On the day we speak, singer-songwriter Hans Chew has just released his second album, Life & Love, to favourable reviews. It’s an excellent album, a further development of the sound Chew revealed on his debut, Tennessee & Other Stories, in 2010. To the fore of that sound is Chew’s own piano-playing, bold and rhythmical, influenced as much by The Big Easy as the Mississippi Delta. Hans Chew’s music grooves, as blues-orientated music really ought to groove. At its heart is an innate understanding of where this style of music comes from, geographically as well as in any socio-political sense. (It helps that New York-based Hans Chew was born and grew up in the states where much of America’s roots music was conceived.)
Out Of The Darkness
Hans Chew is enjoying his day in the sun. But, as The Blues discovers, the secret to Chew’s success is as dark as it gets...
Like a lot of records released in today’s music industry, Tennessee & Other Stories was done as cheaply and efficiently as possible. “The Tennessee... album was really made by just me and recording engineer Jason,” says Hans. “Between the two of us we did 90 per cent of the record ourselves. We were playing all the instruments and then we invited a few people to do little bits here and there.”
This approach definitely had its advantages (“Just from a selfish point of view, I could have my singular vision expressed more when I was controlling everything”) but it also had one major disadvantage: “But it can be too anaemic, like too many generations of in-bred royalty or something. Diversity promotes health and sustainability.”
Chew extends the metaphor: “Genetically, the gene pool on Tennessee... was pretty shallow, but on this one I have a full band behind me and we fleshed out all the songs as a band, so it’s a lot more diverse, in terms of everybody bringing their own voices to it. And also the way we recorded it – live in the studio – so it has that live feel to it, whereas the first album was recorded layer by layer.
“I think one of the positives of doing it with other people is that it has this life beyond anything I could ever conceive of. So with this record we have lots of spontaneous, happy accidents and improvisations, and things that would never have happened on Tennessee & Other Stories.”
An example of how successful this has been is the outro to Love, where the band is jamming and guitarist Dave Cavallo has overdubbed a second lead guitar to create some duelling string bends reminiscent of the Allman Brothers. Hans agrees. “That outro/instrumental section is pretty much improvised. I think we’ve caught that rare moment where we actually got something great on tape, which is, in my experience, hard to do.”
Chew comes across as a modest, hard-working and conscientious musician, always striving to improve himself musically and produce the best possible record. How did it feel to have so much praise lavished on Tennessee... and, now, Life & Love? “Oh man, it was unbelievable! It was fantastic, but I felt a huge heap of pressure [after Tennessee...]. It was like ‘I’ve scored a goal in the final of the Champions League on my debut.’ That’s how I felt, like, how am I going to carry on?”
And, of course, then there was the spectre of that ‘difficult second album’... “Absolutely. I was very conscious of not having a sophomoric slump. I wanted my second album to be as good as the first one. That being said, I think the reason there is a sophomoric slump, if it exists, is that they say, ‘One has one’s whole life to write one’s first record.’ Like for me, I had from zero to 28 years old to write that first record; the second record, I had about two years.”
With such tight time constraints, how did he manage it? “I think I’ve tried to be honest, to take the sounds and the bands that I like, the sounds that really turn me on and make me feel like life is an intense experience that makes me feel alive and makes it meaningful... I’ve tried to always write things that make me feel that way and by trying to do that maybe the quality stays high. At least, I hope it does.”
Hans applies this same approach to his lyrics, which are often based on themes or concepts, which raises the question, is Life & Love a concept album? “I wouldn’t say it’s a concept album, not in the sense that Tommy is a concept album. If Tennessee & Other Stories was about me being reborn at 28 years old, this album is about what happens after you’re born: how do you choose how to live?
“After Tennessee & Other Stories I entered the second phase of my life, my adulthood. You know, I fell in love and met my wife, we got married... So it’s loosely conceptual, about living and the role that love plays in one’s life, and it was just a progression conceptually from Tennessee & Other Stories.”
Hans’s appreciation of popular music runs from Leadbelly to Led Zeppelin and he’s very aware of his musical influences, but ask him who has influenced him lyrically and he struggles for words. “Wow, that’s a tough question. I don’t know. I try to write autobiographically. I try to keep the lyrics a bit ambiguous and I consciously try to avoid clichés, but I also want to write a good pop song. I don’t know who I can put the finger on... I love the writing of William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, but lyrically I couldn’t tell you.”
Those literary references seem quite apt – after all, Chew is quintessentially an American artist. Is the influence of writers like Faulkner or McCarthy a conscious thing, or just something that’s there lurking in his subconscious? “Yeah, the gothic imagery... There’s a darkness in my soul that I think makes things interesting. It’s the struggle of dark and light that goes on, and suffering and joy. I always try to evoke those elements in the lyrics.”
Hans Chew was born in Tennessee in 1975. His father, John Chew, was a teacher and coach at Baylor School, an independent boarding school set on the banks of the Tennessee River, on the outskirts of Chattanooga. The family lived in dormitories facing the river. “I remember reading The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and really relating to those stories of untamed youth, and growing up skipping stones on the river. At my window at night I’d flicker my light off and on to catch the barge captains’ attention and sometimes they’d shine their light into my window. I’d feel like I was communicating with them.”
