by Jo Higgs
Christian Lee Hutson on his songs, stories, and the new lives they take on when he lets them go
Like a good short story collection to drop your soul into, character by character, word by word, Christian Lee Hutson’s Quitters is invested in the minutiae that beckons a sense of familiarity. His previous album, Beginners, was the product of seven years of writing, but Quitters cut the process to a year – and without losing any of the sensitivity, magic or sweetness.
Hutson’s musical work up until now attests to the sadly fading possibility of gradual ascendance. Big name cover-features seem to be increasingly arrived at by instantaneous “surprise – now I’m famous”-isms that even the “I’ve been following them since I heard [blank]” brigades can’t pretend to have been aware of – let alone pin-point the TikTok or meme that stratospheric-ised them.
Musicians like Hutson, who are still by all accounts young, but have an understated history of plying their trade are by this metric, are refreshing. Of course, I don’t mean to de-value the process a lot of contemporary artists go through, nor do I wish to position Hutson as an anomaly – he isn’t alone in his modest and patient ascendance – but something about it does seem particularly well-earned.
Quitters is officially Hutson’s second album, but lost somewhere in the ether are at least two prior albums. While Hutson reckons there’s still value in them, and he may eventually revisit the songs, he acknowledges that they primarily came to exist out of ‘compulsively recording and releasing what’s there at the time,’ and needing something to sell during his early 20s playing at ‘dive bars, coffee shops and spaghetti restaurants.’
‘I was listening to a lot of The Replacements, and Paul Westerberg’s solo record, Suicaine Gratification [when writing Quitters],’ Hutson recalls. ‘I love that record and wanted to do something of my own, but in that vein, in that spirit – not so much the arrangements themselves, but finding joy in the imperfections and messy guitar solos.’ Quitters isn’t so much about having sloppily drummed beats and piano vamps that spread over into the “wrong” notes, but about the vitality of the recording, in the ethic of not recording a song to death.
‘I get really burnt out doing lots of takes,’ Hutson laughs. ‘I stop caring, so we just try to get everything in a couple of attempts, so everyone knows what they’re playing, but not so well as to suck the life out of it.’ Naturally, as Hutson intended, the album isn’t perfect but it’s certainly correct, or right. It’s as it should be: alive.
The life of Quitters doesn’t stop in the vibrancy and ephemerality of its recording, but continues to grow and become something different with every eardrum it shakes. ‘I believe when you release a song or a film or whatever that you’re collaborating with the audience, and you get to make it about something together,’ Hutson considers. ‘I’m always way more interested in what something I wrote means to someone else than what it meant to me when I wrote it. Art’s always changing. It’s alive in a sense, like something changes and it becomes a different part of your past.’
Channelling an absurd blend of Roland Barthes and The Life of Pablo era Kanye (not altering the album post-release in quite as literal a sense), the notion of music being a medium that the audience’s interpretation of has such value, as well as being an alive and morphing entity at the behest of this interpretation, Hutson’s views on music are generously democratic and not lacking in modernity.
As romantic as it is to value a listener’s role so highly, the work that Hutson and co. invested into Quitters is hard to brush over. Stemming from a love of words, specifically the short story form, he laughs that, ‘As a kid, I really wanted to be a novelist, but then I got a guitar.’ The lyrical nature of Hutson’s aspirations weren’t lost in their fusing with guitar music; Quitters is written as if a series of short stories – each character having a life with troubles and desires of their own. It is in fact these characters that, in their actions, provide the album its title. ‘There’s a lot of different types of quitting throughout the record: someone’s getting a divorce, someone’s quitting their job; I don’t know, there’s just a lot of people trying to make massive changes in their lives.’ Shortly before the release of Quitters, the curiously lovely short story Codependence Day was published on Talkhouse, if further testimony to Hutson’s story-telling ability is required.
The stories carry their own beauty, but, of course, the instrumentation and melodies are equally as important. From early pandemic days ‘sitting in my little apartment with a guitar trying to keep my mind busy and come up with new stuff,’ to entering the studio with such esteemed friends as producers in Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst, Quitters takes the same template as Beginners, but brings in more expansive arrangements. Age Difference stuns as a notably beautiful arrangement. Hutson recalls that ‘we were going to keep it really simple – guitar and voice, but on my demos from home, I had done some backwards guitar stuff, which Conor suggested we could re-do with backwards trumpet loops’ – a suggestion that pays dividends by helping capture one of the most tender recordings of Hutson’s career.
Just like Beginners is not truly the beginning for Christian Lee Hutson, Quitters certainly isn’t any attempt at quitting. Life, as a crucial element of Quitters, whether through the lives detailed in the songs or the new life of its own the album endeavours upon come its release, will keep on going and imprint its own impressions on the songs by this wonderful guitar-wielding story-teller.