Lilly Hiatt

ROYAL BLUE (NORMALTOWN RECORDS)
Royal Blue, the second album by East Nashville firebrand Lilly Hiatt, is about the majesty of melancholy—or, as she explains it, “accepting the sadder aspects of life and finding some peace in them.” A dance between pedal steel and synths, the album examines the vagaries of love and commitment but steadfastly refuses to romanticize any notion of romance. Singing in a barbed lilt full of deep worry and gritty determination in equal measure, she conveys emotions too finely shaded to be easily named, yet will be familiar to any listener who’s had their heart broken—or has broken a heart.

This is, in other words, not a well-behaved singer-songwriter album. Instead, it’s feisty and rough-around-the-edges, full of humor and bite and attitude from a woman who proclaims, “I’d rather throw a punch than bat my eye.” Royal Blue hints at autobiography without sounding self-absorbed, as Lilly transforms a rough patch of life into smart, sturdy, sometimes even hilarious songs that don’t sit squarely in any one genre. Instead, Royal Blue reaches out boldly and playfully into many different sounds and styles: Austin folk rock, Pacific Northwest indie, pre-Oasis Britpop, New York punk ca. 1977. There are ‘90s alt guitars and ’00 indie synths, some twang and some Neko Case and Kim Deal.

Setting the tone for the album, “Far Away” marries a shimmery Cure synth theme to a steady rock-and-roll backbeat, as Lilly explains the devastating realities of a love gone sour: “I have never felt more far away than when you were right here.” When she delivers a volley of ooo-ooo-ooohs on the coda, it’s hard to tell whether she’s lamenting her loss or proclaiming her freedom. Even at its most personal, Royal Blue remains complicated and often contradictory. The surging surf-country number “Machine” hints at rebellious adolescence while “Somebody’s Daughter” is a nod to Lilly’s songwriting father, John Hiatt.

Lilly’s songs are equal parts romantic autopsy and acid kiss-off to a dismissive lover. He shows up again on the fidgety “Get This Right,” with its insistent drum patter, churning guitars, and anthemic chorus. “When you turn your lamp off, please hear my sweet, soft voice,” Lilly sings over the gentle acoustic strums and Doppler-effect synths on “Your Choice.” Then she adds, with startling finality, “You made your choice.” Royal Blue is not your typical break-up album, though. Lilly would rather rock than mope.

To say she comes by it naturally shouldn’t imply that it’s all easy for her. Her father is a famously eclectic singer-songwriter whose tunes have been covered by Emmylou Harris, Nick Lowe, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan, among others. Living just outside of Nashville, he provides gentle counsel and sage advice to his daughter. “I’d be a fool not to take it,” she says. “We have a really good relationship, and there’s a lot of trust there, so I feel comfortable talking to him about certain songwriting predicaments. I played him some songs I was trying to write, and he said, these are really good, but it sounds like you’re trying to do something different. You don’t have to come up with special chords or anything. Why don’t you just be you? That was simple advice, but good advice.”

Lilly being herself means playing songs that are sharply witty, brutally frank, and musically adventurous. In that regard, her backing band has proved crucial in helping her realize her full potential as a songwriter and performer. The group has been playing and touring with her for years, and they played on her 2012 debut, Let Down. “We’re tougher now with a new confidence in our playing,” she says of the band, which includes Beth Finney on lead guitar, Jake Bradley on bass, Luke Schneider on pedal steel guitar and Jon Radford on drums.

It helps that they all share a love of ‘90s alt-rock bands, which comes through in the distressed guitars, the urgent backbeats, and the post-punk synths. Lilly cites the Pixies and the Breeders as influences on this record, as well as Dinosaur Jr. and—her all-time faves—Pearl Jam. The group recorded these dozen songs at Playground Sound, a small studio located in producer Adam Landry’s backyard in Nashville.

“I know Adam and am a fan of his work,” Lilly says. “I also knew he did analog recording, which excited me. I wanted to try that.” She chose Landry because he was a versatile rock producer who has worked with Deer Tick, T. Hardy Morris of Dead Confederate, and Hollis Brown. “Sometimes I think it might be easy to take my songs to Twang Town, if someone wanted to, but they’re not country songs. I had a feeling Adam would bring out other things in the music. Which is exactly what he did.”

In the studio, Adam credits Lilly with being game for anything: “She would be playing electric guitar with her band, and I’d be in the control room running the tape machine. I had an old KORG polysynth plugged into a Memory Man. I reached over and started playing it, and she didn’t miss a beat. She’d just go with it. She trusted me and was open-minded, and I think that helped create that sort of late ‘80s/early ‘90s vibe on the record.” But it all comes down to the songs themselves. “A killer backing track and a killer vocal can be totally ruined by really stupid lyrics,” says Adam, who was drawn to the stark candor of Lilly’s songwriting. “She’s just real honest. That’s the big thing here.”

“That’s the only way I know how to write as of now,” she admits. “Maybe that will change, because writing always does, and maybe I’ll learn to take myself out of it a little more and embellish the details. But right now I don’t know any other way. I hope people don’t think, wow, she really has some issues. But you know what? If they do, that’s fine, too. I have a hard time saying a lot of things in life, so it’s easier to do it through the song. It’s a healthy coping process for me.”

Since the current lineup of RUST formed in 2014, the band has been playing roots-rock songs at venues across Atlanta, and around the South. They play their own original songs, and tend to throw in some old favorites for fun. Whether it’s your first RUST show or you’re a longtime fan of the band, they will keep you coming back for more.

Like the Southern Crescent railroad that arcs through the South from DC to New Orleans, the members of RUST connect musical influences from Appalachia to the Crescent City – with a lot of rock and roll in between.


Lead singer Sean Moran has had a long career in the Atlanta rock scene, and has also spent years playing in New York City and New Orleans. He brings his rock frontman experience from Atlanta fave band Rockin’ Bones to the current project.

Fiddler and accordionist Allen Peterson brings his years of playing in traditional old-time string bands to the table, with a sprinkling of punk cred. He ignites the fiddle strings, or knits the band’s sound together with the accordion.

Guitarist and mandolinist Craig Humphries brings classic rock and bluegrass influences from Zeppelin to Buddy Miller to Sam Bush. A musical craftsman, he always seems to have just the tasty lick for any occasion.

Marty Brotzge anchors the band’s sound on bass. He adds inflections from punk and jazz to the country and rock rhythms that he holds down. Marty collects Grateful Dead recordings, and also quirky old monster rock songs.

Drummer Steve Lingo’s impeccable taste is the band’s solid foundation. He is fueled by classic rock such as the Beatles and the Beach Boys, but is equally at home “in the pocket” on a country song.

$12.00 - $16.00

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