Story Just Wrote with Music: Interview with Doug Hoekstra

A song ain’t nothin’ in the world but a story just wrote with music to it.”

— Hank Williams

When a Doug Hoekstra album is reviewed — there’ve been ten since 1994, including a much-adored live bootleg — the Nashville performer’s lyricism inevitably receives comment. “Poetic”, they’ve called it: “studied”, “sensitive”, spiritual”, and “true”. Adequacy magazine compared Hoekstra’s writing to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, while PopMatters‘ own Dave Heaton, in his review of Hoekstra’s Su Casa, Mi Casa, paid special attention to the singer’s talent for “soaking up places and people, and then using his pen and guitar to capture them as completely as those tools can.” His songs are little stories, social and behavioral commentaries that urge the listener to look closer — at people, places, life, and art. From “Watercolor Rose” (Six Songs, 2005):

It was a college class,

I introduced myself at last,

You rubbed your palms against your jeans,

I knew right there and than,

I’d like you even better when,

I discovered what your secrets mean.

Hoekstra loves to explore life’s revealing imagery. His eye for important touches, backwards glances, and the potential for poetry in describing them is the highlight of Hoekstra’s latest creative endeavor, Bothering the Coffee Drinkers, a collection of 17 short stories from a predominant and familiar perspective — that of the traveling musician struggling to connect with his audience. Those stories not written from the direct POV of the artist usually study the independent music scene. Hoekstra’s experiences playing music across the globe (this month, he’ll headline in Madison, Wisconsin and Oslo, Norway), give his stories the kind of ultra-realism even the best rock novels often lack: awareness of the indie world from the inside. Hoekstra knows what it’s like to work with striving session artists, what it’s like to live in a bus, plane, slow-moving cab. He’s also stared into the faces of an audience either attentive, not listening, pretending not to listen, or couldn’t care less. In his book, each of these groups is served with equal parts understanding and criticism:

As Johnny Q began playing, he saw an all-too familiar cast of characters tricking through the front door of the bookstore. Soon there would be a little girl in pigtails about five years old dancing in the front, smiling and running back to her mom who sat nearby, reading a copy of Redbook and generally ignoring both the child and the music. Next to her at the table would be her husband, face buried in a Something for Dummies bock, rocking the two-year-old sibling, who was sitting in a stroller with a pacifier stuffed into the mouth, They looked permanently distracted, the parents, and much too tired to clap.

It’s a strange homage to the characters in that world, most clearly the road-tested backstage men and women, pulling together with little up-front glory to see that the frontman’s dream continues. They rope, rig, and pull, riding side by side with the likes of Johnny Q, the Doug-like singer/songwriter addicted to performing and propping himself up with little victories in the music world — “a song that was favorably reviewed in Billboard … a song that wound up in an independent film that played on the Sundance Channel from time to time”. Whether directly Doug or not, the stories each contain multiple theories about music and art, popular versus independent, the challenges facing musicians at all levels. It’s a grounded, informative, extraordinary piece of work.

PopMatters dished with Hoekstra about his lyrics, storytelling, life on the road, and the rewards of a life on the indie circuit.

Have you always written prose? How do they styles compare for you?

I’ve always written short stories, as well as songs, since I was a kid. I’ve always been interested in both. I read something where Kris Kristofferson said, in terms of songwriting, that the brain works more melodically when you’re younger, and then more lyrically as you age. It’s difficult to generalize — I don’t know if that’s true or not. I think I’ve been drawn to prose more of late, maybe because I have more range of experience to draw from. But, I’ve always done both.

My songwriting has always been narrative based — I don’t come from the confessional school of singing about me, me, me. I tend to write characters into my songs and often write lyrics in third person or in the guise of a different individual than someone who is obviously me. So, in that case, it isn’t that much of a leap from songwriting to prose. And, really, I think there are common threads — whether you’re talking about visual art or films or stories or songs, you still have an artist working to communicate human feeling and experience in a way that is real and truthful and connects to the audience in some way. People are drawn to narratives of all sorts, and even more abstract ‘stories’ you see in art, because it mirrors our lives, and helps us make sense of our lives. So, no matter what the choice of medium, artists are going to bear witness to life, drawing on conflicts, beauty, terror — whatever they feel needs to be said.

As for choosing one form or the other, for me, it tends to be pretty intuitive, just how I feel about approaching a certain idea. For example, Bothering the Coffee Drinkers is a book full of stories closely or vaguely related to the land of music and I don’t think it would be very interesting to go see a singer/songwriter sing a bunch of tunes about exactly what he’s doing at that moment, nor would I feel real comfortable doing it. I think the ideas are better served by prose. I’ve only written one song about the music biz — “Laminate Man”, which pokes fun at a music biz A&R guy who attends events like South by Southwest.

