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, Hicks was an endearing figure in our music scene. He had a witty songwriting style and nasal, nerd-cuddly voice; his three albums 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 journalist.
"I wasn't having much fun with the music anymore," Hicks, 41, said last week. After about five years removed from songwriting, he said he began to feel the creative itch.
Enter the novelist. Hicks started writing his book in 2007 and 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. 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.
About five of the 10 new tunes grew out of the mind space of Mr. Greene, sounding like long-lost tracks from a '70s country-radio broadcast. The rest are essentially Dylan Hicks tunes inspired by the novel.
"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 Eric Mathison, all of whom will join him for Friday's release show. 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.