Interview: Christian Lee Hutson Talks Songwriting With The 13th Floor

Hailing from Los Angeles, singer/songwriter Christian Lee Hutson has just released his third album, titled Beginners, produced by the much-talked about Phoebe Bridgers.

The 13th Floor’s Marty Duda got Mr. Hutson on the blower just as the record hit the shelves (virtually). Their conversation reveals a thoughtful songwriter drawing comparisons with the likes of Paul Simon.

Click here to listen to the interview:

Or, read a transcription of the interview here:

M: You’re in LA are you?

C: I am.

M: How’s things there? We’ve been watching from afar what’s going on so we’d like to get a little update. Are you doing alright?

C: Yeah. I’m doing alright. I feel like things are pretty good here, there’s still a lot of people marching which is good. It seems like there’s definitely, there’s some sort of element actually as well that people are like …not really protesters I’m talking about but people just regular folk who are out there living their lives like this coronavirus never happened. So that’s kind of concerning.

M: Yes, yes it is.

C: Yeah. But other than that, it’s all good stuff that’s sort of happening here. Or at least with all the protests and stuff.

M: How have you been spending your time locked away for the coronavirus? Have you written songs or done any kind of music stuff?

C: Yeah. Early on in the corona virus lock down, I was learning a lot of songs and covering all my favourite songs from when I was a kid.

M: Like what?

C: Just mainly like pop-punk songs that I liked when I was like twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. And early 2000’s Radiohead.

M: There you go.

C: Yeah. Why Can’t I by Liz Phair, like some big pop songs. Avril Lavigne stuff like that just for fun to learn this recording software app that I’ve been using. Yeah, just writing and reading and going to the grocery a little bit.

M: That does seem to be a highlight, is just going to the grocery store these days so yeah, I can relate.

C: Yeah, it’s like the most exciting part of my week or was before the protesting started.

M: With these covers that you’re studying, are you gonna plan on incorporating any of them into your live show once you get to do live shows again?

C: Yeah I feel like I will. I mean, before this I sort of as a joke would sometimes play, I have a pretty good ear for remembering what a song sounds like and playing a version of it so sometimes at shows, people would, I would ask if they wanted to hear anything and people would yell out like some kind of ridiculous request and I would try to play it.

M: Oh that sounds cool.

C: It would be funny to do that in like a really earnest way.

M: It must be great to be able to do that though. I’m totally in awe of musicians who can just crank those things out of the top of their heads, it’s amazing.

C: It’s one of those things where the more you learn, it’s like compounded. The more of them that you learn, the easier it is to learn more.

M: I gotcha, ok. Let’s talk about the new album Beginners. This is your first one on Anti Records. Does the label have anything really to do with what the record is gonna sound like? Or is it more about just your vibe as far as once it gets released and what they do with it?

C: We’d signed with them after the record was already made so I don’t know what it will look like in the future but I mean Anti is just so good about, like they’re just really big fans and don’t seem to be like…they’re big fans of music and don’t seem to be like trying to influence you one way or another. I mean, I never experienced that with them at least. Even really in the promotional material…very artist friendly.

M: Great. And of course, you have Phoebe Bridgers producing the album for you and she’s kind of like top of the heap these days as far as everybody talking about her, what’s the relationship like between the two of you?

C: We’re just good friends. Phoebe is like my best friend so it’s like making a record with your closest friend. Fun and we like all the same music so it’s like it’s easy to get one another stoked about an idea.

M: What kind of producer was she? Cause a producer can mean many things to many people.

C: She was kind of like the producer who wanted to just see how…was more interested in how we get the song up front and not necessarily how…I would say that she just wanted to get the simplest, most honest recording of the song and then we would just collaborate and talk about ideas or things to add to it or what we felt like should happen here at this moment in the song. Stuff like that but not as much like a behind the board, like twisting knobs and pushing faders kind of producer. Yeah, I don’t know, it’s great.

M: Good. One thing I noticed, especially right off the bat with the first track Atheist, was that your vocals pretty much double tracked a lot of that time?

C: Yeah, we’re both really big fans of double tracked vocals and guitars and stuff, we’re both really big Elliott Smith fans. It’s also, like for people that have unremarkable voices.

M: Come on now.

C: I feel like it’s a good trick to just thicken up your voice and it’s more interesting to listen to I think than just my naked voice.

M: Because I’m an old dude, the first thing I thought of was Simon and Garfunkel. Especially in that first track there’s some America and it kind of reminded me of that. I didn’t know if that is a touchstone for you.

C: I love that song so much. That might be the only Paul Simon song that I know how to play actually.

M: There’s plenty of other good ones but that is one of the best definitely. And there’s so much detail in your lyrics. Is that something that you strive to go for? Do you take notes when you’re out and about? How do you get that in there?

C: Yeah, that’s exactly what I do. I mean, throughout the day or just my life in general I’m kind of always collecting different phrases or things that are happening or a reaction to a situation. I don’t know. There’s a feeling when something happens, whether it’s in something I’m watching or reading or something like that, that tells me ok this is something you should take note of and then writing a song I just go back and try and piece them together and string together some kind of narrative out of details and feelings.

M: I read that you recorded the album at Sound City Recorders which is kind of a legendary LA studio. What kind of experience was that for you guys, working in there?

