The idea struck after songwriter Thomas Hine visited a 19th century post office in a mining town in his home state. There it was, completely reconstructed. Hines gazed at the post office and meditated on the idea of “legacy.” Then, he made an album dedicated to the idea — legacy, change, growth.
If you were to close your eyes and allow an album to transport you, Hine would gently carry you somewhere into the woods — perhaps even the woods in his hometown of Golden, Colorado — in his latest release, Ledgers and Stones. Or maybe you’d see that reconstructed post office. You’d likely be in The Great Outdoors, reminiscing on what “change” might mean to you.
Hine’s poetry over soft strumming sounds confessional, as if the artist himself is whispering right into your ear. His folksy voice yearns out, in that typical Americana style, but not as typical is the absolute beauty of his lyrics.
A writer just as much as a musician, Hine’s philosophical lyrics generally gear toward big-picture topics, such as lost American history, yet he explores something new on his most recent project: a revelation of his personal life told in musical stories. For as raw as the lyrics are, they seem to nudge listeners to relate their own experiences to the music. While the album was mainly written in 2017, now is the perfect time for its premiere. With themes of change, Ledgers and Stones is topical in this time of revolution.
A natural born artist with a musical mother, Hine is classically trained on the piano, and self-taught on guitar, as well as various other instruments he “picked up along the way.” With an ear for instruments, he has found his own form of expression through songwriting.
Ledgers and Stones is Hine’s fourth album and as he reveals, his hardest project. A lesser experienced musician may have the eagerness to push through the creation of an album by riding on the forces of adrenaline, but his most recent release feels as if it has a maturity to it, as if each song came about through meticulous fine-tuning. Yet Hine’s dedication to the project paid off. Each song fits into place. Like rocks guiding a trail, the album is a journey through the artist’s creative mind.
Here at Music Mecca, we were happy to have the chance to further pick Hine’s brain. We chat with the artist about his own inspirations, favorite travel stories, advice for new songwriters, and much more.
So how did you first get into making music, and who inspired you to do so?
I played music from a young age. My mother, who played piano very well by ear, was an initial inspiration and pushed me to keep at it as a child. I was a pretty good piano player, classically trained, but left it behind in adolescence. I picked up guitar and taught myself a few years after that and found interest and freedom in that instrument. I learned a lot of fingerstyle guitar music along the lines of Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt and also became interested in the Palm-wine guitar styles of West Africa. I became proficient, to a varying degree, on many other instruments along the way. This culminated in a natural tendency towards making music as a form of personal expression.
Your lyrics are particularly poetic. What/whose writing has inspired you most?
I have written poetry and read at poetry venues, and think poetry is a very important form for stretching language into new meanings and avenues and can invoke lost memories and feelings. It can be quite subtle. I have enjoyed writings from the German Romantic era, 19th Century Russian writers, Paul Bowles and Russell Banks to name a few. I am really drawn in to well written short stories. I also like aphorisms which, though brief, offer a chance to be carried into a much larger meaning depending on what the audience brings into the interaction. I think that leads to lyrics, which often can be quite simple but in certain combinations, invoke different thoughts and feeling and memories. The combination with music can help with the connection, of course, if delivered well (every songwriter’s goal). Lyrics, like poetry, are really connected to rhythm – even if often subconsciously.
The stories your songs tell seem, on one level, incredibly universal, and on another, deeply personal. How have your experiences shaped your music, or the stories you aim to tell?
On past projects I have written a lot of more historic folk and travel songs based on some Colorado and old American history that I felt had been overlooked, among other topics. Even on those songs and projects I often attempted to tie them together with bigger picture viewpoints and even ask questions about myself through some of the characters and stories. I am somewhat of a relativist and like to try to explore how things change and “become” (in a philosophical sense). On Ledgers and Stones, the writing is much more personal, confessional and raw which is something different for me, at least to the degree on this album. The album is certainly a reflection on direct experiences that shaped these songs. I think (and hope) that this kind of approach more naturally resonates with people and allows them to be drawn in, relating it perhaps to their own stories and experiences.
Can you talk a little bit about your songwriting process?
I am definitely a lyrics first kind of songwriter. Often a theme or chorus will come up first and I’ll try to develop a stronger musical part for that, sometimes something that’s been floating around in my mind for a little while. Then I’ll work backwards into the verses and explore what works musically that still relates to the main theme or chorus. Finally, I’ll look for some changes and deviances and possible hooks that could fit in. Also, in the back of my mind, I try to imagine making the backbone of the songs as interesting as possible for a solo performance, since the luxury of accompaniment won’t always be available when performing live.
