An Interview with Jeff Hickey
Written by Stephen Ellestad, August 2003
Photos by Stephen Ellestad
Jeff Hickey is the best Madison musician you’ve never heard. Sure, a few of you may have caught him at the Art Fair on the Square this summer. A few more might have seen him perform at the Up North on some Wednesday evening. But the odds are, most of you have never heard his name.
Hickey has been involved with the craft and business of music for the better part of 40 years. He’s been a professional songwriter, a teacher, a dealer rep (for Larrivée Guitars), and both a teacher and student of traditional music. Oh, and he manufactures and sells a one-of-a-kind device for guitarists, the Third Hand Capo.
He’s not the most dominant presence in a room, and he doesn’t particularly go for self-promotion. It took him twenty years to record his first album. He blames all this on a lack of organization. While this certainly may be part of it, it also seems he’s quite content to be doing what he’s doing in his own way, rules be damned.
Jeff Hickey writes songs,and plays them. He happens to do this very, very well.
Isn’t that enough?
I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with him about the craft of songwriting, his evolution as a player and the business of music in general.
RC: Why don’t we start out with the condensed version of the Jeff Hickey life story?
JH: Sure, lets see… I went to 5 different grade schools in a number of different states – my mother had a little bit of gypsy in her. I ended up growing up mostly in DeKalb, Illinois. I went to 6 different institutions of higher learning in four years – graduated with an English degree, which I’ve never done anything with from Northern Illinois University. [Laughs.] I guess I’d run out of travel money at that point. So I walked across the street after I graduated and went to work in a guitar store and have basically spent my entire adult life working in the music business in one shape or another. I worked in retail, I was a road rep for a couple different companies, and made my living in a band for a little while. In ’79 I went down to Nashville, decided I had to test myself against that whole scene and see what it was about, ‘cause I figured if I didn’t I’d be wondering all the rest of my life what could’ve happened if I did. So I went down there – spent almost a year pitching my songs ‘on the row’ as they say and became less and less….well, the longer I was there the less seriously I could take it. The thing about Nashville is that I’m kind of a contrarian by nature, and in Nashville everybody takes music SO seriously. I started out trying to be a good boy, trying to write ‘serious’ country songs that I thought ‘serious’ country artists might want to perform, and the longer I was there the more I started writing goof-off songs. Some of the titles -[chuckles] – as I became more and more disillusioned, I started writing stuff with titles like “I’m Feeling Blue, I’m Seeing Red and I’m Acting Yellow.”
RC: Messing with the traditional country idiom, as it were?
JH: You know, writing dumb hooks, and then actually finishing the songs and going out knowing that nobody would be remotely interested. Then I would of course go out and pitch them anyway.
RC: There’s quite a history in Nashville of using the super-cheesy hook or title, though – songs like ‘Cleopatra, Queen of Denial’ and such.
JH: Yeah, and you know when you put some of the stuff I was writing deliberately to be silly against some things that have actually made it, there’s not all that much difference. But as soon as they realize you’re not taking country music seriously down there you’re dead meat, ‘cause country music is deadly serious music to those people. In Nashville, at least, there’s only so much of a pie, and the people who are already eating it aren’t necessarily interested in welcoming with open arms people who want some of that pie, because there’s only so much to go around. What I’d tell anybody going down to Nashville is to make a whole lot of friends and collaborate with all of them. The people that write Garth Brooks, or Allen Jackson, or Tim McGraw records, they know that every cut on that record has a value in terms of the publishing. They also know that if they put decent songs on the record and it’s got one big hit, it’s going to sell. And each of those songs on a hit album may be worth around $100,000 in terms of publishing! Why should they give you any of that? They got hundreds of songs that they own the publishing to! So your best bet is to find somebody who’s got a writer’s contract with their publishing house and co-write with them. The thing that gets you cuts on albums is not writing great songs, it’s writing good songs that you co-write with people that are signed to the producer’s publishing company. Anyway, while I was in Nashville I met a whole bunch of really wonderful, mostly pretty frustrated people who were also trying to figure out what was going on – some of who would become lifelong friends. One of them was a guy I met in a bar one night, started talking to, and he showed me this guitar gizmo [the Third Hand Capo] that I had never seen before that I thought was a terrific idea. We ended up forming a business partnership and for the last 23 years I’ve been making and selling these gizmos, so that association was the main thing I took out of Nashville.
RC: Okay, so life post-Nashville….
