Versus: Music
Q&A with Isaac Hanson

By Courtney Rogers
Published Oct. 25, 2009. 199 views

Versus Magazine: So, let’s start from the beginning. What was it like having so much success at such a young age?
Isaac Hanson: Well, on some level having success at an early point in your life is a goal of yours. You’re going out there, you love what you do and you feel passionate about your music. When “Middle of Nowhere” came out in 1997, we had been making records for about five, six years at that point. We were very familiar with performing and getting out there, it was not a foreign thing for us. However, it was on a scale that no one would have ever thought. And honestly, at the time, there’s a degree to which you don’t have as much perspective on things. It’s never happened to you before. I was humbled by it. I found myself feeling profoundly lucky and just hoping that we wouldn’t do anything to screw it up too bad. And we just tried always to focus on being respectful of our fans because without them, we didn’t have a career. It was something that you felt that you had worked for but also something that you felt very, very humbled by.

VM: Could you talk about some of the challenges you faced when you started to transition into a different sound from “Mmmbop?”
IH: When you’re making your first record, the joke in the music industry is that you have your entire life to write your first record and you only have a year and a half to write your second. There were a set of challenges that went with the records that succeeded “Middle of Nowhere.” But I think the biggest challenge came because of constant changes in the music business. Right before we released out second record, the record company completely fell apart. All of the people who had been supportive of our career were gone and so as we rolled into the release of our second record, we had very little support at the record company that we were signed to. Ultimately, that resulted in a long struggle with making out third record.

Most of the struggles that we have had in our career have had very little to do with music and everything to do with an ever-changing music business. And that’s not an uncommon problem, especially these days with the constant consolidation of record companies and people who are not musically focused, are not entrepreneurial in the way that the music business used to be. They’re just trying to find a hit, not trying to find the bands that are going to be the foundation of their company. They want the big multi-platinum album but they don’t want bands that sell anywhere from 100 to 500,000 copies. They don’t seem to value those bands as much, which is ironic because ultimately, if you have bands like that who can sustain themselves, as the years go on they will be the band with the big hit. I’m surprised how few people in the music business are willing to think that way.

I have an anecdote for you.

VM: Great!
IH: Billy Joel made four records before he made a really big hit record. He’s been profoundly influential in pop music and has had a career anyone would be jealous of. On his fourth album, “Stranger,” he was making that record, they spent about five weeks making the record, which by anyone’s standards is fast. He says on the special edition of the record, “I didn’t really think about it at the time, but the truth is, I was probably about to get job.” That record had some enormous singles in it like “Moving Out,” and “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” My point is that most artists these days wouldn’t make it to their second record, let alone their fourth. You should think about your artist from the point of view that you believe in this artist is in the long term and it’s about building things. I might have a hit right off the bat, but there’s a good chance that I won’t. And my goal is to make this a career band, not just a flash in the pan. Because if it’s just a flash in the pan, it’s potentially a huge waste of money.

VM: How would you describe your current sound? How is it different from when you first started out?
IH: I think it’s hard for me to describe it because on some levels, we haven’t changed a lot. Someone who’s not familiar with Hanson would say, “Those guys have changed a lot.” I think what we do is a version of soulful pop. It’s got a lot of roots in early rock and roll, R&B. But, it’s ultimately pop music in the same way that Billy Joel, Elton John and Paul Simon is pop music. Our version of pop is very organic. If you like “Mmmbop,” I’m sure you’ll like our show. And if you thought you didn’t like “Mmmbop,” and you thought “There’s no way I’d go to a Hanson show,” I think you’ll probably like our show. If you like Gavin Degraw, Michelle Branch, Kings of Leon. If you like any of those bands, you’ll like a Hanson show.

VM: How many of your early songs do play in your current set?
IH: We play all over the map. We’ll go back and forth from song to song, something from 1997 to something in 2007. We change the set list every single night. The truth is, if you saw a Hanson show last time in Nashville, the likelihood of it being pretty different is very high. The shows are always changing and we do that on purpose. Music is always changing and if you wanted to go to more than one Hanson concert, you’ll see different songs. The feeling of the show is still similar but the songs are not exactly the same. It’s just something that’s a part of what we do as a band. We took a little bit of a cue from the Grateful Dead and Dave Matthews Band on that one.

VM: Personally, I’m crossing my fingers that you play “Penny and Me,” because that’s one of my favorite songs.
IH: That’s a fairly consistent one in the set but I have to say, we don’t always play it.

VM: Uh oh. Well I hope so. See how you’re feeling that day.
IH: I’ll cross my fingers for you too.

VM: When you’re writing songs, what inspires you the most?
IH: I think writing songs is as much about your emotional mood at the time as it is about things you’re experiencing in life. Sometimes you just feel down, and you end up sitting there and you feel so inspired and you start writing a song. The story or the song that you come up with may not have anything to do with exactly what you are feeling but that emotion has triggered that thought. Sometimes it’s only slightly auto-biographical, sometimes it’s really auto-biographical. I would say life is constantly full of inspiration and I don’t know if there’s any particular thing.

On this latest record, there’s a lot of joyful, victorious type qualities to the music. There’s a lot of, I know you’re down, but let’s get up, we can make it thought this. There’s a lot of ‘let’s just dance and have a good time.’ Almost all of the records deal with emotional, moral and spiritual challenges that we all have. We try to deal with it in a universal way, if at all possible. There’s a lot of consistent themes, it’s just articulated slightly differently every time.

