On the Record with Kyle James Hauser, Singer-Songwriter


Courtesy of Kyle James Hauser

Singer-songwriter Kyle James Hauser, who performed in Fairchild Chapel Thursday, Nov. 12.

Sam Rueckert, Staff Writer

Kyle James Hauser is a singer-songwriter, banjoist and guitarist currently based in Louisville, KY. Hauser studied songwriting at Berklee College of Music and has performed at such notable events as the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, CMJ Festival in New York and the Toronto International Film Festival. Hauser’s recently-composed ballet, A Well Worn Path, follows up his two solo albums, 2012’s Oh Oh and 2014’s You a Thousand Times. Hauser visited Oberlin last Thursday to lead a songwriting workshop and give a performance in Fairchild Chapel sponsored by the Oberlin Songwriters. The Review sat down with Hauser to discuss the benefits of a musical education, the difficulties involved in releasing a full-length record and his move to the mountains.

You’ve lived in a lot of places. I’m wondering how your exposure to many regional scenes has formed your musical identity.

That’s a good question. There definitely have been some music communities in the different places I’ve lived that have shaped my playing or my sound. But I don’t think about cities [as] specifically having a sound — I think more about the communities of people that happen to be living there at the time. So, for example, when I lived in Boston from 2003 to 2007, there was kind of an upswing in acoustic music or new acoustic music. [There were] a lot of bands coming out of there like Lake Street Dive and Crooked Still. … So, at that time, I was really engaged in that music. That’s why I started playing banjo as avidly as I did.

I guess I mostly move around based on community [and] on the people making the music or audiences. There are certain places where audiences are really receptive to one genre over another.

What was the most beneficial part of being at a music school? Was it making connections with other musicians, or actually learning to write songs and navigate the musical world?

I think it’s a blend. It’s hard at this stage of my life — at 30 — to imagine what my musicality would be like had I not gone to Berklee, or [to] music school, period. So, sometimes I maybe take for granted the skills and tools I was given there because they are just so well-integrated in my life. It’s kind of hard to remember what I was like before music school. Certainly being in an environment where you’re doing music 24/7 in a conservatory structure — where you’re just doing music and being around people who are masters on their instruments — you’re going to achieve a lot, probably more than you would on your own, or more than most people would on their own. Some people are insanely selfdirected musicians, but I am not. I really thrive in a learning environment. I credit my teachers with giving me a lot of tools, insight and inspiration.

That said, in the long run, I’d say the most valuable thing I got from going to Berklee was the relationships with my colleagues. Being around a lot of people who have committed their lives to music in the way that [Oberlin students] have and seeing them everyday and forming friendships that are outside of the professional world of music [was beneficial]. When you’re out in the big wide world of professional music, it’s not as easy to just meet and hang out with a variety of people. School is a great place to make friends, especially with people who play music styles that you wouldn’t otherwise be hip to. Eight years down the road, I can look across the world and I know all of these really wonderful people who happen to be professional musicians. … They’ll be willing to sit down and have a beer with me, show me around or get me a gig.

What kinds of things did you learn after graduating that you couldn’t have learned in school?

There’s a lot to be said for real-world gigging experience. As many recitals as you can possibly play, you’ll never really get the experience of playing gigs three to seven times a week. … Also, being in school … can be really overwhelming. You’re kind of getting hit on all sides. … You’re doing so much different stuff that it can be hard for you to zero in on what your sound is and what you really want to do.

Right after Berklee, I quit the band I had been touring with and moved into the mountains. I started working in a coffee shop and basically left music alone for a little bit. I just kind of played what I wanted to. That was an important stage for me because I came out of school with all this knowledge, but I didn’t know how to apply it. … I think after college, that’s the time to start saying, “Why did I learn this?” and “Do I want to develop this?” … If so, you can really pour yourself into that.

You were talking about the years following graduation as very formative in figuring out how you wanted to make a career out of music. Is that when you decided you wanted to focus on songwriting?

It was about 2010, 2011 when I recorded and released my first album, but it wasn’t until 2012 that I was really out on my own. Putting out an album is a monumental effort, especially when you’re trying to do it in a big way. So I really took my time with all of that. … That would have been about five years after graduation that I really started to do my own thing. The funny thing about that is that now, after having done that for a couple years, I’ve transitioned back into playing with a band. … That’s kind of refreshing. I think being able to move back and forth in where your creativity is, [that’s] settling and an important thing.

As a songwriter, do you have a typical day, or is it kind of whatever project you are working on at the time?

Things change. I can tell you what my process is this week, but I can tell you it looks a lot different than it did a year ago or three years ago, and it’ll look different next week and three weeks from now. I’m not a very habitual person; I kind of thrive on change. I will say I am a student of creative process and so I have, in seasons in my life, tried different techniques like writing a song every day, writing a song every week and writing exercises every day. My goal is not to just land on one [technique] and that’s my life. … My goal is to understand the swings of my writing and be available to it when it’s time to write. … For example, right now I’m basically not writing at all or doing anything to try and write, because after the summer tour [I’m] exhausted creatively, physically and mentally. … Now, I’m just kind of leaving it alone and I’ve discovered that leaving it alone is a really important part of my process. … Lo and behold, in the week or so that I’ve been doing that, I’ve started to get ideas again. … [There’s] a tricky balance in doing this as a career as well as a life’s pursuit. It can rob you of the pure enjoyment of it when you rely on it for your income. You have always looming in the back of your head the fact that if you stop writing or stop practicing or stop trying to get gigs, you won’t get gigs and your career will go nowhere. And you have that power, which is terrifying but also really cool, because it’s all down to you. … I’m still learning about [that process]. … [It’s] my life’s work trying to figure out how to write the best songs that I can.