What It Means To Be Human is out now! We caught up with the musician to chat about the release and so much more.
Image: Al Parkinson.
Australian electro-folk singer-songwriter and producer, Hayden Calnin has unveiled new album, What It Means To Be Human. The record brings the musicians signature folk sonics to a larger scale, with orchestral elements woven within. Across the body of work, Calnin explores of human existence, full of introspective thoughts and threads of spirituality.
Throughout his career, Calnin has toured extensively, having shared the stage with the likes of Matt Corby, Tom Odell, The Antlers and more. During this time, he also produced records for Australian artists including Didirri, Harrison Storm, Riley Pearce, Woodlock, NYCK, and others.
What It Means To Be Human is out now! Read our interview with Hayden Calnin below.
Tell us a bit about how you began your musical journey, and your background in music…
I picked up my Father’s guitar when I was around 14 or so with no intention of taking things any further than that, however, as soon as you learn a few chords, the first thing I wanted to do was to try and write a song. From there, I was hooked. Through high school, I played in a bunch of different bands, mainly Metal bands, or wanna-be My Chemical Romance bands (that was a thing). Still, once high school was done, I didn't ever have the bug to go and study Music, instead I went off to study Film. Through my degree, I fell in love with sound design, which in turn led back to more music creation and production techniques. All my production skill sets where taught to me in a sense of film making, which is why I think my music syncs up so well to the visual world. On one odd occasion in my early 20’s, I decided to upload a song to the internet, and from there the rest is set in stone. That original track I uploaded did really well both here locally in Australia and overseas, and it opened up opportunity after opportunity in the music industry.
True to its title, What It Means to Be Human, is an exploration of human existence, full of introspective thoughts and threads of spirituality. How did you hone in on the themes you wanted to explore on the record, and what prompted you to document them on this body of work?
It is definitely an exploration into my own spirituality, but I wanted it to be open to any listener and their own thoughts on their own. I’m not a religious person, never have been, but the older I get and the more I learn about the world and how it works, the more philosophical I get. Big questions deserve big answers. This album explores the meaning in who and what you are. What is human? Why are we so different to any other species on Earth and how did we get here? People are so caught up in the now, they forget to ask these questions to themselves, it can be overwhelming and overlooked. I was the same for most of my life too, until a few years ago when I got out of the city, moved to the beach and took in the world around me. And from that, these songs came out.
Sonically, the record is a shimmering moment of beauty, with cascading production that emit the power and beauty of waves crashing on a shore. How did you approach creating the sonic nature of this record?
Not gonna lie, this was a really hard record to make. I had to learn so many new skills to get out what my brain wanted to put in. Orchestral arrangements aren’t like picking up a guitar and having a sing, it’s a whole other level, but I wanted to challenge myself to learn, so I did. Most of the sonics were created through trial and error. I wanted all the soundscapes, sonics and energy of the record to feel consistent, like all my favourite records growing up. As anyone, I also have limitations so for certain instruments, such as some drum parts and some choral moments, I needed to get some talented folk in to help lay down some elements. I was also lucky enough to live in a house with some beautiful musicians that I would always show my progress to and get their feedback, as it is easy to get carried away with any sonic world once you delve in. To summarise the sonics of the album, I simply wanted the album to flow and feel like a movie score mixed with a folk pop record, and I think that I proudly achieved that.
You self produced the record, what are the advantages of having that control over your own music?
Simply that. Control. Lots of artists tailor their releases to what’s hot and current and that usually can stem from the producer pushing a sound on an artist, or the artist wanting it to sound like something that already exists. I produce records for various artists around the globe and it’s amazing how much Artists are willing to sacrifice to try and get their songs on radio and playlists. However, when you are doing both jobs, production and writing, then artistically it’s entirely up to you where you want to take it. Im thankful everyday I have the skillsets needed to have that creative control, and a label and team around me that pushes that in me.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about producing your own music whilst making this record?
I have limitations, but I also have time to grow. Thats something I take away from any song I produce whether its for me, or another artist.
Could you tell us a bit about your creative process when writing and recording this particular collection of songs?
My process is pretty simple. I am a creature of habit when I’m in recording mode. I’ll wake up at the same time everyday, have a coffee and some breakfast, jump in the studio for a few hours and set up the things that will get me through the day, but not start any recording yet. At around midday I’ll go to the beach for a skim, run or swim depending on my mood, and then get home and get straight into recording till I have had enough. This was my daily routine for about 6 months while making the record. The process seemed pretty simple to me, start your day, get inspired, and then create.
How did the album evolve and change as you were creating it, and were there any tracks left on the cutting room floor that you think might have a life in the future?