The idea of the river as a gateway to the wider world impacted on the young Hans. “There was definitely this romantic notion of the river and things travelling up and down it, and expansion and movement and a flow. To this day I like to get out there and travel and be on the road. The idea of the river constantly flowing has a metaphorical appeal.”
Hans’s first exposure to music was via his grandparents, who played bluegrass on Saturday nights then prayed in church on Sunday mornings. His grandfather played guitar and showed him how to pick and strum in the style of Maybelle Carter. However, it was his mother’s influence that was to be the more lasting, as she insisted on Hans taking piano lessons. “I took lessons for a couple of years. By the time I was in fifth grade I had stopped because I hated it. I kicked, screamed and cried and my mom, she just gave up: ‘One day you’ll thank me, but I can’t deal with this any more.’ I wanted to go out and ride my skateboard, I couldn’t stand playing the piano.”
Fortunately for Hans, his teacher didn’t teach by rote, but encouraged her young student to see the connections between different pieces of music. “It was like rudiments. My teacher had me learn popular music and classical. She taught me to read music and music theory in terms of chord progressions, so when I picked it back up at the age of 28 I could go buy sheet music and pick it apart.”
Hans’s mother also introduced him to rock’n’roll through the music of Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. Initially it was rock music that turned Hans on and he started playing drums in bands as a teen, his piano-playing days forgotten about for now.
John Chew died of cancer when Hans was 14. After his father’s death, Hans’s mother remarried and the family was uprooted to Georgia. “Then I got into drugs as an escape and I stayed well-hid from reality to about the age of 28. I was in a couple of bands playing drums and screwing around on guitar, but nothing serious at all. I was basically running from my own shadow.”
Hans’s next move was to a city whose influence on his music is undeniable: New Orleans. “I was dating this girl who lived there. I transferred to go to college down there, to the University of New Orleans. [The two were later engaged.] When I was there I just fell in love... I mean, New Orleans is a piano town. The piano rules that town. So that’s where I caught the [piano] bug.”
Hans fell under the spell of two New Orleans musicians in particular. “I got turned on to Dr John, his book Under A Hoodoo Moon where he talks about James Booker, and the way he describes Booker as this insane, incomprehensible, genius madman. That made me wanna go and seek him out. And sure enough, as soon as I listened to James Booker I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is the music I’ve been looking for all my life!’”
But Hans’s drug habit turned into a drug problem. He was back living in Georgia. “I was in a halfway house and my fiancée at the time had left. I was at the end of my rope, had no more friends, everybody had written me off. I was going through some pretty bad physical symptoms of stopping taking these substances when one night I was just praying myself to sleep, ‘Please God, help me!’
“The next morning I woke up and somehow I just knew: I’m not gonna do that any more. I’m going to try to be a musician, try to write a song and I’m gonna try to do this thing that I’ve always thought I could do but was always afraid to try. And that was that, man. I don’t know if you wanna call it a spiritual awakening, but I guess that’s what it was.”
Hans booked himself into a notorious “flop house” in Atlanta where he learned to play piano again, inspired by some old Professor Longhair and James Booker records – his only worldly possessions, along with a turntable, a keyboard and an old typewriter for rattling out lyrics. “It was notorious for having the Clermont Lounge in the basement,” Hans remembers, “which was a strip club where the median age of the dancers was probably 50. They would go put their own dollar in the jukebox then struggle to get up on the stage.”
In 2006, Hans – clean and playing the best piano of his life – got a call from a friend from Georgia, now living in New York, D Charles Speer, who told Hans he was forming a band in the Big Apple. Hans was interested. “I asked him, ‘If I move up to New York City can I play in your band?’ And he said yeah. So I moved up to New York City...”
One year later, D Charles Speer & The Helix released their debut album, Some Forgotten Country. Hans contributed a song to each of the next two albums, growing in confidence as a songwriter. Through playing with D Charles Speer he met and collaborated with the late Jack Rose.
“Jack led by example,” says Hans. “He had absolute confidence in me, he had absolute confidence in what he was doing. He was no bullshit. You couldn’t be bullshitting, you had to be able to play and none of this screwing around stuff. He’s like, ‘I love these classic, genius musicians and I’m going to try to be as good as they were!’” He clearly rubbed off on Hans, whose artistic development was realised at last in the release of Tennessee & Other Stories in 2010.
Hans’s new home has also made an impression on his music. The video for recent single Junker’s Blues is a tribute to NYC, filmed unscripted in the city’s streets with Hans performing to camera as he strolls through town. A highlight is when a hip-hop crew appears to start rhyming along to Han’s music. “Yeah, man, that was awesome! That’s what we were hoping would happen, that it would all be about letting New York City be itself. I didn’t know if people were going to ridicule me, but it seemed from all the footage that people were just into it.”
And so, with New York’s approval, two critically acclaimed albums and a happy marriage, Hans Chew’s dark days are truly behind him.
Life & Love is available now, via At The Helm.