Dylan Hartigan Explores The Storytelling Of Relationships With Debut Album The Way My Bones Creak
Dylan Hartigan recently released his debut full-length album, The Way My Bones Creak, an album co-produced by Bobby Holland (ZZ Ward, Kesha, Drake White) and singer/songwriter Maggie Rose. Inspired by Americana, Indie, and Folk traditions, Hartigan’s songs take a varied approach to romanticism and hard truths in relationships, and the key role of self-acceptance in life. He also sometimes works some of his bigger concerns, like environmentalism into his songs and videos.
I spoke with Dylan Hartigan about the storytelling and relationship arcs on his debut album shortly after his album release show in Nashville and during a brief hiatus before he returned to touring in support of Maggie Rose, which he’ll be continuing to do until concluding on New Year’s Eve in St. Louis.
Americana Highways: How have you found the touring experience to be these past few months?
Dylan Hartigan: We’ve been able to stick to the plan. But we were kind of one of the first tours to hit the road after the pandemic, if not the first tour to hit the road after the pandemic. We had a game plan and then things started changing, but we adjusted to new rules being put in place.
AH: I know it can be complex, with rules changing from venue to venue, so kudos for keeping things running smoothly.
DH: We just don’t want anyone getting sick, not just on the bus, but at venues in general. We have a responsibility to make sure that people come out and have a good time. It’s everybody’s job to make sure that we all stay safe. I’m a big believer in science, so I’m super pro-vaccine and vaccine cards at venues. I think it’s the safest way to experience shows and the safest way for us, as musicians, to play shows.
AH: How was your launch event for the album in Nashville?
DH: It was great! I had Maggie’s band come and play with me during the show. I was grateful for that, and they killed it. We had packed capacity. A lot of family, friends, and fans were in the audience and it was a lovely night. Then everybody, and I mean everybody, came back to my place afterwards, and my friend who runs a pizza truck posted up at the garage. We had a nice hang at my house afterwards.
AH: Great afterparty! How much had you managed to play these songs live before the launch event?
DH: We played the whole album at the release show, and me and the band had really only run through these songs at two shows, but we had played all the songs on the album at that point. So it was, “Let’s get in there and see what we got!” It was at the OG Basement here in Nashville, which is legendary, and I was fortunate enough to be able to book it there. What I did was that I didn’t play the album front to back, but instead had three full band songs, then I had the band step off, and then I played three acoustic songs, just by myself. Then I did my storytelling thing, which is my favorite thing to do, and we finished up four more songs with the full band.
AH: What’s your “storytelling thing”? What do you do?
DH: My whole writing dynamic is from the standpoint of a storyteller, but the stories don’t have to be true. A lot of them are fictional. Obviously, with the song “My Island,” I’m not the physical embodiment of an island. But before I start playing the song, I essentially give an explanation and tell the story beforehand. That is super fun and it’s just as fun as actually performing it for me, because I grew up on acting and scripts, and I write poetry. I’m working on writing a poetry book right now. I just love doing that, so any time I get the chance, I take it.
AH: Do you find that writing poetry is exactly the same as writing song lyrics, or does your mind go in different directions when you’re writing poetry versus writing lyrics?
DH: They are very different for me. Music falls into a structure and you kind of have to do that to create a nice foundation for other musicians to build on when they are playing with you. When it comes to poetry, it’s totally free form for me. It’s essentially a stream of consciousness that I vomit onto a piece of paper. But what I like to do is take one of my poems that I really resonate with, and then sort of translate it into a song. That’s like what Jim Morrison used to do, and Bob Dylan does. But the beginning process of writing a poem and the beginning process of writing a song are two different things for me.
AH: Is it like setting your sights on a different destination in each case?
DH: Yes, it’s a different headspace. When I write songs, I care just as much about the melody as I do about the words. I care about direction and where it’s going. But when I write poetry, I care about lines, elaborating on those lines, and creating metaphors for those lines so that if someone is reading it, they can dive even deeper into the meaning of one sentence. One of my favorite writers for that is Hemingway. But some of my favorite poets are Rilke and Sylvia Plath. When I found out about the Plath/Ted Hughes situation years ago, I wrote five or six songs based on Sylvia’s poems about him or for him. It’s about transposing lines into a more melodic, structured way of saying things.
AH: Where do you usually get storytelling ideas for songs? Is it just everywhere around you, or does it have to have a personal connection?
DH: No, I like to try to disassociate myself from the songwriting I do, so I like to try to draw from everything around me. The less personal it is, the better words I can find. It’s a lot harder for me to describe my own feelings than to act as an outsider. I prefer writing songs from a third person perspective.
AH: A lot of the songs on the album talk about relationships, or speak from one perspective to another but I do feel that storytelling is there. It’s sometimes implied. Is that typical for you to gravitate towards writing about relationships? Is sounds like part of the appeal of the Sylvia Plath project.
DH: Absolutely. These songs span four or five years of songwriting, and when I was writing a lot of them, I was going through my first real heartbreak. A lot of them do stem from that “me versus you” writing mentality. I bring in some metaphors here and there with “My Island” and “Stop, Look, and Listen.” I like to write a lot about the environment through environmental pieces. That’s what “My Island” and “Stop, Look, and Listen” are meant to be. “Stop, Look, and Listen” is about stopping and appreciating nature, loving the planet, and breathing in the oxygen that’s all around us. “My Island” is about taking over a beautiful place, destroying all the flora, selfishly. It’s interpretable, but the root of most of the songs is relationship-based.
