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Guitars and Gorgeous Songs: Annie Hayden answers questions about The Rub and other things

by Dave Heaton

The New Jersey-based rock band Spent remains, for me, one of the most underrated groups I can think of. With two albums, some other singles, EPs, etc. and a habit of seemingly nonstop touring, Spent rocked the latter half of the 90s with a mix of pretty pop melodies, intense guitars, poetic lyrics and an overall sense of artistry. Ever since they broke up in 1997, I've had the "what are they up to now?" question floating around the back of my brain. The latest proof that if you're lazy enough the answers will come to you is the recent release of The Rub, the debut album from Annie Hayden, former guitarist/vocalist for Spent. Released by Merge Records (as both of Spent's albums were), The Rub is a gorgeous collection of relaxed pop songs which showcase Hayden's nimble guitar playing and pretty voice. Spent drummer Ed Radich plays as part of her backing band, and the album was recorded and mixed by John King, another Spent member. While the textures are softer and more lush than the more rock-oriented music of Spent, The Rub is just as creative, pleasurable and rewarding. To find out more about Annie Hayden and her album, I asked her the following questions over e-mail...

First off, could you tell me the basic facts behind the writing and recording of The Rub? Is this something you've been working on since Spent broke up, or did you take time off from music before doing this album? Have you been involved in any other musical endeavors since Spent?

Some of the songs were in some form of existence even before Spent split up, especially the last track, which we had started to demo but never finished. I haven't been involved with any other musical endeavors.

The album's mood/style is quieter and softer than Spent's music (it doesn't "rock" as much). To what extent does your songwriting style change when you're writing songs for a solo release versus writing songs for a band situation? In other words, did you set out to write a more relaxing type of album or is it a natural effect of writing songs on your own?

It's the natural effect thing, for sure. The band situation offers a whole other dynamic, also natural.

As I listened to the album the first time, something about the guitar playing in the first two songs made me think, "she should do an instrumental album." Then I listened further and discovered that there are 4 instrumentals on the album. Concerning your songwriting process for these: were those songs conceived to be instrumentals right from the start, or did they just end up that way? Have you ever considered heading further into instrumental music, doing an instrumental album?

Although I never deliberately set out to do an instrumental, there was no doubt when they were coming along that they would be. I have considered doing only instrumental stuff and still do. But the problem is that I love to sing. As they say, Never say never.

Two of the other members of Spent appear in different capacities on this album--could you tell me what the members of Spent besides yourself are up to these days? Do the others have current or upcoming musical projects?

The Spenties are all musically occupied at the moment, I am happy to report. Lately they've been backing me up for live performances to support the record, and they are all regularly playing their instruments and doing some writing/playing with other friends. I expect some physical manifestation to present itself hopefully soon! Now that John King's an ace engineer and everything...

Spent seemed to tour pretty heavily. Have you been or will you be touring behind this album? Generally speaking, what is your attitude towards performing live these days?

There is no official, proper tour happening. Just doing whatever we can without going too far away. My attitude about playing out could be much better; I find it a daunting, although not necessarily thankless task. I unfortunately think of it as like going to visit someone in a nursing home: you dread it but then once you're there, you're fine. It's a lot of work and I'm lucky to have such an enthusiastic band. If it wasn't for them, I don't think I could do it.

I wanted to ask about "Wood and Glue," my favorite song on the album. It has some non-central elements that are absolutely beautiful, like the trumpet and the echoing guitar part--were those two parts conceived in your head when you wrote the song, or are they embellishments that were added later? What else can you tell me about that particular song?

"Wood and Glue" began in my head on a trip to Bennington College, Vermont, to play a Spent show. The trumpets were the driving (no pun intended) force, that is, they were what I looked forward to and everything revolved around that melody. The echoing guitar part was also intended from the get-go. It wasn't until we started recording that I lit a fire under my butt to write the rest of it, especially vocal melody and lyrics (ugh! it was like pulling teeth). Certainly the mellotron was an embellishment, and Kevin Olsen's piano as well. It's my favorite, too, cuz I think it has the richest texture without sounding like any one part was frivolous or too imposing.

The Rub includes one cover, "Albatross" by Peter Green. I must confess I don't really know who Peter Green is (though, thanks to the internet, I just learned that he was a founding member of Fleetwood Mac.) What can you tell me about that song and why you chose to cover it?

Doing piano work is very conducive (perhaps too much so) to noodling around and trying to figure out your favorite songs, i.e. lately I'm obsessed with Todd Rundgren's "Hello It's Me." A while ago I had come up with my version of "Albatross," which, in its original form, is one of the most beautiful, pleasing songs I have ever heard. I was fixing to do a cover on the record and I was trying to decide between "Swingin' Party" by the Replacements or something by China Crisis when I realized that I already knew how to play (some might debate that!) "Albatross" on piano and why not do it? I had to overcome my trepidation about treading on sacred ground, and lord knows I'd be a fool to try to play it on guitar. So I took the plunge. I also tried to pay simultaneous homage to Danny Kirwan (another F.Mac guy) by quoting one of his songs on the mellotron as a counter-melody.

I've always been really taken by your guitar playing--seeing Spent play live, your guitar always stuck out from the overall sound. I'm not a guitar expert, so I'm not sure how to explain it, but something about the way you play guitar has always struck me as unique. Have you played guitar for much of your life? How would you characterize your approach to playing guitar?

I started playing in 1989 and I would characterize it now the same way it was then: just doing whatever needs to be done, as long as I can play it! I am of the untrained, undisciplined ilk of guitar players -- the guitar is a great mystery to me, along with the circle of fifths and any other musical theory-oriented concepts.

I have one more Spent-related question, if you don't mind. Merge Records' 10-year anniversary album, Oh Merge!, included a Spent song, "(I'll Clean Up) The Mess That You Are"), that the liner notes said was from 1999--which was 2 years after I thought Spent broke up. Did the four of you come back together just for that particular song, or was it recorded earlier?

Yes, we "reunited" (I'm thinking of that song "Reunited and it feels so good..." you know the one I mean?) for "Mess".

One last question, one I always ask: If there's an album, movie or live performance that has blown you away recently, please tell me what it is.

Oh God, I'm a cultural delinquent. I'm a sucker for the sad stuff. I took myself to see The House of Mirth and had no idea of the tragedy I was in for. I cried bitterly all the way to the subway. And contrary to some of the reviews I read, I thought Gillian Anderson was really good.

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