You often collaborate with other musicians, for example Sarah Winter, in the making of your music. What is it like to work with other musicians in a medium as vulnerable as music? Might you have a preference of working solo versus with bandmates/co-writers?
I’m often too timid or laid back when working on my music with others. I think I just don’t feel it’s “fair” for people to spend their time and talent on things I’ve written. This is just a hang-up of mine, but I’d say I’m certainly not a leader in a writing or practice environment. I have good friends that I’ve known and played with in bands from the past that continue to contribute, but even that can have elements of unnecessary pressure for them I think. Working remotely and separately I believe can be good – on past projects, I have had wonderful vocal collaborations from musicians in Sweden and Finland that I respect, and the distance may give them a little more freedom in the process. Sarah really brought this project together, which is what I was hoping for. She is very professional. We had not met until the early stages of these new songs, so we were able to work more together in their development which really helped keep me interested and focused (she might disagree on the word “focused” considering how long it took to finally finish the album!). Her violin and vocal performances really breathe life into the album. Mike Pearson is just a natural musician who adds perfect guitar/dobro flavorings on any song he touches, on this as well as past projects.
I know that you’ve toured through Europe after the release of your 2016 album Some Notion or Novelty. Do you have any favorite stories from your time on the road during that time?
I was invited into a stranger’s home after a festival in Germany at midnight for food and drink with his friends, and got to see his family’s official sword! Then back downtown until 4am with them all, while one of the festival organizers was out looking for me, thinking I was lost. I got to meet broadcasters over there in person who had played my music for years which was great. Overall just a great feeling to be there and learn new history, eat great food and try new drinks (have been a longtime fan of Belgian ales, so tracked down new ones I had not had before and are unavailable over here). The locations I was at in 2016 were different from places I had been over there in the past, so I am happy to have broadened my perspective of Northern Europe. I also learned just how good a lot of the local Americana bands were over there, some you would swear were from the States.
How has the experience of making your latest album, Ledgers and Stones, differed from the creation of your first album?
I hate to say, but it felt a lot harder. Early on there is certainly a lot more youthful, maybe somewhat naïve, exuberance and you just can’t wait to knock things out. But you gain perspective through time and expertise in some areas of the process, and then again, possibly more hesitation, like you might break something along the way and not have the energy to rebuild it. I am pleased with the final product, however, and think it still is a step forward – which is what should keep a musician going.
Your latest release seems to revolve a lot around the concept of change. Can you talk a little bit about what change means to you during this period of immense and rapid change?
There is certainly a lot of rapid change currently. I am amazed at how quickly we move through and forget things in the not too distant past. Things were not in as good a shape as people believed leading up to this tumultuous springtime. In Colorado, things have been changing very fast in the past decade, and it was very haunting to me because it didn’t feel like many others noticed. Ultimately, it appears to me that actual large scale changes are much more subtle and take time, even with all of these stress-tests happening in these past few months. Unfortunately, some are spared from the consequences of the stress-tests and many are not, as there is a lot of artificial propping up of certain areas of the “economy.” The title track on the album, delves into some of the aspects of subtle structural collapse on large-scale and even personal levels, and how our inherent idealism protects us from noticing change and how things have come to be in the first place.
The Ledgers and Stones album cover is beautiful! I love the winter scenery. Why did you choose that to be the album cover? How do you think nature inspires your music?
The image used for the album cover is from a place and time in which many of these confessional songs from the album were starting to take shape in my mind, literally. The image also could be a scene from a time in the distant future or past, as the woods there would most likely remain rather unchanged and appear that way on a cold February day. I try to get out and walk in nature daily, and I am fortunate to still have some hidden places to visit here the Colorado Front Range. Speaking of change, you can learn about a place and its many aspects by visiting somewhat regularly. It’s good for perspective, just how many things you can notice as time goes by and you change as a person. I have been following a family of screech owls in that very same stand of woods over the past few weeks. Nature certainly inspires me and my music. However, my last album was more influenced by and reflective of nature as a whole.
What excites you most about your latest release? Do you have a track on the new album that you find particularly resonating?
I really like how the collaborations turned out. I believe it has a good overall Folk/Roots sound. There are a few songs that might be categorized more as outliers. The closing track, “My Thoughts Return” (which could be considered as a religious meditation or a love song), is one which has been floating around in my head for years but I think finally has found a proper home, wrapping up the album. The title track and the song Abandon are both a little more experimental, and I think the latter is the one I am kind of more interested in. It has some musical elements that are new to me and I might explore more of in the future.
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring songwriters, what would it be?
Pay attention to those song ideas and melodies that come back to you after you’ve forgotten them initially. Those are the ones that most likely need to be fleshed out and finished.