Caleb Lee Hutchinson photo credit: Don VanCleave
Caleb Lee Hutchinson has a new EP coming out on September 17th, Slot Machine Syndrome, which heralds a new era for the singer/songwriter. Songs like “Who I Am” and “Slot Machine Syndrome” make a bold statement about his sense of identity and approach to life. The album was co-produced by likeminded fellow musician Brent Cobb and brings traditional elements to meet modernity in surprising ways. With Hutchinson’s very direct, even soul-baring lyrics, and the careful craftsmanship on these songs, Slot Machine Syndrome feels like a significant development for Caleb Lee Hutchinson and hints at possible future creative directions.
I spoke with Caleb Lee Hutchinson about the evolution of the songs on the new EP, what personal developments led to his current songwriting approach, and about his meeting of minds working with Brent Cobb on Slot Machine Syndrome.
Americana Highways: What’s it been like getting back to live playing?
Caleb Lee Hutchinson: It’s been crazy. It’s given me extreme trust issues wondering if events are really going to happen. But there’s a feeling of euphoria when it actually happens. It feels weird, a real dream state type of feeling. We did a show then did a four or five hour drive, and I was telling the guys in my band, “I feel so weird.” Having that crazy adrenaline, endorphins, and serotonin running through my body for the first time in over a year, my body didn’t know what to do with itself. The only glimpse of happiness I’ve had over the past year was watching Dexter on the couch. [Laughs] Everybody kind of crashed immediately after.
AH: How are you deciding what you play for these shows?
CLH: I’ve been playing this EP, and really all the songs on it except for two are ones I’ve been playing over the past couple years anyway. What’s cool about it is that I have these people who have been following me close enough that they know some of these songs that haven’t even come out yet. But I’ve always kind of rolled with my own instincts in terms of songs. I try to play some cool covers and some of mine that I want to play.
AH: I know that “Who I Am” and “Slot Machine Syndrome” have had a little bit of longer life. Did you play those live enough that they were shaped by that experience before they were recorded for the EP?
CLH: Yes, specifically “Who I Am.” I played that back in 2019 when I played CMA Fest for the first time. That whole arrangement was the easiest to record because I’d been playing it live for two years and I had the clearest idea of what it should sound like. It’s totally shaped by live shows. Every show that I’ve done in the past two years has started with that song. You know how the Stones always start with “Start Me Up”? I have always wanted a song like that, and I feel like “Who I Am” is a cool one to do. I feel like I get to run up and kick the door open. It makes me feel a lot cooler than I really am.
AH: I was really impressed on first hearing that song by how detailed the lyrics are and how personal it is. There’s a lot of emotion there, but there’s also texture from life. Also, admitting that there’s “not much going on” in life is very brave. So I can understand opening with it, but it’s also quite a personal statement.
CLH: The main inspiration for that song was “Living Proof” by Hank [Williams] Jr. off one of his “beardless” albums. I listen to so much weird music. I listen to everything. I started noticing that all of my favorite writers wrote as if was out of their diary. I wrote “Who I Am” when I was 19, and really kind of lost myself in the process of everything going on in life. I felt overwhelmed and wanted to write a letter to myself, to remind myself of my place in the world. Writing it brought a lot of clarity. I think for people who kind of know me but kind of don’t and don’t know what I’ve been up to in the past couple of years may love it or hate it, but I’m super-proud that it’s a reintroduction to me. All of my favorite music comes from honesty, and that song was as honest as I could be in that moment.
AH: I think that definitely comes across. That songs also seems to suggest that you come from an Outsider tradition. Is that important to the song?
CLH: Yes, absolutely.
AH: Regarding what you listen to, do you think that people might be surprised by what kinds of music you like?
CLH: Shuffle on my phone is dangerous! I grew up on old Country and Classic Rock, and very early in my teenage years, I got very much into heavy metal and punk. I was weirdly into Black Flagg when I was around 12. These days, I listen to a lot of emo. I would say that’s what annoys most people who ride with me down the road. I love Dashboard Confessional. I’m a huge Say Anything fan. There’s Taking Back Sunday, tons of it. I think, weirdly, there are a lot of parallels between country, Americana, and emo.
AH: Thank you for saying that because I write about Americana music and I also write about Metal and Punk and people tend to think that’s a really odd combination.
CLH: I think they are so similar. They are very expressive. I don’t question it. I also listen to tons of Hip-Hop and I can listen to the radio. I like the cool disco-Pop direction that mainstream pop has been going in.
AH: There are a lot of retro sounds coming in.
CLH: I dig it, like Dua Lipa.
AH: Do you tend to listen to physical media, or mainly digital?
CLH: I listen to digital in the car, but that’s because I haven’t figured out how to strap in my record player yet. I grew up with a pretty massive record collection at my disposal. I stole a lot of John Prine records. I have some super cool old Wayland vinyls. I kind of just stole everything from all my family members, from Prine to Steppenwolf. I don’t think they’ve realized that they are missing yet. They might after this. I might not be invited to Christmas this year.
AH: That’s a dangerous confession.
CLH: It’s amazing what cool stuff you can pick up at yard sales for a couple of bucks. There’s also something so cool about physically owning a record. Nowadays you can stream anything from anywhere, but it’s really not yours. I love going through records and seeing how people packaged it. It’s a whole artform in itself, everything from the designs on the liners, to the lyrics. It’s just cool. It’s like a painting.
AH: How did the design come about for the cover of Slot Machine Syndrome? I love the old timey look, but the lettering is really interesting because it’s old style but new looking as well.
