The four albums released to date by Nashville’s Lilly Hiatt offer up a three-hour journey of self-discovery and voice-finding as concise and inspired as any you could find. Between 2014’s debut Let Down and 2020’s Walking Proof, I hear her letting go of something and giving in to something, from the accessories of being a daughter of a major roots/country songwriter to vulnerable storytelling that dances on a knife’s edge between sweet pop and garage rock. I ask if my theory has any merit in Episode 129 of The String.
“Absolutely,” said Hiatt over a phone line connecting two quarantined homes just a few miles apart. “In my early 30s I felt like I had done some good stuff. I was really proud of my album Royal Blue (2015), which didn't really catch on, but it's a good album.” The next couple of years saw heartbreak, what she calls a “murky time in my life” and the writing and production of 2017’s Trinity Lane. She told her producer, Shovels and Rope’s Michael Trent, she wanted to make a rock and roll record, so they did. “We wanted these songs to be punchy and fun, and it was great to kind of unleash that a bit and feel safe in doing so.”
The bright and revving textures were backed up with storytelling that didn’t wallow in heartbreak but used personal struggles as a springboard. “It was the catalyst for opening the floodgates to a lot of other things that had been hard for me,” Hiatt says. “And I felt open to sharing them on that album, and I did. And then having it turned into a fun, jubilant sounding thing with my band was a whole other amazing part of it. And then getting to go play it and watching people start to care about my songs and want to sing them with me - it's been one of the greatest joys of my life.”
Trinity Lane was indeed that breakthrough artists covet, reaching fans and the music biz alike. It was named the Nashville Scene’s Americana Album of the Year. She performed on the Americana Honors and Awards behind an Emerging Artist Of The Year nomination. And the critics held it up as cohesive, courageous and viscerally thrilling. Then, as Hiatt began looking to what would be a heavily scrutinized follow-up, she found writing songs on the fuel of Trinity Lane momentum wasn’t doing it for her.
“I think just one of those songs is on Walking Proof, because things were just changing and transitioning, and I never do well if I look at something I've done, (thinking) I need to do that again but better,” she says. “I just can't operate like that. It stresses me out and usually makes me do not that great a job because I'm trying too hard. I think over time I've learned to trust myself. Songs will happen. And the right songs will happen at the right time.”
The walking proof, to make use of a phrase I think should be in general usage, is in the candy striped lithograph cover and 11 songs that tell pieces and parts of stories with enough detail to draw us in and enough unfinished bits to let listeners find something of themselves. Opener “Rae” celebrates trust through a character based mostly on her sister. “Some Kind Of Drug” sounds like a breakup song over a fuzz-toned pulse but pulls back into a plea to hold on to the soul of Nashville. The title track has more country bounce and melody than the rest, and its striding story, written in the middle of the night in Boise ID during a tour, comes off, Hiatt says, like a letter of mentorship and nurturing to another friend’s daughter.
There’s a gorgeous lilt and melody to “Brightest Star” decorated with the sweet riffage that inspired Hiatt to seek out guitarist/songwriter Lincoln Parrish, formerly of Cage The Elephant, to produce. It’s a bit like looking in at her life through a couple of keyholes. We get glimpses that leave us wanting to know more. “There is a lot of room to breathe with these tunes,” she says. “It’s like choose your own adventure, paint your own picture. I like that. I like being able to do that.”