'Never Had a Clue' ~ Pat Hull

Chico's Golden Voice On Patterns and Humility

'Never Had a Clue' ~ Pat Hull

Pat Hull is a father, a poet, and an educator… as well as being a wildly gifted singer/songwriter from Chico, California. He just released 'Never Had a Clue' — a single from St. Clare, his forthcoming LP on Dutch Records. St. Clare marks his 8th full album release, with 'Never Had a Clue' being the teaser track to set the tone.

Given the times we’re in, the intention and process behind this record seems to have recast the mould of his creative process. The entire production was done remotely, empowering a more individualized approach between Pat and his band towards composition. In particular, 'Never Had a Clue' brings across Pat's signature tangibility, carried by his countertenor vivacity and off-the-wall fingerpicking patterns. But what's fresh is the simple, stripped back nature of the melody with some jazzy bridges to stitch it all together.

In parallel to our premiere of his single — out today on Bandcamp — Pat happily sat down with a cold beer to share some thoughts on lyricism, cohesion, nonviolent communication, love, babies, politics, life philosophy, and a little poetry. It’s a rare and fairly intimate dive into Pat’s life and vocation, and one we’re humbled to share.

[Soft Punk] You've been working on St. Clare for quite a while and just got the vinyls back about a week ago. How does it feel to have the album done and the single released?

[Pat Hull] I'm really happy with how it turned out. It's been a strange style of recording, because the record was nearly done in February and we started producing as the pandemic hit. So all of the extra instruments and those different production choices were done in separate homes. There were seven of us working together virtually and sending each other music files and piecing it all together. So this was the first time that we've made something that piecemealed — where we weren't all in a room making choices together and having it all happen in real time.

It's been interesting hearing it back on vinyl and the music sounding very cohesive, very human. It sounds like we're all in the same room together, for which I applaud the engineer, but it’s slightly deceptive because we were all in separate houses recording our part because of the pandemic. So like everybody else in the industry, we were really having to adapt to make it work.

How do you think that distance translated, in terms of the ways that people felt into their different parts that they were recording, without the camaraderie? Would it be fair to say that there's almost more of an individual relationship that each of you got to have with the compositions themselves?

Totally. That reminds me of a discussion I just had with my friend Michael Bone, who plays bass and sings on this record, about how we didn’t have the fun and the camaraderie and the impulsiveness that happens in recording when you're in the same room. But we were both saying how nice it was to not have distractions and work on our own, to an extent.

The same kind of chumminess that makes a record fun to record is the same thing that can be pretty distracting in terms of developing parts. So we sacrificed this fun in the memories of making a record, but we were also kind of relieved in a way. When I was talking with everyone, they're like, "Yeah, I got to focus on these parts and re-do them as many times as I wanted, and not get distracted; not have excessive inputs from people."

I think that's why I really like the different elements to each song, because I can tell which tracks are personalized more so by specific band members. They weren't shaped by anything but their own brain and intuition, in their own house, by themselves. So it was a trade off and we all enjoyed the unique solitude of recording this album.

What about 'Never Had a Clue' made it stand out for the single release?

That was shaped by the label. They told us to choose a song that speaks to us but isn't the one that really embodies the record. So in a sense, they basically said, "Pick your third best track," which is kind of a bizarre question but we ran with it.

The reason why we chose 'Never Had a Clue' was because there are scenes, lyrically, and there was a mood with that song, that were indicative of the record. It’s also kind of ear catching, you know? Somewhat poppy. But there's a lot of different, kind of strange jazz elements to it. It had to have all of the different worlds of the record in there. It had the vocal harmony aspect, some of the groovy percussion stuff happening. It felt like a track that had a little bit of everything in it.

The record is pretty diverse, though each track definitely has your trademark sentimental flourish on it. Your voice and strumming patterns are just incredibly distinct. But that said, something different is happening here from your past releases, a shift of sorts. I've picked up on a crisper, almost simpler distinction on the notes and melodies that you're finding.

How has this record evolved the direction of your songwriting?

It's funny, because you don't really recognize the changes as they're happening. There is no real concrete way for me to understand how anything is shifting with the music. When I hear the song back, I do hear the shift. But when it's happening, I have no idea how it's different than anything else.

