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Hayden hits Halifax

Hayden travels through Canada, braving the dead of winter chill, to tour In Field & Town


Having spent nearly half of his life as a professional musician, Hayden knows a thing or two about life on the road---passing through the vast and varied communities of suburbs, cities, sleepy towns and the desolate miles in-between. The ever-longing Paul Hayden Desser (known simply as Hayden), recently returned from a European stint to be met with the conditions that tie and bind us all---the dead of winter.

“It was a bit of a shock coming back,” Desser says, calling from his home in Toronto. “I like winter, but stupid me has booked a tour of Canada in January and February. The only bonus is that I’ll be the only one touring at that time. People will be starved for entertainment.”

Famished is more like it, as the last anyone heard from the reclusive songwriter was 2004’s Elk-Lake Serenade, a woodsy album full of wandering cats, Hollywood endings and accidentally eavesdropping on neighbours quarrelling through the radiators. There was ground support for Oshawa’s Cuff the Duke (on both their 2005 self-titled full-length, and their latest, Sidelines of the City) and Basia Bulat’s Oh My Darling, via Hayden’s label Hardwood Records, but true to his own hermetic nature, the 36-year-old has been laying low. Thematic ideas and experiences found throughout In Field & Town are reminiscent of his life: when Desser’s not buried into his Toronto home-studio, he spends most of his time north of the city, “in an undisclosed location.” 

“The concept was just to make another record,” he says, hesitantly. “I rarely have a huge sort of detailed, laid-out plan of anything before I get into it. I don’t really work that way, so everything just takes on a life or develops by steps. And in the end I can only look at it and sort of wonder how it all happened.”

Hayden’s discography unfolds in a similar fashion. What began in 1994 with a handmade cassette release, In September, eventually became a 14-year career. More akin to the literary genre of a bildingsroman, his sophomore release, Everything I Long For---a quintessential audio coming-of-age for the mid-’90s---garnered him national attention. (Not to mention that it nabbed critics’ props, coming in at number 66 in Bob Mersereau’s 2007 book, The Top 100 Canadian Albums.)

“I paid good money to get Everything I Long For on that list,” say Desser. “Some of my all-time favourite musical heroes are Canadian, prior to the indie-rock explosion of the 2000s. Though I’m not really a part of what’s been going on internationally, I’d have to say there is a role for me, maybe as an extra, walking around in the background.”

Not one to take much credit or flattery, the soft-spoken, shy folkster followed up his ode to suburban Southern Ontario with 1996’s Moving Careful EP and a commissioned titular track for Steve Buscemi’s Trees Lounge. The film, written, directed and starring Buscemi, is about Tom Basilio, an alcoholic fixture at his neighbourhood bar, Trees Lounge. The duo also collaborated as directors for the Trees Lounge music video, which features the bar’s local boozers as Hayden’s backing band. 

Little was heard from the watering-hole writer until he returned briefly with 1998’s The Closer I Get full-length, and an appearance on Sarah Slean’s pioneering full-length Blue Parade in 1999. Back in May 2007 at the Harbourfront Centre, Slean, dressed in a floor-length golden gown, led the Art of Time Ensemble through Toronto Songbook, a series of Canadian covers. Accompanied by her usual girlish gushing about unrequited love and musical crushes, Slean admitted that one of her indie-infatuations was fellow ex-suburbanite, Mr. Hayden.

“I thought I was the cat’s ass in high school because Hayden played on my record,” she recalled, just before the string section rolled into a rendition of “Stride,” from The Closer I Get. Slean’s supposed short-lived popularity (anyone who went from playing high school assemblies to touring North America and Europe is hardly a nerd) was a direct result of Hayden’s appearances on Blue Parade’s hidden track, “I Want to Be Brave (Madeline).”

Slean and Desser paths crossed again in 2001, on Hayden’s Skyscraper National Park, which features string arrangements by the pop-piano pixie. Other noteworthy musical collaborators on the disc include Bodega’s Andrew Rodriguez, Howie Beck, Noah Mintz and Kurt Swinghammer. Its cardboard-inspired artwork features a red stamp imprint of a bull moose, an omnipresent visual representation of Hayden’s fixation and fascination with nature and animals, not to mention a conscious preference to remove himself and his image from his work.

“I don’t love to talk about it,” he says. “But it’s part of the job. I didn’t do any interviews for the first few months after Skyscraper National Park was released. I was just wondering if I wanted to even do this for a living, so I just slowly made steps getting back into it. Then I ended up talking about it a bit, but generally and to be really honest, I don’t really feel like I express myself well in interviews. My album is sort of my statement, not what I say about it.”

On a bitter winter’s night in March 2002, academics, alumni, local musicians and true-blue fans huddled into the cathedral-like structure of University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall for a long-awaited Hayden concert, with openers Julie Doiron and Howie Beck. The documented affair became 2002’s Live at Convocation Hall, a double disc accompanied by a 16-page booklet of personal photography (the cover shot is a close-up of the shadowbox lamp that rested on the grand piano), featuring the previously unreleased tracks “Holster,” “Two Doors,” a cover of Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why” and “Woody,” the harmonica-driven coy little ditty about his cat frolicking in the backyard in springtime, that later showed up on Elk-Lake Serenade.

“I kind of judge things by their covers, because I don’t know,” he says. “If someone has taken a lot of time in the art of writing a novel or making an album, then being in control of all of the aspects is significant. It’s sort of silly to leave it all to the last minute when it will be people’s first impression of the work.”

Widespread success brought the crooner to Australia, where he toured down under with chanteuse Holly Throsby, the magical vocal instrument and duet partner on “Where and When,” In Field & Town’s first single. Its video was directed by Scott Cudmore (the mastermind behind videos for the Great Lake Swimmers and The National, as well as the vid for local gal Catherine MacLellan’s “Too Easy”). It was shot in Brussels, Belgium, and is destined to become a sure-fire Valentine’s hit. 

“Holly’s from Sydney---she was my opening act while touring Australia,” Desser says. “She’s phenomenal. Her voice is really beautiful and accented. She was actually telling me about how a lot of singers in Australia try and disguise their accent. But in her music it’s very strong and accented and adds a whole other element because of it.”

A web of local connections to Hayden begins with former Inbred Mike O’Neill’s appearance on In Field & Town, and continues with Jenn Grant’s opening slot for his tour dates in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Victoria. But all that over-the-moon orchestration takes place after Hayden’s highly anticipated, sold-out performance at St. John’s United Church.

“No band this time,” says Desser. “There are going to be real pianos at every show, which is great. A lot of my songs this time around were written on the piano, so I’m excited about having a nice piano to play.”


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