The Chat Room: John Hewitt
John Hewitt readily admits that every five years or so he gets restless to the point that he has to shake up his life in a radical way. In 2018 he moved from Toronto to Edmonton, and the change of scenery immediately influenced his output as a singer-songwriter. Although in many ways John is a classic troubadour—comfortable traveling alone and playing solo—his creative ambitions have expanded over the past few years as he’s settled into his home studio.
The fruits of that labour can now be heard on Broken Rebels, a nine-song collection that John said comes closest to achieving the perfect balance between folk and rock that he’s always strived for in his work.
Supporting John on Broken Rebels are drummer Jordan Dempster and upright bassist Konnor Miskiman, with mixing handled by Brendan Lyons. Overall, the entire process took about a month and was finished in time for John to embark on his busy 2023 tour schedule. In fact, John said that much of the album was inspired by his ever-expanding circuit in the U.S.
Among the songs on Broken Rebels that emerged out of these travels are “City Lights (North Country Girl),” in which he channeled his own restless spirit into a portrait of a Midwestern girl looking to reinvent herself in the big city. John also tips his hat to the great Midwestern bard John Prine on “Before The Well Runs Dry,” while the stark “Oklahoma” stands out as an album highlight in terms of both its melody and lyrics.
Although he admited that he still leans on ‘60s culture and production sounds, John maintains that everything he records comes from personal experiences—whether it’s someone he’s met on the road, or a character from one of his favourite movies. Especially on Broken Rebels, there is a little bit of everything he’s seen his in his life, making it a new experience whenever he listens to it. John Hewitt’s Broken Rebels is available from Bandcamp, and you can keep up with his tour schedule at johnhewittmusic.com.
How is your current tour going? What’s it like to be playing in the U.S. right now?
So far the tours have been fantastic. I’m usually spending two weeks on the road with about three days at home in between legs. Touring in the U.S is a blessing in disguise as I had not initially been looking to head Stateside, but as of right now, 90 per cent of my bookings are from interest south of the border. The venues and audiences down there, whether it be festival settings, house concerts, churches or breweries, are some of the most receptive audiences and hospitable people I have encountered in my lifetime.
You’ve said that many of the songs on your new album, Broken Rebels, were drawn from experiences on the road. Is finding creative inspiration part of what you enjoy about travelling?
What I like most about travelling is human connection. It ultimately takes months and months of touring and thousands of personal encounters to sift through the right amount of “song ideas” from the interactions, but what I find most interesting is I more often than not end up splitting conversations fifty-fifty, whereas the fan/patron is asking me questions about Canada, music, life on the road, etc. and I find myself asking them just as many questions about their life, their origin, their upbringing. I’ve met firefighters from Washington who helped put out the wildfires near Edson and Drayton Valley — and they loved Tim Hortons; I’ve met Christian Baptists from North Carolina, the Children of LDS polygamist villages, songwriters from Nashville, and made new friends from Syracuse NY. I met a family who was bicycling with their two children under five across the whole of the United States, I met Californians who hate California and Floridans who hate Florida. These are the people I urge to meet on the road.
You’ve also said that with Broken Rebels you’ve found a sound that you’ve finally felt comfortable with. How so? And are you already thinking about your next album?
I’ve definitely found what I want to move forward with artistically but of course, as the artistic mind is always working, it’s hard to settle down on any concept. I have a 10-song collection I’ve been sitting on since the pandemic that I will be working on releasing by fall, as well as a new concept album of folk/story material I got inspired to start when I went on tour in the Peace region of Northern B.C. and Alberta. So, the long answer is yes, I am thinking of my next record. However it will be my next, next, next record that will be a stylistic follow up to Broken Rebels.
You were based in Toronto prior to moving to Edmonton. What motivated you to go west, and how did that maybe change your perspective on Canada?
My wife and I were driving back to Toronto after a Canada Day celebration with her extended family in Northern Ontario. We left for maybe the hundredth time feeling desolate going back somewhere we knew was not right for us. No place is built for everyone; doors can be open and the welcome sign is out but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be the place you want to lay your roots down. We knew very little of western Canada, and we had no family or friends out here. We moved in order to start from scratch with nothing under our hats except intuition and hope. What has this taught me about Canada? Without freedom of mobility and our benefits we have within this vast land, maybe we could not have changed our lives so easily. We tend to take for granted how easy it is to drive 6,000 kilometres east or west and just rebrand our entire existence, while some folks in other countries don’t know where their next meal is coming from — or if they even have the concept of a “meal.” Canada is a beautiful country that has allowed me to flourish as an artist, and moving out west has allowed me to breath, outside of the wildfire smoke.
Who are some artists or authors that you’re currently into right now that you would recommend?