Like you said, there's a real, sentimental, intimate relationship that I have with the music writing process. I feel like every song that was created, just like with my other records, was a very spontaneous moment of a feeling that I had. And there was never an intentional curation of a shift in sound. That's what's so beautiful about continually making music, is that you're changing and you're shifting, and listeners will hear the shift. But generally, the writer is clueless that it's happening, because you never know when your intuition and your approach to artistry is changing. It's just changing.

But I would say that when I listen back, I definitely hear a will to get a little more poppy with the song writing. Or just not fearing a little bit more simplicity in writing songs. There's an art in itself to create a two to three minute awesome, catchy pop song.

So as I listened back to St. Clare, it almost feels like there's a couple songs where I'm like, "Wow, this is nothing strenuous. This is not hard to listen to." I would love to make more of those kinds of songs, in which they come naturally. I'm not sure if they will, but the ones where it just gives us an easy birth. This is just a creation. I'm not trying for the melody. It's just like any sort of bird cry. Like, "Oh, yeah, this is just exactly what intuitively feels right."

So to answer your question more succinctly... The shift that I'm hearing when I listen back is that there might be a little less effort to make it seem interesting. If interesting stuff happens for the listener, that's great. But I just want to make music that intuitively feels right. And trusting that process. I think before, in past albums, I said this has to be more interesting, and I hunted for that interesting. And that's cool! I think that's great, too. But I'm done hunting for it. If it comes, that's awesome. But I'm hearing a little bit more of a laid back approach to the music, which I dug.

The best stuff often comes when you're actually not looking for it.


Photo by Effie Tyler Benjamin

Having played together for years now, how has the band influenced your songwriting?

The crew that's on St. Clare is the Chico band that I've been with for a while. And I think that might be even bridging off the shift thing you were talking about. My earlier albums were produced and engineered by some friends in New York. The way they heard my music was much more cerebral and theoretical. I loved it. It was great. But coming out here, and playing with this band, there's much more of a “don't think too much about it” kinda vibe.

There's a trust that we all have with each other in terms of building musical parts. We're not over analyzing it. That's how the recording process was for this album.

The guitarist on the record, Dorian Rohlfes, was the engineer and producer too. He's somebody that always has the right chord choice to complement a song; that plays for the song. Michael Bone, the bass player, he's very whimsical. He has a recording process where he's very Jackson Pollock about it. He just throws it at the track, and is like, "Alright, I mean, I'll change this, but this feels good." And our drummer, Sean Raeside, is very meticulous, but he's got such a pocket. He's just effortless in his talent.

St. Clare was piecemealed in a way that's very different from the chess maneuvers of my last albums — which I again, I loved. Before, I just had these songs and brought them to these New York producers for all my prior recordings, like Marrow, Light, Shed Skin, and all the records I made four or five years ago. And these cats were like, "There's a right move to make every second of the song." So I said, "That's dope! I wish you the best of luck in finding whatever the fuck that is."

But these last couple albums feel really good because there's less of that chess maneuvering and more individual decisions that felt right for my bandmates. I might not have chosen those things, but I trust them. There's another kind of humanity to that style of recording that I really dig and I think that comes off in the record. All of these choices, and they're not my choices; all these individual choices from people that I gain trust with over the years. I think that's what a beautiful collaboration looks like — to create a record with complete trust of another’s intuition.

So in terms of them shaping me, I think it's more psychological. When I see them play, I see the effortlessness of it and I think that seeps into my songwriting. I'm into letting go more in my songwriting and not looking for the right moves and just trying to create, intuitively what feels right. They teach me that by trusting me. As much as I trust them with them making the right moves for a song, they trust me with the parts I create.

It's not that we're not critical, though. No, I think it's important to be critical. We definitely have those moments where we're like, "Hrmmm... I'm not sure about that." But generally, it's a process that feels super trusting and intuitive.

And even in those moments of criticism, having trust.

Yeah, yeah, exactly. And it's a fucking miracle how it even happens. That I even run into these people and we do it! We build trust over time and we're like, "Yes, this feels right. These sounds are right. This is what's supposed to happen."

Luckily, I've only had like one or two collaborations where I'm like, "This is like a bad first date and I need to flee as soon as possible." But that's what it is, you know as an artist, those feelings. You don't know how to explain why it's right. Or why it works. But it just does. Just like relationships or anything else.

