mentioned. But Hayden is so often absent from the music scene that even his deep-dyed fans tend to wonder if he’s still around. When I first talked with him, in 2002, he had been absent for long enough that his friends, he said, were calling his forthcoming concerts “the Hayden Is Not Dead tour.”

The funny thing is that behind the veil of apparent waywardness lives a musician of unusually consistent habits. He makes music pretty much the same way he did before his homemade debut, Everything I Long For, was picked up in 1996 by David Geffen’s Outpost label and toasted in Spin and Rolling Stone magazine. Now, as then, Hayden prefers to work alone, at home, and gets fed up easily on the road. I’d say he’s in a dead heat with Calgary’s Chad VanGaalen for the title of Biggest Homebody in Canadian Music.

“It’s that kind of scenario: The dude playing everything himself and not letting anyone in,” he says, folding and refolding a paper napkin at a café near his West Toronto home. Touring is a chore that he skipped entirely for his last album, The Place Where We Lived (2009), and cuts short whenever he can. “I always go off the road at bad times for my career, but at good times for my creative sanity.”

Last fall, to celebrate his forthcoming album, Us Alone, he ended a four-year performance hiatus with a short European tour. The final show at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England was a blast, but the first gig – an opening set for a small crowd in Haarlem – was hell. “It was probably the worst show I’ve ever played,” he says, with the air of someone drily savouring a new career landmark.

Anyone who knows Hayden’s music shouldn’t be surprised that he’s ambivalent about public exposure. His grainy soft voice sounds as if he might be singing to himself, or to one other person he knows well. His songs are often set in motion by some personal event that becomes large and inclusive only on close inspection. Yet his compact narratives have real emotional depth, and deliver a punch that often surprises, for being offered so gently.

Sometimes he worries that the stuff he’s working on isn’t big enough, or slick enough, and then he asks for someone else’s help or advice. It always does help, but not in the way the helpers might expect.

“I’ve had whole records mixed by someone else, and then gone back and used my own mixes, and thrown lots of stuff out, and offended many people,” he says. But sometimes he needs that detour to confirm that what he had to begin with was more or less right.

His career has been big enough to yield a house in Toronto, with a fully equipped studio, and a winterized cottage near Collingwood, where he lived for a year and recorded most of In Field & Town (2008). He’s not much bothered by thoughts of the wider fame and fortune he might have had, if he had played closer to the rules and rhythms of the music business.

“Ninety per cent of the time, I’m very grateful and happy with the run I’ve had,” he says. “I must be successful, when my two favourite things are hanging with my family and playing music.”

Since The Place Where We Lived, Hayden and his wife have become the parents of a little girl. The experience crops up in understated ways on the new disc, though the story has a large twist that most new parents never experience.

“My daughter has a very rare chromosome deletion for which there is no official diagnosis and very little research,” he says. “My life has become much harder and more complicated, but also much more fulfilled in many ways.” More than that, he won’t say: “My experience is in my record, and that’s how I like to talk about it.”

Several other things have changed around him. He has formed a new trio, with Taylor Knox and Jay McCarrol, and has a new manager: Dara Kartz, who handles Slim Twig and the Rural Alberta Advantage. For the first time, Hayden’s music will be distributed by Arts & Crafts, while remaining nominally on his own Hardwood label. It’s a fresh start all round, though the core of what he does feels the same to him.

“Apart from it being harder to get focused time, I still get extreme pleasure from writing and recording, if not more than back in the day when I had tons of time,” he says. From his point of view, when things are going well, there’s hardly any such thing as a sad song, and no life more worthwhile than this one.

 

Hayden’s Us Alone comes out on Feb. 5.

His 15-show cross-Canada tour begins

at the Grad Club in Kingston on Feb. 6

and ends at Winnipeg’s West End Cultural Centre on March 30. Full details are at

wasteyourdaysaway.com.