John Hiatt looks back and how he lets the music magic happen

John Hiatt looks back and how he lets the music magic happen
This Oct. 11, 2019 photo shows singer, songwriter John Hiatt during an interview in New York to promote his box set “Only the Song Survives,” available on Friday. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

NEW YORK (AP) — John Hiatt wrote his first song at age 11, and knew right away that’s what he wanted to do. It’s not his job; it’s who he is. He’s 67 now.

With all that time put in, it’s amusing that the two albums that are arguably the cornerstones of his career — 1987’s “Bring the Family” and 2000’s “Crossing Muddy Waters” — were both recorded in only four days.

“Bring the Family,” his eighth album, was made in Los Angeles’ Ocean Way Studio with Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner, and lifted Hiatt beyond clubs where he’d been performing for one or two dozen people. It contains “Thing Called Love,” the song Bonnie Raitt later made a hit, and the standard “Have a Little Faith in Me.”

“Crossing Muddy Waters,” his 15th album, was an acoustic disc recorded in a Tennessee home studio and set him on a DIY course he follows today. Besides the title cut, it includes “Only the Song Survives,” which is the title for his latest project, a big box set that collects 15 of his albums on vinyl and is released Friday.

Four days. The lesson? “Let’s play and capture the magic,” he said. “That’s kind of the approach I’ve used ever since. I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than a couple of weeks on a record.”

He has a daughter, Lilly, who’s making her own way in the business (“she’s kind of scary good, in my humble opinion”) and is looking ahead to new music with Cooder. But he recently sat down with The Associated Press to take a look back.

AP: When I was pitched this project, I wondered if this wasn’t some sort of retirement thing.

Hiatt: I’m not resting on my laurels. They’re too shaky.

AP: Is retirement something you’ve ever given thought to?

Hiatt: Not really. Slowing down, yeah. Being at home more with my wife after 33 years of marriage and most of them spent apart. We just realized that over the last few years, in fact. And I have slowed down from more than 120 shows a year to between 60 and 75. So I’m home more. It was great in one respect, it was like dating again. In another respect, it was like ‘who the hell are you?’ So we had to learn how to spend more time together.

AP: Your song “Robber’s Highway” (about a singer at the tail end of a career) makes someone wonder about the cost of doing it for so long.

Hiatt: The beauty, of course, the wonderful thing about it, is playing. B.B. King, I think he said, you don’t pay us for the two hours we play, you pay us for the other 22. That’s the rub of being a troubadour. It’s the travel that kills you, and breaks hearts and destroys relationships and gets you into all sorts of ancillary trouble, potentially, especially when you’re young. At the end of the day, this is my life. This is what I signed up to do.

AP: How is songwriting different now from when you were younger?

Hiatt: I’ve gone through so many periods where the flow of it changes … They come a little slower now, and I assume it’s because I’m older.

AP: Is it because of high standards?

Hiatt: I don’t know about that! My standards have always been pretty lax. Tom Petty used to call songwriting, ‘getting one in the boat,’ like you’re fishing: We got another one in the boat, boys. I feel that way about a song. Any way I can get one into the boat, I’m happy.

AP: Are you inspired by colleagues like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, who continue to push barriers as they get older?

Hiatt: My goodness, yes. It’s hope for us all. Van Morrison’s making great records. He’s singing better than ever. The list goes on. There are so many artists who get a second, third and fourth wind as they age.

AP: What would you say characterizes the work that’s in this box set?

Hiatt: Starting in 2000, I kind of had a rebirth with ‘Crossing Muddy Waters.’ It kind of got my attention in terms of where I might be headed as a singer-songwriter. I think that set the tone. I had been playing with a rock band, rockin’ pretty hard through the 1990s, and I had these songs, they were acoustic stuff, and I thought I should record it close to how I created it.

AP: How would you like your body of work to be remembered?

Hiatt: A kid from the Midwest who tried to tell it straight. What else can you do?