JH: I spent a few years energetically trying to sell capos and at some point realized that wasn’t going to happen, at least in the short run. It was not a good time to try and sell something that was primarily of interest to folk guitar players. In the early 80’s acoustic music in general was way out of fashion. I mean, it was the era of Eddie Van Halen; things were very techno, very disco, very electric. It wasn’t until the early 90’s that acoustic guitar started making a comeback, and by that time I’d taken a job working for a guy whom I consider to be the finest guitar-maker alive, John Larrivée. He was trying to make a living selling acoustic guitars in a market that really wasn’t buying very many. I thought he made great guitars and he had faith in me, so I spent from 1984 or ‘85 until 1998 working for him – spent nine years driving all around the country, knocking on doors at music stores trying to build a dealer network. Then in 1993 I moved up to Vancouver, where the company was located. I lived there for five years, and the company was growing by leaps and bounds by the time that I left. I just realized at the time that it was get out now or stay there for the rest of my life. There were other things that I wanted to do. I felt that I’d shortchanged the artist in me, and I didn’t want to go to my grave feeling that way. I wanted to take another shot at being a musician, a singer and a songwriter; that way I could at least be able to say that I’d given it my best shot.
RC: And that brought you to Madison?
JH: Well, what’s left of my family is in Minneapolis and my wife’s family is in Chicago. I didn’t want to move to either of those places. I’d always thought that Madison was a great town, passed through here many times- my family’s from Wisconsin. You know, I like towns where there are a lot of smart people and I knew Madison was one of those places. I like that – I hate having to explain my jokes!
RC: Okay, let’s talk about the music side of things. How long have you been playing?
JH: I started when I was 13, I’m creeping up on 52 now, so I’m looking at 40 years of playing guitar specifically. But I was attracted to music basically from the time I crawled out of the womb.
RC: And performing?
JH: Well, almost as long. Soon as I could play a few chords, I wanted to show off, I’m that kind of personality. I actually went through a long period in the middle of my life where I didn’t want to perform at all, and didn’t much, from the time I was 30 until well into my 40’s. Kind of lost the taste for it. I was real eager to do it when I was really lousy, and then at some point I guess I realized how lousy I was. Then for a long time didn’t want to perform. I eventually got over it. This gig we’ve been doing for the last 2 ½ years at the Up North has been a real godsend for me in that sense. It’s made me real comfortable just sitting and playing in front of people, not feeling like everybody’s looking at me and they’re judging me and going, “Aha!” every time I make a mistake or forgot a lyric or something.
RC: Have you always been a songwriter as well?
JH: Yeah, I mean right from the beginning once I started playing guitar I started writing really bad songs. But if you do something long enough hopefully you get a little better at it. I’m not prolific by any means. When I was younger I wrote a lot and threw a lot away and now I write less and throw almost nothing away. If I consider it worth finishing, it’s usually worth keeping around.
SE: So what drove you to the singer/songwriter genre, rather than, say, the full band/electric/rock star route?
JH: That’s a complicated question. When I first started playing guitar, I think I wanted to be Keith Richards, and then I wanted to be Eric Clapton. And at some point I had an epiphany – I realized I was NOT going to be Eric Clapton. So then I decided that songwriting was something I had more of a knack for. I didn’t have a whole lot of faith in my ability to become a great musician, but I felt like I could write songs if I worked at it. Later on, I got into electric bands – I always liked bands – I like playing rock and roll, it’s big fun – but it requires an enormous amount of organization. It’s no small thing, just organizing a rehearsal. And it’s hard enough when you’re single and young and free and have no responsibilities. As you become an adult and have a family, it becomes almost impossible, certainly extremely difficult. The great thing about being a solo performer is that if you’ve got five minutes, you can have a rehearsal. Now that doesn’t mean I don’t love doing what I’m doing – it’s all fun. At our gig at the Up North on Wednesday nights – some weeks it’s been as many as six people, and some weeks it’s just been me all by myself. More often it’s somewhere in between. It’s a different challenge and a different pleasure every week. When Blackhawk’s there, I get to be lead guitar player and that’s something I’ve really been enjoying; that’s something I’ve never really had too many opportunities to do and I’ve been really having fun learning that role. When I’m by myself I get to play a different set of material, stuff that’s personal to me, or it’d be too hard for other people to follow – it works better as solo material than ensemble material.
RC: Let’s talk about your influences. How about guitar players?
