Sean Hayes
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Sean Hayes


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The best kept secret in music


"Sean Hayes, a child of the musical underground, heads for a bigger stage"

Sean Hayes comes to the door of his Diamond district home in Oakland carrying a banjo he's strung with nylon strings. He wears a torn leather jacket and no shoes, padding around on the black lacquer floors of the house he shares with his girlfriend and their landlord, a friend and fan who has provided Hayes with a place to live since August and, before that, put him up at another house he owns in Bernal Heights.

Hayes, 36, about to release his fourth self-recorded album in eight years, lives the life of a proletarian artist. He only recently obtained his first car, an old clunker he was given by his twin brother back in North Carolina that he drove across country. But there is nothing tattered or secondhand about his "Big Black Hole and the Little Baby Star," an extraordinary album that should introduce the gifted singer-songwriter to a far broader audience.

Even before finished copies were back from the manufacturer, his influential fan at Los Angeles' KCRW, "Morning Becomes Eclectic" host Nic Harcourt, was jumping on the intense, subtle record. But Harcourt, a music industry landmark in Southern California (and across the country among countless Internet listeners), has played Hayes' records before, starting with a vocal Hayes added to an electronica record by his Bernal Heights neighbor, dance music specialist Mark Farina.

But "Big Black Hole and the Little Baby Star" is as comfortable as Hayes' Oakland home, where he sits in a sunny breakfast nook overlooking a large garden at the end of a side street. He recorded the album with an associate from local clubs, Etienne de Rocher, a songwriter who only recently released his own first album, a record that he spent years making. De Rocher and Hayes, who describes his music on his Web site as "Appalachian Ambient Folk Hop," virtually whipped out Hayes' record over several months earlier this year, crowded into the cramped garage behind de Rocher's Berkeley home, a tiny room stuffed with gear, with barely enough room for musicians.

"The most that would fit in there was three," says Hayes.

When Hayes first arrived in San Francisco in 1992, the local rock scene was at a low ebb. But he nevertheless managed to find a group of enterprising artisans like de Rocher who were working with acoustic instruments and playing in a new folk music underground. He shares management with another charter member of that scene, Jolie Holland, the Texas blues chanteuse and songwriter who moved out of playing little coffeehouses in the Sunset only a couple of years ago. Hayes used to work with her at a restaurant.

"She kinda drove me crazy 'cause she was so irresponsible," he says.

De Rocher, Holland and a host of other associates from the rock demimonde will join Hayes when he makes his headline debut tonight at the Great American Music Hall, the culmination of hundreds of performances over the years at small clubs all over town. "Every little hole that would have me," says Hayes, "I was there."

Yet Hayes has a way of making believers. His often intensely personal songs have attracted many dedicated fans, and he has sold more than 6,000 copies of his three CDs by himself. His songs are beginning to be performed by other artists; the Be Good Tanyas do his "A Thousand Tiny Pieces," the title song from his self-recorded 1999 debut.

"It took me a long time to record something," he says. "I kept wondering when was it going to happen. Then I realized all I had to do was do it. That record is mostly me and a guitar, messing around with my four-track."

His next album, "Lunar Lust," he says, wasn't even really released. "Unless you count sticking them in pockets at thrift stores," he says, "or leaving them places."

He recorded his third album, "Alabama Chicken" -- titled after a remarkable fortune-telling rooster Hayes once saw -- while he was house-sitting in a woodsy old hunting lodge, tucked away beneath the redwoods, high on Mount Tam. He pulled together a loose assemblage of associates, including Holland, who sings and plays fiddle on the record, and another common collaborator of theirs, Enzo Garcia, on saw, banjo and jaw harp. Garcia is probably best known for "Breakfast With Enzo," his Saturday morning children's music show at a Bernal Heights coffeehouse.

The record could have remained just another one of millions of self-released CDs if Hayes hadn't ended up singing his "Dream Machine" on the "Air Farina" album by the world-renowned disc jockey and remix specialist who lived across the street, Mark Farina. "I went into his closet and sang while he manipulated some beats," Hayes says. "It took about 20 minutes."

The track was the only song on the album and KCRW's Harcourt tumbled to the cut and began playing it on his immensely popular Los Angeles radio show. When Hayes sent him a copy of "Alabama Chicken" with his version of the song, Harcourt started playing that ve - San Francisco Chronicle

"Oakland singer-songwriter Sean Hayes celebrates his new CD, 'Big Black Hole and the Little Baby Star'"

Almost anything can trigger a song in Sean Hayes . That might explain the way his titles veer from the prosaic, like "Two Big Eyes," "The Rain Coming Down," "Feel Good" and "3 a.m.," to the cryptic -- "Balancing Act in Blue," "Pollinating Toes," "Rosebush Inside (Morees Bickham)" and "Big Black Hole and the Little Baby Star."

That last song is the title track of Hayes' fourth CD, the release of which the Oakland-based singer-songwriter is celebrating with a show Saturday, Jan. 28, at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.

"Things will inspire me right where I am," explained Hayes during a recent conversation. "I'll look around me at objects in the room and they will start popping into songs. I'll start there and go into more of an emotional state after that." As an example he offered "Boom Boom Goes the Day," the new album's bouncy opening track, a kind of folkie brass band number with ominous references to "the radio, TV, newspaper, skyscraper on the pavement."

"It's kind of political sounding," Hayes granted, "but in a lot of ways it was actually much more about what was right around me -- miscommunications with friends. It sounds much bigger, but in my own mind it's more about how little miscommunications lead to these huge miscommunications."