In terms of things feeling and sounding right, could you describe your affection for the nylon guitar strings? Where did that come from and what has brought you back there (seemingly for good)?

I was playing steel string for a while and it's just harsh, you know? I was playing so many live shows back when I was using a steel string, and I don't think I ever was happy with how it sounded when I plugged in. It was just abrasive. It felt like I was playing at people instead of for them. I couldn't make it work. It didn't matter what I tried... whatever kind of guitar. It just didn't work.

So I was hunting for these nylon guitars because I just know that they're warmer, and I love how they play. There's just so much more color to them in the style of fingerpicking that I have. It's more conducive for my style of playing.

Luckily, I found the one for me on consignment at a local local music store here Chico. It was all worn in and beat up and old. And I just loved it. It plugs in and it just sounds so human and warm. Because my voice is countertenor, and I can kind of get... intense, vocally. I don't need a guitar that's also intense. Hah, way too much. Way too much intensity. So it counters and balances my voice too.

I only have one guitar. And that's that nylon.

Photo by ML Parker

Considering your voice and range, nylon absolutely does complement your tone perfectly. I don't know of many True Blue countertenors. In some moments, you’re almost a perpetual falsetto. You're just up there and that's where you're comfortable.

Hah yeah, it's my cozy zone for sure.

What was the process of finding your voice in that higher range? How did you nestle in there?

It's just exploring a range. You know, you're a writer. You see how far you can stretch something with language and tone. I started writing a little bit more poetry recently — really abrasive, kind of crude stuff and stretching it out. Then realizing that doesn't feel good. That doesn't feel right.

I did the same thing with my voice. I was stretching it all the time to find what felt right. So when I started feeling this comfort zone in this countertenor range, early on when I was learning guitar, covering whatever Neil Young songs and stuff, I remember thinking this feels really comfortable and realizing I can really swing in this range. My personality also feels like most of my feelings come in that range. So it was a totally natural stretching and exploration. Total exploration.

On this record too, there's some more lower-register stuff that is important for me to explore. Making sure that as much of the spectrum of personality of the voice is shown is important. I'll keep working on it, for sure.

Who's your favorite poet at the moment?

It's such a timely thing, but I'm obviously in love with Mary Oliver right now. That might be just because it's turning fall. When I hunker down and the seasons change, I go to Mary Oliver. I've also been reading some Bukowski, some Gary Snyder, which has been fun; also Troy Jollimore, who is a poet and teacher in Northern California, who I really dig. Those are the four I've been reading interchangeability.

I always read Bukowski when it gets cold.

*whispers* He's so good...

So I understand, you're almost an entirely self taught guitarist; all the way up until you became a professional musician? What was your process learning guitar?

Yep. My brother Cameron is a player and he taught me some basic chords. There were also a couple key influences where I was listening, and I was like, "Ooh, this sounds really good. This is more important than strumming chords." I think that was hearing M. Ward's record Transfiguration of Vincent when I was really young and just starting to learn guitar and thinking, "Oh my god, there's so much play here."

I need to get playful. I can't survive playing this instrument with just strumming chords. It was going to hit a ceiling so quickly. And it did. Any kind of survival of anything, you need to just keep stretching it. You're like, "Okay, that ceiling. I'm not going to keep hitting the ceiling. I'm not going to keep bumping my head."

There's this natural process of breaking chords apart. It's like piano, you know, breaking down chords into arpeggios and the constant challenging of it. So the shift just started happening, looking at all these different patterns.

Also listening to Steve Reich, and hearing all of these looping patterns, and realizing that, for me, music is the constant discovery of patterns. You can take one chord and have this factorial pattern. Numerically, you can just keep going forever. There's no ceiling to how many ways you can play something. And that's fucking crazy. That's just amazing. It just shows the never-ending generosity of art. You could just keep going and going. You could play one chord in infinite ways.

So yeah, exploring the guitar felt that way. I was hitting all these ceilings, and then every ceiling was a kind of breakthrough. I'm so grateful that for some reason every time I hit a ceiling of motivation or inspiration, at least so far in my life, some kind of opening up happens with something else. And I hope that keeps happening. Doesn't even have to be with music, just anything.