JH: Harvey Reid. He’s my partner in the capo business, and I have learned more from him than from any guitar player alive. He’s one of the best players in the country, in the world, really. He covers an enormous number of bases; he’s a great flatpicker, great fingerstyle player. I’ve definitely learned more from him than from anybody else. You know, I listen to a really wide variety of guitar players. The greatest guitar player ever was probably Roy Buchanan, who’s kind of an obscure figure – but I’VE never heard a better player. He was a lead guitar player – an electric, screaming lead guitar player and I don’t do that at all – but if I could play like him, I would. John Jorgensen, who was just in town recently, is as good a guitar player as there is alive right now. There’s literally dozens of guys, you know?
RC: How about as a songwriter?
JH: Well, again, there’s dozens. Stan Rodgers certainly, Greg Brown, John Hiatt, the obvious ones like Dylan. There’s a guy that I’ve just recently been turned on to, a Canadian songwriter named David Francey. There’s a guy out of South Carolina named Jack Williams who made an album that I think is as good an album as I’ve heard in the last decade. There’s an enormous number of unbelievably talented people out there, literally scratching out a living, if they’re scratching out a living at all….
RC: Do you consider yourself more of a songwriter, a singer or a guitarist?
JH: That’s an interesting question. You know if you’d asked me that question a few years ago, I’d have said absolutely a songwriter. I mean I’ve always worked hard at my guitar playing, but I’ve never had that much confidence in it, because the people I’ve been listening to were so much better than I was that I always felt like, ‘Okay, I can play a little bit, but those guys can really play!’ It’s been since I’ve moved to Madison and started teaching guitar for the better part of my living, that I discovered that the difference between a lot of those guys and me was simply muscle tone. If you don’t spend 20 hours a week with a guitar in your hands, you just don’t have the strength to pull it off [all night long] – it’s not that you don’t have the ability. So for the last four or five years that I’ve been living here and teaching, I’ve built my hand muscles up to the point where I do have the strength, and I think of myself as a pretty damn good guitar player – I don’t apologize for my guitar playing anymore.
RC: And how does that relate to your singing?
JH: It’s sort of the same thing, I guess. We all hate our voices, you know. I’m no different than anybody else – I’ve always felt there was something wrong with my voice – and that’s despite the evidence that for years, people would tell me ‘I really like the way you sing!’ – but I wasn’t going to believe that. But over the past few years, I’ve relaxed a little about that. I’ve decided that I do know how to sing – or I’ve learned how to sing. Partially I’m sure it’s that I’m more comfortable with the way my voice sounds, ‘cause I’m used to it more. I can listen to my own album over and over and it doesn’t bug me; I don’t hate my voice. I think back when I was in Nashville every time I’d do a demo I’d listen to it and I just couldn’t stand it –– it was all I could do just to listen to it for mistakes.
RC: Is there a particular process to your songwriting?
JH: I almost always work from a lyric idea. For the most part, what stimulates me to write a song is that I get a lyric idea – there’s a subject that I want to address. But even more often than that it’s a line, a bit of rhetoric. It suppose it would be better if there was an issue that I wanted to address and I went out and found the words to address it, but it actually works the other way around. I get a set of words that fits together in some way that seems compelling and I say, ‘Well, let’s explore that and see if we can take that image and turn it into a whole piece of work.’
RC: In your performances, you seem to be drawn to themes of violence and death, as in ‘Alton Coleman’, ‘Disgruntled Ex-Poster Worker Blues, and ‘Frankie and Johnny.’ Do you explore those themes because they seem to come up so often in traditional music, or do you simply find them fertile ground for your own songwriting and performance?
JH: Well, I guess a little of both. I really love traditional music. The best thing that anybody can do would be to go out and buy every record that Doc Watson ever made and listen to them, because he’s recorded every important song in the entire American traditional canon, and it’s a great body of work. The ones that have come down to us are the ones that have survived because they were the best songs. Tom Dooley killing Laura Foster was not a particularly interesting crime – it was one of thousands of similar crimes. The reason we remember it is because of the song that got written about it to remember it. On the illiterate frontier, when something happened that people wanted to remember and pass around, people wrote ballads about it.
RC: How much does your songwriting reflect your life as opposed to the world, popular culture and such?
JH: I think that when you’re younger you tend to write songs that are directly out of your personal experience, and as you get older and more mature you tend to stand back a little further and write songs about things you have no personal experience of. A lot of the relationship songs come right out of my experiences; they were songs about my life as my life was happening. A song like ‘Alton Coleman’ has nothing to do with my personal experience – that song, it was a story that was happening in a place that I was. I was living in Illinois. Alton was from Illinois. He went on this crazy rampage and I was reading about it in the paper every day.
