Tim Higgins

by Corey O'Flanagan

Sometimes music just touches us in a way and we can't explain why. Is it the lyrics, the voice, the sounds of the band, or a single instrument? I think it's different every time it happens. Today's guest has done that for me. Tim Higgins has a voice that is as distinct as it is powerful. His lyrics touch on how he sees his surroundings, and his delivery fills up a room and will make you listen.

His debut solo album is called Blight. Today we go over some of those songs and discuss his upbringing.



Detroit To Alabama

When I was 13 or 14, my dad retired from GM in Detroit and he wanted to retire where he vacationed. I'm the youngest of six and we left behind my five siblings and my parents and I moved down to Gulf Shores, the beach in Alabama, so I got to be an only child for a little bit.

From the Rust Belt to coastal Alabama it's a totally different world, but if you listen to my music, you'd think I had one worldview: People are pretty much good everywhere. They try to be most of the time.

CD Clubs And The Importance Of Cover Art

It's so funny, people always assume everyone's from musical families. My family was jocks - football players, wrestlers. I found it on my own.

My parents had a big record collection but they never listened to it because they had six kids to raise. The things I took out of it were the Carpenters, Sonny & Cher live, then when I was probably 10 or 11, you remember those little music clubs you could join? My aunt had joined one and it was like you buy so many CDs for full price, and you can get whatever you want for a penny. I was able to shop for records based on covers, and that was the first time I heard Bob Dylan and kd lang and Van Morrison. It made me realize the importance of cover art.

His Song "Blight"

I always thought of the word blight as a horticultural term... we're from the Midwest and we see farms everywhere. Now, I live in the Deep South with farms everywhere.

Well, after I graduated college, I started working in Tuscaloosa for the Preservation Society, and they had several historic houses and structures that we gave tours of and lobbied for overall preservation. In that research I would come across this term of "blight" used in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s as a way for urban renewal. The city could consider a property a blight and condemn it to tear it down. And most often that happened in lower-income communities, where people of color owned homes.

Blight is invasive, and the word is lobbed at plants and communities that are not what the status quo likes. So the running theme throughout the album is this growing idea of blight.


Tom Waits Influence

You want to know how I heard Tom Waits for the first time? I found a CD that had been chucked out of somebody's window when I was probably 13 or 14. I put it on and I couldn't get it. I was like, "What is this? This is insane - 'Rain Dogs?'" Then I heard enough people covering him over the years - Tori Amos and Natalie Merchant - and that was the primer, the entry point. Finding somebody who sings a range I can hit was really formative.

In sixth grade in our music class, they were arranging us by who sang the highest, who sang the lowest. And my very best friend was the highest and I was the lowest - I don't think anyone expected that I was going to be the lowest. But it took me a long time to embrace that lower gravelly quality. You have to find what works, but that's true for any singer or songwriter: You find your own style within what you can do. I wish I could do beautiful harmonies, but it's harder to hit for me.


Learning Music And Starting A Band

I've always been an outgoing person, but my struggle was when I was in high school and everybody was starting their first bands, they were either hardcore bands - like screamo - or they were like Jack Johnson cover bands, and that was like nothing I was into. I was telling everyone, "Have you listened to Joni Mitchell?"

The biggest thing for me is my parents got me a guitar. It was a really awful, little Spanish guitar with nylon synthetic strings. They got me guitar lessons when I was in middle school and I hated it, but I wanted to write songs and I made myself figure out how to do it.

It's been a learning curve now playing with bands, trying to play my stuff, because they don't know what I'm talking about. Then in college I started a band with two friends called Bible Study. It wasn't a Christian band, we just liked to see the name Bible Study up on the marquees of all the dive bars that we played. Our album release show was our last show. Then I released Blight two weeks before the world shut down from a global pandemic. [February 28, 2020] I got about a week and a half of album-release touring in before the world shut down.


The Song "Ruins"

"Ruins" is about my neighborhood in Tuscaloosa where I lived. It was two blocks of Victorian houses owned by a single family. Over the years, they had bought up this section right in the middle of downtown. I'm sure a lot of people can relate to this crumbling-Victorian-house-in-downtown atmosphere. I became pretty good friends with the family, so they started letting me rent it out to friends, and the whole neighborhood was just filled with people that I liked. So it was this really interesting community with little kids living with a big, shared backyard.

It was really a magical place where we were for about eight years, and at the end of our block was the ruins of the old state capitol building of Alabama from when Tuscaloosa was the capital in the 1840s. It burned in the 1920s and what's left of it looks like ancient Roman ruins, with toppled columns and a big, antebellum column building... democracy for all, but maybe for the few.

But it's about the fight to preserve our neighborhood when the all-seeing eye of city planning comes and looks at us and considers it all to be blighted. And of course, now it's all torn down there's an extended-stay motel there. Most people can go back to where they lived and say, "This was my old stomping grounds." Well, my old stomping grounds are gone.

There's an old saying that there are two enemies to historic buildings: water and stupid men. And stupid men got ours before the water. That's what I was thinking about when writing "Ruins." There were ruins at the end of the street all along.

If Alabama would start losing football games, preservationists might have a chance, but for the time being, they just need more places to stay for the fans.

Harmonies

I think of it like Beauty And The Beast. I have a lighter sound around me that can elevate things. It's been this way since I first started writing songs. I always have thought about having that sort of masculine/feminine quality. Most of the people playing on the album are dudes - straight dudes - so I needed to lighten it up just a little bit. I needed to get out of the bromance of it all. And doing the background vocals on this album is an amazing singer-songwriter in Nashville named Kyshona Armstrong, who everybody should listen to. She came into the studio... I use the term studio loosely - I think we were doing this in my producer's basement - and she said, "I'm on the way to the airport. You have three hours." So she just hammered it out. She's just a professional and she's amazing. And then as luck would have it, we put out our albums on the exact same day, so we're sort of release-day twins.


The Song "Every Day Is Not A Party"

When I was in the process of moving to Nashville several years ago, I had dinner with the late, great Jessi Zazu of Those Darlins who passed away a couple of years ago.1 I said, "How did you guys get so much attention so quickly? You guys are everywhere." And she said, "Oh, we said yes to everything."

I took that to heart - to maybe things I shouldn't have also. And I had to have that realization that every day is not a party, which I thought was a hilarious sentiment.

The song sort of poured out. I wanted to write this sort of punk-rock, doo-wop thing that Jessi could sing with me, but unfortunately she passed away before she could. But we got the amazing LG from Thelma and the Sleaze - the best rock and roll band in Nashville - and she's a loose cannon on there.

The first time I sang that song in New Orleans, I said, "Here's my next song, 'Every Day Is Not A Party,'" and everybody booed. Then I finished it and I got a lot of knowing nods from everybody in a city that never sleeps. It's my bumper sticker. Put it on your fridge.

September 21, 2021

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More at timhigginsmusic.com

Footnotes:

  • 1] Jessi Zazu died of cervical cancer in 2017 at 28. (back)

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