Darren Hayman – January Songs

There are so many reasons to applaud Darren Hayman’s January Songs project, in which the former Hefner frontman set about writing, recording and releasing a song a day during the month.

Not only has he managed to successfully create 31 new songs, but has maintained a high quality throughout.

Take January 30th’s song, ‘We’re tired of being dicked around’, for example. Recorded live at The Lexington, in London, it is a wonderfully downbeat sing a long mix of  ‘All You Need Is Love’ and the film Network’s key phrase “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” It is among many highlights even after 29 successive days of relentless writing and releasing.

Having a range of collaborators involved, including Allo Darlin’s Elizabeth Morris, former Hefner bandmate Jack Hayter and Spanish band Litorol, has helped keep the songs interesting. As has a range of styles from folk to rock, from electronica to reggae. Even jazz story telling crops up midway through the month.

But this project has been more than just creating 31 songs. It is about a performer challenging himself while all the time connecting with an audience, giving them a greater insight into the song writing and recording process. Each day throughout January Hayman has been releasing not just the song to download, but a video diary about the song and his day’s events, as well as lyric sheets, sketches, photos and videos to accompany some tracks.

The audience participation has been two way as well, another reason to applaud the project. Each day on Facebook and Twitter Hayman has been asking for ideas and help with lyrics. This has given the audience a sense of ownership in the project. They are thanked on final track ‘My Dream Train’, about friendship and collaboration, a key theme of the project.

I was fortunate enough to be one of those to influence a track, albeit through the most unfortunate of circumstances after my dog Arthur went missing. I alerted him to his disappearance via Facebook, and as a dog lover Hayman duly promoted it among his twitter fans and asked me for updates. Eventually after five nights we tracked down Arthur and despite initially saying a song about his disappearance would be too sad, Hayman decided to give it a go after such a happy ending.

As track January 17’s track ‘Arthur the dog’ was taking shape I gained an even greater insight into the song writing process. Attention to detail is key for Hayman, with questions such as “was the weather bad on any night he was away” following. The end product, complete with video I sent him, was accurate and perfectly captured our feelings of loss, helplessness and ultimate joy.

I can also testify that he really did create the whole thing in just a day, although he does admit to two ‘cheats’ on other tracks. Half way through the month Hayman went back and enhanced his vocals on Day 6’s live ‘Nothing At All’ because he says he “sang like a shitter” on the original. Also, Mark Brend’s music for Day 24’s ‘Ventroloquism’ was recorded in advance, although Hayman’s lyrics and vocals were created on the day.

While Arthur the Dog will always be my standout track it faces stiff competition from some of the others. We are not going to give a track by track review here due to the sheer size of the track listing, but here’s a run down of some of our favourites.

‘My Dirty Widow’, is among those I keep coming back to. When I first read Hayman’s Tweet about the title, my immediate thought was, ‘oh, hasn’t Bill Callahan already done this with the Smog track ‘Dress Sexy At My Funeral’. While the subject matter may be similar Hayman has created something far more bittersweet. Lyrics such as ‘if you see my dirty widow tell her I don’t mind, tell her its ok’ tell an entire story in just one line.

Elizabeth Morris’s contribution, ‘I know I fucked up’ is another standout, with her soft vocals matching the swearing perfectly. The Calexico-esque trumpet arrangement by Terry Edwards on ‘Old Man Hands’ is another.

January is a perfect month for this project as well, among the most reflective of times, coming after the cavalcade of Christmas and bogged down with the reality of cold nights and empty wallets. Hayman admits that another key theme to emerge from the music has been this sense of withdrawing into yourself and hiding away.

The songs indeed reflect this wintery Christmas comedown perfectly, especially the Velvet Underground-esque ‘We’re Staying In’. A warm and cuddly song that’s great to curl up with as the icy January rain lashes down outside.

The most English of issues are also covered. Day 21’s ‘Shhh..’ .about library closures and Day 20’s ‘I Want to be a Volunteer’ about his day a week volunteering on an old railway line are among the best of these.

Hayman is in the purplest of purple patches with January songs coming on the back of 2009’s excellent Pram Town and last year’s Essex Arms, both part of a trilogy about Essex. But the more I listen to the 31 tracks the more I think that in ambition, song quality and breadth January Songs could just be his greatest achievement yet. Already ‘Old Man Hands’, ‘My Dream Train’, ‘My Dirty Widow’ and ‘I Know I Fucked Up’ are among my favourite Hayman songs.

All the songs were available to download for free for a day or so after release. The complete January Songs, including 14 extra tracks of demos, voice notes and works in progress, is now available to buy via bandcamp for £15.  During one of the video diaries Hayman adds that there is the possibility of a CD release of January Songs at a later date.

For more information about this innovative project visit here.


by Joe Lepper