I had a 16 track album ready to go. But sadly I cut 5 songs from the record, not because they didn’t fit, but because the way people listen to music these days. Getting through a record is a big ask as people’s attention spans get shorter and shorter. This played into my choice of cutting songs off the record. That being said, they will not just be lost in time, I’ll release the remaining tracks a little further down the line as some of them I really wanted on the record.
You’ve released some beautiful and evocative visuals throughout the album cycle. How important do you think the visuals are in terms of furthering the identity of the record, and capturing the themes present throughout?
I’m a big fan of visual art. Like, obsessed. So to answer your question, extremely important. As I mentioned earlier, I studied film, and any chance that I get to whip out my camera and film some stuff, I jump on. It isn’t essential for every artist, but for me it’s an important representation of the kind of person I am and another example of how my brain works.
If What It Means To Be Human was a piece of visual art that already exists, which artwork would best capture the essence of the record?
Great question. I’d say rather than a single piece, I would suggest a whole gallery, that being the Louvre in Paris. Every time I’ve been to the Louvre I’m fascinated at how much variety of art there has been throughout time, and why it was relevant then, and still now. Art is a timestamp, or a milestone in a thought, and thus a great representation of what it means to be human. The Louvre just happens to be a complex dedicated to displaying human creativity and thought throughout history. If I had to pick a single piece of art though, it would be Pale Blue Dot taken by NASA’s Voyager 1, some 6 billion kilometres from the sun. It shows our planet as a tiny spec in the distance and it really sums up just how amazing it is we exist at all.
Which three songs off the record would you pick to play to someone who had never heard your music, to make them an instant fan?
In The Beginning, We Can Take Our Time and What It Means To Be Human.
What’s one line from the album you find at times could be stuck in your head? Or a line that you come back to?
Ironically, it’s "Don’t haunt me".
Australia has a diverse and vibrant music scene, who are some of your favourite Aussie acts and why?
So many to name all of them so I’ll suggest just two.
Braille Face - this guy is a powerhouse. You can hear his brain working throughout his music, and his live show is world class. Get around it, please!
Liz Stringer - in my opinion, the greatest songwriter in the country.
Will we be seeing a return to Australian shores for any live performances once you’re able to do so?
I have no doubt! Yes!
The past eighteen months have taken its toll on the music industry, specifically the touring sector, but also in terms of making that in person connection with audience members and creating a shared feeling and experience. How important do you think live music is not only for yourselves as musicians showcasing your art, but also for the audience members who resonate with your music?
Music has been my life for the last decade. To see it have a hit like this has really hurt. I am lucky to fit into a side of the industry that has been okay. However, for any touring musician, venue, booking agent, technician, and others, this has been the worst. They’ve lost their whole world crumble and I’ve watched so many people feel over-looked and left the industry completely since. I’m lucky. I tour, but not much, so I havent had it as hard hitting as others, though I’m an avid gig goer and I miss the feeling of live music and the connection it brings to everyone attending. Music is so important. It’s everywhere and in everything and people can and do take that for granted.
Counting Crows, Johan Johansson, Fleetwood Mac.
Phoebe Bridgers, for her love of baritone guitars.
Album that has had the most impact on you?
August and Everything After - Counting Crows.
Twin Solitude - Leif Vollebekk.
How do you define your musical style in 3 words?
Cinematic, honest, chill.
Best song of 2021 so far?
Opaline - Novo Amor.
If you could create the soundtrack for any film, which one would it be?
Interstellar, however the score is perfect as it is.
Hannah Montana or Miley Cyrus?
What was the first song you loved to sing?
Mr Jones - Counting Crows.
A song you would love to cover on tour?
The Horses - Rickie Lee Jones.
Album you would listen to on repeat on a road trip?
Twin Solitude - Leif Vollebekk.
First concert you went to?
Without adult supervision, it was CKY when I was around 14 or something.
Best concert you have been to?
Bon Iver at The Forum in Melbourne around 2009.
First album you ever bought?
HIM - Razorblade Romance.
Would you rather be a Spice Girl or a Backstreet Boy?
Spice Girl for sure.
If you were a Spice Girl, what would your spice nickname be?
Most memorable show you’ve ever performed?
There are too many these days. One of my all time favourites was the Perth show with The Antlers. I toured with them around the country, but the show in Perth was just a beautiful atmosphere, it was outdoors, at night and we were surrounded by an amazing light installation and it was one of my first tastes of an audience being there right with the artists. It just felt really good.
Guilty music pleasure?
Nothing guilty about any type of music. Flaunt it.
If you could support any artist on tour, who would it be?
Bon Iver, I would ask so many questions.
An artist you think has had the most influence on the music industry.
Taylor Swift. And rightly so. She is wonderful.
What advice would your current self, give your future self, for a year from now?
If you haven’t started a new record by now, get to it.
The moment you knew you wanted to be a musician?
I have no clue when that realisation hit, but I assume it was in University