He released his first record in 1974. But it wasn’t until his 1987 release, “Bring the Family,” that Hiatt hit his stride. The album’s rootsy, blues sound fit his voice well. It also contained his most well-known song, “Have a Little Faith in Me,” which has been recorded by many stars over the years.
But Hiatt says the real reason his career took a while to get off the ground was his addiction.
Hiatt opens up to me about his rocky start and his love of music that inspires him to this day.
Gene: I was listening to “Tip of My Tongue” [from the album “Bring the Family.”] The lyrics to that song are so devastating. It’s like the saddest of country songs. I was wondering, is it hard to live with a song like that, to work on songs like that?
John: No, it’s quite the opposite. It’s liberating. I think people misunderstand the blues that way. The blues is about getting free. That’s why people sing the blues and play the blues. It’s about getting a load off your mind and your heart, or off your back. That’s why people like to listen to sad songs. Ultimately, it can make you feel better.
Gene: So even though you’re dealing with these heartbreaking things, just the act is cathartic?
John: Yeah, you can’t have all sweetness in life. To have hope there has to be hopelessness somewhere. You have to fill the vacuum with something. So it’s good.
Gene: Your voice is a great vehicle for this kind of expression–the way that it breaks and the way that it sounds like it’s straining.
John: Kind of all screwed up?
Gene: Well, actually, the way you do it is so effective I was wondering if you learned to do that over time, or does that way of singing come naturally to you?
John: It’s just ‘cause I don’t sing right, probably. It just kind of came out that way. I mean, I started off as a kid trying to imitate people I like, from blues guys to folk blues, Mississippi John Hurt to Lightnin’ Hopkins to Howlin Wolf, people like that. Of course Bob Dylan and later on, Motown guys. I loved all that stuff. You start out imitating the singers you like. But then I guess you finally find your own voice. It took me a long time to find my own voice.
Gene: When do you think you found it?
John: Well you know I think I kind of started to get onto it about 1983, writing “Riding with the King.” “Bring the Family” is when I really started to put things together. I’m a late, late bloomer [laughing].
Gene: You put Bob Dylan in the category of blues artists?
John: Bob Dylan? Yeah, oh sure!
Gene: How come?
John: Well he’s just got that thing. The essence of what he does is him and the acoustic guitar, and the way he does that is so singular. It’s like all the great bluesmen. He has his own lyrical style and his own definite singing style and definite acoustic guitar playing style. Nobody plays like him. I don’t think he gets any credit for his acoustic guitar playing. I happen to think he’s amazing, amazing guitarist. And he’s a great singer. People probably think that’s weird to say, but I think he’s an unbelievable singer. The way he phrases just gets emotion into things. His voice is his voice. You’re born with the voice you have and that’s that. But it’s what he does with it that’s so amazing.
Gene: My favorite Dylan album is “World Gone Wrong.” Have you heard that?
John: Yeah, it’s excellent. I love that–when he started to kind of go back and figure out where he came from with that record and the one before it. I can’t think of the name of it. Both of those were great.
Gene: To paraphrase lyrics from “Cherry Red” off of your latest album, “Same Old Man,” how do you keep the old seeming new? How do you stay inspired?
John: Well, I’m not inspired most of the time. Life is fairly mundane. But I try and get up in the morning and get going and try to make something of myself, to make something out of the day. As far as music, I usually pick up the acoustic guitar–and I don’t do it every day–but I can’t go much more than a week without picking one up and so just the habit of doing that, which I’ve done since I was 11 and just strumming some chords. Usually that’s when I write if I’m gonna write. And if I’m not gonna write then I just sit around and play for an hour or two.
Gene: Do you ever get tired of music?
John: Well yeah, I get tired of everything. I get tired of my life. I get tired of me. I get tired of my dogs. I get tired of living sometimes. But, it doesn’t last long.
Gene: Does your income come mostly from the cover versions that other artists have done of your songs or does it mostly come from performing?
John: I don’t know what the ratio is, but I don’t look at my bank accounts that closely. Before I got more of a fan base in the early 90s, it used to be the song writing that paid the bills. I was lucky because I never set out to write songs for other people. I was just getting covers. Thank God ‘cause we had three kids. But then I got fortunate to put out some records and to start building up a fan base. Folks started coming out to see me play. So that for the last, say 15 years, that’s what I would say it’s been. But again, I don’t know what the ratio is.
Gene: In Spin magazine, Lionel Richie said that he gets about $400,000 a year [in royalties] from [writing the song] “Brick House.”
John: Yeah well, you see I don’t have any of those. [Laughing] So let me assure you I’m not in Lionel Richie’s camp. I don’t dance on the ceiling either! So, mine is a modest living compared to Lionel’s.
Gene: But I did notice that most recently, Mandy Moore did your song, “Have A Little Faith in Me.”
John: I think she was the last one. It’s been a couple of years, but boy, that thing has been cut. I don’t know, a half a dozen times. It’s been in five or six movies.
Gene: Jewel did it. A bunch of people have done it…
John: Yeah, Joe Cocker…
Gene: Did it seem like it took a while for John Hiatt, the performer, to get out in front of John Hiatt, the songwriter?
John: It took forever. Yeah, but it was me standing in the way more than anything. Once I got out of the way. A lot of people were helping me. [They] got me started and got things going for me.
Gene: How did you get out of your own way?
John: I just stopped shooting myself in the foot. I was my own worst enemy. I don’t know exactly.
Gene: Did you not work on promoting yourself the right way?
John: Well, the main thing was, I was such a terrible drunk and addict. I think that was my number one issue. Once I cleaned up my act and got some help for that, things turned around. That was the biggest problem.
Gene: And that was in the 80s?
John: Yeah, 84. My life started to change for the better…But I am who I am…Who said that, Popeye?
Gene: Yes, I believe that was Popeye.
John: Popeye and Paul Simon’s wife.
Gene: Oh yeah, that was Edie Brickell [who sang in an 80s hit song “What I am is what I am.”]
John: Right [laughing]. She’s one step further than Popeye. She made a song out of it.
Gene: When you’re done writing a song, how do you know if it’s a good song?
John: Hmm, well…I don’t know that I’m ever really sure. For me, it’s more when I get about five or six together and then I start to feel one way or the other about three or four of them, you know what I mean? Like “These are good. Well, that one is not so good.” It’s that kind of thing. I guess it’s ‘cause I’ve always thought in terms of getting a dozen or so together and putting out a record.
Gene: Has your approach to writing songs changed over the years?
John: I’m sure it has. Just not specific ways other than I don’t worry about it now and I have worried about it in the past. I just do it when it comes. I’ve done all kinds of things over the years. I had an office at one point. I couldn’t write on the road and I had to be at home. Then I started writing on the road. I just write when I write and I don’t when I don’t.