Sister Hazel's first single "All For You" was their biggest hit, peaking at #11 in 1997. They've since gone the Indie route, which can be far more satisfying for a band devoted to their fans and their causes (hey, they are named after a nun).
In August, 2009, we caught up with lead singer Ken Block and guitarist Ryan Newell. Their album Release entered the Billboard album chart at #37, and hit #1 on the iTunes Rock Chart.
Songfacts: Why did you name the album "Release"?
Ken: The word "release" just makes you feel good doesn't it? It's also a little quirky play on words for a new release. The song came out great too...
Ryan Newell: I wrote the song "Release" with Pat McGee and Emerson Hart (Tonic). The song felt like a good theme for this record. We let go of a lot of things personally and band related. We took a different approach on this record and "released" the past method.
Songfacts: How was writing and recording this album different from your previous work?
Ken: Everyone has multiple cuts on this CD so there is even a stronger sense of ownership by everyone than our usual strong sense of unity... We all still got our fingerprints all over each song, but the diversity of the writers adds a nice evolutionary step for the band both sonically and thematically.
Ryan: We all wrote songs for this record. We all had at least two cuts that we produced ourselves. Whoever brought in the song was the executive producer. We recorded in three different locations: Nashville for basic tracks, my studio for overdubs, and a Best Western hotel with a mobile rig for vocals.
Songfacts: What are some of your favorite tracks on the album?
Ken: I really like the pointed honesty on "Take a Bow.” The lyrics hit Ryan's difficult divorce head on with some painful truths about a wayward partner.
Ryan “Take a Bow” was written about my divorce. A truly difficult time for anyone to go through. “Release” is a divorce song. “Fade”... well uhhmm... another divorce song. You can tell what phase of life I was going through! Ha! Much better now, thanks to the music therapy.
On April 29, 2008, we spoke with Ken Block, who at the time did most of the songwriting. The death of his brother Jeffrey and the birth of his three children fueled his writing, which is about seeing and feeling the beauty and passion the world has to offer.
Shawna Ortega (Songfacts):I read that the name of your band comes from a lady who ran a homeless shelter.
Ken Block: Yeah, a lady named Sister Hazel Williams, who’s run a homeless shelter and worked with the needy and the homeless in our county since I was a little boy. It was my first recollection of her, these little public service announcements would come on TV back when we had 13 channels. I was a little kid, and I remember saying, “Mom, that lady helps out people she doesn’t even know?” My mom said, “Yeah.” And I thought that was very cool. And kind of in that spirit of unconditional regard for people. She happens to be an old female black minister, but she doesn’t care what religion, what race, what orientation, if you’re a prostitute or a drug addict or anything, she’ll give you a safe, warm place to dust off, regroup, and get back on your feet. And we always thought that’s what unconditional regard for your fellow man is all about.
Songfacts: That is wonderful. Is she still doing this?
Ken: She is. In fact, she just had her 83rd birthday, and I was there. Someone donated a house to her down in our hometown in Gainesville, Florida. And I went down and played a couple of songs, and talked about her a little bit. We still send her a little bit of money every month and we try to help her out and call attention to her cause as well as we can.
Songfacts: Wow, she’s lucky that you got hold of her.
Ken: It’s been incredibly rewarding getting to know her over the years. She has a huge presence, and it’s pretty remarkable to be in her energy.
Songfacts: My first question is about “Sword and Shield.” Can you tell me where that song came from?
Ken: It was a love song. I was trying to write it for my wife, and I think it’s really hard to write love songs that aren’t deeply cheesy. The dance is to try to say things in a unique way that everyone can relate to once they hear it. Everyone can be able to plug in. I wanted to talk about the timelessness of love, and how it goes as far back and forward as eternity goes. And that I will never be that person who lets you down. And the only way I could put that, that didn’t seem so cheesy was, “I’ll be your sword, I’ll be your shield, I’ll be there when the oceans dry, when our idols have fallen, I’ll be the mortar that’s holding your walls.” I tried to just close my eyes and think of timeless images of strength and power and love and protection and security and safety. And every time I closed my eyes, and it just sort of fell to me.
Songfacts: Is that how it happens for you sometimes? You just wake up and the words are there, and you just have to scribble them down because they’re coming out so fast?