There is no spoon… That’s really inspiring to hear. It also made me want to listen to 'Chinese Translation'. It must be ten years since I last heard it.

Oh gosh, that song! Just the intro, listening to the guitar of that intro is like, "What?!"

That was a big one for me. That track, and 'Big Sur' by Mason Jennings comes to mind.

Ooooh, yeah. Amazing. And that was another thing... Listening to M. Ward and also 'Be Here Now' by Mason Jennings... That's one of my most favorite songs ever written, going back to how you can break a ceiling with artistry and craft, via someone like M. Ward.

But then get paired back with someone like Mason Jennings, who doesn't play very complex stuff, but it's all feeling. You can swim and go with these worlds where you can keep exploring a craft, but then pare it down to just pure, pure feeling and the love of simplicity of pop song. The Beatles did that best.

Photo by Celine Cervantes Carr

Indeed they did. Considering the notion of complexity pared down to simplicity: How has your career as an academic, being a communications professor at CSU Chico, integrated with the ways you view lyricism and songwriting?

I'm pretty blessed to have a job that feels equally spiritual to music. In my classes, the primary focus is nonviolent communication and how we use rhetoric, truthfully, to communicate to ourselves what we want, what we need, what we feel... and then pairing those things with specific channels of communication to people that we love and care about. In my musical exploration, part of it can be really blatant in how I use music to express feelings.

Lyrically, there's a lot of dreamy stuff going on too, where spending so much time in academia can inform the exact opposite approach to music. In class we can get so cerebral and heady about rhetoric and how to use words as symbols and to create exact definitions to explain how we feel in conflict resolution, to define our needs, and to use words that express direct observations. We do that every day, especially when we're dealing with political shit.

Like, when someone says, "Leftists are evil." We can pick that apart for an hour in class about what the fuck that means. Let's talk about what a leftist really is. What are leftists? What does evil mean? Then all of a sudden, we're down this huge historical path of defining these terms, philosophically, spiritually, whatever. And so it can get really heady, and that's super fun.

So when I'm sitting down to write music, I can go one of two ways. I really pour my feelings into lyrics to search for the best form of myself; the best, most creative, deepest love that I can express to myself and to other people. Always. And not sacrificing any moment to do that in the myriad ways that I can.

Then there's the other side, where I spend a lot of days in class analyzing rhetoric with my students. I don't want to talk about shit that doesn't make sense. There's a real tendency to do that, to be abstract, and to sing in codes that nobody understands. Sometimes, I'll just create a melody and I have no idea where the words come from. Sometimes I'll just humm and say syllables. And I'll think about what those syllables sound like and suddenly they'll just turn into words.

It doesn't mean those words are less important. They're clearly there. There they are! Why are they less important than something that I've deemed to make sense?

So it's super fun that way, because my job is about clarity. And I think music can be about clarity, but it can also drive you to seek the opposite side of the coin. Because, y'know, nothing makes sense. I don't have any answers. I don't have any. We try our best to find answers, to foster mental health. But this whole thing is a fucking mystery. At the end of the day, we have no clue. None of us do. So yeah, it's really fun to have both sides of the coin.

This brings to mind a Japanese proverb, that comes from academics who teach in Japan. Some disproportionately large percentage of Japanese teachers are also artists. Anyone that's an academic, for their own mental health, needs to explore the other side of the coin that doesn't have a finite answer — artistry. Because that's living. I mean, that's the grounding humility of this experience of being an educator; the day-to-day "I can make sense of this," for your students and then you try to go to sleep, and you're laying there like, "Holy fuck, I don't know anything."

So it's great! Swimming in those two worlds. It's funny how students will catch on to the music, or they'll find it somehow, and they're stunned. Just in the fact that it humanizes a teacher so much. When you hear or experience someone’s art, it just strips everything down. It really fucks with power dynamics in a beautiful way. I've noticed that there's this deeper connection I find with students that can see me as an artist and teacher. They trust me more. A lot of teachers establish power by thinking that they know the answers. Students don't trust that. We trust people that carry humility. Sorry, I'm talking a lot.

Not at all, I appreciate your sharing. And that makes a lot of sense. In the same way as your point about music, being the identification of (and relationships between) patterns, it seems like you're doing a similar job in your role as a professor; in which taking apart a sequence of chords into the individual notes and coming up with a strumming pattern that will complement the rhythm and carry through.