AH: It’s a very relatable thing to build songs around. How did you approach sound and discovering the musical traditions that you wanted to realize in your songs? Was a kind of Indie-Folk approach always your goal?
DH: It’s really my favorite kind of music. I’ve played around with genres my whole life. This is a sound that I’m still working towards, but this type of music is my favorite to listen to. It gives me the biggest emotional reaction. It makes me feel more than any other kind of music and that’s what I really want to do, if not for anybody else, for me. I do it because it makes me feel something, basically.
AH: I was really struck by the piano parts in “Wait for Me,” and of course, Maggie Rose performs a duet in that song. Was the song written on a piano, or do you usually compose melodies in other ways?
DH: “Wait for Me” was an idea that I had at Maggie’s piano player, Caitlyn’s house. Whenever we’d come down to Nashville to work, Caitlyn was great and would let us stay at her place. She has a grand piano there, so I asked her if she could help me work out the chords that I was singing out to her. She figured them out, but I am garbage at the piano. I only play the guitar, so that’s a rare thing. It’s the only piano-based song on the record.
AH: It really works for the song. It brings a certain solemnity to the song, and for a duet, it doesn’t overcrowd the voices.
DH: My goal for the vibe of that song was for all three of us, me and Maggie, and the piano player, to do it simultaneously together. The goal was for it to sound like it was live in an amphitheater or church, and I think we brought that across.
AH: It does feel very immediate. I know that Maggie really values a live sound too.
DH: There’s a lot of live tracking on this album and there was a lot of live tracking on Have a Seat, recorded down in Muscle Shoals. We all really resonate with real musicianship and playing with real artists. It’s important for people who play on the song to really put a lot of love and effort into it, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have musicians who really like the music playing on these songs.
AH: I see there are videos for “What’s in the Cards” and “Moonlight” out. I know that “Moonlight” came out very early on and I find the video interesting because it’s very direct and stripped down. The setting is full of memorabilia and the lighting is very frosty. What were some of the thoughts behind that?
DH: I made that video with my best friend, an incredible artist named Micky Roberts, who also does all of my merchandise artwork. I made that with him in his family’s cabin and the idea behind it was to give the most broken visual so that people would take the time to listen to what was being said. The lighting worked out perfectly, lining up with “Moonlight.” Micky’s dad has collected things throughout the years, and everything there has a story behind it, which I think is incredible. I liked highlighting that. I wore barely anything so that people wouldn’t comment on that, but just listen.
AH: Something that comes out of that combination is that the song talks about romantic cliches but tries to cut through them and talk about a real experience, then the video does that as well by being simple and direct, cutting through any romanticism. That emphasizes what the song is doing, so I think the approach really works. But now that I know the objects all have stories, that adds another layer!
DH: Thank you. That’s such a cool thing to see in the video. Now all of those objects have their own infinite “Moonlight” stories from being in the video, too.
AH: The video for “What’s in the Cards” is simpler in some ways, with just grass and the aerial shot. Is that something that expressed your concern for the environment as well?
DH: Yes, it did. At that point in time, Greta Thunberg was just starting to hit her peak in conversation, and everyone was doing marches. I was participating in the marches. It was my subtle way of showing appreciation for the earth without making the video about it. I was just showing that I was there.
AH: It’s a very real thing, too, the opposite of glam.
DH: It was also just simple and cheap, and I’m a super simple guy. That’s how I was brought up. My dad works in construction and my mom ran a jewelry shop in New Jersey. It was just a simple life.
AH: That song is quite serious, emotionally speaking. I couldn’t decide whether the song was more about someone challenging fate or whether it was about someone who was more accepting fate and waiting to see what would come next.
DH: That’s a good question. I don’t think any interpretation is wrong or right, but the way that it was written was along the same lines as “Mary Made Me.” It’s sort of admitting that you may need to go to therapy, admitting that you might be losing, and might be failing your partner and yourself. But knowing that you can figure it out. With that knowledge of what’s in your future, you’re wondering then what’s in “our future.”
It’s also like the end of the chorus in “Wait for Me,” “Don’t you go searching for someone that I’m gonna be.” It’s very much admitting that you know you aren’t right at the moment, but knowing that you will be. In “What’s in the Cards,” it’s not asking for someone to wait for me, like it does in “Wait for Me,” but it is wondering what’s going to happen once I do figure myself out.
AH: I was also thinking of that connection with the song, “Wait for Me.” I think that line about “someone that I’m gonna be” really struck me because of the degree of stock the person is putting in themselves. They have a certainty that they are going to get there, and don’t doubt that, and that’s a positive point of reference. The story is going to have an okay ending, it seems.
DH: Yes, the “your story” is going to be okay, but not necessarily “our story.” One of my goals is to draw attention to self-improvement and doing it for yourself, not necessarily for somebody else. It’s all true to me, since I spent years trying to improve myself for somebody else, and I’m acknowledging that now when I hear these songs. “Wait For Me” could be saying that you’re trying to be a different person for somebody else, but actually you need to become what you need, not what someone else needs.
AH: That’s really fundamental and a good point, even if it’s a hard truth. If you try to become a version of yourself for someone else, that’s not a solid foundation. Unless you do it for yourself, it’s never going to work out in the long run.
DH: You have to be prepared to let relationships go, too, because if you don’t, you’re never going to change just for yourself.
Discover more about Dylan Hartigan here: https://www.dylanhartigan.com/