I really appreciate you taking the time to talk about the new EP, Side 1. You’ve spent the last couple years writing and recording it. I can tell there is an awful lot of detail in the arrangements. What was it like co-producing with Dan Molad, and how did you approach the recording process?
I’ve always just produced my own stuff. Dan has been in Lucius for a couple years and they’re killing it right now. He used to be in this group called Elizabeth & the Catapult and I was a huge fan of their record. He was someone that seemed approachable that wasn’t going to be some huge producer that was gonna cost me. It was cool because we come from very different backgrounds. He had never done a soul/R&B kind of record. I can tend to get a little cheesy now and then but he’s so far from cheese. I remember one time I came in with an idea and said we should go a certain direction with a song, and he’s like, ‘I thought we were trying to make something cool man, that sounds like Mom rock.’ But he was right. In that way, he was a huge help. Also, he did all the engineering. And you’re right about it being really detailed. To make that kind of sound, if you’re listening to mo-town or whatever, that kind of sound fills a spectrum. And that was the only way I felt like I could make it huge, so I arranged all the strings and horns. Because I had immersed myself in that music so much, it made it easy to hear what should be done. And the arranging was probably the hardest part.
And you arranged it all yourself?
Yeah. Down to the drumbeat. So, that took a lot of time. That’s the only thing that was difficult for me. Working with other producers, I can be kind of controlling with what I want to happen, which is why I got so detailed with the drum beats and everything. It was kinda tough to be open to ideas, but Dan always has great input and he’s super cool.
Let’s talk about the groove on this record. I’m a bass and drums guy. How did you go about recruiting musicians (12 piece string section from the NY Philharmonic, Beyonce’s horn section) to join you in the studio?
Well, not her live horn section, but from the record – they’re called the New York Superpower Horns. As far as the musicians go, the rhythm section are all my friends and my band that plays with me all the time, and they’re super talented. As far as the horn players go, I wanted to find a section that had played together a lot. I had seen these guys play on the lower east side and I was like man, this is the horn section… because it was from the record Four that they played on, and that’s my favorite Beyonce album. I was like, ‘I gotta get these guys.’ So I just hit one of them up and it was amazing that it worked out because musicians are looking for work a lot of the times. And then the strings… I was lucky because I have a mentor, this guy Rob Mathes, and he’s like the main string arranger in New York and produced Sting’s last album. He told me what I needed to do and who to contact. Basically, I just contacted one string contractor and we knocked out like 8 songs in three hours. When you have 12 union scale players and a really nice big studio, each hour is worth a lot, you know? I wanted the big string sound.
It sounds awesome man.
Thank you. I only wish I could tour with it. I at least try to tour with a horn player or something. I do if I’m at home in New York, but touring logistically just gets tough, the bigger the band.
How did you learn to sing so high? Because I think you hit a hight F or something on “I Just Want You.”
Man, I think it’s just who I’ve listened to and I’ve always focused on that. I had a high voice when I was 13. I was in my older brother’s band, and they were all like ‘well, that’s gonna go away when you get older,’ but I still wanted to sing those Stevie Wonder songs and all that stuff. Right now, I’ve been listening to Prince nonstop, and he hits like high Bs and above that, no problem. Part of it is that I’m just lucky that my voice can do that. That being said, that specific note you’re talking about is right out in the open and one out of ten times I go for it and miss it. So I always get nervous because the band stops and I gotta hit that note, and when I miss it it’s super humiliating. (laughing) It’s funny that one note in a set or an album I can think about that much.
What has been your primary inspiration for these songs?
For these songs, it was just a lot of early Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway – I was always impressed with his arrangements. Even like Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye stuff. In the moment, when I was making this music, that was all I had been listening to for a year. It kinda makes it easier to come more naturally.
How about lyrically? Is it your life or are you writing for someone else?
I like to take risks in my writing whether it’s personal or about someone else. I’ve always liked a drama that either gets you to think, or just makes you say ‘Damn! That’s crazy!’ Reactions or relatability usually tend to be the two goals I keep in mind when writing lyrics.
I haven’t seen you in awhile, but I’m excited for April 7th here in Nashville. What has changed about your live show and what touring opportunities are coming up for you this year?
For the live show, I used to lay back and do a lot more of the singer-songwriter talking and stuff. Now it’s a lot more charismatic, and I hope to be on the ground at least five times per set. With the band, it helps bring that kind of energy, so it’s a lot more energetic. It’s obviously a lot bigger of a sound, not as big as the record because I’m not with a 20-piece band, but that’s definitely how it’s changed. Also, just creating more of a show, more continuity, and not winging it where I used to just bear everything. As far as upcoming in the future, I have this eight-day run coming up, but I’m doing a lot of weekend tours or one offs. I’ll probably try to make one for the fall.
When is Side 2 scheduled to be released?
Actually, there’s no fully set date yet. I made them both together, but there’s a little bit of a distinction between the two. Side one is a lot more like staying true to the old school, and side two is using all of those influences, but making it more modern. So, at the moment I don’t really know because I would love to find a way to put it out underneath a label or something. Currently I’m not totally positive, but I would guess no matter what no later than the fall.
You’re an independent, DIY artist. What advantages come with being independent?
I guess just having total control over what I do. I hear about some artists on labels that come in with ten songs and the label will be like, ‘no, none of these songs’ or whatever. I can’t really imagine that because I spend time on those songs. I think a lot of times it will take artists longer to put out another record because of that process – having too many people involved almost. Whereas back in the day, they would put out two albums a year because they put everything out, which was cool. So i think that’s the best advantage about being independent, but you know obviously there are disadvantages too. You don’t have as big of a team, you don’t have money behind you necessarily. So i think all together I would rather be not independent, but the right situation hasn’t happened for me yet.
Big thanks to Caleb and his wife Samantha for their time! Also, make sure you check out his new project, Side 1, and get yourself to one of these shows next month! www.calebhawley.com