David Heatley: What If… an Album Really Grabs You?

David Heatley: What <em>If…</em> an Album Really Grabs You?

Written by Andrew Daly

I listen to a lot of music, both new and old. I listen in the car. I listen at home. I listen on vinyl, CD, cassette and digital files. So, what's the point? The point is that for something new to catch my ear and not get caught up in the jumble of notes I have rattling around in my head, it needs to really be something.

Yes, I’ve reached the point where I am starting to very seriously assess if any given piece of physical media will remain in my house. Why? Primarily for space reasons, honestly. So, with that being said, if it's not top-notch or something I see myself listening to repeatedly, I am no longer keeping it around. Now that I've said all that, let's talk about If... by David Heatley.

I am relatively new to Heatley's music, but after a few listens to his new record, I can say that his sublime blending of retro aesthetic and indie sensibility really appeals to me. This is what I look for these days when I put on a new record. If you're wondering if it's a keeper for the collection, I'll save you the suspense – it is.

The music of David Heatley is great anytime music, summer, fall, spring, or winter. It makes for rewarding listening on long drives to nowhere on weekends, or on a quick jaunt to the store. It's great at night, and it's perfect for the morning. I think you get the picture. You want this record.

If you are intrigued and want to learn more, dig into my recent chat with David Heatley about his new music, his songwriting, his career as an illustrator, and more.


Andrew Daly: What first inspired you to get involved with music?

David Heatley: It might have been the nuns playing acoustic guitars at the hippie Catholic church where my parents were Sunday school teachers. Or, more likely, it was discovering the anti-folk scene in the East Village of New York City in the early '90s. My bandmate and I would go in and play open mics and [we] recorded a couple of records for the indie label Shimmy Disc. So that shot in the arm sent me down this path in earnest.

AD: Who were your primary influences, and who influences you most today?

DH: Prince, David Byrne, Jonathan Richman, Black Francis. But tons of others, too. Recording down in Louisiana has been life-changing, and I'd say all the guest artists on my two solo records have influenced the direction of my songs: Sarah Quintana, Tif Lamson, Julie Odell, Lilli Lewis, Sam Kuslan, Louis Michot, Bryan Webre, Kirkland Middleton, Michael Cerveris, Rex Gregory. The talent down there is off the wall.

AD: Describe your approach. How has it evolved, and where do you plan to take it?

DH: I get song ideas either in my dreams or while doing something else absentmindedly. It could be a melody fragment, lyric, or whole chorus idea. I record them on my phone and then go through and listen to what I have. There are several hundred still on my phone that I haven't done anything with yet.

If one jumps out at me, I'll work with it. Find some chords, get out my lyric notebook, and try to write it in one sitting. If I labor over something too long, it is usually overwrought. So, if something's not working, I'll leave it alone, sometimes for years. And if I pick it back up, usually, it'll write itself much quicker once I've given it some space.

AD: Which recording or recordings mean the most to you and why? Which best represent you?

Impossible to answer. Even the stock musician's answer about all your songs being your children and being unable to choose a favorite is an unsatisfying cliche. I chose each song to record, and which would end up on the record, very carefully, and [for If… ]I spent a year pursuing the perfect version of each of them, choosing my collaborators with extreme care.

Without sounding too arrogant, there isn't a moment on any of these songs that I don't stand behind. Even though it's unfashionable, I think of this whole album as one experience I hope people will give themselves over to. It's a rewarding journey if you let yourself take it.

AD: Tell me more about your latest record, If.... Where are you most drawing inspiration from?

DH: This record and my previous Life Our Way is steeped in Louisiana. So, I'd say the landscape, the bayou, the alligators, and the musicians down there are probably the biggest inspirations.

AD: This record involved a myriad of Louisiana avant-roots musicians, right?

DH: All praise is due to Mark Bingham, who produced my first solo record and opened his Rolodex to a dozen versatile and soulful players who all made these records what they are. Many of the same collaborators also appear on If.... I had no idea this scene even existed, stuck in the backwater of the city where I live (New York City). Seriously, it was life-changing to play with and befriend all these people and spend even a little time soaking up the music in the air.

AD: Which new songs do you like playing most live?

DH: The first single, "Mess," is really fun. I don't play live much, though. I like writing, recording, and making music videos, and I don't have many opportunities to play shows.

AD: Do current trends alter your style and technique at all? Or do you stay true to your roots?

DH: I'm not great at keeping up with the latest music scene, to be honest. I'm going for something a little more timeless and classic in my songwriting and how the records sound, but hopefully not just a pastiche of '70s classic rock tropes. I write with as much psychological depth and nuance as possible but pair it with the most straightforward, accessible pop sounds. If there's such a thing as a platonic ideal for each song that comes to me, that's what I'm shooting for.

I'm at a stage where I feel like I have a direct relationship with my unconscious. When you're open to listening to whatever it wants to communicate to you – either through dreams or an intuitive sense of what to do next at any given crossroads in your life – you realize that the taproot down to your unconscious creativity is a well that never runs dry. We make stories and pictures, and music in our dreams every night. It never stops.

AD: How does your career as an illustrator affect your musical output, if at all? Is there an overlap in creativity?

DH: I'm very into directing animated videos. I'm currently adapting my last graphic memoir into a TV series, and that show has a music component. And I've also really loved creating music videos for my songs, sometimes drawing every frame by hand, but more often hiring others who are brilliant at what they do and can take my idea to another level.

AD: What's next for you?

DH: Aside from the aforementioned TV pitch, I have another record's worth of songs already written. They came to me intuitively, somewhat effortlessly, and had timeless, mythic storytelling themes. I'm excited to start recording them this year and maybe have them ready for a 2024 release.


Header image courtesy of Greg Kessler.

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