Being that I’m a one-man show handling all of my administrative work, it’s hard for me to find new music, artists or written works as I’m generally preoccupied, but here are a few recommendations:
For music, I like a band from out east called Propter Hawk. The lead singer is the sister of Emily Raquel, who I believe to be the best songwriter in Canada, although she doesn’t have any recorded works at the moment. Also, Alberta singer-songwriter Noeline Hofmann is someone I would recommend anyone follow.
For authors, I have not been able to read much on the road but for film — which is a greater aspect of my musical influences — I have been watching a lot of David Lynch, re-watching Twin Peaks, Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. And really anything by John Steinbeck or Jack Kerouac I would recommend for the audience that might dig what I bring forward.
JASON’S JUKEBOX PICKS
Colter Wall – Little Songs (La Honda/RCA)
Given the buzz that’s surrounded Colter Wall since he released his first EP in 2015, it’s quite strange that he’s not a household name in Canada. Yes, he’s received his fair share of breaks, from growing up as the son of former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall, to signing a publishing deal with Rick Rubin, and working with top Nashville producer Dave Cobb. But simply put, Colter has never had time for music business machinations, preferring to let his songs speak for themselves. And what those songs convey is a language perhaps more suited to 100 years ago, delivered in a voice as rough as buckskin. By now, most of his fans know Colter is also a working rancher, and Little Songs gives a pretty good view of what that life is like, from the work song “Cow/Calf Blue Yodel,” to the after-work song “Honky Tonk Nighthawk.” In between are a few expected weepers, along with a couple of well-chosen covers of Colter’s spiritual forebear, Ian Tyson (“The Coyote & The Cowboy”), and the always underrated Hoyt Axton (“Evangelina”). But even for modern Americana fans, Colter’s sound might be too traditional, as his band—while outstanding—seems only there to support the storytelling. They get to stretch out a bit on the title track, but for the most part Little Songs is a collection as sparse and rugged as the land that feeds Colter’s imagination just as much as it literally feeds the rest of us.
Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real – Sticks and Stones (6ACE/Thirty Tigers)
One of the more admirable qualities about Lukas Nelson is that, when it comes to his musical career, he seems to have inherited his father, Willie’s, Zen-like patience in terms of embracing stardom. After guiding POTR through a few years as Neil Young’s backing band, and making his mark in Hollywood through his contributions to A Star Is Born, it appears Lukas is primed to step into the leading role he’s been destined to play. Sticks and Stones may not yet be that elusive mainstream breakthrough, but as an example of modern Americana, the 12-song collection is sure to bolster Lukas’ reputation as an artist finally coming into his own. Of course, it’s impossible to separate Willie’s influence, specifically Lukas’ high-pitched twang and fluid guitar skills. The album also bears the funky stamp of Willie’s classic ‘70s output, but Lukas puts a distinctive spin on familiar themes with “Alcohallelujah” and “Every Time I Drink.” Lainey Wilson even stops by to serve as Dolly to Lukas’s Kenny on the fine duet “More Than Friends.” These tracks exemplify the overall positivity of Sticks and Stones, which in some ways is the album’s only flaw. Lukas turns in a serviceable ballad in “Lying,” although it doesn’t reflect the emotional songwriting depth that should be part of his DNA. Nevertheless, Sticks and Stones is consistently satisfying overall, and another significant step in Lukas’ fascinating career journey.
Duane Betts – Wild & Precious Life (Royal Potato Family)
Little did Duane Allman know during his all-too-brief life that the seeds he planted when he formed the Allman Brothers Band in 1969 would still be sprouting over 50 years later. While Derek Trucks has come to be regarded as Duane’s rightful heir, the sons of Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley made a valiant attempt to rekindle the original ABB’s magic as The Allman Betts Band a few years ago, although that project seems to currently be on hold. It’s given Duane Betts the opportunity to finally step out on his own, and with Wild & Precious Life, his first full-length solo album, he displays all the laid-back melodicism that his father offered as a counterpoint to Duane and Gregg’s devotion to gutbucket blues and R&B. There’s certainly a rolling-down-the-highway-with-the-top-down feeling infused in songs like “Evergreen” and “Waiting On A Song,” with the latter featuring the trademark dual lead guitar lines his father made famous. But there’s also plenty of bluesy grit on “Cold Dark Work,” featuring Marcus King, while the album’s centrepiece is “Stare At The Sun,” on which Derek Trucks adds to the guitar firepower, providing a glimpse of what a true second generation Allman Brothers Band might sound like. Yes, it’s easy to say that Wild & Precious Life is comfort food for southern rock fans, but Duane Betts has earned that right and wears the mantle proudly.
SONG OF THE WEEK
Katie Cruel – “Desert Valley Nights” (single / Independent)