Defining True Society - A Conversation with singer/songwriter Jerry Hannan about music, life and working with Eddie Vedder
Back in 2007 I had the pleasure of interviewing veteran singer/songwriter Jerry Hannan. If you didn't know who he was before the release of the epic film, Into The Wild, you certainly knew him afterwards. Hannan wrote the beautiful song Society, which he recorded with Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder for their mutal friend Sean Penn's film and soundtrack. I hope you enjoy it!
Have you ever gazed at a beautiful nights’ sky, full of stars and promise and thought that there’s so much more to this life? Have you thought beyond money, politics and the religions of the world? Have you simply thought that there must be a better way? Well Jerry Hannan has…and through his gift of song he shares those thoughts with the rest of us.
“…We have a greed with which we have agreed. When ya think you have to want more than you need, until you have it all you won’t be free. Society, you're a crazy breed, I hope you’re not lonely without me.” sings Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder on the soundtrack to acclaimed director Sean Penn’s film Into the Wild. The lyrics belong to a song called “Society” written by San Francisco singer/songwriter, Jerry Hannan and man do they speak volumes.
As a long standing and revered musician in Northern California, Hannan has a knack for telling it like it is without being preachy or domineering. He’s a storyteller in the vain of Dylan and Springsteen mixing honest, heartfelt lyrics with a deliberate, sometimes brooding delivery. That being said, he is also lighthearted with a quick wit. Emotion and mood dictate his music. He is a true artist.
One listen to his latest creation, the aforementioned “Society”, the listener acquires the knowledge that Jerry Hannan is a musician for the ages. His passionate attack of the social norm and open rebellion of the status quo is the largest breath of fresh air I’ve taken in years. Written as companion and chronicle for the real life main character of Penn’s film, Christopher McCandless, “Society” gives us eyes into the soul of a man who, whether we admit it or not, lives in all of us. Who hasn’t, at one time in their life or another, dreamt of shedding their skin and following their inner most calling to disappear? No two weeks notice, no going away party, no parting shot to friends and family…just “poof” and you’re gone! I know I have and if asked to bet, I’d bet you have to. Jerry Hannan has seemingly made the same bet and “Society” is proof of his victory.
When I first heard the song “Society” I immediately adopted it as my new theme song. It was seemingly written for me and I wasn’t about to let it go. Even those around me looked at me and thought I had something to do with the creation of this tune. Obviously I had nothing to do with it, but I wanted to track down the guy who had everything to do with it. The following is a mixture of email and telephone conversations I had with one Mr. Jerry Hannan…enjoy!
RJ – Hi Jerry thanks for taking the time to speak with me. I absolutely love the song “Society”, and I wanted to start with that song. Was it written specifically for Christopher McCandless (lead character in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild) or does this song reflect some of your own beliefs?
JH – “Society” definitely reflects my own attitude. It seems no matter how hard I try to be a part of it all, I can’t. I’ve tried to do other jobs besides music to make more money or be more stable or fit in, but I just get pissed off at this artificial world that everyone is getting sucked into. Most people don’t realize it at all, but they’re starting to, ya know? I saw an article in the paper about how driving commute times are drastically on the rise, something like 1 ½ to 2 hours each way and how people are finding that the only peace in their lives is during their commute. They’ve gotten sucked into a home life and a work life that’s so miserable, they say that the best part of their day is sitting in traffic..and they still don’t get it! The gas, auto, communications and hallmark companies love these people. They’re great customers! Working their miserable ass off so they can sit in traffic. It’s a mystery. Do you know why your cell phone company has several different plans and lets you pick the one that’s right for you? Because they’re hoping you’ll pick the wrong one. If they wanted you to be on the right one, they’d put you on the right one at the end of each month. This is not rocket science. Is anybody out there thinking these things? Ok, back to the question. When I wrote “Society, you’re a crazy breed, I hope you’re not lonely without me.” I was thinking of Chris McCandless being out there by himself, missing all his folks but glad he wasn’t with them….trying to make peace. On a side note, I think there’s hope in the world for anyone who really decides to think for his or her self…to step back and really question the values and ideals that Society wants to sell us. We as a people have let the system run away with our living spirit.
RJ – So tell me, how did you get involved in Sean Penn’s project to begin with?
JH – I met Sean in 1998 at a small café in Fairfax, CA where he chanced in as my band was playing. He invited me for a drink after, apparently he liked the show and we’ve kept in touch ever since. When Sean got the rights to do Into the Wild he gave me a script and asked me if I might come up with a tune or two. He was just throwing it out there…seems he’s always had a lot of faith in my songwriting (more than I have)…maybe he sees something I don’t.
RJ – So how did you come to find out that there was real interest in some of the material you came up with for the film? And describe what it was like to hear that Pearl Jam lead singer, Eddie Vedder wanted to include one of your songs for inclusion on his album. Talk a bit about the recording experience you had with him.