Ken: Yeah, absolutely. It comes in a lot of ways. Sometimes they come flying at me, and other times it’s like I’m sitting in a desert all by myself and there’s not a noise to be had anywhere. It’s dry. But I still think that it’s about the allowing. You have to allow the songs to come, which means sometimes you have to make time, and sometimes they’ll beat you over the head, and sometimes someone will say something, or you’ll see something that starts a train of thought, or starts a story line, or starts imagery, and other times you just need to sit down and take your time to kind of allow a song to kind of tap you on the shoulder and come to fruition. I’m one of those guys that believes that painters paint, and writers write. They don’t necessarily just talk. I say that they’re a painter, I say that they’re a writer, and they do it. Where the gifts lie is when you listen, and you really play with it. You know when something pops in your head right away if it’s the right thing, and you know when it’s kind of just waiting out there and you have to kind of walk through the bushes to try to find it. Songfacts: Talk to me about “Life Got In The Way.”
Ken: I ended up writing that song with Richard Marx. And I had been talking to somebody, and just in conversation we were talking about how, as things unfold in your life, things come sort of stacking in different piles around you. In that conversation, I said, “Man, life gets in the way.” And I stopped, and that line just hung with me. And I went up to Richard and I said, “I have this line that I really think we can build on.” So he and I started talking about it. We took that one as a kind of relationship song in that it’s easy when things are simple, but as things build and life gets in the way, whether it’s finances or work or kids or all those different things, the deepest love can be tripped up by things that start to stack up against us. And so it’s about remembering, going back and daring somebody to forget. “How dare you not remember where the foundation of this was.” This is just life that’s getting in the way. This shouldn’t be enough to rock things, because there’s a line in there, “I wanted us to be the ones the poets write the books about,” and it gets to that point where I see so many people around me who go through the same pattern. They fall in love, and things go great for a long time, and then when things get hard they bail. How you get to the next level is working through that stuff. Because if you don’t, you start it over again and then it’s just like lather, rinse, repeat. Until you get through there, you just keep repeating that cycle. So that song was about so many people around us that life gets in the way, and sometimes you have to be reminded of what's really real, what’s important.
Songfacts: I was just reading online how the 2000's way of doing things, of breaking up, is through text and e-mail.
Ken: Oh, my God. I got news for people. There’s no easy way out. You can’t go around it, you’ve gotta go through it. Those first few steps are tough. But if you go around it, you keep going around in that circle, you just keep going around in a circle, you never get through to the other side.
Songfacts: Another one that really intrigues me is “World Inside My Head.”
Ken: Yeah. I struggled for a lot of years with alcohol and drug issues, and I wrote that before I got clean and sober. I was very frustrated with the idea that I felt very misunderstood by a lot of people. There’s a couple of lines in there, like, “Strange is just a different point of view.” I might get distracted by this shiny object, but sometimes I look down and I get into this little world of creativity or emotion, and I think that’s where the beauty lies. And I think a lot of times people just kind of leave you because they don’t understand what you’re dealing with or what you’re going through. So I just kind of felt like if people could come in and see the way I saw the world and the beauty and intensity and passion and struggles and triumph, they could get in and they could relate and they could understand. I never really was a praying person. And one of the reasons for that was because I got caught up in the language. I was stuck in the mortal framework of language, and I couldn’t get past that, that I was saying it wrong and that I was going to mess up or something. And then all of a sudden one day it occurred to me that if there’s a God or a higher power of my understanding, then he’s just taking a look in there, and all I have to do is let him look in there. And it’s not about words, it’s about seeing the world that’s in my head, or seeing what’s in my heart. Because you can’t really put a word, or words, to explain a feeling or an experience. You can try, you can really try, but if you could get inside my head, or I could get inside your head, then maybe I’d get it more. I’d understand it more. And I felt like at that time I was really struggling with a lot of things and feeling like people weren’t able to see where I was coming from.
Songfacts: I think that getting into a philosophical conversation with you would be fascinating.
Ken: (laughs) Well, thanks. I know I’m real scatter brained, so it’s kind of challenging sometimes. And you know, I have to take those thoughts and put them into a song where everyone can relate. Because I don’t think it does much good to try to be clever just to be clever. It’s about being clever in a way where people can plug in. I always try to write ambiguously where people can plug their own story in. It can be my story or my life or my thoughts, it could be fiction or non fiction, or both, or whatever, but whatever it is, I try to leave language that’s open enough where people can plug their own life into it.
