Hamell on Trial

With little more than a battered 1937 Gibson acoustic, a right arm that functions like a piston rod, a mind and a mouth that veers from the profane to the profound, from the personal to the political, and an almost insatiable desire to personally connect with his audience New Yorker Ed Hamell, aka Hamell on Trial, has forged a reputation for himself as an uncompromising purist.

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He returns to Ireland this week for an extensive tour armed with a new record, The Happiest Man in the World. We Are Noise caught up with a typically frank Ed to talk about the changing nature of the music industry, battling depression following the desolation of his marriage, writing a song a day for a year and putting the results on Youtube and Kickstarter campaigns.

Anti-Folk Icon, Punk Rock Poet, Folk Humourist, Rock n Roller…you any closer to pigeonholing yourself?

 It’s tough right? I mean I look at all the labels you put down and I think, “Sure, that makes sense…”, and I don’t bristle at any of the descriptions as I might for say, ‘folk musician’ or ‘classic rocker’ but it’s almost as if you have to say ALL of them to get the complete picture, which of course means it’s WAY too long and consequently unmarketable. Ha!

A total stranger to your music meets you and asks you to describe what you do in one or two sentences…what do you tell them?

I usually just say it’s “Political Satire”, which it probably isn’t but it saves me a lot of time going, “Blah Blah Blah,. me, me, me…”. Somebody the other day called it “Woody Guthrie if he hung around CBGB’s” which I really liked.

You’ve been doing this for some time now – you’ve travelled the world many times over, released countless records on both major and indie labels – are you still just as passionate about what you do?

If truth be told I would venture to say more so than ever. When my marriage broke up just prior to the making of this record three years ago there was a lot of soul searching on my part as to whether I had chose the wrong profession and did my musical career contribute to the break up, but I came to the conclusion that there was no other way, I’m very lucky at my age to do what I do. And of course, mortality being what is, I probably can only do it for another 20 years, I love doing it so I’d better savor each gig.

What’s been the biggest change in how you go about your craft since you started out?

Well, when I first started out I played in a band, I mean many years ago. And the biggest change from that period is now, as a solo, when there’s a rehearsal we’re all on time, we’re all sober and we all agree on the material. But the biggest change from my beginnings as a solo is there are more ballads, I think, still irreverent as hell but my song writing, I want to believe has vastly improved.

Before, during and after 2010 you took on the challenge of writing a new song every day and publishing the results on your Youtube Channel. You ended up with over 400 tunes, eight of which were selected for your most recent digital EP – what was the selection criteria for the album?

Initially I did it because my marriage had split, I was damn near suicidal, I had an 8 year old son I was taking care of, so suicide was not an option. And the only way I could keep a roof over our head was to keep playing which meant I had to be FUNNY in the depths of despair. Plus I was 22 years sober at the time, so….in order to keep myself busy, idle hands being the devil’s playground, I wrote a song everyday and put it up on YouTube. Sometimes it would jump out at me, like “hmmm, I should pursue this” sometimes a friend would say, “hey that Happiest Man in the World song is cool…” or I’d play it live and get a positive reaction, then I’d demo it and rework it. Rough drafts they were.

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The album features collaborations with Kimya Dawson from Moldy Peaches and longstanding friend and mentor Ani Di Franco – who out there contemporary or otherwise would you ideally like to collaborate with?

Male: Nick Cave or Eminem Female: Miley Cyrus or P.J.Harvey

What do you look for above all else in a collaborator and how does the writing process compare with writing solo? 

I’ve actually never really collaborated in the writing process much. I would, nobody ever asks. In terms of playing on my record or singing I usually just think this  might be fun, or different, or introduce each other to different audiences. Anything that serves the song I guess. Now if we’re talking about collaboration with a producer then that’s a whole other story. It’s really helpful if he has a historical perspective, i.e. when I say: “let’s give it a bit of Phil Spector or Shadow Morton” he or she will know what I’m referencing.

There was a lot of personal upheaval and heartache during the writing process of the most recent record – do you buy into the notion that those sort of conditions and the emotions they stimulate are more conducive to creating great art?

Jesus I hope not. I’m proud of the record, and I think it’s my best one yet but I believe I’ve got better one in me but I’ll be fucked if I’ll go through that much pain again.

You ran a Kickstarter Campaign for new album. Such campaigns are a positive spin-off of online culture and how it impacts on the music industry by directly connecting artists with their fans. Broad question but here goes – what are your thoughts on the music business these days – are we in a better place now than say 10 – 15 years ago? 

The quick answer is: It’s 6 of one and a half dozen of the other. It’s vastly different then it used to be, obviously, but it offers other advantages as well as problems. I think, in some respects, it’s back to the way it used to be maybe prior to Elvis. Example: Leonard Chess never thought he was going to cut Muddy Waters a check for record sales. Nor did Muddy expect one.

But here was the major advantage: A ‘hit’ on the jukebox, sometimes just the credibility of being a ‘Chess Recording Artist” was going to result in ticket sales. Last week, prior to the record, Muddy had 20 people in the club, this week, with ‘Can’t Be Satisfied” playing all over Chicago he had 200 to 400 people in the club. At $2 a head and Muddy gets the door!  To some extent we may be back using that model. You sell records and tickets at the gig.

Another upside: YouTube levelled the playing field. No more self-absorbed A & R men, acting as liaison between you, the label and the public. A direct hit on YouTube means record sales and people at gigs. The downside: No more big budgets for recording and that means a LOT of mediocre records made in kids bedrooms.

You’re a frequent visitor to these shores – any particularly favourite / interesting / funny / tragic incident you would care to share with our readers? 

You know, I’m not blowing smoke up your ass here, it’s my favourite country to play. I love the irreverent intelligence and literary sensibility of the audience. Nothing particularly weird comes to mind, but I just always look forward to going there, it’s my favourite country to play.

Irish Tour:

April 30: Cobblestone Joe’s – Limerick

May 1: Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival – Belfast

May 2: Conary Community Hall – Conary, Co. Wicklow

May 3: Kilkenny Roots Festival – Kilkenny

May 4: Kilkenny Roots Festival – Kilkenny

May 7: Workman’s Club – Dublin

May 8: Spirit Store – Dundalk

May 9: McGarrigles – Sligo

May 10: Cyprus Avenue – Cork

May 11: Pine Lodge, Myrtleville – Co. Cork

 

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Editors:
Conor O'Toole
Graham Lynch