TNPC speaks to Liam Hayes about the making of Plush’s More You Becomes You…
Around 70 seconds or so into the third song on More You Becomes You, comes a moment which betrays the album’s sly masquerade. Liam Hayes, who had switched on the microphone to say “Hi” at the beginning of the record, suddenly buckles with laughter, his delivery cracking under the strain of reaching for a high note, before his voice miraculously recovers to soar through the remainder of the line, now carried on the wings of angels. It is a moment whose significance is unlikely to register with many upon first listen, but which reveals to the diligent listener the album’s little secret. Before the penny drops, one could be forgiven for believing they were listening to a live recording of someone settling down at the piano to knock out a few songs and then walking out of the room again. “I did my job well if you hear it that way” confesses Hayes. “I didn’t want the listener to be hearing all the work that went into it, because there was a lot of that. The irony of it is that the album was very carefully edited, I mean a lot of time went into it, lots of studio sessions, a lot of editing on tape, so to get it to the point where it sounded like that really took a lot of work. I recorded it in a lot of studios, on different pianos with different engineers, but we stitched it all together and that’s what you hear.”
More You Becomes You became Hayes’ debut album in 1998, released like most of his work under the nom de plume Plush (a name suggestive of a band, borrowed Hayes adds, “from an amplifier of that name”). Even then there were signs that here was a pop perfectionist. It had taken him three years to follow his extraordinary first 45 (‘Three Quarter Blind Eyes’ b/w ‘Found A Little Baby’) – to these ears possibly the greatest pop single of the 1990s – with anything at all. A second 45 (‘No Education’ b/w ‘Soaring And Boring’) finally surfaced in 1997. The music press had been swift and virtually unanimous in its acclaim for the first single, which contained all the maturity and composure of the great singer-songwriters of the late ’60s / early ‘70s – the sweeping fingerprints of Scott Walker and Jimmy Webb, the maudlin drift of Randy Newman, with the gnawing guitar jabs of Steve Cropper. It was so good Hayes agonised at length over his next move. “I wasn’t expecting the response we got. I was delighted, really encouraged. But the flipside of that was that it made me put myself under quite a bit of pressure to follow it up with something equally good. So I had to really think about how to do that.”
He succeeded by making his first album a perfect one, a record so intimate and immersive as to make it the listener’s own possession. At a little under half an hour in length, there was not a moment wasted, he couldn’t afford for there to be. The songs with Hayes’ deft production, segue together so inconspicuously that listeners might find themselves frequently double-taking at the track-listing, wondering which song is which. One was tempted to suspect that the album collected together little fragments of ideas for songs with no beginnings or endings and nowhere else to go. Was it initially envisaged as a suite of songs or did each track have a history of its own before the recording? “It sometimes happens like that” continues Hayes. “As I recall, when the album was really coming together it had its own identity, and was pulling ideas into its orbit. I felt like I was hearing things relating to each other in some kind of sequence, though I wasn’t sure at first what it was really about. I really was immersed in its world as the songs were beginning to evolve. It wasn’t part of another group of songs. They were only ever going to be on this album.”
From conception to realisation it would become for Hayes a painstaking labour of love, and yet despite its at times overwhelming melancholy, it is suffused with good humour and a little mischief too. On the title track for instance the subject appears to be “Virginia” – a little bewilderingly so, as that is the title of the preceding track, the album’s opener – which itself sounded as solemn as one of Satie’s ‘Gymnopedies’. Then there’s the little matter of having a track entitled ‘The Instrumental’ which isn’t an instrumental at all, while other ‘songs’ are of such brevity they barely even exist. ‘The Party I’ and ‘The Party 2’ clock in at a mere thirty seconds apiece, the latter containing lines delivered with such achingly fragile earnestness they always make me smile: “I saw the party look at me / They told me that I wasn’t free / I showed them my soul power”. Hayes’ impassioned performances mean the songs somehow manage to communicate something immediately personal to each listener, who may shed a tear or two without really understanding why. “Everything that I’m looking at and putting into my music is personal to me, but I hope that everybody else can take something from that. With every record that I’ve done – some more than others – I really tried to have there be a beginning middle and end. As far as a concept or theme, with More You Becomes You it was obviously a very inner thing. I think that you can enjoy it without it really telling you what’s happening. I’m happy there’s room for other people to make it more personal to them.”
Some have called More You Becomes You ‘chamber pop’, others might file it under ‘singer-songwriter’, and it is somehow both of those things and yet neither. Hayes is reticent to discuss specific reference points as influences: “I’m probably not going to be able to pick out individual things too easily, but just generally what it has always been for me is just popular song. Not really songs that were happening contemporaneously, but songs that I was aware of from earlier on in my life. Some people might put it into a singer-songwriter category I suppose – and I like a lot of those artists, but that was not my direct inspiration – it was more pop in general. Maybe because the tempo of the record is slow and intimate it’s easy to cast it in that light, but what I was hearing in my head was something that was a bit broader in scope.” There is certainly a freedom and looseness to the composition which might recall the spontaneity of Todd Rundgren or even Laura Nyro’s oscillating explorations of melody and timbre, but ultimately this is simply a collection of sublime songs, written by Liam Hayes.
With his ecstatic broken falsetto on ‘Soaring And Boring’ (“Like this love I’m ignoring/ Imploring, adoring / It’s mine, all the time / All the time, all the time / See it shine…”) and those minor chords which envelop one in a blissful haze, he gives a studiously understated performance throughout, and even when the ‘production’ becomes more noticeable – the vocal overdubs that rescue the falter on the aforementioned third track ‘I Didn’t Know (I Was Asleep)’, or the horn which suddenly emerges from nowhere on ‘Save The People’ or even the floating gorgeous coda to the album’s glorious finale The Sailor’ – the treatments are sufficiently cushioned so as not to break the spell.
More You Becomes You was released on Drag City / Domino in September 1998, and has developed a bit of a cult following over the years. Despite its ‘indie’ credentials, Hayes has never felt comfortable being positioned in that bracket with the limitations that might suggest. “All of my records are produced. They were not done in the way a lot of people might consider indie records are done. A lot of time and attention went into them. This was before everybody had a recording studio in their bedroom! If you go back in time and think about the way some of those records were being made 20 years ago, how cheaply they were being made, I mean that was what was being presented to me as an alternative. You can go into a studio and spend thousands of dollars or you can use this latest digital portable recording technology. Go back and listen to some of those records now! Hear how they sound. I took the decision. It was more expensive, more time consuming, more financially burdensome, but in the end what I was paying attention to, was making the best record I could. The production should support the songs, and on this album the minimal approach really worked.”
Another indicator of Hayes’ meticulous attention to detail was the original artwork which featured his own childlike drawing on a gatefold CD enclosed in a paper bag. “I’ve done all the designs for all of my records. I’ve been very involved at every level. It’s really about that balance between art and commerce. As an artist you are always going to see something that people from the commercial side of things will be oblivious to. You’re going to spot the defect in the layout or hear the part of the song where the mix turned left when it needed to turn right. I don’t do this just for myself – some people will say that won’t they ‘you know I just make art for myself’ – but if that were really the case, then I wouldn’t be talking to you just now. My effort is always to make it everything that it should be, but it also has to set to sail on the seas of commerce.”
The album hasn’t been available for some time, but thankfully Hayes has plans to reissue it in the near future. “It was a happy coincidence that we talked because I am looking to reissue it within the next two or three years, do a proper reissue of it and remaster it – if I can find anyone with the right old and original technology to really bring out what’s there on the tapes.” (JJ)