“Songs are like little virtual reality machines, temporarily putting you inside someone else’s shoes, or tweaking your own identity to meet the song’s.”
Ryan Walsh, the celebrated songwriter and Hallelujah the Hills lead guitarist and front man, explains his process of recording and appreciating music.
“Sure, they’re fun to dance to, but they are also way more mysterious if you look underneath the hood.”
It’s been three years since HTH’s last full-length release in 2016; over that time, Walsh wrote a successful book about the Van Morrison classic Astral Weeks and the burgeoning rock ’n’ roll scene around Boston in the late ’60s. His band’s latest, I’m You, is its seventh project, and the band heads into its album release party at Great Scott this Thursday with an eager fan base that considers the group among Boston’s musical treasures. That despite putting out music with no label or public relations team, disseminating solely via social media and word of mouth.
It’s no wonder Walsh connects with fans. The HTH lead singer says that among the major themes found on the album is an interrogation of the notion of “identity,” and of the special relationship that people have with music.
“I was also thinking about empathy and relationships between people,” Walsh says. “The phrase ‘I’m You,’ when I came upon that, I really loved it because it seemed to function like a skeleton key, opening up ways to talk about all these different topics I had wanted to explore for years now.”
I’m You has a deep and encompassing sound that pulls you in by the ears and spins you for a walk through bursts of thoughtful lyrics and enchanting harmonies, all built within the framework of firm rock beats, as HTH is loved for. With the mix of Walsh’s lyrics, their classic rock guitar setup, plus bass, drums, piano, and a unique touch of synthesizers, viola, and trumpet, there’s no doubt I’m You will make several album-of-the-year lists.
The first song, “Every Time You Say My Name It Sounds Sinister,” breaks the ice, directly addressing the audience with soothing lyrics: “Hello, I’m the person singing this song,” Walsh acknowledges on the track. Then, a steady crescendo: “If you think that might be you, then I guess you might not be wrong. Trying out new points of view just like we used to do.”
I’m You also offers cryptic messaging that can be deciphered as an invitation to sit at a table where all of us might be the same person, and where you may be able to forget who you are. You can “change your name, cut off your hair,” but, as Walsh advises, “stick to the plan.” And who doesn’t need good advice in this crazy world? This record grabs your shoulder, look you dead in the eye, and breaks it down like an old friend: “Don’t freak out, I’m you.”
“I’ve always been able to proudly say, ‘I don’t think we’ve ever made the same album twice,’” Walsh says. “That is true here, but this album is also talking to the other albums in a way that I’ve never done before.”
There’s a whole lot going on among the band’s daring one-liner titles such as “Folk Music Is Insane,” “Born to Blow It,” “People Keep Dying (And No One Can Stop It),” and “I Went Through Hell (But Now I’m Back).”
“Titles and lyrics are really important to me,” says Walsh, “and oftentimes things start with the title. If I have a compelling title in my notebook, I want to hear what that song would sound like. If a title is strong, unusual or funny, it’s because those are the type of things that will drive me to write a song for that title, you know?”
Nothing is for certain, and I agree with HTH’s title track on which Walsh sings, “I know there’s no guarantees, even Bob Dylan lost his dream girl.” Still, I’d recommend I’m You to anyone.
If you miss their show this week at Great Scott, HTH will also be at ONCE in Somerville on 1.21.20 and are planning a US tour in March. You can stay up to date on their website, hallelujahthehills.com.
Diego was born in Caracas and studied music in Paris and journalism in Bogota. He earned a Master of Science in Journalism at Boston University and is currently contributing to DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.