A decade after bowing out, one of the Twin Cities' craftiest songwriters returns as a novelist, with an accompanying album.
It was partly for inspiration and maybe just a bit for cross-promotion. Mostly, though, Dylan Hicks said he started writing new songs three-quarters of the way through completing his first novel for a much more powerful reason: procrastination.
"I was at a point in the book where I was struggling over what to do next, so going back to songwriting was a little bit of a welcome distraction," admitted the Minneapolis piano popster, who returns from a decade-long hiatus to promote both the novel and its related album this week.
Once upon a time, a mere mention of Hicks' name would raise a smile from a good chunk of our music scene. He had a witty songwriting style and nasal, nerd-cuddly voice that folks easily warmed to, and his three albums on local label No Alternative nicely eschewed the noisier indie fare of the late '90s.
Nowadays, you still might hear Hicks' 2000 electroni-pop single "City Lights" on 89.3 the Current, but otherwise his star is about as faded as the former Musicland storefront on Hennepin Avenue where he used to work -- a past life that played into his new life as a novelist. He gave up his music career in 2002, when he became a freelance journalist and staffer at City Pages.
"I wasn't having much fun with the music anymore, and the handful of songs I had written at the time felt sort of redundant," Hicks, 41, said over lunch at a south Minneapolis bakery last week. His long, graying but still thick head of hair and dapper, Woody Allen-esque attire made him stand out even when approached from the back.
After about five years away from songwriting, Hicks said, "I realized I missed generating things. Not that journalism isn't creative, but I missed being able to make things up."
Enter the novelist. He started writing his book in 2007 after his son, Jackson (now 11), began school and his wife, Nina Hale, started a successful online marketing company. He wound up with "Boarded Windows," a humorously written but melancholy story about a Gen X-era hipster -- yep, a clerk at a declining record-store chain -- who reconnects with a fast-talking hippie father-figure from his childhood.
Newly published by Minneapolis' Coffeehouse Press, the novel is the real deal, complete with book-signing appearances in New York and Los Angeles and book-jacket blurbs from such esteemed authors as Greil Marcus and Sam Lipsyte.
It's less clear, however, how real Hicks' new album is.
Titled "Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene," the record is essentially an addendum to "Boarded Windows." A free download code is included with copies of the book (it's also available separately on CD). Bolling Greene is a character in the novel, an also-ran country singer who lured the hippie onto his road crew as a drug dealer and later bassist (one job perhaps more important than the other).
"He's a character I had early on, and he's talked about a lot and eventually appears at the end of the novel," Hicks explained. "As I went along, I worked up some of his song titles, a discography and even these little critical appraisals of his work. So writing the songs was in a way just the next step."
About five of the 10 new tunes grew out of the imagined mind space of Mr. Greene, including "Days of Dayton, Nights of Columbus" and "West Texas Winds," which sound like long-lost tracks from a '70s country-radio broadcast. The rest are essentially Dylan Hicks tunes inspired by the novel, including the downbeat gem "Now You Are a Country Deejay in Berlin," based on the drug-dealer character, Wade Salem.
"When I was in my 20s, I often thought of writing songs as a good way of self-expression," he said. "I don't really feel compelled to do that anymore, so there was something compelling about writing someone else's songs."
His backers in the recording sessions were the very nonfiction crew of guitarist Terry Eason, bassist James Everest and drummer Erik Mathison, all of whom will join him for Saturday's pair of release shows at Bryant-Lake Bowl. Pedal-steel maestro Joe Savage and Hastings 3000's Joe Hastings also joined the sessions. Hicks points to them as proof he took the recording project as seriously as any of his albums -- and perhaps even put more pressure on himself.
"In the book, a few of the songs were written about effusively as enduring classics," he said, laughing. "So it felt a little weird and overly ambitious when I set out to write them myself."
Not the first time a songwriter went into it with delusions of grandeur.
First Ave sonic upgrade
Not only will Friday’s concert by Detroit groovers Electric Six be the latest First Ave gig recorded for a live album, but it will also be the first to feature the club’s new sound system. Burnsville’s own Electro-Voice audio company installed the gear earlier in the week, about a decade after the previous system was put in. The new equipment is reportedly more energy efficient and way more “intelligent” in its sonic delivery. First Ave g.m. Nate Kranz couldn’t name the price tag, but he admitted, “It was very expensive.”
Asked last weekend if he was at all nervous about breaking in the new equipment the same night as a live recording, stage manager Conrad Sverkerson replied, “Nah, they can fix anything that goes wrong in editing nowadays, anyway.”
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Summer is shaping up nicely for the less-than-summery local indie trio Now, Now, which recently issued its first album for Death Cab guitarist Chris Walla's label and will soon join No. 1 hitmakers fun. for a string of dates in June. After that, the kids will head out with buzzing Philly trio Jukebox & the Ghost, a tour that includes a July 9 date at 7th Street Entry.
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