Caleb Lee Hutchinson interview
Caleb Lee Hutchinson’s Southern Galactic Explores New Frontiers
Caleb Lee Hutchinson recently released his new album, Southern Galactic, with which he intentionally pushes sonic boundaries to try to bring his Georgia County roots into dialog with elements of pop and rock. To pursue that goal, he worked with Titanic Sinclair, a personal hero of his, and headed down to Texas to work out this batch of new songs. He previously worked with Brent Cobb on the 2021 EP Slot Machine Syndrome, and self-Produced the EP I’ll Never Sing Again, which accompanied a short film, in 2022.
Hutchinson is known for his emotive and detailed story songs, often drawing from personal experience, and you’ll find that to be true of Southern Galactic, but you’ll also find new twists and turns as Hutchinson collaborates with Sinclair and others to build up ideas and layered sounds. One of the biggest triumphs of the album is the way in which disparate sounds and ideas do come together to form a new harmony and Hutchinson’s willingness to innovate has resulted in a really appealing collection. I spoke with Caleb Lee Hutchinson about this period of experimentation and discovery surrounding Southern Galactic.
Americana Highways: I know that you produced your EP Songs I’ll Never Sing Again in 2022. Has this been a process of learning production skills from the various people you’ve worked with, like Brent Cobb on Slot Machine Syndrome?
Caleb Lee Hutchinson: Yes, I try to be a sponge, for sure. I’ve been very lucky to work with people who are way smarter than me. Every time I’m in a room with someone like that, I try to be a sponge.
AH: It seems like the way of working producers these days is that you pick personalities and instruments that those producers lean towards and decide who you want to work with based on the vibe you are looking for.
CLH: Yes. You know what you’re getting into that way for sure.
AH: Is that how it worked for this album, working with Titanic Sinclair?
CLH: Yes, Titanic Sinclair, who has a very usual name. [Laughs] I’ve been a fan of his for over ten years now. I used to listen to him way back into the day and all the crazy stuff he’s done. He’s been in pop, rock, electronic, and everything else. I think it was in 2020 or 2021 that he did a Country record of his own, called Texas Dream, and that’s how this all came about. I just direct messages him on Instagram and said, “Hey man, I’ve been a fan of yours a long time. I do country music and it’s cool to see you doing some country stuff.”
He got back to me months later and we just started talking. We wrote a few times via Zoom and got to know each other. When it came time to make this record, I thought of him. I really didn’t think it would pan out, because he’s a busy boy, but I felt really honored that he would take the time and was excited about it. That made me feel real giddy!
AH: What was it like to meet him in person for the first time?
CLH: I was scared that it was going to be bad. They say that you shouldn’t meet your heroes. He’s such an enigma since he pioneered a lot of the move from social media to entertainment world. But it was one of the easiest meetings I’ve ever had. I went to Texas to make this record and we just sat around for a few hours talking about life and music. We hit it off pretty quick, he’s such a sweet, gracious dude. I was relieved! We both talked about that, the fact that we come from such different worlds creatively, that we weren’t sure it would work. But it did. There was no friction back and forth on anything. I credit that to how talented he is, since all his ideas hit the nail on the head.
AH: It is true that this is a crossing of musical borders for this album. I was wondering if your way of talking to each other, your musical vocabulary, could be easily understood.
CLH: Yes, that’s interesting. Titanic and I kind of had the same path, but in reverse. He grew up around country music, but it wasn’t his first love. He started more in the rock scene and then into pop. Then he kind of found country later on and fell in love with it these past few years. With me, I started out in country and fell in love with country, and then have been moving onto all this weird stuff. So we had a lot of the same points of reference and a lot of the same musical opinions. It was really cool since we’re from different parts the country and have totally different experiences, but I guess it’s just something about the magic of music!
AH: I saw a phrase associated with this album, that it has a “gritty sound.” What does that mean to you? Is that something you wanted to bring into Southern Galactic?
CLH: I think the music that I’ve made in my life is the product of my background and upbringing. I love raw, real music. I think that’s what interested me about Titantic is that he’s done a lot of rock and pop, but in a more polished way. I wanted those two things to come together and find a way for them to co-exist. He’s added a lot of cool stuff, like a Moog synth, which I haven’t used before, but as for the vocal takes, he didn’t really edit at all. Even when I wanted him too, really. We were sitting around listening to records that we loved and that was kind of the theme, just people with instruments playing music. That’s the long and short of it. Me staying true to that whole swampy, gritty, Georgia sound that I’d like to think shaped me while also trying to push forward to try to find my own niche.
AH: Each of these songs is really different, but I do see some commonalities and I do hear that combination that you’re talking about. In fact, I don’t think I’ve encountered this combination before, so that’s pretty interesting to me. It is a little risky to combine things that you don’t see others combining, but that’s innovative.
CLH: I think the people of the past who we still hold in high regard, that’s what they were doing. The Beatles were willing to take a risk, or Waylon Jennings, and Hank Williams Jr. It exists on all the genre spectrums. I’ve never wanted to play it safe. I’d rather people dislike something because I’ve been trying to make something its own thing, rather than have to pander.
