Langhorne Slim with special guest Lilly Hiatt
Langhorne Slim didn't write a song for more than a year. A battle with clinical anxiety disorder and prescription drug abuse, which came to a head in 2019, had dimmed the light within. The man who once seemed to ooze spontaneity was now creatively adrift, stumbling along in the fog.
In December, he entered a program and, for the first time in a long time, a path toward healing began to emerge. He began to see that inner peace was possible, even with the world outside raging.
A few months later, in February, a tornado came and decimated East Nashville, his adopted hometown. Covid-19 took root just days later, changing lives forever. In the early days of his recovery, a different reality was beginning to take shape, both within and without. New worlds were being born; old worlds were dying.
Knowing he was struggling to write songs and make sense of it all, Slim was finally able to flesh out a throwaway ditty one afternoon. His close friend Mike then suggested he try penning a song a day. Slim didn't like the idea, but he gave it a shot.
To his surprise, the songs came. In a flurry of stream-of-consciousness writing, the new tunes tumbled out, one after another, like little starbursts of joy, gifts from the gods you might say. Slim was tuning out the noise and finding beauty in the madness of a world coming undone. Over the course of a couple of months from March to May, Slim penned more than twenty that were certified keepers. Out of this bumper crop came the songs that make up his new album, Strawberry Mansion, which is being released this winter on Dualtone Records.
"I wasn't sitting on the songs and I wasn't overthinking them," Slim says of the writing process of those months. "Something cracked open with the slowing down and the stillness of quarantine.
After finishing a song, whether he liked the tune or not, he'd call Mike, a videographer, and they'd record it and post it to Instagram. It was a form of therapy, he now realizes. "There was nothing precious about the process and it was a bonding thing between me and Mike as much as anything else," Slim says. "It also gave me a release and maybe some potential form of healing, and was an opportunity to not always listen to the shitty thoughts in my head. I wasn't ever thinking that I was writing songs for a new record."
Prior to this creative outburst, Slim's anxiety had grown so acute there were times when he actually feared picking up his guitar and trying to write. With the help of therapy and friends, he was now learning to confront his demons rather than run from them. So, in the midst of a panic attack one day, he picked up his guitar and the song "Panic Attack" was born. It's a raw, off-the-cuff number that rises above the dark subject matter with spirit, irony and humor. "I called a healthcare professional/ Wanna speak to someone confidentially/ Don't know just how I'm feelin'/ But I'm feelin' feelings exponentially," he sings.
Album-opener "Mighty Soul" details a world beset by Biblical-grade plagues (coronavirus, the Nashville tornado) and government malfunction. It ultimately calls for healing through community and the recognition that we can all make a difference. It functions as the album's spiritual center, a secular gospel number for all mankind.
"Morning Prayer" is inspired by the songwriter's effort to pray for the first time in his life. "It's not in the key of any one religion," Slim says of the number. "For this, I'm grateful that my guitar was unknowingly yet appropriately out of tune. It's a song to help me practice compassion, surrender, connection to nature, the spirits and beyond."
The second part of "Morning Prayer" is one of the most affecting moments on Strawberry Mansion, with the singer reaching out and offering prayers for his loved ones who are struggling, for all of humanity, really. "For my friends who suffer/ For my mother, father and brother/ For a world down on its knees/ I pray for thee," he sings with great poignancy.
The road to Strawberry Mansion, which was recorded at Daylight Sound in Nashville with longtime compadres Paul DeFigilia (Avett Brothers) and Mat Davidson (Twain), began in 2019 with Slim's decision to get sober. Even though the singer-songwriter kicked alcohol years ago, the insidious monster of addiction had crept back into his life in different guises. The last straw came during a road trip with a friend, who, at the end of the journey, let it be known that the man he knew and loved was no longer recognizable. So Slim called his manager and loved ones and soon checked into a program. That experience and his ongoing recovery program have given him a framework for grappling with the personal demons that have always skulked in the shadows, and helped him find light in the void. "It's important for me to talk honestly about these things, because I feel it gives me strength, and it might help others along the way." he says.
Strawberry Mansion is the singer-songwriter's seventh full-length album. He released his first record, Electric Love Letter, back in 2004. Since then he has graced the stages of Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Newport Folk Festival, and the Conan O'Brien show, winning fans over with his heart-on-a-sleeve sincerity and rousing live shows.
Born Sean Scolnick in 1980, Slim took part of his artistic moniker from his hometown of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, a place he's still very much connected to despite making his home in Nashville. Since the advent of Covid-19, he has been traveling back to PA once a month to see his mother and grandmother, and, like many Americans, finding strength in his origins and family bonds. The title Strawberry Mansion refers to the neighborhood in Philadelphia where both of his grandfathers grew up, a place he calls "dirty but sweet, tough but full of love, where giants roamed the earth and had names like Whistle and Curly." That idea of a mythical wonderland informs the new album from head to toe. Strawberry Mansion is not so much about nostalgia for the past as it is about the possibility of better days ahead in this world. These are songs that remind us we're all part of a collective "Mighty Soul," united in one journey, just like the characters in that old Philly neighborhood. It's a life-affirming album for these times.
Lilly Hiatt felt lost. She’d just returned home from the better part of a year on tour in support of her acclaimed third album, ‘Trinity Lane,’ and, stripped of the daily rituals and direction of life on the road, she found herself alone with her thoughts for the first time in what felt like ages.
