Words by David C. Obenour
Heartfall simultaneously feels like an album far removed from our turbulent times yet an undeniable result of the contemplative isolation so many of us have experienced. Written in the pastoral setting of Western Massachusetts, Miles Hewitt relocated to Brooklyn mere weeks before the city shutdown. The recording sessions that followed were strung together at various studios in the midst of our collective uncertainty. Gentle, brooding, wandering, circling back, the emotions and inflections are as dense and natural as the forested loam where the songs first took their roots.
Off Shelf: I’m really interested in your works as a musician and as a poet and I wanted to delve into that a bit. How does adding music to your words change them for you?
Miles Hewitt: I’ve almost never taken something else and turned it into a song. Any kind of writing to me seems to be about rhythm, noticing it, playing with it, turning it from hand to hand — all in order to provoke the rhythm into setting out in an ideal direction — then you follow it. Words always have a music, whether or not you sing them.
OS: Do you approach writing a poem in a similar way to writing the lyrics to a song? How are they and aren’t they alike?
MH: I can’t really remember how I approach writing a poem. I know I revise the same way no matter what I’m dealing with: with great disdain.
I think my training as a poet mainly taught me how to be generous toward things I read/hear/see. You have to be willing to be moved by your encounters — like Rilke says, you must change your life. I really believe that the raw stuff of a great poem or song is ubiquitous. Craft you’ve gotta learn, but my students reliably serve up unbelievably wise, original images and turns of phrase in every class. Poetry is not a rarified art form outside of the United States; children in China memorize Li Po and in ancient Greece every educated person learned the whole Odyssey. We just have a culture, for whatever reason, that is hostile toward anything perceived as high and mighty.
OS: A lot of spoken poetry can be harder for me to consume then when I read it. I think it has something to do with grasping at meaning but the words pass too quickly. Music, however, feels easier to consume. Do you have any thoughts to that difference in how the performed pieces strike the listener?
MH: We all like a nice tune to hum and a beat to jiggle at, I think. I know that with a lot of my favorite records — Station to Station comes to mind — I didn’t, probably still don’t, really know all of what the singer is on about. It’s in the insinuation, which must be carried along by the groove. Great writers do this too: Pynchon, James Merrill. Sort of like that idea from horror movies, where it’s scarier not to see the monster. It’s more wonderful not to catch all the words.
OS: You’d relocated from Boston to a more remote region in the west of the state. It’s easy to construct a narrative for that with the hushed sounds of Heartfall but do you think geography and surroundings are to credit?
MH: Without a doubt — the sound of this record couldn’t have been conceived anywhere else. But then, of course, it wound up being performed almost entirely by Brooklynites. I showed them plenty of pictures of loam so they got the idea. I think.
OS: Since then, you’ve relocated again – settling in Brooklyn in 2019. Was that before or in the midst of the pandemic? How was that transition for you given the surrounding circumstances?
MH: “Transition” makes it sound like a smooth slide into place. It was about eight months before the pandemic, just long enough to crash-land, lonely and overwhelmed, in the big bad city before it went ghost town, and it was brutal and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. And yet — I survived. I think I did the last part of the growing I’d hoped to do in western Massachusetts in Brooklyn during the pandemic. Mostly I just sang a lot in my apartment.
OS: Having now spent this time in the city, how do you see this different way of life evolving you as a songwriter and musician?
MH: There isn’t a single nymph in any of my new songs. Everything I’m writing now has people in it. Heartfall had almost no people in it. The stoned mailman, the fat lady screaming at her kids, the nuns crossing the street — must be a parade? — the guys working at the drone factory, everyone protesting outside the drone factory. Then it’s lunch break.
OS: The album also features a number of noted session players – with members of the bands for Devendra Banhart, Kevin Morby, and Aldous Harding. How involved with the song creation were they? Do you hope to continue to work with them on future recordings and tours or was this more a product of a time and place?
MH: Everyone who played on this record is a serious mensch, uncommonly dedicated to their chosen craft, and I hope we make many more together. I came in with the songs carefully written and a very specific idea of the palette. From there, it was just a matter of trying things out ‘til we hit pay dirt — slow, weird, murky, uncommercial pay dirt.
OS: The drums really are such a perfect accompaniment throughout the album – almost filling in seamlessly at times with the perceived environmental sounds coming from the other performances. How did you go about directing or leading the percussion parts?
MH: The same way I direct or lead anything — fumbling and inarticulate, eventually just gesturing at some Can record and going, “See?! See?!”
The drums on “Moongreening,” “Words Out of My Mouth,” and “Heartfall” were performed by David Christian, who is a master, a drummer who profoundly understands the art form. He shaped those songs, especially “Moongreening,” when I didn’t know what it was.
On “The Ark” I knew exactly what I wanted, but it was a doozy of a part and I tried and tried to figure out how to get it to do the thing and then Jimmy MacBride flew in to the rescue and made it look effortless.
“Reporter” was performed by Jeremy Gustin, who I remember using multiple snare drums, which I thought was pretty hip. I don’t think I had to tell him anything.
“Art of War” – the really dirty drums – and “Vision” were both performed by my friend Karl Helander up in Massachusetts, another extremely heavy cat who knows all the moves back to front. You get this guy dinner, dessert, and drinks, you’ve got a track. “Art of War” also has drums from Jason Lilly that we wound up reversing and I think he’s still pissed about it.
OS: You talked about the loose structure of your songs as a result of distancing yourself from anthropocentric thinking, allowing songs to ebb and flow more organically. I was wondering if you could talk more about that mentality shift and how it informed your songs?
MH: Sometimes when I’m walking down the street I look around and think, “This can’t go on.” Writing’s on the wall, ya’know? I had a teacher in college who would tell us, write the poem that will still reach someone when they dig it up in a thousand years. No shortcuts. Write the poem that conveys what rain was. This album tried to do that.
OS: Does any of that less-humanity-centered thinking translate into how you view your voice as an instrument in the songs?
MH: This is an interesting question — I’d like to hear what you think. I guess I can say that this is the first music I’ve made where I felt like a singer, where I felt that my voice had a presence equal to the instruments. But the singer of these songs is definitely a human. Maybe not for long, but he’s a human.