No Fake Pearl Tears: Nashville Newcomer Lilly Hiatt is the Real Gem

Photography by Gregg Roth

Rather than shaking things off through catchy choruses and lip-gloss beats, Lilly Hiatt heals old wounds with poetic confession and shadowy synths on her second record, Royal Blue, released in March. Hiatt, as the sole writer on the album, conjures grim daydreams of soured love and self discovery that float through 12 tracks rooted in traditional folk and alt-country, but draw on Hiatt’s favorite 80s and 90s influences (think The Pixies, the Breeders, Dinosaur Jr.). Hiatt’s sweet, soft voice sings of a starry-eyed woman scorned and she slays through the wreckage with clever lyrics, because that’s what any good woman with her musical lineage would do—she’d move on and write a song or two, as she proclaims in the title track.

It’s Wednesday afternoon and Hiatt dials in from East Nashville; she’s down-to-earth and speaks with the same girlish honesty that’s reflected in her songs. At the moment, she and band mates—Beth Finney on lead guitar, Jake Bradley on bass, Luke Schneider on pedal steel guitar, and Jon Radford on drums—are rehearsing for a 10-date tour. Several of her east coast shows, including an October 8 stop at the Bell House in Brooklyn, are in support of Austin musician Bob Schneider who Hiatt has never shared the bill with but admires for his similar sense of songwriting humor. “Although, I’m getting tired of writing about my struggles,” she quips. But capturing a perfect Polaroid of real life just comes natural to the rising singer-songwriter whose father is iconic musician John Hiatt. “The biggest thrill of all is the initial coming up with the words; it’s some sort of relief for me,” she says. Hiatt confesses that she’s actually staring at her acoustic guitar, a hand-me-down Martin from her father that is her songwriting muse and never leaves home. “I’ll pick up my guitar and start strumming, or I’ll think about something I want to write about or think of a line that I want to put somewhere,” she says of her method. “I’ll sing something that I don’t know where it comes from; it’s decided, well, OK this is how you’re starting it clearly because I can’t stop singing that one thing, and then this helps me navigate where the rest of it goes.”

And when it comes to laying down tracks and playing them live, Hiatt doesn’t shy away from giving her band the creative rein to guide her songs to places she never imagined, she says. Case in point: “Far Away” had a more folk element before the band’s influence evolved it into a riff-y power-pop piece. “We’re in this singer-songwriter twang-y world and there’s sometimes an unspoken feeling of things you’re not allowed to do for this kind of music, but the band finally felt the green light from me that said screw that,” she says. As for Royal Blue in particular, a progressive follow-up to 2012’s more loosely country-rooted Let Down, Hiatt says the record’s sound is a result of working with analog studio producer Adam Landry (Deer Tick, Diamond Rugs) and a natural gravitation to exploring the darker more dissonant sounds. “We’re a four-piece band of all rockers and we have a similar mentality, but we’re not rough around edges,” she says. “My drummer now totally grew up on punk rock and my guitar player is into psych-rock. When you get the right people together and let them do their own thing you hear that come out a little and I like to encourage that.”

As for her own favorite band, Hiatt says without hesitation, Pearl Jam (she even recently guest hosted on the band’s Sirius XM radio channel). “They have been a band for so long and have been a part of my life for so long. I just have this immense admiration for them and it awakens something in me that I can’t even, it just feels like home when I hear them,” she says. “They have such a base of hardcore fans, and I know because I text with some of them; we’re giggly texting about Pearl Jam and it’s so funny because I think they’re really good to their fans and they make you feel like you’re part of something.” Hiatt is also influenced by other modern-day front women taking risks in their music like Bully’s Alicia Bognanno and Jenny Lewis. “I really look up to Jenny [Lewis]; she always takes chances and she’s so honest in her writing,” she says. “I just love her, and I freaked out for her album [Voyager]; it just brought out something different, and it was awesome.” And Hiatt plans to continue forging her way and not feeling limited in her work. “Records are records. For me, an album isn’t so much a massive representation of this is me the artist, but more of a snapshot of a period of time of what I’m doing right now because there are so many components of being a creative person. It’s hard to hone in on what you do best no matter what profession, but if you’re genuine about things and you work hard it’s going to pay off, or maybe I’m just naive,” she laughs.

Photography by Gregg Roth

Although she’s only three years into her professional career under Athens, Georgia-based label Normaltown records (and still held her supermarket chain day job until last year), Hiatt says she always had this “weird understanding” that she’d end up in music. “In the back of my head I knew this is what I’m going to do, but I didn’t know how because I’m shy,” she says. “I would write in my room and sing and record, but I never performed until toward the end of college… Some people can shake a tambourine and work it and that just doesn’t come natural to me; I’d literally crawl out of my skin before every show and it was excruciating, but I knew I was going to go through with it and that’s now dissipated into a more OK-let’s-go energy that is fun to channel into the show… I think it’s important to be humble.” After graduating from Denver, Hiatt returned to her Music City roots and admits she is still “building my thing” and searching for ways to tap into her creative rhythm. “Writing, or just growing as a human, is an ever-evolving thing, so the goal is to find a spot where the process is effortless,” she says, noting that she admires writers like John Prine and Guy Clark. “When I’m in vulnerable open thought is when the best stuff happens, but I’m trying to write new stuff right now, and I feel like Royal Blue went in a specific territory, a little self indulgent, which is fine, but I’ve gotten so accustomed to writing about painful things and changes and now I’m not so much in that spot. I used to wait until I’m feeling it, but you have to generate that for yourself sometimes; there’s a discipline involved, and I’m trying to look out a little more and figure out how to find the inspiration from all the positive things.” While Hiatt may ponder about getting things right, it’s clear she’s going to be just fine in this “mean machine, this lonely world,” regardless that she’s somebody’s daughter.

Lilly Hiatt Tour Dates
10/8 The Bell House, Brooklyn, NY*
10/9 Ardmore Music Hall, Ardmore, PA*
10/10 Mr. Small’s Theatre, Millvale, PA*
10/11 Culture Center Theater, Charleston, WV
10/17 Hill Country DC, Washington, DC
10/22 Southgate House, Newport, KY**
10/23 Rumba Cafe, Columbus, GA**
10/24 Musica, Akron, OH**
11/11 Old Town School of Music, Chicago, IL***
*Bob Schneider Music
**Patrick Sweany
***Del Barber