JH – Gee. I got a random call from Sean and it went something like this: “Hello?” “Jer, Eddie (Vedder) likes your song.” “Well that’s good.” “Can you fly to Seattle RIGHT NOW?” “Ya” “Ok, call my secretary and head to the airport.” “Ok.” …pretty exciting. I didn’t really think about it in an emotional way. I just followed instructions. So the flight was magical – which never happens. I sat in a left hand window seat and the plane followed a sunset crowned by a new moon all the way to Seattle. A limo dropped me off at the hotel where I saw Sean and Robin Penn standing outside. All I had was my guitar, no luggage…so I gave it to the bellboy and walked down the street to the corner where Eddie was waiting. We were introduced and then walked to a bar to have a Mojito. The whole meeting was about me and Eddie but we hardly said anything to each other all night. I guess we’re both slow to meet. So we finished the night walking home and Eddie said “I’ll do my homework.” Meaning he’d learn the song. The next day I went to breakfast with Sean, Robin and film producer Bill Pohlad. Then we took a cab to the studio but I forgot my guitar at the restaurant. So I jumped out to retrieve it and took another cab to the studio. I can’t remember the name of the place, but it was a nice studio and everyone was very accommodating to me. Eddie was walking around practicing the song so I pretty much left him alone until we recorded, save for “if you need any input, let me know. Feel free to take liberties and sing it your own way.” He said, “No, I like it just the way it is.” He asked me how I’d like to record it and I said “let’s play it together.”…on the first take we both said, “Well this one is it! Unless we get a better one.” His voice sounded so great in my headphones, I couldn’t believe it. However, the third take was even better so we said, “we’re done.” That’s the one that’s on the soundtrack. We really only worked for 15-20 minutes. It was probably the smoothest, easiest recording of a song I’ve ever done. Then I added the lead guitar, background vocals and light brushes on a snare and voila! Even after this great recording experience, it seemed we didn’t have much to say to each other. Later that day we saw a screening of the movie which still had my version of “Society” in it. Then we went and sang songs in a local dive bar, trading off with the $50 nylon string guitar I had brought up to record the song. Now I feel like I know him pretty good.
RJ – Can you talk about some of your musical influences?
JH – I don’t count any particular musician directly as an influence. There’s no one I’ve ever tried to be like. But I know I’ve been influenced by many. Irish music and ballads as a child were probably my biggest influence. Then in random order: Cat Stevens, John Prine, AC/DC, Beethoven, there’s hundreds. Then there’s a group of pop artists – The Doobie Brothers, Steve Miller, Tom Petty and lots like them that I listened to a lot in high school…I still love those guys. In regards to song ideas, I think the last place you should look for inspiration for a song is from another song cause…uh, it’s been done. I wrote one once called “Stairway to Freebird”; it’s pretty good by I never recorded it. I think I could say that all of my song ideas come from life experiences and not other media.
RJ – If you could pick any artist, dead or alive, to record any of your songs, who would it be and why?
JH – I have never imagined this question. It’s a good one. Boy, I would be over the moon if Neil Young recorded “EGBA.”, Bruce Springsteen recorded “Burning Man Revisited”, Eddie Vedder recorded “Society”..ha! Actually I think this is a versatile song that several artists could make their own. Imagine Willie Nelson, Springsteen, Prine, Chris Issac, Roy Orbison, Tom Waits, Sinead O’Connor, and John Cougar. Van Morrison recorded “Blind Man” and “Sand Castle”, John Prine recorded “I thought I was you”, Kid Rock could record “ABC’s” over the top and comical. Guns and Roses could record “Rugburns” and “The Luxury of Murder”…ok, I’m getting carried away here.
RJ – Is there an artist around who you’d love to work with in regards to recording and releasing one of their songs?
JH – Never thought of that one either, but off the top of my head…Willie Nelson – any song!
RJ – Now that we’ve talked about some other musicians, let’s get back to you. How long have you been playing professionally?
JH – In 1996 I played guitar as a hobby and wanted to make a cassette tape of 5 songs I’d written…just to have them. I made a deal with a friend, Jim Reitzel who owned a studio, to record in trade for some car detailing and $40 per hour thereafter. So the day after we recorded the initial tracks Jim called and said “we’re making a cd for free and we need more songs…we love it!” Well one thing led to another, we did the cd, played a show or two and the local paper saw us in a coffee shop and did a full page article entitled “Meet the mad Hannans.” Pretty soon I was making more money playing music than I was detailing cars. So I accidentally became a professional musician.
RJ – So what’s coming up on the horizon that we should be on the lookout for? Another film project, a record, a tour?
JH – Well, I think I might be getting a feel for movie song writing. I’ve been approached by a few independents that I’m working on right now and I enjoy it very much. I’m also making a record right now. I’ve been recording it myself at the PLANT in Sausalito. I’m liking it a lot; I’ve got some producers looking into it. I think I may have found someone who won’t screw it up; otherwise I’ll record it and release it myself. I’m also working on a West Coast tour for February 2008, via New York if necessary and maybe Chicago and Minnesota too.
As you listen to and become more familiar with the music of Jerry Hannan, you begin to realize that you’re not alone in your beliefs. You’re not alone with your convictions. Most of us cannot articulate our ideas the way Hannan can, but that’s the beauty of such a songwriter. His purpose is to be the voice of every man/every woman who can’t seem to fight for themselves (even if he doesn’t know it.) And trust me, I’m not saying he has a responsibility to speak for all of us; it’s just that he seems to give a voice to those who are fed up with the way things are in this world. Just listen to songs like “The Luxury of Murder” or “Smoke in Heaven” off of his CD Sounds Like a Story and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
At the same time however, listen to “Hollywood” off of the same record and you’ll get a sense for Hannans’ playful side. He won’t bring you too far down without picking you up again.
Some of his earlier work (with Brother Sean Hannan) on the CD Madly In Love With You has more of the same. Introspection, thoughtful rebellion as well as good times and hopefulness. Songs like “Friend”, “Clear Headed”, “The Good Life” and “I Thought I Was You” will sound like the soundtrack to your lives at different stages. These are songs that feel like they were all written for you and because of that, they feel like home.
Jerry Hannan makes music about life, about real life. He writes about the struggles and the joys we all experience. His words are wise and his music soothing. Once you discover his talent, you’ll never put it back.