Songfacts: Oh yeah, you need to make it general enough…
Ken: Just general enough to where it’s not super specific and it alienates a ton of people. I try really, really hard to make sure that there’s those windows there. And I’m known for the positivity and optimism in there, but I’ve got to tell you I’ve never sat down to write a song in a great mood, in a happy mood, like, “I’m gonna write a happy song.” I never do that. They turn out that way sometimes, because it’s the process. It’s, for me, who I am and who I want to be. I want to acknowledge struggles, and I want to acknowledge life on life’s terms, and I want to acknowledge emotion. But even if it’s heavy or if it’s challenging, I don’t want to stop there. I think a lot of artists stop there and just say, “This sucks.” I want to say, “Okay, this is what’s going on,” but then stick my hand in a little bag of optimism and sprinkle some dust on there for positivity, and maybe live in the solution a little more than living in just the void.
Songfacts: There seems to be a common thread through a few of your songs, such as “Change Your Mind” and “Just Remember.” And it’s almost like reading “Chicken Soup For The Soul,” one of those books.
Ken: Well yeah, absolutely. I’ve never heard it put that way, but you’re absolutely right. With “Change Your Mind,” I was going through some real big personal struggles. But my thoughts are that it’s not your life, it’s how you choose to look at your life - it’s all about perspective. And it’s not always easy, but it is just as simple sometimes as changing your mind. And it is so powerful how we attract things into our life. Two people can walk into the same room and see the same things, and they are so vastly different. Even in our own lives, we take our stuff everywhere we go, so when we come in with a sh*t attitude or a sh*t day, or views of life or whatever, we take all of that with us. So if we can manipulate that a little bit… and I’ve tried really hard to keep that message simple. With “Change Your Mind” we got e-mails from quite literally tens of thousands of people. I really didn’t know it was going to resonate like that. I knew that it meant something to me, and that I was trying to live that more, that it worked when I could do it. And I started getting these emails from people who said, “Man, I heard that song, and a switch went off for me.” And someone would say, “I lost 50 pounds. I started listening to that song on my headphones and walking every day.” Or somebody would say, “Man, I was just having a bad day…” something as simple as “I’m just having a bad day.” And it’s like, you know what? I can start my day over at any moment. I don’t have to have a bad rest of the day because of a bad early day. Something that simple, to someone saying, "I got out of an abusive relationship that I’ve needed to do for years.” Or, “I’ve always wanted to start this business, and I’m swinging the bat. I’m so much happier,” or, “I got clean and sober.” I mean, countless, endless things. And it was incredibly gratifying to me, seeing where all those ripples went, and still go, with that particular song to this day. It’s turned into a pretty powerful and simple mantra for a lot of people.
Sister Hazel set up Lyrics For Life as an innovative way for songwriters to raise money and awareness for cancer research, auctioning off handwritten lyrics to help the cause. Ken helped set up the organization in memory of his brother.
Songfacts: Can you talk at all about the personal struggles that you were going through at the time?
Ken: Well, I’ll give you the highlights for me. When I was 20, in college, I lost my little brother to cancer after four and a half years. And that was a painful battle right through our formative and adolescent years, where we were trying to find balance between going surfing and playing football and calling girls and playing music, and spinal taps and chemotherapy. It was a really trying, awful time in a lot of ways. I was extraordinarily close with my brother, so after he passed away, I had a ton of trouble sifting through that. Issues of spiritual disconnect, and a lot of pain, and a lot of whys trying to process that. And then couple that with the band and the success, and drugs and alcohol and some of that fueling it. I got into a pretty challenging cycle right there, so I try to write about a lot of that stuff. I come from a really incredible family of wonderfully warm, bright, funny, positive, creative people, and it was like we had this bomb go off in our house. I also have another brother who’s going through some other stuff, too. But I’ll kind of leave that private for now. But I think it wasn’t until I got sober that I was able to process a lot of that stuff. I have three kids now, and words are inaccurate to describe how connected to them I am. But I will say when my wife first got pregnant, I got hit with a ton of emotion about – probably not uncommon – but sort of a mortality thing. I wasn’t able to protect my brother, how am I going to be able to protect this little guy? And I got hit with a ton of stuff. So right around that time, I was writing a lot of those songs. I was searching, really, really searching for some relief and some answers and some acceptance, some sort of serenity. And I found quite a bit more of that, I think we all struggle with that. But when I write, I still think about those things. I don’t think you have to be right in the middle of things to write about them.
