Derek Hoke

by Corey O'Flanagan

On the show today we have the longtime Nashville singer-songwriter Derek Hoke. Derek has been doing his thing in Music City for over 20 years, building a legacy of genre-spanning tunes that shows off his versatility as an artist (and his love of the pedal steel). Now after a four-year gap from his last album, Bring The Flood, he is giving us some amazing new music with Electric Mountain, dropping September 9, 2022.

We catch up with Derek in his home studio and chat about some new songs ("Wild And Free," "Say You Will") as well as some older ones ("Southern Moon"). He also tells us about his time hosting $2 Tuesdays at Nashville's The 5 Spot club, and he even takes the time to play his latest single, "Let Go Of My Heart," live on the show.

The Four-Year Journey To Electric Mountain

The pandemic didn't help with moving things around. We had started some of it, previous to that, and then after being depressed for a while with everything shutting down we decided to revisit some things and speed up some tempos and kind of tinker with it a little bit.

Once we started getting to where we could be around people again, producer Dex Green and I started having people come over to the studio and were like, hey, why don't we get Lillie Mae to play some fiddle on this tune and get her to sing a little bit too. And let's put some organ on this one song. Let me write a couple more songs that fit the album more... not write any pandemic, depressing songs - I feel like everybody else has got that covered. So we just kind of kept building it and adding some things and taking away some things and then listening to it over and over and over. And I was like, I think we're done with this thing. Four years later, it's like, all right, this is what I have to say. Finally.

"Records Are Never Done"

Records are never done, but once I start writing even more songs, I know in my head that this is for something else. I'm not gonna make a double album just 'cause I can't stop writing songs. It's like, this is part of this era of my thoughts and stuff. And then I have some stuff that's coming down the pike that's gonna be something in the future. Maybe some little elements crisscrossed in there, which might be instrumentation - like we didn't think of an Omnichord or some weird instrument to add, and I know where to find one and I'll be right back. There's a lot of that. That's the beauty of living in the music town - everybody's got some little gadget that they can loan you for a song to record with. But there was definitely a part where we had mixed the record and I think we were about to send it to mastering and it was like, let me change one word here, let me change one guitar part here, and then we're done.

I would imagine it's like editing a film or something, you're just watching this thing over and over and over but after a while, it's like, is this the story I'm trying to tell? Is something missing? Are we overdoing it here? So we kind of edited some songs down. We had a lot of long outros that were really cool and epic, but it's like, is it only the four of us in this room enjoying this? If I give it to you, are you gonna be like, dude, let's wrap this song up. So I have to think about it like that too, for the listener. I'm like, all right, some of this is a little self-indulgent, so let's chop it down.

Coming Back Into The Light On Electric Mountain

The last record I made was called Bring The Flood in 2017, and I was venturing down some new roads for myself. I'd been doing a lot of fun, honky-tonk kind of throwback country, and then I'd written this record that had a lot of minor chords and some deeper kind of Americana. And I mean that not in the music genre, just like American dystopian - a lot of sadness going on, like watching the news and things were dark and stuff, and I sort of let that into my psyche and that started coming out. There were a lot of depressing songs on that record, but I guess I needed to get that out. So one of the first things in my mind about this record was like, we have to steer back toward a more positive outlook - even with the pandemic and stuff like that going on, it's like, this isn't gonna bring me down. I've already felt that way, and I don't like feeling that way - like down and depressed and stuff.

I had to look beyond 'cause if I'm gonna write a positive song and have it not sound forced, that's a trick for me. Like, well, this just sounds like I'm writing a "don't worry, be happy" tune, but I really don't feel that way. So I had to be like, all right, everything's gonna be okay, things are gonna get better, the sun will come out tomorrow. All those kinds of thoughts. So I let that kind of stick with me throughout the writing process. I mean, there's a couple of moody tunes on the record, but I wanted the overall feel to be more hopeful and upbeat than the last record I'd made.

"Wild And Free"

I'm not a very prolific songwriter. I'm very last minute, like, crunch time. Like if you have to write a song by eight o'clock tonight, I'll do it. But if it's like, hey, write a song sometime, or this week sometime - I'm gonna wait 'till Friday night to do it. But with that song, I looked at it like either a curtain opening, or ... I used to do a lot of driving in the early morning as the sun came up, and during the pandemic, I would just go out by myself and go on these long drives. It was part of that feeling of being in the dark behind the wheel, but this new day is dawning around you and it's almost like it's only for you, 'cause there's no other cars on the road - you're on these back roads and stuff. There's a lot of that seeping in, and we wanted it to be cinematic in the sonic qualities of the song, and gradually go into this bigger thing. And it just came back to everything's gonna be okay. There's light at the end of this darkness. So that was the thematic sense of it.

"Wild And Free" turned out really well. Now a lot of that has to do with Mike Daly on the pedal steel, that just added this other dimension to it. We knew the pedal steel was gonna be in there, and I always think of the pedal steel like it helps ground everything. Like what is this music? I love the pedal steel, and I like that sound more than a string section coming in or something orchestral like that. So it kind of replaces that, but then adds this kind of country element to it as well. It also adds this wide open spaces thing, 'cause that pedal steel just has a high lonesome vibe to it.

