Ed Hamell: ‘A bald guy who swears at the audience and plays loud guitar’
Hamell, part musician, part comedian, doesn’t deserve his reputation for being angry. Passionate and opinionated? Absolutely
Disregard everything that you have heard: Ed Hamell is not an angry man. Passionate? Certainly. Anyone who has witnessed a Hamell on Trial live show will be aware of the New Yorker’s impassioned delivery on a variety of topics, some amusing enough to make you crease up, others poignant enough to make you tear up.
Offstage, the musical raconteur and “one-man punk band” is equally articulate and engaging, holding court on topics as diverse as US politics, the insidious nature of television shows such as American Idol and the work of Charles Bukowski. He is occasionally loud, frequently lurid and indisputably loquacious. But angry? Nah.
As if to prove a point, he has called his ninth studio album The Happiest Man in the World – but as you may expect from such a complex musician, nothing is straightforward. Much of the album was written in the wake of a marital split that he was not expecting.
“It was a journey, that’s for damn sure,” he says, sighing. “I was married for 23 years, we were together for 27, and I did not anticipate the end. I thought everything was going great – no one was more surprised than me. The good news is that I have a little boy, 12 years old, and she and I get on very well, and we talk every day. But there were a lot of questions.
“I’ve also been sober for the same amount of time I was married; I just celebrated 26 years. So I tried to keep myself busy.
“I wrote a song every day and put it on YouTube. I know some people might call it rationalising, but I like to call it ‘reprioritising’ and realising what’s important in life. There’s a Henry Miller quote, and I’m paraphrasing here, but it’s something to the effect of, ‘I’ve got no home, I’ve got no job, I’ve got no money – but I’m the happiest guy in this world’,” he says, chuckling. “I remember reading it as a child and thinking, hey, is he being cynical? But now I think he was being dead serious. Most things in life come at a cost.”
That may paint the album as a rather glum collection, but Hamell has always been adept at punctuating bleak situations with humour. This album is no different. Songs such as Mom’s Hot (which 12-year-old Detroit guests on) and Gods at Odds (“My god’s got a lot of class/Your god is a pain in the ass”) wryly lighten the tone. Ani DiFranco and Kimya Dawson of The Moldy Peaches pop up too, a signifier of his popularity among his peers.
Hamell has been compared to Bill Hicks in the past, and his overlapping of genres has made his style increasingly difficult to categorise. Music, he says, makes up 50 per cent of his show, narrative 20 per cent, and comedy 20 per cent. The other 10? “Interpretive dance,” he says, straight-faced. But is he an anti-folk artist? A punk provocateur? An acoustic rock musician? The labels have been innumerable but they don’t bother him.
“Live, there’s a lot of spontaneity; it gets pretty loud and pretty aggressive, and it is rock’n’roll,” he says. “I never really listened to the sweet singer-songwriter guys, so were you to describe it to me now: ‘There’s this guy and he’s bald and he swears at the audience and plays loud guitar and some of it’s poignant and some of it’s funny’ – I don’t know that I would know, either. A lot of times when I see these labels, I think it’s an attempt on somebody’s part to help me out. Whatever marketing ploy it takes to get asses in the seats, I’m fully supportive of.”
It has been more than 25 years since his Hamell on Trial guise was born, almost accidentally, after he had had enough of playing in bands in his native Syracuse and decided to road-test some solo songs in front of his peers (hence the “on trial” addendum). Now in his 50s, he says that sustaining a career can “erode your idealism”, but refuses to be pessimistic about his lot. “After a certain point, you wanna believe you get better at it as a craft. Really, at this age, there isn’t really anything else that I could do; certainly nothing that I love as much.”
Songs of protest
Fatherhood has made him view the world in a less cynical way, although he is baffled by the lack of young protest singers in music today. “I think about it, but I don’t understand the ins and outs of it. Either the culture has anaesthetised them so they don’t realise . . . I mean, over here, people are getting f***ed, you know? But they’re not really pissed off enough to do anything about it, other than rant on Facebook. Maybe they look at some of these singer-songwriters who are making $100,000 a year, and they think, ‘I want that, and if I open my mouth and say ‘this is wrong’, I’m gonna lose an audience, so I don’t wanna alienate potential money.’ ”
For now, he will continue to plough his own furrow with this new album, including a 10-date tour around Ireland starting this week. “I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass, but it’s my favourite country to play,” he says. “And it’s important – frankly and pragmatically – that I promote the crap out of this record, because I’m really proud of it. Whenever I sell or sign an album at the end of the night, I’m always telling people ‘Please listen to this, I really worked hard on it. And if it speaks to you, tell your friends’. It’s gotta be a word-of-mouth thing.
“At this age, I’m a realist: I don’t think it’s ever going to blow up. But if I inspire some young musician of any genre, man or woman – if they look at me and think that I was Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan to somebody, or somebody’s Muddy Waters or Keith Richards, and some kid hears something in my music, I think, good. Great. I’ve passed the torch.”
Hamell on Trial’s 10-date Irish tour runs in venues nationwide from Wednesday to May 11. hamellontrial.com