Songfacts: Just go back to the well every now and then, and there’s plenty.
Ken: I think we’re all that same nervous little 13-year-old who had a crush and got their heart broken. We’re still that person. That’s just one layer of us, you know what I mean?
Ken: He’s still in there. It’s really easy for me to go back and remember having my heart broken at 13. I could easily go back there, I could still remember so much of that stuff very, very clearly. But I think between the loss of my brother and dealing with so many addiction issues with myself and within my family, and parenthood and then traveling around in a van and trailer making music, to selling a couple of million records and bouncing all over the world, it’s an interesting landscape to have to navigate. Certainly not complaining about that stuff, but it was a challenge to try to navigate through that, especially with some old wounds that I was still trying to figure out and deal with. I started a charity called Lyrics For Life a few years ago. We’ve raised almost a million dollars for childhood cancer research and organizations that support the families and the kids. And that’s been a way for me to kind of scratch that itch a little bit. And also seeing my kids, although I really wish my kids had been able to know my brother. There’s a connection that I have with them that’s very, very deep. I lost my brother when he was 18, so my memories of him, we were kids, and it’s really cool to see him in my kids and have that kind of relationship, it’s so powerful.
Songfacts: The first song that I can remember on the radio was “All For You.” I understand that you were independent at the time that that came out?
Ken: I was. Originally when I wrote it there wasn’t a Sister Hazel. I was in sort of a heavy rock band at the time, and I was playing these acoustic solo shows. And - this is kind of a funny story - this recording engineer here in town called me up and he said, “Hey, man, we’re doing this compilation CD for an environmental trust fund. And your band’s turned in a couple of songs, but why don’t you turn in something of your own?” And I said, “When’s the deadline?” He said, “Tomorrow morning.” I said, “Man, I’m working on this song right now, I just started this morning. I think it’s got potential.” At the time I was living in this little duplex on the wrong side of town. I had two cassette decks, and I’d been listening to a lot of Simon and Garfunkel, and the early Indigo Girls where there was a lot of answer back stuff. So I was really dissecting harmonies as I had done since I was a little kid. I couldn’t afford a 4-track or anything at the time, so I’d play the basic chords and the basic melody line into my jam box, and I would leave the hole. So it was like (singing) “There’s been times… all my roads… just can’t turn and walk away.” I’d leave the hole there, and then I’d play that jam box, and hit "record" on another jam box, and sing kind of over it, where I was overdubbing onto this little cassette like that, all the other little parts. I finished it in about an hour and a half - that was one of those songs that just kind of spilled out. The melody, I just wanted a looping chorus where each line before it tied into the next line, and I really wanted to focus on those choruses. I had simple verses, two chords, so there’s not a ton of movement, and there’s focus on the lyric, and then with the chorus I just wanted to really keep moving it. I came in and I recorded it the next day in this little studio, acoustically, and it was the only song out of like 800 songs that got turned in that was unanimous to be on that CD. So I started playing acoustically. I got the band of mine and we recorded it, and every time we played it it just really resonated with people. And that was about the time that tape trading was kind of going on. It was before Napster and all that. We started as a college band and toured mostly college markets in the southeast, and we’d roll into some town we’d never been to, like Auburn, Alabama, and all of a sudden they’d be singing every word to “All For You” or “Happy.” It all was about people trading tapes from shows. It was just incredible, and that song just resonated from day one. From its acoustic incarnation and the band version that really opened a ton of doors for us. And it’s still one of those songs… it’s crazy to me how we still will do a ton of colleges and these 18-year-old kids singing every word to half our set, it’s mind boggling.
Songfacts: That kind of reminds me of Hootie and the Blowfish.
Ken: Yeah, I mean, we all came from sort of the southeast, and we all are friends. There’s a bunch of us; Edwin McCain, and Hootie and the Blowfish, and Collective Soul, Indigo Girls, Matchbox Twenty, Better Than Ezra, and we all kind of came from this sort of southeastern fraternity of bands. We'd play the same little clubs and pubs and coffee houses and pizza parlors, so we all grew up together and had a nice run. And all of us are still out playing and writing and getting on the radio a little bit, so it’s pretty cool.
Songfacts: And you’ve got a solo album coming out, don’t you?