C: It was amazing. Some of my favourite records of all time were made there so we were kind of just joking the whole time about how ridiculous it was that we were recording acoustic guitar in a huge drum room where they recorded Nirvana’s drum sound. Like the drum sound that Nirvana is known for and it was just like, we have one man with an acoustic guitar whispering in the middle of that room, just like squandering this amazing studio. And just joking about the ridiculousness of getting to make a record in the place where like Rumours by Fleetwood Mac was made. So yeah, I don’t know, it’s funny. You sort of are obligated to do those kinds of things if you’re recording in a studio like that to humble yourself.

M: Right. I would say that one of the tracks, you talk about that fact that a lot of it is very low key and quiet, but the track Single ForThe Summer seems to be a little bit full on. There’s a bigger band there. I mean, it’s still quiet in bits and there’s strings and all and you have a choir on that song as well right?

C: Yeah.

M: Connor Oberst and Lucy Dacus and Phoebe singing along.

C: Yeah, we had a bunch of people. Whoever was in the studio that day, we just had them all come out and sing along at the end. Phoebe loves a big group vocal so we ended up doing that on a couple songs. That is like one of the more, I guess like there’s a rocking, a sort of soft rocking that happens at the end of it.

M: And the other one that’s similar in vein is Get The Old Band Back Together. I’m just wondering, is there a story behind that song? What prompted the writing of that?

C: It’s sort of two stories that I’ve combined into one because I thought it was funny. It’s just like growing up in LA, and I’m sure anywhere really, growing up in LA in bands and the music scene there’s a very funny version of a Craig-listy kind of guy or a Craig Listy kind of. band experience and I just wanted to capture a little bit of that kind of funny vibe, which is just like, over-seriousness about your band. Yeah, just like how, I don’t know I guess it was just interesting and funny to me to write a song about it. Initially it was just a joke that I sent, a voice memo of to Phoebe because I used a bunch of names of her actual band members.

M: Oh great.

C: Yeah and then she’s like,  ‘we have to record it’. But yeah, it’s partially inspired by, I used Phoebe’s band name and then partially inspired by a band that I grew up with that has never actually played a show but they are very serious.

M: One of those.

C: Yeah. Very serious, they’re always practising and plotting like having band meetings and stuff.

M: Fantastic. What is the LA scene like, the music scene like from your perspective and what you’re doing? Is there a community of people that you identify with?

C: Yeah I think so. I mean, it seems like people are really favouring songwriting right now in a way that definitely wasn’t always like that here. Different times it’s been heavily like psych rock, not to say that those aren’t songs or anything but it feels like there’s a focus on songwriting as a soul or songwriting as a focus. I don’t know what I’m saying. Seems like songwriting is important.

M: Yeah, well that’s true.

C: I know which I think is really cool and definitely there’s a community of people around town. I’m sure is kind of everywhere the longer you  put yourself out there and play you kind of find the people that you align with, ideologically and also musically.

M: One little production addition that I appreciated was hearing a trumpet on a couple of tunes like Unforgivable and I think it was on another one as well. Oh on Twin Soul there’s a trumpet solo and I was wondering how that happened and who’s idea was that.

C: That was Phoebe’s idea actually on both of those. We had our friend Nate Wolcott who’s in the band Bright Eyes was doing string arrangements for us and we had been I guess talking about early, mid-nineties to early two thousands indie rock had a lot of folk singing with anthemic-y-sounding trumpet. Like I don’t know anything about … like all of the Neutral Milk Hotel, Okkervil River,  Bright Eyes, all these bands have this element and I feel like that, I don’t know. That was probably sort of inspired it.

M: And I remember Cake used to use that trumpet quite a bit too. Do you know that band?

C: Yeah, for sure. Someone asked me recently, they were like why do you have trumpets? and why’s trumpet so sad? Which I think is great. I’ve never considered trumpets to be sad.

M: No, I never thought of that.

C: But we were joking that on Unforgivable, there was Charlie Brown’s funeral is the sound of the trumpet that we were going for.

M: I’m wondering what the future holds for you in the next few months. Are you going to be able to get out of LA and promote the record and do what you need to do to make it happen or what?

C: Not in the next few months I don’t think. I mean, I haven’t heard a lot about…yeah there were some plans for the fall that I think are probably getting scrapped because of covid. But it looks like hopefully if there’s a vaccine and all that stuff and shows are able to start again, then maybe I’ll be able to go out in the spring. In the meantime I think I’m gonna try and go back into the studio and record some newer stuff and just do that kind of stuff while I can.

M: That seems to be what folks are doing is just getting down and realising this is the reality of the situation and getting to work, so we’re gonna have a lot of new music coming out in the next couple of months and years. It’s gonna be impossible.

C: True.

M: Speaking of live shows though, a live show for you with the intimacy of those songs and all, do they change much when you play live or do you pretty much present them as recorded?

C: I haven’t done really anything with the band since we recorded this record so I guess I don’t feel, I feel like when I tour I’ll probably just do solos, that’s kind of what I prefer at least at first and I mean then eventually it would be nice to bring a small band but I feel like if you were  to just solo the guitar and one of the vocals then it would be pretty similar to how it sounds on the record. Maybe we’ll see differences or newer…I’m always coming up with new guitar parts after I record a thing.

M: Hopefully sometime you can get down to New Zealand here and play some tunes for us as well once all this is over with and the travel restrictions are off it would be cool to see you.

C: I would love to. I love that part of the world, I’ve been to Australia but I haven’t been to New Zealand yet and I’ve always wanted to go.