VM: You guys are very involved in activism with your tour. How did you get involved with Tom’s shoes and how did the Use Your Sole tour come about?
IH: Our affiliation with Tom’s Shoes was a beautiful, symbiotic circumstance. We had taken a trip to Africa in 2006 while making our record, “The Walk.” It felt like our record wasn’t going to be done before we took that trip. Some friends of ours who had developed some medical technology were going over there and we said, “Guys, we want to go with you.” They had been in contact with some remarkable doctors who were at the forefront of HIV/AIDS research and remarkably had discovered that in 98 percent of cases, if mothers were able to get a hold of antiretroviral drugs for 40 days before they gave birth, the children would not be born with the virus. That gives the next generation a fighting chance. …(HIV/AIDS) is a pretty profound challenge and it crosses to all areas but particularly when it comes to poverty. Poverty and HIV/AIDs in Africa go hand in hand.

After our trip in 2006, we took the song “Great Divide,” and released it as a charitable single. We put up some merchandise to raise money as well. As cliche as it sounds, we just had to do something. Then, the tour came up and we were about to hit the road when we discovered Tom’s Shoes. We thought it was such a great concept that if you bought a pair of shoes, they give another pair away.

Just by accident, in New York City, at a party, Taylor runs into a photographer who knows the head of the company. The photographer gives Taylor his number and says give him a call. So Blake answers the phone and Taylor goes, “Hi Blake, this is Taylor Hanson from the band Hanson. I know this sounds kind of crazy but… we want to figure out a way to work with you.” We had a breakfast meeting in Los Angeles and the idea was one mile barefoot walks in every city on the tour and we’d encourage everyone to buy (Tom’s) shoes. It gives us a way to connect the realities of tangible needs that exist in Africa and it gives (Tom’s shoes) a louder megaphone. He looked at us and goes, “This is a good idea. You guys are crazy.” They brought the shoes on the road with us, we did 50 barefoot walks and by the end of those walks, we reached the goal and at the end of the tour, we were on our way to Africa to deliver 50,000 shoes.

VM: Delivering the shoes must have been the most amazing experience.
IH: It was amazing. They’re a really great set of people, they really care and put the caring above everything else at that company. I’m very impressed by them as individuals. They have grown immensely in the past few years and we’ve continued a strong relationship with them. On this tour, we’ve continued to do these walks, again in very direct association with Tom’s.

VM: Can you talk about this current tour and its philanthropic aspects?
IH: We wanted to do something different. People kept asking us, “What more can I do?” And there were some other organizations that we wanted to support so we said, “Let’s find five specific causes.” There’s poverty, which is related to shoes, so let’s do shoes with Tom’s. We need to drill wells to provide clean water, we need to build schools because kids need to be educated. We need to provide anti-retroviral drugs and continue to support our friends who had brought down mobile phone technology (for doctors and patients). We decided to walk around the world. It’s basically 25,000 miles.

So that was the goal, we’re going to get 25,000 people to walk a mile. How are we going to do that? We’re going to keep doing these walks and give a dollar for every single person who walks. By doing that we’ll provide a well, a school, hundreds of pairs of Tom’s shoes, hundreds months worth of drugs and text messages. So we went out on another set of walks. We started in the Fall of 2008 and by the Spring of 2009, we had walked around the world. We ended the “Walk around the World” campaign in May and since then, we’ve had thousands of miles that have been walked. So we’re like 6,000 plus miles into the next lap around the world.

VM: Oh my gosh, you’re going to do another lap!
IH: That’s the goal, do another lap. I say that to say that we’ve got a walk on Oct. 27. We’ll start at Belmont and end at Vanderbilt. Hopefully Belmont and Vanderbilt students will take 20-30 minutes out of their day and come walk with a couple of crazy guys from Oklahoma who are willing to walk barefoot for a good cause. Nashville was the first walk that we did in September of 2007.

VM: Have you been to Nashville before?
IH: Yes, we’ve been to Nashville many times.

VM: Do you have a favorite restaurant or place to visit in town?
IH: I can’t say too many places because then if I say them, people will always know them and if I’m in town, they’ll know where to find me. There are some fun little areas. Downtown, there’s an area over by Vanderbilt with a bunch of little shops, the pancake, what is that called?

VM: The Pancake Pantry?
IH: Pantry, that’s right. I’ve been around. I’ve had some great food there.

VM: If you weren’t a musician, what do you think you would be?
IH: As a young kid, I used to say architect, but then I realized that I wasn’t quite good enough at math to really do it. I enjoyed the design element of it and the geometric shapes, but it turns out that I’m not quite the artist/mathematician that I would need to be to really do that. I suppose if I really applied myself to it really aggressively, I might be able to pull it off. I take that back, I think what I would like to do most, if I could pick another profession, I would like to write books.

VM: What do you think you would write about?
IH: Fictional stories about people, interesting people. J.D. Salinger, Nick Hornby, maybe a little less cynical.

VM: What’s your favorite color? Why?
IH: Yes I do. It has been green for pretty much my entire life. I don’t know, it just is. I think it might be just because it’s the color of trees and nature and that’s just a soothing thing for me. I do really like black though.

VM: If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
IH: Oh gosh. I’m going to go with burritos.

VM: Any specifications on burritos?
IH: Well I was hoping you wouldn’t ask the specifications so that I could stay generic on that. Let’s see, it would have pico de gallo, rice, beans, fajita vegetables and possibly steak. And the hottest salsa they could find. Blazing. Hurt me. I love intense food.

VM: If you could be any animal, which animal would you want to be?
IH: There are lots of different animals that you could want to be that are really cool. I have to go with dolphin. They are the only animal that can take on a shark, pretty much the only adversary for a shark. They’re really fast and graceful. They’re really smart and they seem like they have a good time. I’m sure there are some grumpy dolphins, but they just seem very together creatures. Playful, entertaining, graceful and all of those things. I think a wolf might be kind of cool too.