On the other side of the coin, I have a new song called “Instincts”, that’s more poetic, it’s all about tried and true instincts of life letting this character down, which was somewhat inspired by our current leader’s (and I use the term loosely) ridiculous misguided over-reliance on his “gut” in matters of international importance. Anyway, I suppose that could be a story, but to me it seemed more meditative and better served by a bed of music and a series of thoughts put into a personal, less political, context by this character. So, it’s a song.

Do your songs and stories come together similarly?

Writing stories or “words only” is more solitary — you write it and then, maybe you have input from an editor and then it’s out there for consumption. A song, I think, has more layers of creation — you write it on guitar or piano, you tinker with the lyrics, you might demo it at home, then you take it into the studio, where the engineer and players will interpret it and shade it, then you go play it live and the song may change again, connected to audience response. But, in the end, in both cases (story and song), I try to do the same thing: communicate honestly, play to my strengths, and hopefully, connect with folks on the other end.

You appear to have spearheaded your own marketing campaign with this book. Is that a grind for you, the promotion, trying to open doors, to get your stories read, or is it a natural part of this job as of 2006?

I think it’s a natural part of the job, and probably something I’m well used to, having CDs out. Often, with indie labels, the sad reality is you often can’t count on them to do much more than manufacturing. Therefore, you either give in and let the record die upon release, or you try to pick up the ball and run with it wherever you can. So, when this book rolled around, I just figured, well, I might as well draw on my experience and contacts and do what I can. This publisher has been much better than most of my indie labels, but still — if an artist believes in the work, then the artist should care about getting it in front of more folks and promotion is part of that, for better or worse. At its core, it’s simple — you get more radio, you get more press, you do more shows, [and] your book/record/painting will be processed by more people. And, you know, many artists on “big” labels or “major” presses get overlooked by their own built-in promotion staffs, so this dynamic isn’t exclusive to the indies anymore.

How does the philosophy that “everyone is/has a story” affect your life day to day? Are you always looking for the next story?

Oh, I don’t know if I’m looking for it, but I do think I have my radar out there and I’m the kind of guy who likes to stand back and observe, so I see things and make connections pretty naturally.

Is “Bothering the Coffee Drinkers” [phrase and story] an apt description for the life of a traveling musician?

It’s symbolic, but also specific to the experience of playing those bookstore/coffeehouse gigs, where you get booked in to fill a date on the road to somewhere else and the promotion is poor and you wind up not playing for a lot of folks or simply “bothering” those who are there while they are occupied with something else. But, sometimes those gigs wind up better than you think, and in the end, you’re still “doing it” as opposed to standing on the sidelines, so you’re still moving forward — ideally. Anyway, I tried to write the story to carry some optimism or redemption, in that sense. No matter who you are or what level you’re at, it’s still about the moment and doing the best show you can for whoever’s there. As an artist, you do have to honor your side of it, as well.

What’s behind that faux intellect thing at a lot of these coffee places — buying the triple lattes but ignoring the books and records all around. Is it fakery? Is it fair to say you’ve encountered more of the coffee drinkers than the genuine artists and thinkers looking to be enlightened or just entertained?

I don’t know if it’s faux intellect as much as disinterest. I think it speaks more to how artists are valued — or not. Artists have always struggled with this dynamic throughout the ages, for a variety of reasons, but it could be worse right now, simply due to the glut of “product” that’s out there.

I remember once I was playing a pub in Brighton, UK, and the owner told me that when he bought it, it was a “no cover” pub. And, he said, he had to stand at the door every night telling people it cost five or ten quid or whatever to get in. They’d complain, and then he’d say: “Well, while you were sitting on the sofa watching football on the telly, these performers were practicing and working on their craft, and that’s why you have to pay.” And, then, he said, after about two years of this, him giving this spiel every night, the “punters” would show up and simply ask, “How much?” So, part of it is just the fact that some folks don’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Some folks aren’t willing to meet an artist halfway either, they want a human jukebox or a piece of writing that is exactly like what they know. I suppose that’s fine if that’s where you’re at, but if you are going to come along for the ride, then open up a little, engage, listen, help support it.

All that said, I think I’ve encountered just as many thinkers and genuine folks in the audiences I’ve played for. Being an “indie” musician, one cultivates supporters who have tremendous loyalty and sensitivity to what you’re doing and that is very gratifying. Particularly over in Europe, if people respond and like you, they stay with you from project to project. I’m fortunate to have sown friendships all over the world, and learned a lot in the process, from people who are generous and open, sharing their lives with me as I come into their town, city, and/or country.

So, hopefully the stories in the book reflect that even when the immediate picture may look a bit tough, there are, in fact, layers of reward in the experience. I do believe that, that even when someone is “bothering” the coffee drinkers, you can look around the audience and find folks connecting and digging what he or she is doing, and from those connections, all sorts of good things emerge, immediately or further on down the road.