The Bay Area singer-songwriter Sean Hayes has released a new album, Be Like Water, his first in five years. And while it comes at a time when people are feeling their way out of the isolation of the pandemic, our psyches battered and bruised by so much loss and grief, Hayes says, “This was not a pandemic record.”
And it’s not, by virtue of the fact that the songs on Be Like Water were all written years before the coronavirus hit. When life and live music shut down in March 2020, Hayes tucked all those songs away in a drawer.
“But also during the pandemic, I did feel an incredible urge to clean out all the leftover things,” he says. “Before we got out of it, I wanted to have a really clean slate.”
So, last November, he got a band together in a professional studio and re-recorded all the songs.
Released now, Be Like Water is inevitably a pandemic record. It carries so many messages that many of us need in this moment: in almost every song, the lyrics journey from suffering to acceptance, from letting pain fester to letting it go, from worrying over the past or future to finding solace in the present. Musically, some songs allow for contemplating sadness—pandemic-inspired or otherwise—while others compel movement and release.
Hayes spoke to KQED about his sources of inspiration and healing.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You were working on the songs on this record over the course of a few years. What was going on in your life at the time?
There’s a song in there called “Tomorrow Tonight": “I have to beg, steal and borrow.” And that song is all about the anxiety of Bay Area real estate. So we were renting, we have two kids and then we had to move when we first got to Petaluma. And it starts to get really stressful. So, what’s the hook: “Let’s forget about tomorrow, tonight.”
I have a propensity to get ahead of myself, and catastrophize, is the word I learned recently — think about all the worst possible outcomes. So a lot of it’s about getting myself back to the moment and not getting really far out.
The record's called Be Like Water, and there's a song called “Water.” I did the I Ching way back in the day with some friends — it’s an old Chinese book of divination, and my role was to be like water, to follow the path of least resistance. And that stuck around for years and it would try to come out in a song.
“Oh, the book said, it said, ‘Be like water, be like water,’” and that's as far as it would ever go. Then I started playing that James Brown tune, “Sex Machine” — “Get up! Get on up!” So finally, I got “You got to get up, get up to get down,” which is water as well, because water is constantly recycling. It's pulled up and then it comes down, pulls up and comes down. It’s just reminding yourself not to hold on too tightly — to let people help you, to let the world help you. So I write songs to kind of remember little spiritual, philosophical ideas. I like these little mantra trances.
What about the song “Invisible Weight”?
The best way to describe that one is: something's bothering you, like an episode from 15 years ago. “Did that go down that way? Do I need to feel bad about that?” And then eventually, “Do I need to call that person?”
That song's just about making that phone call and dealing with that invisible weight that you might be carrying around. You’ve got to deal with those moments because they keep coming back. That's part of creation for me, carving out the stuff that's festering and needs to move out. That's a great thing about songwriting is it enables you to do some of that work.
So with the songs on this record getting released, has that cleared out your drawer? Given you a clean slate?
I'm almost there. The other thing I’m doing right now is some covers. I'm hoping to put out a bibliography of the record that I just made, which is all the songs I’ve been playing for the last five or six years that have influenced these songs. It's really cool to see the influences and to pay more attention to that as I've gotten older, to see where these things are actually stemming from.
There are songs from Hank Williams, from different blues artists where I can point exactly to how it influenced the songs on Be Like Water. Artists like Little Walter, the blues harmonica player from the ’50s, and Junior Kimbrough, he’s a blues artist from Mississippi. I really love raw recordings, and there's one of him playing “Meet Me in the City,” it sounds like it's on a little cassette tape. I played that song so many times that it influenced the guitar playing on “Faded.” That's a fun song for me. I enjoy that one.
That one is the hardest one for me.
Yeah. There’s a lot of me being unsatisfied with where I’m at in that song, and reflecting on yourself in negative ways and struggling. I just like where it lands at the end: “Something about you, and me,” the way it ends in this little love song, even though the whole thing is not.
Do you identify more with being a musician or a poet?
It’s interesting, I don't allow myself to be thought of as a poet, but I would probably identify with it much more in a lot of ways, because the words mean a lot to me. My music is very simple and very folky, and usually the lyric is the thing I'm struggling with. I don't necessarily think of myself as a poet, but I probably think of myself as words first, music second.
Why are you not more famous?
There's a million answers to that question.
From an industry standpoint, it's just me putting out the music. It's very hand-to-mouth, so if you find out about this record, it's because you know somebody who liked it and passed it on to you. I've had moments where the stars popped out a little bit, but there's never been a machine behind it in any way, shape or form. I just get up and work on the music.
I think it's harder to get known than people realize. We kind of have this romantic thing of, if you like the music, then everybody must know about it, right? No, not at all. There's so many people in the Bay Area who have no idea I exist at all. I meet them every day.
Is there part of you that hasn’t quite wanted it?
There may be some psychological stuff going on there. I do have a weird tendency, if I meet somebody who can give me something, I'll run the opposite direction. I was really bad at that in my twenties and thirties. If you were a fancy booking agent or a cool manager, I would just think ‘I don't want to talk to that person,’ because I don't want to want or need anything. So that's my problem. I've just never been a part of that big industry, my brain just doesn't work that way. I'm a folk musician, really grassrootsy. I believe I am right where I should be, and people find the music when they are supposed to find it.