On Big Black Hole and the Little Baby Star, which he recorded in the garage home studio of his good friend Etienne de Rocher , Hayes seems to specialize in moving from detailed particulars to bigger philosophical concerns, such as the reggae-tinged title song's axiom that "How you choose to deal with them / make problems what they are." And on "Same God," he transforms what seems to be a bittersweet song about moving on from a relationship into a meditation on universal aspirations.

"I went to Catholic school in my early years," said Hayes, who was born in New York and grew up in North Carolina. "But I definitely came to understand that we're all parts of the same whole, we're all part of the same one big thing. And sometimes I try to write songs that will remind people of that. I think that song originally came from listening to Bob Marley and thinking, 'Jah, oh, I can sing about that, because we're all talking about the same God.'"

That realization becomes most palpable, he added, in live performance, "especially if you can get to that experience where there's some moment where we're all reminded -- oh, we're all part of the same big thing."

If that requires a certain intimate rapport between the performer and audience, Hayes achieves that in spades on Big Black Hole. You can hear it in his vibrato-laden vocals, which share the open, vulnerable quality of such contemporary scene makers as Conor Oberst, Devendra Banhart and Antony (and the Johnsons), with a touch of Tim Buckley for good measure.

And it's in his approach to recording as well. Neither as lo-fi as his first two CDs nor as painstakingly poured over as his producer-pal's eponymous debut, Big Black Hole is an aural document of Hayes' most recent songs and musical affiliations. "Etienne said we should do it in a studio, " Hayes explained, "but I said, 'No, I think I just want to hang out in your garage, I really trust your ears.'"

"It was like trying to figure out how to make a record without too much money, to just get these songs out," he continued. "I didn't have a real clear vision -- I just wanted to do it. Getting everybody in the same room was tricky enough -- keeping people on track and getting it done without taking a long time."

With Hayes singing and picking guitar, mandolin and banjo, de Rocher playing piano, keyboards and bass and adding harmony vocals, Ches Smith doing most of the drumming, and Ara Anderson (Tin Hat, Tom Waits) blowing a variety of horns, the sounds range from Appalachian old-time to trip-hop and reggae. "Etienne was a little worried that it might sound like a couple of different records," Hayes granted. "He comes a little more from the production side . But like my last record, Alabama Chicken, this was about the people I've been playing with -- y'all come over and let's see what happens. I was still like, 'I've just been playing with Ara, so I'd like to get him in here and see what he does.' And I was ready to put it out."

Hayes came to his mix-and-match aesthetic by singing along to records in his older brother's collection (Blondie, Billy Joel, the Beatles), getting turned on to Bob Marley in the eighth or ninth grade by a friend's rasta sister ("that really stuck for me") and crashing into bluegrass in college. "A guy down the hall had a banjo and played bluegrass," Hayes recalled. "At first, I was kind of repulsed, and then very quickly I was blown away. Now I really love old-time music, not bluegrass -- the old-time trancey clawhammer banjo stuff, really raw and not very commercialized."

Up to that point, Hayes had done most of his public singing in high school theater productions, but when a friend drove h - SF Gate

"Sean Hayes Big Black Hole and the Little Baby Star (self-released)"

Remember when David Gray “came out of nowhere” after languishing eight years in the record store folk bin ghetto to be everywhere, and not just on the radio but sweetly across café sound systems from Seattle to Reykjavik? He did it with a self-financed kitchen recording of what seemed like a groundbreaking meld of acoustic guitar and electronic beats. If lightning could strike twice, another blue-eyed soul troubadour of a uniquely American sort would be carrying the acoustic-electric torch to the soul-starved world: Sean Hayes. The independent San Francisco artist has been growing his audience for years now with a sound that hearkens to the rural Carolina of his upbringing, but is infused with clever quirkiness, hard-won poetic wisdom and a hint of Haight-style moon dust. On his latest CD, Big Black Hole and the Little Baby Star, Hayes teams up with producer/singer-songwriter Etienne de Rocher, who keeps Hayes’ organic Americana intact, but embellishes it with subtle electronic grooves on a handful of tracks and, overall, gives Hayes’ music a more pop-oriented feel. The bedraggled Hayes takes his clear yet quavering voice on turns from tender quirk-folk and neo-Americana to the realm of Jack Johnson, Van Morrison and meditative slo-core. It’s a unique style that the modern American version of John Peel—KCRW tastemaker Nic Harcourt—raves about. Joining his acoustic tapestries, Hayes’ voice cracks and the soul rushes out.

Get copies at .

—Todd Spencer - Conscience Choice Magazine, October 2006


Flowering Spade, new album will be released May 22, 2007
Big Black Hole and the Little Baby Star, 2006
Alabama Chicken, 2004
Lunar Lust, 2002
A Thousand Tiny Pieces, 1999


Feeling a bit camera shy


Sean Hayes plays Appalachian Ambient Folk music like an Irish rooster channeling Nick Drake... "All night til sunrise music". Born on August 27, 1969 in New York City, a few years later Hayes' family moved to North Carolina. Sean Hayes began playing traditional American and Irish music with a band called the Boys of Bluehill. He traveled the south, from the Black Mountain Music festival (LEAF Festival) in the Blueridge Mountains down to Charleston, South Carolina.

Sean Hayes has lived in San Francisco since 1992, he has released four independent records, appeared on KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic, and WFUV's Whole Wide World with Rita Houston, is a frequent guest of the acclaimed Los Angeles Largo (nightclub) and has played with many fine musicians such as Jolie Holland, Ara Anderson, Etienne de Rocher, Todd Roper and Ches Smith. Hayes' Rattlesnake Charm has been re-mixed by Mark Farina and Stephane Pompougnac on Hôtel Costes, Vol. 8.