RC: So it still affected you…
JH: Well, I just thought, as a lover of traditional music, in the old days, this was the kind of crime spree somebody would have written a ballad about. It would have been Otto Wood or John Hardy. Once I had that thought, it kind of took hold – why not write a bad man ballad about this guy? Just because it already been written about in the paper doesn’t mean you can’t write a song about it. It was really in tribute to that whole ‘bad-man-ballad’ tradition.
RC: Why did it take you 20 years to record your first album?
JH: Because I’m not a very organized person. [Laughs.]
RC: Given that it did take 20 years to put out the first album, I take it that selling records is not your first priority as an artist. What is?
JH: Well, it’s my first priority now, ‘cause I have to pay for the CD! [Laughs.] No, I think my first priority as an artist has always been to get better at my craft, to become a better songwriter, to become a better guitar player, to become a better singer. Documenting that has always been something I always wanted to do, but it hasn’t been as important as getting better at the craft. It’s not like I never wanted to do an album before now, it’s just that you gotta get your shit together, and I never did that until now. I had it in my head that I was going to do it all by myself, I was going to buy the recording gear and I was going to sit down and do 50 takes of every song until I got the perfect one, and I finally realized that was never going to happen. My friend had a recording studio, and he’d made a whole bunch of albums and knew how to do it; he could worry about engineering and all I’d have to worry about was playing the songs. So we set up a time when he had a week and I had a week and I flew out to Maine and we just did it. If there was no deadline, it was never going to get finished, and I realized that. And so we did it, and I’m thrilled with it, and I think it’s an accurate document of where I am as an artist. And the people who’ve gotten it so far seem to like it, so I’m happy with it in that regard as well.
RC: So are we going to wait 20 more years for the next one?
JH: Well, I hope not. I hope that this one sells well enough that I will be forced to make another one. [Laughs.]
RC: Is the album available for purchase around Madison?
JH: Right now, it’s mainly available through me, at the live shows, and people can contact me directly. I’m in the phone book, and I can always be reached by email:
firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s also available at the Full Circle Galleria.
RC: Did you have plans to get more distribution around town?
JH: Well, yeah. I’ve been meaning to do that. I’d been thinking I’d do that after I’d had an official release party, but it’s looking more and more like I’m never going to get around to that…so I guess I should go around and hit the circuit.
RC: So what’s your take on the music business?
JH: The thing about the music business is that it’s really, really hard. [Laughs.] One of my guitar students asked me this question just yesterday: ‘Why do some guys make it and some don’t?’ and I said, “Well, first of all you have to decide what it is that constitutes making it. Is making it making a living playing music, or is making it getting on TV, or is making it getting signed to a major label contract?”
RC: Okay, as you’re aware, this interview is part of a double feature with Blackhawk. How did you guys meet?
JH: He started showing up at the Monday night jams at Dudley’s, back before it became the Liquid Lyrics Lounge. He heard me play and liked what I was doing, and I heard him play and liked what he was doing, and we just started talking. It turned out we’re exactly one year and one day apart in age, and we liked each other pretty much from the first moment we started talking. He’s had some serious success in music and he was looking to get involved more [locally] and I had always kind of been back in the shadows, and I was looking to get more out of the shadows, so we just decided that we would try and find a gig. At that point The Lonesome Rogues had just started playing at the Up North on Tuesday nights, and I said, ‘Why don’t you go up there and see if there’s some other night of the week that we could get.’ So he did and Chad said ‘Okay’. We’ve never rehearsed once. We met down there on a Wednesday night; we just showed up and started playing songs. And because we’re so close in age, we grew up with the same music. He’d say ‘Let’s play this one’ and I’d figure out a part on the spot, and I’d say the same, and it just went back and forth. And we’ve been doing it for almost three years now.
RC: Where do you see yourself going in the future with your music, your playing, your life, your album?
JH: Did my wife suggest that you ask that question? [Chuckles]. I’ve always sort of had the idea that if I just stuck with it long enough, I would get lucky, that something would just sort of break my way, because my heart was pure.
RC: It’s not that pure…
JH: [Laughs.] Well, of course…I mean, I would hope that I could sell enough copies of this CD to not only pay for it, but to provide some income for my family as well. I hope it touches people and compels them to tell their friends and relatives. I would like to expose my music to a wider range of people. I’d like to sort of spread the circle of people who are aware of it and hope that that leads to good things both artistically and financially.
RC: Thanks for your time, Jeff. Best of luck to you and the album!
Jeff Hickey’s debut album Loose Ends is available by emailing email@example.com, at the Full Circle Galleria and at his live performances.
He can be found performing in various and sundry company Wednesday evenings at the Up North.