Ali McGhee is a journalist, creative writer, and academic. Her work has appeared in The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Romantic Circles, Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary...
Images from Sarah Hooker Photography
Asheville-based Tin Foil Hat (Jared Hooker), is so musically talented that it's a wonder he isn't already over the airwaves. The producer, musician, and singer released his new EP, Dance w/ You, earlier this year, and he's also been working steadily on collaborations with artists including Marley Carroll and Xero God, who are about to drop their second full-length album, Bandidos (Hooker plays on every song).
Dance w/ You, with its subtly tounge-in-cheek title, brings Hooker's tremulous vocals and guitar together over his own original beats. The result is an incredibly strong release that moves through tough subjects, including dealing with depression, while remaining energetic and grounded. Above it all, Hooker's remarkable voice rises and falls, shaping the contours of the sound into a glittering brightness.
Hooker plans to release a video for each song on the album. He and his wife, photographer Sarah Hooker created the first, for "Yoke," by examining the song's themes, of grasping for something higher but never quite reaching it, and using the metaphor of a ladder, placed in a sun-dappled Appalachian forest, to show the struggle the song portrays. The song contains references to the Garden of Eden, but it's less about religion and more about the idea of the Fall, that point where blissful happiness ends and self-isolation, along with the sometimes-unbearable freedom of choice, enters an individual's awareness.
"Yoke" is the second song on the EP, and it represents a mid-point in Dance w/ You's storyline, as a character, based on Hooker, moves from depression into hopefulness. Over the course of the EP's four songs, we travel through a near-suicidal despondency to the realization that things move, that lives shift, and that the sun always returns, even if it's still a little cloudy. By the end of the last song, "Holding Out for Good Luck," our narrator experiences the grace that can come from connectedness as he sings, "Reach out, holding onto someone" over a beat that expresses a careful joy.
I talked with Tin Foil Hat about the EP, his other collaborations, and his own path to the articulation of his personal struggles with depression.
How did you plan the video for "Yoke"? Was it a really collaborative effort with Sarah?
I let her steer, because I’m not much of a visual person. That's her skill set, so she came up with the concept and location. We filmed it at Hominy Greenway. I let her tell me what to do, and it all came together. We're planning to do a video for all four tracks.
How did the album come together? Did you already have the songs and decide to fit them into one album?
I worked on it for most of 2016, so almost a year. Ultimately I had several versions of those four songs. I had a finished product in December of 2016 and I sat on it for a little while. I got space from it and upon listening to it a little more, I was like, "I think I can do better." So essentially I rewrote all four tracks completely, not only in terms of some of the melodies but the actual chord progressions as well. In spring of 2017—around the end of April—I felt good about it and started to plan the release.
It was such a long process, but the positive side is that since I spent so much time working I’d have to take little breaks to clear my musical palette and work on other stuff. I'm in a good position now with a backlog of material.
I had sketches. I had the nuts and bolts of songs and I had more than four. The original idea was to do a full-length album but I decided to trim the fat and pick the four I liked the best.
Editing can be really hard for some people, but it sounds like it's easy for you.
It comes almost a little too easy. I may do too much of it. I’m really happy with how everything turned out, but in general my sense for creative process can sometimes get into that territory where I’m not making tough decisions, but instead I'm coming up with dozens of reiterations. But with Dance w/ You, I did true overhauls. For example, I might have taken a song and held the melody steady and then reharmonized it. I might do three or four of those, then once I’ve settled on the exact harmonization I’m going to to do for the song, that might bring different ideas of tones I’ll use for actual parts. Or I might need to retrack a synthesizer, or bass, or guitar.
So you're doing every instrument.
Yes, and there are no loops. It’s pattern oriented—it’s pop music broadly speaking, so there is symmetry. There are patterns going on there, but I’m not using pre-fabricated parts, except for a couple of snare hits. I designed the drum hits in Ableton, so individual hits are samples, but I compose a part from that and then all of the synths and guitar are designed by me. I'm not taking it from a record and upcycling the sample. It's all me creating the sounds.
Has music always come easily to you? Did you always think of yourself as a musician?
I guess I felt that way from an early age. I started trying to write songs pretty much immediately after I started playing instruments. I wrote lyrics, too, but back in those days I couldn't really sing.
To return to the EP: Can you talk a little bit about any theme that emerges?
On a first listen it can probably strike you as quite dark in terms of the lyrics. The opening line of the album is “On the bridge today/ Think I’ll throw it all away.” It's pretty raw. That song actually got flagged for explicit lyrics even though there are no actual curse words in it.
