There’s a reason why sensitive singer-songwriters are called what they are. But some wear their emotions on their guitar straps a little heavier than most.
Before my interview with Dan Hill, his manager asked that I not bring up his troubadour’s new song Ninety Years Old. It’s about his mother, who died at that age. I didn’t bring it up. Hill cried anyway.
That’s who he is. His most famous recording is Sometimes When We Touch, a love song from 1977. When the actual love interest who inspired the song first heard it, she told Hill that their relationship couldn’t continue. He was “too intense,” she said.
Hill accepts who he is. “I was born intense, I am intense,” he says. “That will never change.”
Hill is 66 years old now. If his new album is any indication, what he says is true. On the Other Side of Here, his first new record in 11 years, is marked by redlining honesty top to bottom, beginning with the title track (“It’s been so long, since I’ve felt somebody touch me”), continuing to the mid-album weeper Cry For Help and ending with the aforementioned elegy for his mom. The lead single What About Black Lives? is a pointed question with vivid and topical imagery from the biracial Hill: “White policeman kneeling down/I can’t breathe, his final sound.”
In addition to releasing the album this week, Hill was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, thanks in no small part to Sometimes When We Touch. Asked how much the international hit has been worth to him over the years, Hill declines to give a dollar figure.
“Let’s just say that after Sometimes, I never needed to work again, and that’s an understatement,” he says over the phone. “I hope I’m being open enough with you.”
He is, unfailingly so. Some of his backstage tales and outspoken opinions are on the record; some – ”I might get sued” – are not. For this interview, he’s as candid as ever.
On losing the best-vocalist Grammy for Sometimes When We Touch to Barry Manilow: “He’s an incredible piano player and a very nice guy, but maybe a slightly better than average singer. He later covered Sometimes, as nod to me, but, really, it was too difficult for him to sing. He gets the Grammy, though, and I don’t. It should have gone to Gino Vannelli for I Just Wanna Stop. In my opinion, Gino was the one who beat me, not Barry Manilow.”
About Joni Mitchell: “She beats Bob Dylan by miles. Blue is the best singer-songwriter album of all time.”
On meeting Tina Turner: “It was in her dressing room when she played the Imperial Room in Toronto. She’s in her bathrobe, cold cream on her face, complaining that her back hurts. She told me she bought the three albums I had out at the time, and that none of the songs were as good as Sometimes. I felt like I was being scolded for having talent but not realizing by potential. I proceeded to write In Your Eyes and Can’t We Try. Tina was the person who galvanized me to be more consistent in my songwriting.”
About working in Nashville: “I can’t begin to tell you the racist encounters I’ve had with country singers. Many of them are beautiful, soulful people. But a lot of them are racists. And I’ve come to blows with some of them, quite frankly.”
The son of a white mother and a Black father, Hill recently wrote an essay for The Globe and Mail on wrestling with his racial heritage. In it he tells a story about the trauma and shameful treatment by hospital staff his mother endured giving birth to him. I ask if what she went through formed the man he grew to be.
“My mother told me that story when I was 8, and she spun it in a beautiful, positive way,” Hill recalls. “She said, ‘Danny, that’s why you’re so remarkably sensitive. You could hear me crying out, you could feel my pain.’”
At that, Hill breaks up. “It’s hard for me to talk about,” he says, regaining his composure.
No apologies necessary. Sometimes when people touch, it hurts, and no one knows that better than him.
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