In Between the Acts, The Globe and Mail takes a look at how artists manage their time before and after a creative endeavour.
Joel Thomas Hynes’s 2017 novel We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night won the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction and was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. More recently, he starred in the CBC Television series Little Dog, which wrapped up its first season in April. In between his various writing and acting projects, the native of Calvert, Nfld., devotes his time to music. His conceptual new album of ragged, edgy roots rock, Dead Man’s Melody, includes the song Dead Man’s Hat, possibly a reference to his uncle, the late, great Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Hynes. The Globe and Mail spoke to Hynes in Toronto, about songs, heirloom guitars and hats that fit.
With my songwriting, sometimes I have to force it. I’ll want something really badly.
I’ve always been interested in involving historical characters in my songs. A lot of songwriters do it, dipping into the story side of religion, not necessarily the preachy side.
For Cain, a song from my new album Dead Man’s Melody, I wanted a story about the fever of religion – something biblical. I’ve always connected with Cain. I had a favoured brother growing up. He was hands down, blatantly the favourite. I was the outcast.
I wanted to write from Cain’s perspective and I wanted to write him unrepentant. For two weeks, I was writing, rewriting, waking up in the middle of the night and recording bits, trying new keys and scrapping whole sections. I knew there was a song there, but I just didn’t know how to crack it. I really went inside it, and I didn’t have another creative thought for a couple of weeks. I barely had a social outlet for those two weeks. But I stayed with it, and finally I cracked the song.
I learned a lot from writing it. I used chords I’d never played before. By the end, I was exhausted. I finished it on Toronto’s Ward’s Island and left on a flight that evening from Toronto’s island airport.
I sat on the plane and immediately began hearing another song in my head. I took out a notebook and wrote the lyrics to The Sky is Falling. It’s also an irreverent, biblically toned song. I heard it all in my head, and wrote it as fast as my hand could move.
I got back to St. John’s and I played it. Again, I used chords that I’d never played before. The lyrics didn’t change from that 10-minute flash I had on the airplane.
So, one song took me two weeks of agony. And then, somehow, I shook loose this other song. It popped out like a song I already knew. It’s baffling.
My uncle is Ron Hynes, the singer-songwriter. I was going through some of his belongings in my grandfather’s house, where he had been living for the last five or six years before he died. He left behind items in a way you knew he never had any intention to die. Which means he was either very defiant or in denial.
There were hats and belts and all the cool stuff your cool uncle would own. It was a bit of a thrill, but really heartbreaking.
I found one hat that I could wear. It was an old grey Stetson – one of the hard ones. It was a genuine gunslinger’s hat. I put it on and it was a perfect fit – the only one that fit me. I then immediately wrote three songs. The moment I put the hat on, I said, “Give me the guitar.” I hadn’t written anything for three months before that. They just burst out of me. I really felt it was supernatural.
I was able to buy the last guitar he recorded with. It’s a rare limited-edition late 1970s Gibson Everly Brothers acoustic. I bought it from a collector, who’d bought it from Ron. I played a G chord, and I kind of sneered and put it back in the case and never played it again for about a year. I couldn’t look at it. I had a lot of anger and resentment toward it. I put it in storage and didn’t want to look at it.
I felt the guitar was a family heirloom and there are only a couple of us in the family who are curators of those heirlooms. I was upset that my uncle didn’t hold them in much esteem in the last years of his life. He sold them for a pittance.
Joel Thomas Hynes plays Toronto’s Dakota Tavern, May 19.