Surviving a False Start
Though they bought their East Nashville place about five years ago, the Hawthorns kept bouncing back and forth from there to their L.A. apartment. “It was kind of like the best of both worlds. But you can only do that for so long,” maintains Johnny, who watched “what I [once] considered a very robust and healthy music scene” on the West Coast suddenly becoming a “fading” memory. Though not 100 percent committed to make the Music City their permanent home, Johnny allows, “Overall, I would say moving here is positive and we enjoy it and we’re glad to be here.”
When the pandemic hit in 2020, right as they were preparing for a formidable tour that included dates at South by Southwest and with Toad the Wet Sprocket, the HawtThorns were stopped in their tracks. Six months after Morning Sun’s release, they had nowhere to go but … back to their new home away from home.
With Johnny out west and KP in Nashville when the country was on the verge of shutting down, he got a plane ticket out of L.A. just in time. In a way, the Hawthorns were brought together again during the worst of times as two battle-tested road warriors who thrive to survive. “We never moved back [to L.A.],” Johnny proclaims. “That’s basically when we moved here [full-time] .” On ending their California residency that December, KP acknowledges, “We were happy to be done with it, actually.”
With that decided, they turned to jump-starting the HawtThorns. “It’s like [becoming] a brand new band [trying to get] the momentum back after being shut down like that,” KP observes. “Then everybody was suddenly doing stuff online. … It didn’t really sound good to me. Everybody sucked. Everybody was sad and desperate in putting up their tip jar things. Good for them that they did it but for me, it just seemed really depressing.”
While deciding to record a couple of cover tunes, including Tom Petty’s “Time to Move On”, to keep their fan base “percolating,” Johnny and KP eventually returned to L.A. for work-related activities but weren’t ready to make an album. They stayed a couple of weeks with longtime friend Steve Berns, who had made KP a producing partner at his Fitting Room Studio in Canoga Park a while back. He talked them into recording some songs during their visit. “We started going through our iPhones … ‘cause we had been writing and writing, [and] found a whole record in there,” KP remembers. “That’s what happens, you know. You just have to kind of go with the moment. And we did.” In May 2021, Berns’ studio started coming alive with the sound of HawtThorns music.
Personal Time and Space
With songs that cover miles of styles and music that KP says “gives us kind of a joy,” Tarot Cards and Shooting Stars just might turn the darkest, woeful souls into shiny, happy people.
“Generally, it’s an upbeat record that lyric-wise has some positive messages,” expresses Johnny, who cowrote four songs. “The One That Got Away” was with KP, and they consider it their most personal on the album. Done at home one night with wine and Johnny’s guitars providing the impetus, they were inspired to write a ballad “about a love affair that didn’t happen.” It features the HawtThorns’ trademark harmonies, the product of a secure relationship that thankfully did happen.
“I love singing straight harmonies with him,” KP shares. “He and I blend really well together, and I always love those kinds of tunes where we just kind of blend in and layer our vocals all over each other’s. It’s pretty.”
KP, who contributes lead and backing vocals, acoustic guitar, keys, percussion and mandolin, had difficulty picking one song that best represents the spirit of the album, though. She initially chooses “Let’s Get Together” (their cowrite with co-producer Berns) before adding “All the Right Reasons” and “On the Way”. Then it’s back to singling out her original selection because of “the message … the feel, the vibe” that “Let’s Get Together” delivers.
Luring unsuspecting participants like their strings player Kaitlin “Wolfy” Wolfberg into the vocal booth at Berns’ L.A. studio to sing backing vocals also established a cozy feeling of community sought by the HawtThorns. It was enhanced by the fact that Wolfberg and all the other primary California session players in the studio — Matt Lucich (drums), Eliot Lorango (bass) and Sasha Smith (keyboards) — also worked on Morning Sun.
Other standouts include KP’s tender album-closing ballad “When Georgia Cries”, written about seeing “emotion through the eyes of a child” after learning a close friend’s well-behaved daughter experienced her first “total meltdown,” and “Baby It’s a Gift”. The latter is a midtempo turn with KP’s lilting, Shania Twain-like vocals coming the closest to country-pop on the record. KP accepts a mention of the Canadian superstar as a compliment, professing her love for the “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” artist while confessing, “I don’t even own any Shania Twain music but every time I hear her, it’s like her voice has always been so beautiful. … Maybe she subtly influenced me just because I have so much respect for her singing.”