But it's really about more than that. The album starts that way. It's bold and can hit a nerve with that statement right out of the gate, but it ends with this redemptive call to action. The last track is about big redemption. The opening lines are “There’s a time for love, now to forgive and forget / There's a way to let go if your heart’s willing.” So it's an acknowledgement that we’ve covered some dark subjects but we’re still here.
Loosely speaking it’s autobiographical. I'm dealing with all my feelings [laughs]. It's about struggles with mental illness, life stuff, but I also try to be mindful of that and make it where someone can put their own experience into it as well, so it’s not just hearing about me. The lyrics are vague enough for you to interpret them in a way that will be useful to your life.
Why did you choose “Yoke” to be the first video? Is there something about that song?
I think it might be my favorite on the EP. I really like the tune, and I feel like I achieved the production aesthetic I was going for on the whole album the most on that track. The production keeps moving, and there are always little interesting bits popping in and out, moreso than other tracks where it might be a steadier jam. I was proud of that. It's also one of the songs that typically goes over really well live.
For me, it's as much about the harmony and melody as anything else. You hear songs sometimes that make you feel a certain way, and then you tune into the lyrics and realize they’re not saying that much, or the lyrics are even maybe trivial. There's a song by Paul McCartney called "Mr Bellamy." It's got a really dark harmony. That song really spoke to me when I heard it, so I looked it up and it was about his cat [laughs]. But the lyrics don’t explicitly say that, and that vagueness means you can interpret as you want. But for him, it was about when his cat got stuck in a tree.
Can you talk about how you chose to use the ladder in the video?
There are a lot of Biblical references in the song. I’m not a spiritual or religious person in any way, shape, or form, but what I’m talking about are feelings of hopelessness and despair, and searching for something outside of yourself that’s going to lift you out of that. What better reference is there than falling from grace? So the opening line is “Delicious fruit, hanging, one bite and you’ll be free.” The story is so old; it's been around for various religions and philosophies, probably from the time we were first able to talk and write. So the ladder represents trying to get up to some higher thing, which could be spiritual or not. It's however you want to interpret it. So in the video I'm dragging this ladder, and I keep climbing up and looking around. And that tune is unresolved. It leaves you in the place where it picked you up.
It's about the process of moving from a period of real darkness into light. The EP starts with wallowing. Track two gets down to the meat, the feeling behind it. Track three is kind of a contrast, by that point you feel like you can do this. Track four is about big redemption; like, "I've got this." It's about moving from wallowing to processing.
Who is the "you" in the title of the EP?
People. Well, I guess in the song itself it’s more me. I say, "I want to dance with you, come on, I’ll walk you through it. / Step through circle, step through." It's a somewhat light-hearted track that talks about going through cycles. Maybe they're long or they're short. But in your struggles in life, whatever they may be, you can start to recognize the cycles. You can eventually say, "Oh, I’m back on my bullshit. And I'll probably be back in it again." It's just the nature of life.
What collaborations have you been involve with outside of recording and releasing your own material?
I like to collaborate with people. The most recent work I’ve done is with Xero God for Bandidos. I did a lot of co-production on that and I’m really proud of it. It's a super solid body of work. It’s really easy to work with those guys. It's a very natural process. On their first album (Xero God), I played on the last song. This time I helped on every song. It just worked out that way. I would get together with Paul [Gaeta] and he’d say, "What do you think of this?" He'd throw something to my ear, and we’d start tracking. I’m excited about that album.
Any other collabs you're excited about?
There are a couple of remixes that haven’t been released yet. One is for Marley Carroll. We wrapped it up a month ago for his song “Sagan/Orbit,” which he released in the spring. It's the single off of what will be his next full release. The song jumped out to me a few months ago, and we have gotten to know each other a little better over the summer and fall, and I asked him to send me some stems and he did. I enjoyed doing the remix. I also did one for RBTS WIN, for “Weirdo Forest” from their new album. I love doing remixes. It’s fun, because it allows me to get into all of that reharmonization stuff, where I can just kind of spit out a couple different versions of the tune. Often, remixes will be created in the chopped and screwed method. Artists make them real techy, with more of an electronic dance music/techno vibe. My skill set trends more towards music theory, towards playing and harmony. So I’ll do a reharmonization, or I'll decontextualize some of the elements.
* * *
You can catch Tin Foil Hat playing with Xero God at Ellington Underground on December 8th at 10 p.m. The next video from Dance w/ You, for the title track, will be out early next year. His remix of Marley Carroll's "Sagan" will drop any day, so be on the lookout.
Listen to Dance w/ You on Bandcamp here.
Follow Tin Foil Hat on Facebook here.