CLH: I love the lettering and how the album cover looks. The purple and gold is not inspired by any sports team or anything like that. It’s kind of subtly inspired by Crown Royal because the song “Slot Machine Syndrome” touches on addiction and throwing your life away. I related it to personal experiences that I’d had. I thought it would be cool if the cover was thematic in that way.
AH: “Slot Machine Syndrome” is a really interesting song and very psychological. There are some lines that are devastating but they are delivered in a very simple way so they just kind of sit with the audience for a minute, like “You’ll lose your mind.” There’s a quietness to it that’s interesting, too.
CLH: I had a lot of personal experiences in my life where I saw a lot of great people that I loved and respected succumb to their own flaws and addictions, things of that nature, whether it was substance abuse or other stuff. The song is me framing some of those experiences back at myself, but I’d like to think the greater message is that as horrible as it is for that to happen to people, and as hurtful as it can be to you to deal with people going through that, it could just as easily happen to any of us if we were unchecked. I think it’s kind of a reminder of that, at least to me.
AH: One of the reasons the song is so relatable is because it’s so broad and could refer to a lot of ways which we might get “stuck” in life, too. Human beings are so prone to getting stuck in loops.
CLH: Absolutely. The term “slot machine syndrome” is kind of about that. It’s the idea that after you put so much time into one thing, you keep doing it, expecting a great big payoff. It’s loosely based on that idea.
AH: Was that the standout as a title track for the EP?
CLH: I wrote that song with Brent Cobb, and as soon as I wrote it, I said, “That has to be an album title.” I think it’s eye-catching but it also kind of matches the subtle theme of the record, though it wasn’t planned that way. It touches on heartbreak and the different sides of that. I think it brings that to the forefront too. I think it encapsulates the sound of the record and a time in my life that I’m now kind of moving on from.
AH: I like the different perspectives the songs present on related ideas. One of the most down-beat sounding songs is “Love You Tonight,” but if you actually look at the lyrics, it has the more hopeful message since it opens up possibilities even while it acknowledges heavier stuff.
CLH: “Love You Tonight” is one of my favorites, sonically. I think it has a really cool, almost psychedelic thing going on. Daniel Donato played guitar on the record and he’s one of my favorite guitar players. His whole thing is Cosmic Country. When I wrote that, I thought, “Whoever plays on this, I need them to rip off Daniel Donato.” They would need to blur the lines of traditional country and Grateful Dead stuff. I love how that turned out. It’s a very honest song with a good old love poem.
AH: Thank you for clarifying that because I felt like it had an undercurrent of a really traditional structure, almost like a ballad, but the sound was really fresh and kept changing. That song is a great experiment.
CLH: I’m sure everyone could say this, but I’m a huge Sturgill Simpson fan. That album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, was the first time that I experienced that fusion of traditional country sounds and alt-Rock. It was super cool and opened my eyes. I thought, “This is all the stuff that I love put together while not losing the integrity of the genre, or whatever.” I made it my mission with this to do something that I thought was cool and I think we hit the nail on the head. I think it’s pretty alright.
AH: There’s a big range of sounds on the EP and I feel like you’re showing just how many directions could be part of future projects.
CLH: Also, I just wanted this to be a reflection of my life these past couple of years. I’ve never really so much thought, “How can I make this sound like a unit or a project?”, as wanting stuff that represented the different ways I’d been writing and the different stories that I’d been telling. I think doing that, we got lucky, and by the end it does sound like it was meant to be together in its own way. I wanted it to be a little snapshot of my life.
AH: How did you come to work with Brent Cobb on this album?
CLH: When I moved to town [Nashville], I told my manager, “Here’s my wish list of people to write with. Here are people that I think are the coolest writers ever.” Brent was on that list. I was singing Brent’s song in high school and he’s a fellow Georgian. I got to meet him and I was a little fanboy the whole time, trying to keep my composure, but immediately we hit it off. He was impressed with me knowing as much information about music that I did, and that felt great to me that maybe I didn’t waste my formative years learning about nothing but music. I knew a bunch of old country trivia. We went and wrote “Slot Machine Syndrome,” then we wrote another time. He said, “Dude, when are you going to make that record?” And I said, “When are you going to produce it for me?” I said it half-heartedly because he hadn’t done that before, and he said, “Well, shoot, I could.”
I think there’s something about those Cobbs in their genetics. I told Brent that I love the sound of his records and I love the vibe that he’s able to transmit. He kind of effortlessly has that super-cool, super-authentic vibe to him. I knew, with our preferences and tastes being so like-minded that it would be easy, and it ended up being super-easy. When we made this record, we did it in two days. We sat around eating bologna sandwiches and hanging out, and ended up coming out with something super-cool.
AH: He seems to like to swim around in tradition, but definitely also wants to remain relevant to the now.
CLH: There is a small group of people who are still country, and have their roots in country, but are willing to take risks and add to it in such a way that it doesn’t take away from the original roots. I think that’s super-cool. Sometimes people over jump that a little and it doesn’t end up sounding like they intended it in the beginning. I think, too, that it’s not like Brent plays dress up. He’s not trying to be Merle Haggard. Brent is Brent. He’s not like anybody else but if you threw him in a time machine, he sounds like he could sit in thirty or forty years ago, sounding like he sounds today. That’s definitely something that I pray that people say about me.
Keep up with Caleb Lee Hutchinson, his tour dates and music, here: https://www.calebleehutchinson.com
Caleb Lee Hutchinson interview 2021 Caleb Lee Hutchinson