Yet the key lyrics in “Baby It’s a Gift” — “The pain and the struggle” / The push through the trouble it gives us more than we know” — might define the Hawthorns, who say they’ve managed to avoid any serious health or personal issues along the way. The vaccinated couple still feel lucky COVID-19 hasn’t sidelined them thus far. Most of their family and close friends weren’t so fortunate, they report, but all recovered OK without facing any severe complications.
At least the pandemic gave the HawtThorns more time to polish their sophomore release and “get new and different sounds” that Johnny calls ”candy stuff” like a mellotron on “All the Right Reasons”. When most of the recording wrapped in L.A., Johnny went to his home studio to play electric guitar for some of the album’s finishing touches. Filled with what KP says are “his millions of guitars,” the personal sanctuary Johnny built and completed about a year ago is a separate unit on their property, where he also works on music cues for TV and films.
It also provides an escape hatch — for each other — whenever necessary. With their fifth wedding anniversary three months away and basically leading a full-time existence, the Hawthorns call for an occasional timeout, especially since their manager and “good friend” Brad Hunt (president of WNS Group) is “pretty hands-off,” KP notes. She sees herself filling the “glass-half-full” role in this relationship that’s sometimes offset by Johnny’s more realistic approach, which can create a struggle to stay “on the same page” for business decisions. Yet while these team players agree they don’t like to fight, a few volleys during a spirited love match happen now and then.
Asked about the most significant challenges they personally face, KP looks inward before delivering the opening serve: “I’m sure I’m annoying. … I’m like, ‘Hey, what about this? What about that? … Can we do this? Can we do that?’ I’m sure he’s rolling his eyes but he’s so cool and nice to me, so he puts up with it.” (laughs)
Without a whole lot of mileage as a touring duo on their odometer, Johnny tries a gentle lob shot: “There’s still unproven ground. I’m not saying that the whole thing’s gonna end up in a fight or whatever. But it’s definitely, you have to learn to give the other person space when they need it.”
KP then aims for a baseline winner: “You just have to remember to treat each other kindly. It’s such a basic thing but just remembering to treasure the fact that you have this relationship. This is not something that comes along every day, that you can actually find somebody to work with and love and you actually like them and have a lot of respect for them. … It helps tremendously that we think a lot of each other. Right, Johnny?”
After her point is made with an accurately placed shot, Johnny concedes: “Yeah. Well said, well said.”
Life Is a Highway
No wonder the album includes the perfect cover for them — Neil Young’s “Lotta Love” that the late Nicolette Larson turned into a hit in the late ‘70s. It took a bit of serendipitous kismet involving the Hawthorns on the road, where they enjoy reading to each other. (“Like books on tape, but live,” Johnny points out.)
Larson’s story and “Lotta Love” became tantalizing topics for them during a cross-country drive in 2020. He was behind the wheel while she recited chapters from Ted Templeman: A Platinum Producer’s Life in Music, which included a passage about Larson, the Montana-born country-rock-pop singer who died in 1997 at the age of 45. “So Johnny and I started talking about that song. … You start going down a rabbit hole and you start understanding where [the song] came from — Nicolette and Neil had a love affair.”
The “Lotta Love” clincher for the HawtThorns’ album came during a visit to Home Depot when they heard Larson’s version of the song playing through the store’s speakers. “We just looked at each other and went, ’That is a fucking good song, man. We’re gonna cover it,’ ” KP declares with a laugh.
So the U.S. interstates, highways and byways, clubs, taverns, and music halls await the HawtThorns, who also have a SXSW showcase date (17 March) that should ease the pain of 2020’s cancellation. Their 2022 tour begins in earnest tonight (22 February) with an album release show at the 5 Spot in Nashville, where an audience will likely get one of the pair’s first live renditions of “Lotta Love”.
How far can Johnny, KP, and the HawtThorns go? Wherever the open road, some nimble page-turning, a few tasty live tunes — and one helluva Terrific (with a capital “T”) record — will take them. It just might be the ride of their lives.