Hamell Confesses
by Lindsey Eck · Part 2

Q Did you try to do the same thing that you did in Austin in New York previously?
A … I think I know what your question is. I didn’t do it; I wish I had done it; I’m doing it now. In Austin … I think I was under the impression that people would be doing things for me, you know, like you have an agent now, you have a management now, and you have a label now. And you think that there’s going to be jobs created, but in reality you really still have to do that yourself. Stuff like mailing lists … It’s important to continue doing that. …
Q How would it have been if you or someone else tried to go from obscurity to major label in New York as opposed to Austin?
A Wouldn’t have got signed.
Q That simple.
A Wouldn’t have got signed. I wouldn’t have. … You know, what I was going to say was: Here I could do six open mikes in four days. … And the guys at the Electric Lounge originally saw me at an Austin Outhouse open mike, which ultimately led to, you know, me getting the steady gig at the Electric Lounge, me getting signed at South by Southwest at the Electric Lounge. So, … I’m a firm believer in open mikes for a number of different reasons. I think they’re great for your career; I think they’re great for trying out tunes. And New York does not have — they’ve got a couople of open mikes in new York but, uh, it’s not the same sort of thing. It’s just too big. … In New York, the possibility of some club owner being at an open mike are pretty slim. Like zero percent, almost.
Q So would you encourage aspiring professional singer-songwriters to stay in Austin?
A You know, it depends what you want to do. … There’s a number of different reasons why you WOULD want to stay in Austin if you’re a songwriter, but you really have to decide what you [want]. If you’re writing Nashville tunes, if that’s your goal, which is not mine, … you should be in Nashville. No one here is going to embrace those kind of songs. And you’re not going to get anywhere being here. You’ve got to be in Nashville, you’ve got to meet people, you never know what’s going to happen, you know. So you should try to figure out what kind of thing you’re doing. If you’re writing blues tunes, maybe you should be in Chicago … But, if you’re writing Texas singer-songwriter songs or if you’re doing something really idiosyncratic — you know, this town really embraced me; I never would have figured it out, but this town likes something that’s quirky. …
Q Your songs are very different structurally from the formula hit song. For one thing, they’re not hook-driven.
A Nor are they hits!
Q How do you go about writing a song?
A You know, it comes about in a number of different ways. I mean, I travel so much. I drive 1800 miles to get here. … I bark things into the tape recorder — ideas and stuff. Sometimes I write because I need something for the show. I’ll need an ender. I’ll need an audience-participation piece. Sometimes … it’s just beautiful spontaneity … inspired. You know, that happens not as often as I’d wish. But I’m always writing.
Q How did you come up with the "Hamell on Trial" moniker?
A I think when I started I kind of wanted to not be just the typical singer-songwriter. I felt I had more in line with rock ’n’ roll bands, so I’d kind of give it a rock ’n’ roll name. … I’d played in bands for years and then I played one gig as a solo. … This guy from a label called me up and said, “Ed, you got a band?” I said, “No, I’m writing these tunes.” He said, “We’ll do it solo.” … I was petrified. … Every musician in town was in my peer group and was gonna be there scrutinizing this thing. And I did it. And the guy came up to me afterwards and said, “Do you want to do a record?” It was on a little indie label called New Wave. And I thought, Wow! I played one gig — I mean I played for 10 years in a band and ever got approached at all. I played one gig as a solo and the guy approached me — it was sort of a sign that maybe you should stick with this.
Q How’d you develop your trademark machine-gun guitar style?
A Probably to compensate for the fact that there wasn’t a band behind me. …
Q Let’s talk about the song “Big as Life” [in which Count Basie appears to Hamell in a dream, and doesn’t feel comfortable talking to such a white guy, which leads to a meditation on the unfair way blacks are associated with crack and crime in magazines like Life]. Why Count Basie?
A I like him. … the rhythm section for [Basie’s orchestra] always killed me, and in particular Freddie Green, who was the guitar player for that band. Originally the song was written and Freddie Green was the name. But I realized no one’s gonna know Freddie Green. … I think it was really a sort of genuine daydream in my head about You know something? I think if I met Freddie Green he wouldn’t talk to me. … And I thought: Wonder why that is. and I think that’s what led to the chain of, you know, I’m tired of black people getting such a bad rap in the media. … And I wrote that tune.
Q Was the Austin Music Awards appearance pivotal in your getting signed?
A No. Not at all. Other than that weekend was — that whole week was very buzzy for me. Pivotal for getting signed for me was a combination of maybe a little bit of that and a little bit of it was, I was on a little indie label here, Doolittle. … Doolittle had rented a booth up at the Convention Center there, showed [my] video continuously. … Doolittle had rented a booth up at the Convention Center there, showd [my] video continuously. … The local rep for Mercury called me and my A&R guy, Peter Lubin, said, “You ought to come a little bit early — this guy’s playing.” And he came. he saw my last five tunes and, you know, it was just a number of different things.
Q Any final words of advice for Austin songwriters?
A Yeah. I would say: the goal has to be making yourself happy. I’ve found that the minute I tried to write what I think somebody else wants to hear — what I think a hit record is, or what a crowd is gonna buy, or what a record company or what a radio station is gonna want, I’m doomed. Your goal should be to knock yourself out. Completely remove yourself from yourself. Say, “If I saw this person or heard this sing, would it blow my mind? Would I go, `Wow! This is neat’?” Whatever.

If you’re a Nashville songwriter, you know, very orthodox — you know, be tough on yourself. And continually internalize that: Is this the finished product, or am I just happy today? I’ve found a lot I write a song, put it away for a couple weeks. Take it out in two weeks and, if there’s mistakes, awkward phrases, things that don’t ring true, a lot of those become glaringly apparent after a little bit of time away. … I would suggest working hard and long on each and every song.

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