"More Than Alive"—the second track on In Field & Town, the latest from Canadian songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Hayden Desser—is a perfect twin siphon of hope and hung heads. Just as Desser's voice is weary but light and his melody major but subdued, the song's words temper a bright future with the thick gray clouds of the present. In the first of two short verses, Desser observes his subject driving alone, gazing from afar at others who do the same thing: "If you could have one minute alone with yourself when you were young, do you think you would lie?" Desser asks these self-proclaimed failures, juxtaposing a dreamy juvenile history with a nightmarish adult pragmatism.
But on the other side of a 90-second instrumental break, things are different: Desser is speaking in the first person here, and we see that he's been that lonely person "backed in the corner" all along, scared to return to his youthful glory and vision. Hesitantly at first but gradually growing bolder, he sings, "We're leaving tonight/ We're leaving tonight." The future, he seems to imply via instrumental restraint (imagine this in The Polyphonic Spree's hands, and cringe), may not be perfect, but anything's better than sitting around and waiting for nothing to change. Maybe this is just another break-up song in a long list of them for Desser, but—if such a sentiment doesn't apply to a situation in your life—you're better off than most.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: The liner notes to In Field & Town are offered as a small, handwritten notebook. It lends itself to the quietness and intimacy of the record. Who's idea was that?
HAYDEN DESSER: As I'm working on songs, I keep a series of notebooks like that one around, and I end up writing all my ideas and lyrics and notes about the project on a book that looks like that. We thought it would be a good idea to recreate it for the album. I had to rewrite all of them because my writing's pretty messy when I'm in the middle of working on ideas.
The notebook is very neat—one song per page, all squarely written down the left margin. That's probably not how your real notebooks look, right?
Songs usually take between five and 10 pages of working things out, finding the sentence that says the most and makes the most sense and means the most to me. So, yeah, usually there are a bunch of lines scratched out and rewritten and verses that are changing.
Each page has a slot for the date, but none of them are filled in. When was this song written?
It was written kind of early on in 2005, I guess. It definitely started out as a strictly piano ballad that was under two minutes long, and it stayed that way for a while until I wanted to try and see if I could turn it into something more. It expanded density-wise beyond anything I'd really envisioned for it.
You mentioned the brevity of the early versions of this song, which is interesting because the instrumental midsection of this album version occupies about half of these three minutes. Did that just happen, or was that a discussion with the other musicians on the track?
Well, there was no band for that song. [Eds. Note: Aside from Desser, three musicians are credited in the liner notes.] I didn't envision it at all. I just sort of added one instrument and then another thing. What was down there first was just the piano, and I ended up just looping one phrase of the piano several times and playing over the top of it. That's actually what the middle section is—layer upon layer of guitar tracks and bells and vibes and a melodica and this little music box that played "Moon River" that I deconstructed and put my own notes to. There's just a whole series of things that make up that middle section. I just really like hearing that phrase repeated, and I like building upon it. That's where it came from.
Where did you get the music box come?
There are two little toy pianos that I have, and those are on there. And [the music box] is one of those cheap things you buy at a souvenir shop, and you turn the handle and it plays a little song. The one I had was "Moon River" so I used some notes in a different order from that.
This song has a sort of muted hope. The second verse says "We're leaving tonight," but it's still pretty quiet, and no one has left yet. Do you believe the hope you sing about right there?
Just towards the end, after the musical explosion, it takes a rallying kind of turn. But it's kind of talking myself into something just as much as it is being the leader of something.
In the first verse, you're only singing in second person. You speak as "we" in the second verse, though. Why was that important to you?
The second half is when I bring myself into the story, I think. That's the difference there.
"If you could have one minute alone with yourself when you were young/ do you think you would lie?" What would we lie about?
It's sort of the idea of how you picture yourself when you're young and you're dreaming about where you'll be at a certain age in your life. It's the idea that, if things didn't work out the way you planned, you wouldn't want to say where you ended up or how you ended up or what kind of person you ended up as. It's a little negative. [Laughs.]
If you were a big mistake, though, wouldn't you want to warn yourself not to be yourself?
[Laughs.] Perhaps. Perhaps that's true.
Hayden plays Local 506 Tuesday, June 10, at 9:30 p.m. with Haley Bonar. Tickets are $12-$14.