It’s safe to say that more people in town have heard of Blake Hazard than have actually heard her. Since she first hit town in the mid ’90s — young, attractive, with a creative personality and a tantalizing family history — she’s been pegged as a talent waiting to happen. Yet the new Little Airplane (out this week on Kimchee) isn’t just her long-awaited full-length debut — it’s also first time she’s released a note of music under her own name.
"It’s taken a long time, but I’m glad it did," she admits over coffee at the Middle East. "Not only wasn’t I ready a few years ago, but I didn’t even have enough songs yet. Some people can sit down and be really disciplined about writing on schedule. I don’t have that kind of will. I don’t write unless I have to — unless I’m in some desperate emotional situation that’s commanding me to do it. I can honestly say there’s no formula for anything I’ve written, except that the times I feel most desperate are the times I seem to think most clearly."
So consider the album a record of Hazard’s past 10 years. In the course of writing the songs she changed bands, went solo, relocated to New York, and came back to Boston. And in the course of recording the album, she met Jack Drag mastermind John Dragonetti, who first became her part-time remixer, then her full-time collaborator, then her husband. But despite his presence (and the fact that she’s also joined his touring band), Little Airplane doesn’t sound like a Jack Drag album. Instead, it marks her evolution from a self-described "girl with a guitar" to a more complex artist who takes on the challenge of electronic pop, something few local bands have seriously tried (Ashby and the now-defunct Splashdown are the only real competition). The disc is a mélange of lounge jazz, Europop, and guitar twang, but her voice is kept up front, as well it should be. She knows how to use a breathy whisper for maximum effect; the obsessive "Strange Love" and the dark and haunting "Glittering" both show the effect of those desperate emotional situations.
When I recently caught Hazard play at 608, she made one of the riskier on-stage moves there is — playing at really low volume, so she’d either draw the crowd to her or get drowned out altogether. She pulled it off because the songs and her presence were powerful enough to shut people up. But her upcoming shows will feature a newly expanded band with Dragonetti on guitar, drummer Steve Scully, bassist Joe Klompus, and Ashby keyboardist/singer Evelyn Pope. She’ll celebrate the release of Little Airplane on July 20 at the Middle East.
Hazard’s lineage — she’s the great-granddaughter of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald — has probably gotten more press than her music, and that prompts me to ask whether she ever wishes she’d kept it a secret. "It probably helped me a lot at first because people became interested in what I did, but in a respectful way. But it’s also inevitable that the excitement of that connection would wear out over time. And I do think it’s worn off in Boston. I was lucky to grow up in the environment that he left behind, and my mother sheltered us from all the Fitzgerald fan types, as well as from the expectation that we’d produce something of the same kind of genius. I just find it unfortunate that I don’t seem to have inherited any of his creative genes."
That disclaimer aside, she did have her plans mapped out from an early age. "There was never a question in my mind that I was going to play music and make art." And she’s wound up doing both. An example of her artwork adorns the CD cover, showcasing a whimsical side that doesn’t come out in her music. The girl she’s drawn — her alter ego, perhaps — is a spectacled indie-rock girl who usually appears in retro-’50s settings. "I don’t think she’s me, but I’d love to have her clothes. The truth is that I have a crazy dream about owning a store where I make everything, whether it’s binding books or recording albums. As it is, I have an office with my computer, my drawing table, and my guitar, and some days I can’t imagine leaving it."
It took some time for Hazard to find her musical direction. When she hit town, it was as Jason Hatfield’s sidekick: she was the co–lead singer on his Star Hustler album Transamber. He was getting into alterna-country at the time, and Hazard did the same with her own first band — using the same musicians (guitarist Mike Leahy, bassist Brian Dunton, drummer Shawn King Devlin) who’d been the nucleus of Dumptruck, Tackle Box, and Helium. "It was a readymade band that I plugged into. At the time it seemed right to play country songs and have standard, two-guitar arrangements. Once I started writing more, I realized that I had other interests."
Dragonetti didn’t come into the picture until she thought the album was nearly wrapped up, but much of it ended up being re-recorded with his help. His love for machines helped set her off in a direction she’d been wanting to explore. "He helped demystify electronics for me. I used to listen to Björk and have no idea where the sounds came from. Now I find it a lot more decipherable." Since they’re in each other’s bands, one might think the potential for creative tension would be doubled. "Probably, but any couple who works together has to deal with those problems. It’s like being in the kitchen together: you have to learn to work on separate courses. When I bring a song to record, it’s already been finished; the writing is the part I keep for myself."
Hazard avoided turning Little Airplane into a concept album about her relationship with Dragonetti. Instead, she included earlier, romantically messed-up songs in the middle of the running order. But the theme is there if you’re looking for it. "It’s pretty funny — we began as complete strangers, and the last song we recorded together was in our own attic studio. So on that level, it is a testament to this great romance of ours."
ONE OF THE NICEST things you can say about a country singer from Boston is that he or she doesn’t sound like a New Englander. Of course, that would be ignoring the major country figures, including Gram Parsons and Gillian Welch, who spent some formative years here. Still, you expect that local country singers can summon enough twang to show the spirit’s been to the heartland, even if the singer hasn’t.
Local singer Kerri Powers may not be the reincarnation of Tammy Wynette, but that’s what she sounds like on You, Me & a Redhead (on her own Leopard Skin label). It’s as authentic a country album as has come out of Boston in years (the back-up outfit includes two of the Swinging Steaks, old hands at this sort of thing). Although the arrangements are kept rough, the songwriting is polished enough for contemporary country radio. And not until the Red Sox turn up in a lyric does the Northeast even come into the picture. The real grabber is Powers’s voice, which suggests too much hard living to come from a young, married woman from the Boston suburbs.
"It’s the voice I’ve always had," she explains. "My first guitar teacher used to play me a lot of old country songs, and [Wynette’s] ‘Apartment #9’ was the first thing I ever sang in public." Her own tastes run less to Nashville than to Creedence Clearwater Revival, a band featuring another singer (LA native John Fogerty) who didn’t come from the part of the country his music evoked.
As a songwriter, Powers does a personalized take on some classic country themes. The title track is something of a reverse double entendre — it sounds suggestive but merely stems from a dream she’d had that her husband was cheating. "That chorus was already going through my head, but when I woke up I knew how I could use it." And "F-150" takes a longstanding country theme — how one can love a truck more than one’s partner — and puts it in female hands for perhaps the first time. "My husband understands. And I really have crossed the country with that truck a few times." That’s why the song works: you don’t get the impression she’s trying to be clever by upending a classic country theme. It just seems she really digs that truck.
Powers and her band don’t have any shows booked at Boston clubs until October, when they’ll be playing at Johnny D’s. In the meantime, you can catch her at the Seoule Homestead in Middleborough on July 20.