Ken: Yeah, thanks for asking about that today. It’s extremely liberating and extremely frightening all at the same time. It’s a lot of fun. I’ve been very fortunate through the band to have made some really good friends with some really great engineers and different players that I could bring in who are extremely gracious and extraordinarily talented people. I actually just got back from Nashville where I cut six tracks last week, and it was a great experience. I feel a little naked without my guys around me. And we as a band are working so well together. But it’s just kind of that time. I write so much and have so many songs, and there are some that I’m just really attached to that I really wanted to get on tape and see how they resonate. So it’s exciting. We just recorded a live acoustic record for the band that’s coming out in June. I’ve got my CD coming out in the fall, and we’re recording a new Hazel record all at the same time.
Songfacts: Oh my, you must get no sleep.
Ken: No rest for the weary, between my offspring… I’ve procreated myself out of any free time, that’s for sure.
Songfacts: That happens.
Ken: It does. But we are firing on all cylinders in that we are trying desperately for balance, and we’ve been able to achieve that pretty well where it’s not killing us, but we’re still out there doing 100+ shows a year, but we spread it out. And we have our events, like the Rock Boat and the Rock Slope, and the Hazelnut Hang, where we have these really intense weeks with our fans. We have Lyrics For Life events that we do throughout the year. Some of the solo projects, writing. So we stay really busy, but we are getting along so well as a band.
Songfacts: That’s so fabulous.
Ken: It’s really pretty remarkable. I mean, we’ve always been like brothers, but sometimes like brothers who wanted to rip each others’ heads off. But we’ve navigated those waters pretty well. We pick our battles, check egos at the door. In fact - we tried this on the Christmas record, I think you’ll appreciate this - we did a holiday record last year. I'm the guy who writes most of the songs, so I was like, “Look, why don’t we do it this time where all of us do three songs. They can be standards, they can be classic old ones, they can be original. And you produce it. We’ll serve your vision, however you see it. You can pick it and the rest of the guys will do it.” So everyone really got excited and took ownership in a chunk of the record. And it turned out to be really a great time, a great experience, and everyone felt really proud about what they contributed. There wasn’t sort of bickering over any parts. It was like, “Hey, man, whatever you see let me help you get there. I have this idea.” And so I think with our next studio record we’re going to do something really similar to that, where everybody comes in and we can do co-writes or whatever, but everyone’s got an opportunity to choose three songs and see them through however they want. And all five guys in our band are very talented and very creative, and I think it’s going to give us a good opportunity to maybe have some fresh sounds on there and still sound like a Hazel record. So it’s pretty cool, it’s pretty exciting.
Songfacts: Yeah, that sounds like it. Is there any songs or any experiences that you had doing the acoustic record that you would like to talk about?
Ken: Yeah, one of my favorite things about being in Sister Hazel is that we get just as excited about breaking it down as we do cranking it up. And I think when we strip it down, there’s an ability to focus on the lyrics and the intimacy of that, and the harmonies. That’s where the energy and emotion comes from, that’s where in a regular big live concert that comes more toward the rhythm section and the volume and the energy. So it was really good to kind of strip things down. My favorite thing was on “Just Remember” and “Hold On” and “Happy,” we completely changed the vibe and tempo and colors and textures where the lyrics really pop out and emotion really pops out. “Happy” in particular and “Just Remember” just came out really great. And songs like you were talking about, like “World Inside My Head” and “Your Winter,” which was a really big song for us off of the 10 Things I Hate About You soundtrack, they’re just really warm and open. And the record came out just great. And our fans, they really like seeing songs come in different forms and with different sonic packages. And we’re all really, really proud of it.
Songfacts: Besides Lyrics For Life, are you involved in other causes?
Ken: As a band, we have always been very eager to serve when our vehicle can call attention to worthy causes. And there are a ton out there. There are a lot of people that ask us to do things. We certainly can’t do everything, but we get a lot of gratitude to be able to help things out, whether it’s MD or for cancer stuff or for Children’s Home Society, or Big Brothers, Big Sisters. We’ve been involved in a ton of that stuff, and if we can’t play we’re happy to give auction items to people and it’s really gratifying to us. Because the fact that we’re in a position where a little bit of time or effort on our part can have a big impact, that’s pretty cool. My mom used to say, “Hey, boy, you got your soapbox, what do you want to say now?” So it’s been really cool to be able to be in a position where just a little bit of time for us can have big rewards. When I was first talking to this band, I was a case manager for Big Brothers/Big Sisters. I got my degree in psychology and I worked for almost two years as a case manager, and they do remarkable things.