We just kept kind of over-dubbing him doing some solos and they kept getting more and more elaborate. And then we started playing guitar along with him and egging each other on and creating these things that would build. That's one of those songs we had to chop off 'cause we could just keep going. We were entering Grateful Dead territory, you know? This is my little "Dark Star" moment or something (for Deadheads out there). So we had to just do a long fade, but the cinema has come across. We're gonna run wild and free together, and then we fade off into the distance, so I was very happy with that one.

"Say You Will"

I would think of it as like a bluegrass love song, but we took all the bluegrass out of it. It's this weird, moody thing. That was the one that grabbed Dex Green's ear. Like, I think we can do some stuff with this, I know what to add to these little songs. Because I just come up with them on an acoustic guitar, and it's not like a band is rehearsing them or anything like that. So we just have these little ideas and then we expand on them. If you think about it like an outline, it's always at the top what we're kind of going for - stay positive, keep it cinematic sounding, but not over the top - our little checklists of what we're going for.

Keeping It Simple With "Southern Moon" (2016)

That song is almost like another driving song, like being behind the wheel, or songs about moving - we're going down the road or walking down the street. I would incorporate a lot of bluegrass stuff on the electric guitar, which people do, but I always thought it was a unique way to go about it instead of just doing acoustic guitar bluegrass stuff. Start with a cool riff, have a good opening line, kind of a little of a "going after the girl" song, you know, [give me] one more chance. It just has a good Southern flavor to it, and I think it's like two chords too.

It's one of those things where you don't really think about it until I tell you that there's nothing to it. If you're feeling it, unless you're a music scholar, you're not really watching the chords go by or listening to it that way, you're just listening to the song. Some of my favorite songs have one chord. Lucinda Williams has a song, I think it's called "You Took My Joy," that's one chord. If there was an hour-long version of that song, I would listen to it. Bob Dylan has a few of those too. Then it's like a bit of an exercise in restraint. Like what can you say with the least amount of information here? That's kind of what we did with that one too.

And If you have a strong melody, you can kind of get away with anything.

Why His Music Crosses Genres

One, I get bored easily and those are the kind of records that I like. And I feel like these records that I make are gonna outlast me. They're gonna be around when I'm gone, and it sounds morbid but I'll look at 'em like, I wanna make records, top to bottom. Listen to it from front to back. Does this carry your attention the whole way through? Or am I just singing the songs about a truck, this song's about a girl... and there's nothing wrong with any of that, but I don't wanna do that, and I have a hard time listening to records that are that way. I'll pause that and listen to Radiohead, listen to some piano jazz, and then come back and listen to the rest of this record about the dirt road thing. And I love those records too. But it's like, I wanna make a record incorporating all the things that I love in there without putting them all into one song at a time. It's just like separating them out - like what kind of song can I write that has a kind of a Mexicali / Brazilian type of feel to it. And then there's a song on there, I call it my George Jones song.

So a lot of them are just ideas or challenges to myself, and they're like, I like that, that's cool. Put some pedal steel on it, glue the room together and we're good. I can look back on those records and be proud of them instead of saying, what were we thinking? Or that's just stuff that's gonna hopefully hold up over time.

Derek Performs "Let Go Of My Heart" And Talks Capos And Scales

I'll put capos on guitars in the weird spots and write songs where I don't even know what I'm doing. It's more like another exercise. And sometimes I don't know if a song is major or minor - I don't know what it's supposed to be. Like I know the difference, but I'll write a bunch of songs that are blurry, like it could be either one, which is a very blues thing. So if you played an A major, or in that case an E major, that takes you out of the blues thing, but if you play an E minor, then it's a totally different song. So you have to get rid of what's called the third note of the scale. So ditch the third and you're in neither. And you can do a whole other world of music with that. So that's what I did with "Let Go Of My Heart."

Hosting $2 Tuesdays At The 5 Spot Club

I've been doing that forever and we're wrapping it up in September after over 10 years of doing it. I made a big Facebook post about it, but I kind of didn't wanna make a big deal about it. I'm not big for fanfare or a fireworks display. I'm not good at talking about myself, which we've probably gathered with our conversation. But The 5 Spot owners, once I let the word out that I was gonna start winding it down, all the love started pouring out and it's just been a great thing to do over this past decade. It really put me on the map too, here in town. It's been a great music community that would just hang out up there on Tuesday nights. It's sad to let it go, but it's just time to start. I wanna do some more, do some other things.

That night started out as a little group of us hanging out at The 5 Spot, which would be Caitlin Rose and Margo Price and just some people that lived in the neighborhood, and then all of a sudden there were all these people there that I didn't know. Shovels & Rope would play and All Them Witches, and Peter Buck from REM sat in one night... they were in town mixing a record, I think. And Robyn Hitchcock moves to town and starts hanging out and playing, and we backed him up doing some Elvis tunes one night. All these things are a blur to me now, but while they're happening, I'm aware of how special it is. But also I would've never imagined that our little hangout night would become something like that.

September 7, 2022

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