AH: The album’s just so listenable, too, so no doubt there are some who will appreciate how unusual it is, but others who will just find it fun. Do you recall the first song that you all worked on together?
CLH: Yes, the first song that we wrote together on the record was “Natural Man.” Titanic sent me a voice note of him singing this chorus and I thought it was so cool and different. I asked myself what my approach would be. I wrote all the verses and sent them back to him. This was the first time I’d sent him something that we were writing together, so I said, “This may not be it. If this isn’t the vibe, we can scrap all of this.” He just texted me back five minutes later and said, “Yeah, that’s it.” Maybe three hours later he e-mailed me the track of what he thought it should sound like. I think “Natural Man” may have been the first one that we tracked in Texas.
AH: That’s a great illustration of how easy the collaboration was.
CLH: When he said that was it, I said, “Thank God.” That alleviated some of the pressure that I was putting on myself.
AH: One of the songs that’s quite mellow, and a little more on the positive side is “Silverado.” I think it’s a great introduction to the sound on this album, too. You get backing vocals and the echoey feel, and that kind of orients the album. Even the song is a psychedelic, it’s also very physical in its lyrics, like an actual car, a sunset, and things people recognize. It has a great vibe.
CLH: I think the reason that song starts off the record and was one of the first ones we released is, I think it explains best what the whole Southern Galactic sound is or is intended to be. That’s kind of the DNA that runs through the whole album, even on songs that aren’t quite as strange. We wrote that song in Texas. I was at the gym down there, and he sent me the bassline which I thought was cool.
Then we went to his house that night and we tracked some other stuff and he said, “Any of this speaking to you?” I said, “Man, that song is so cool. It’s giving me a feeling like ‘Miss You’ by The Stones.” Because I think that is a) The coolest song ever, and b) The sexiest song ever with the best bridge in all of music, in my opinion. I thought it would be cool if we could have some of that “woo-oo—hoo-oo-woo-oo-hoo.” He was playing it and starting going, “woo-hoo.” And it was really just that simple. I’ve never done anything like that in any of my songs. We wrote that song in under an hour, then tracked the vocal.
The other thing that I like about that song is that Titanic has a beautiful baby son, and he was down in his crib, so we were being very quiet. He said, “Let’s throw a vocal on this, so we can come back and re-sing it.” So I sang it very low. Then we went back to re-record the vocals, and he really liked the vibe of the vocal that we did that first night. I kept re-singing it, but it was that first vocal. So what you’re hearing on that track is me singing quietly trying not to wake up his son! [Laughs] A happy little accident.
AH: That is a great story. It’s so wonderful and so maddening that the accidental things can be so important.
CLH: I have a lot of songs where I’m yelling throughout my catalog, so I think it’s cool to have this one that I wouldn’t have done like that under other circumstances.
AH: One of the heavier tracks is “Things To Burn,” which really builds on what I think I know about your songwriting. You have a great way of escalating within songs and then de-escalating by the end. That track sounds more country leading in, but it’s an intricate song.
CLH: I wrote that song with my buddy Garrett Jacobs, who’s one of my best friends in the world. He’s an incredible songwriter. He had come to my house, and I played him some of the songs I’d been writing. We sat around for three or four hours and had all these ideas, but nothing was really hitting for us. I said, “Let’s not worry about it.”
So we decided to go to Kroger because I am a Coke Zero addict. I have to have it, it’s a problem. [Laughs] We went out to my truck, and on the way, I had a bunch of cardboard boxes and stuff. He asked, “You gonna throw those out?” I said, “I need to burn them, dude. I have so many things to burn.” He said, “That’s a cool title!” So we went to the store, then came back home, and wrote that song. It happened pretty quick, which felt great after hours of beating ourselves over the head to trying to make an idea pop out.
AH: I wish I knew the creative relationship between those two experiences, because there must be one. Somehow the suffering and lack of any productivity is somehow related to the fact that a song suddenly arrives, fully-formed.
CLH: Yes, I agree! And Garrett is truly an amazing songwriter and it’s no insult to say that he’s a lot more of a pop writer than I am. He’s really great with phrasing in ways that work for modern Nashville. And that’s one of the things I love about that song that makes it so fun to play live, the phrasing of it. I love writing with Garrett because I have a tendency to be really old-school and he has a tendency to be really new-school. We always seem to merge together and find something in-between that’s exciting to me.
AH: How is the response when you play this dark but hilarious song live?
CLH: It’s great! Even though it’s about arson. We actually put a little piece of it on Instagram ahead of time, and people really liked it right away. That made me want to put it on the record. Of course, I sent it to Titanic, and he said, “This is so cool. It’s so country and so funky.”
Thanks very much for the chat, Caleb Lee Hutchinson. Find more details and tour information here on his website: https://www.calebleehutchinson.com/
Enjoy our previous coverage here: Interview: Caleb Lee Hutchinson’s Slot Machine Syndrome EP Takes Country Roots In Dynamic Directions