Hamell Confesses
by Lindsey Eck

Originally appeared in Austin Songwriter 2:9, September 1997

I first met Ed Hamell — who becomes a one-man show, Hamell on Trial, when he takes the stage — right after he had hit the local media, semingly out of nowhere, in 1995. Suddenly it was Hamell in XLEnt, Hamell on K·NACK, Hamell on the t.v. news, performing at the Austin Music Awards. And, if not exactly from nowhere, he emerged from the total obscurity of a transplant from upstate New York who played every open mike in Austin to steady gigs at the Electric Lounge and the Cactus, to a major-label deal with Mercury Records, all in about two years’ time.

The story was even more remarkable because Hamell broke so many music-industry rules and still made it to the majors. He’s hardly a young babe magnet like Ian Moore (though he does have tremendous charisma). His songs don’t belong in a recognizable genre — too solitary and acoustic for the rock clubs, too controversial and aggressive for the folk scene. He’s over the hill by music-industry standards, a Boomer rather than a GenXer.

But, when a mutual friend who worked at the Cactus brought me there to catch Hamell’s last Cactus appearance before his departure for the Big Apple and the road, the reasons for his popularity and success became obvious. A riveting performer with intelligent, provocative lyrics and a trademark rapid-fire acoustic-guitar style, Hamell overwhelmed the audience, who responded with a standing O that wouldn’t let up. He had starving UT students throwing $10 bills into the tip jar.

So, when I heard he was back in town to play his old favorite venue, the Electric Lounge, I had to see if he was as entertaining as ever. And, as his album would have it, he’s still Big as Life. He graciously met me at the Magnolia on South Congress the following day just before driving to his next show and we taped the following interview.

Q Well, how did it feel to be back at your old home the Electric Lounge last night?
A It was good. It was a relaxed show, and … it’s slower in Austin. And it was a good turnout. I was pleasantly surprised. … I had some new material that I had worked out so I was proud to show some new tunes.

Q So are you back in Syracuse now or New York City?
A Brooklyn. It’s a mile from Manhattan so, it's where I live. I mean, literally one mile, so I walk across the bridge.
Q Your story had a kind of Horatio Alger quality about it — pizza-delivery man to rock star in about two years in Austin. Do you think that living here was the catalyst for that?
A Oh, absolutely. … In terms of the rags-to-riches thing, bear in mind there was about 120 line-level positions prior to coming here. You know, from boat sanding to, you know, everything, so —
Q And I imagine it’s not riches yet, either.
A No, but … my life is a lot BETTER. I mean, it’s nice to have a little bit of financial security. … Like I’ll play New Mexico, and there’ll be 80 people there who know who I am. … So, you see it grow and, little by little, you feel like you’re, you’re building SOMETHING, — a career. … The ability, really, to write and perform songs, uh, till I die, without having the threat of the first of the month looming …
Q What genre do you consider yourself — or, if you don’t consider yourself to belong to a genre, where does your label [Mercury Records] put you?
A My label, I think, has a little more [difficulty] — I consider myself a rock ’n’ roll artist. … I listen to a lot of Muddy Waters, and I listen to a lot of Chuck Berry. I think Chuck Berry’s a GREAT songwriter. Um, and some of the things that he does, … a lot of ’em are really story songs. I mean "Johnny B. Goode" is a story song; "Memphis, Tennessee" is a story song. Muddy Waters — a lot of his stuff is really folky in its traditions, you know. … To my mind, the stuff that I listen to … anywhere from, like, Ice Cube to, uh, Bob Dylan, to you know, Lieber and Stoller. There’s always stories; there’s always some kind of linear story in there. I’m a lyric guy, you know. But to me it’s all rock’n’ roll. So I consider myself a rock ’n’ roll artist. What does my label consider me? … Probably … alternative rock.
Q Does the difficulty of labeling your music hinder you from getting airplay?
A Uh — no, I wouldn’t think THAT does. I would think that, you know, stylistically, it’s … it isn’t THAT that hinders it. [chuckles] It’s hindered, no question, but what in fact hinders it — [interrupted by waiter serving his English muffins and oatmeal]

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