“When you’re out there on the road, you’re just kind of living, and you don’t have the chance to stop and think about how everything you’re experiencing is affecting you,” says Hiatt. “When I got home, I realized there was a lot I needed to catch up on.”
So Hiatt did what’s always come most natural to her in times of questioning and uncertainty: she picked up a guitar. Over the course of the ensuing winter, she wrote a mountain of new music that grappled with her sense of self and place in the world, reckoning with issues that had been bubbling beneath the surface of her subconscious in some cases for years. The result is ‘Walking Proof,’ Hiatt’s fourth and most probing collection to date. Produced by former Cage the Elephant guitarist Lincoln Parish, the record walks the line between Hiatt’s rough, rock and roll exterior and her tender, country roots, exuding a bold vulnerability as she takes a deep and unflinching look in the mirror. What emerges is a newfound maturity in Hiatt’s writing, an abiding sense of calm in the face of chaos as she learns that sometimes, you have to let go in order to get what you want most.
“It’s crucial to live and let live, to be able to accept things for what they are,” says Hiatt. “Coming to terms with those sorts of boundaries has inspired a lot of growth in me lately, and I’ve realized that it leads to better outcomes in relationships and in art. Things seem to bloom if you can just get out of your own way for long enough.”
Things have been blooming for Hiatt in a big way lately. In 2017, she released ‘Trinity Lane,’ a commercial and critical breakout that helped establish her as one of the leading voices to emerge from the embarrassment of musical riches that is East Nashville. Produced by Shovel & Rope’s Michael Trent, the record earned Hiatt dates with the likes of John Prine, Margo Price, Drive-By Truckers, and Hiss Golden Messenger among others, and helped her secure festival slots everywhere from Pilgrimage and High Water to Luck Reunion and Wildwood Revival. NPR called the album “courageous and affecting,” while The Independent raved that it showcased Hiatt’s “gift for unpicking knotty lyrical themes in a personalised blend of countrified rock music,” and Rolling Stone hailed it as “the most cohesive and declarative statement of the young songwriter’s career.”
As rewarding as the album’s success was, the collection came from an emotionally challenging place, and Hiatt found herself frequently revisiting the hurt and struggle that inspired it as she spoke candidly to press about her painful breakup, her struggles with sobriety, and the overwhelming sadness of her mother’s suicide. Rather than succumbing to the weight of it all, though, Hiatt managed to emerge stronger and more serene from the experience, treating it as a foundation from which she could begin the essential work of re-examining her relationships with herself and the world around her.
“When I got that little gap in my schedule over the winter, it gave me the chance to appreciate some mental stillness,” says Hiatt. “I can be a pretty anxious person, but I found a sense of peace by deconstructing all of these interactions and emotions I’d experienced and reconfiguring them into songs. It helped me make sense of everything and learn to relax.”
By the time she headed into Parish’s Nashville studio in May, Hiatt had piled up more than twenty-five new songs, and with the producer’s help, she pared it down to a tight and cohesive eleven. After capturing the core performances live with her band over the course of roughly a week, Hiatt devoted the early part of the summer to finishing touches, which included contributions from friends like Amanda Shires and Aaron Lee Tasjan along with a guest appearance from her father, legendary songwriter John Hiatt, who joins his daughter on record for the first time here.
“The energy was electric in the studio,” says Hiatt. “Lincoln’s a very intuitive person, and the sessions just felt like a bunch of old friends getting together. We developed a sense of trust early on that made everything totally comfortable and effortless.”
That effortless comfort is apparent from the outset of ‘Walking Proof,’ which opens with the muscular yet dreamy “Rae.” A tribute to the impossibly deep bonds of sisterhood, the track showcases Hiatt’s deft ability to shift from gentle intimacy to brawny grit and back, and it lays the groundwork for a record all about the endless search for self. “Sometimes I pretend this isn’t who I am,” she sings early in the tune. “I throw caution to the wind and don’t give a damn / But I can’t get away.” The infectious “Drawl” locates the beauty in the simple things that define us, while the effervescent “Brightest Star” celebrates the outcasts and misfits who never seem to get their way, and the driving “Some Kind of Drug” tries to make sense of who gets by and who gets left behind in this world.
“I rode along with my sister some nights this winter helping the homeless in Nashville, and I met so many incredible people going through such hard times,” says Hiatt. “It made me think a lot about what we’re losing in this town, about who decides what constitutes progress and the pain that comes with it.”
Though the record does indeed grapple with hard times, it also makes plenty of room for joy and gratitude, and it stands undoubtedly as the most upbeat and optimistic work in Hiatt’s catalog. The breezy “Candy Lunch” finds comfort in accepting what lies beyond our control, while the searing “P-Town” responds to a bad day with wry humor and resilience, and the slinky “Little Believer” revels in the ecstasy of new love. It’s perhaps the bare-bones title track, though, that encapsulates the album’s spirit best, as Hiatt offers a lilting refrain full of empathy and faith: “I could tell you that it’s easy, but that wouldn’t be the truth / If you ever need to call me, well you know there’s walking proof.”
Lilly Hiatt’s not feeling so lost these days, and with ‘Walking Proof,’ she’s crafted a roadmap to share with the rest of us.