That's quite similar to taking a phrase like "leftists are evil" and then picking through the genealogy of those words, sentiments, and ideologies to come back to a simpler, more fluid way to understand and grapple with ideas. I think that's a beautifully cohesive analogy.

Yea! You said that much better than I did. That's exactly what's happening.

Hah, well, I said it shorter than you did. The way you framed that made me feel a lot of appreciation for what you're doing, both as an educator and as a musician. Because it's not easy to rock both of those worlds.

The distinction between mentor and mentee seems to be intentionally muddled in your classroom. So considering that dynamic, how have you been navigating what's happening politically in this country with your students?

What's interesting is that, right before the pandemic, we were talking about how, in class, there is no topic that cannot be discussed. So typically, our discussions are not PowerPoint-oriented, or simply taking notes on definitions. We use the model of nonviolent communication to look at rhetoric from micro and macro scales. And from the macroscale, we're looking at really heavy shit. We watched The Winter Soldier testimonial of people were coming back from Vietnam and justifying how they could do such atrocious shit. And it all came back to language, in the abstraction of language of othering people through language, to dehumanize people through language, in order for your actions to be as malicious as killing somebody, killing babies, and killing innocent women and families.

These questions were asked, and these soldiers were able to pin it back to the brainwashing that happens from their superiors in dehumanizing the other.

So we're talking about this heavy shit, and in class, on a great day, there's usually one or two people that are open to discussing their differing opinions about things. But now having my classroom entirely online, and where we still have these prompts that are really heavy, people are much more opinionated and brazen because it's not face-to-face. So I'm getting a lot of these papers that are, you know...

One of the recent assignments we had was looking at the rhetoric of calling COVID the “Chinese Virus”, or the “Kung Flu” (which is the worst, in my opinion, the worst variation). And students had a lot of more confidence in expressing their support of calling COVID these things. So teaching has changed, being all online, in that there's minimal accountability for the humanity of being face-to-face and actually having to converse in person.

Other people are a mirror for your ideas. So when you're in class and you say something, all of a sudden, you're faced with yourself, and you have to sit down with that idea and explain it. If there was something really contentious or malicious, it'd rarely be said during in-person classes. But now being online, I'm getting these papers that are really troubling. From the standpoint of a teacher, I can't articulate a response in an email. How do I critique someone else's brazen opinion without having a back-and-forth dialogue? It has totally stunted my approach to how to teach, because teaching is about the back-and-forth dialogic idea that we get closest to the answers by the end of a conversation that works back-and-forth. And that's just not that happening.

So, yeah... as an educator, I've actually had to pare down the intensity and the contentiousness of my prompts and discussions, because, you know... how can we get closer to a truth or an agreement if there's no opportunity for an in-person dialogue?

Or if people are yelling at each other... It's a pretty tense moment to be an American and we're definitely not out of the woods after the election. Ideological lines are being drawn in the sand in ways that I don't think have been drawn before. Sure, people hated Nixon, people hated Barry Goldwater, people hated W. But it wasn't like the same sort of a delineation, I believe, as what's occurring between people that support Trump and the rest of the world. People that would defend that othering, divisive rhetoric. And still, 70 million votes...

Yeah, I know. I know... That statistic will never, never leave my mind when I'm thinking about the victory. It's a victory... but it's still not suffocating specifically the racism in this country.

Has this sense of a cultural redirection translated into the tone and lyricism of St. Clare?

That's a major theme of this album, for sure. I teach nonviolent communication because I think our society, as it is today, really places importance on our relationships. Maybe that's always been true, but our relationships with others — whether that's through social media, or family, or whatever — is it. You know? What makes up our existence is who we choose to have in our circle.

So it was intense to write... There are songs on the album that are really reflective of a time where I wasn't as spiritually — or just in general — adept at communicating what I needed in relationships. Specifically as it related to my ex, who I was with for four years. We had our son, Noah. And we split. And it was a big split. It was really, really intense.

Noah & Lupin

There's no amount of nonviolent communication that could have healed it. It was just a totally stark separation of needs; of where we were at, in terms of what we wanted to see for ourselves and for our family and for our relationship.

A lot of the songs on this album especially are about starting over. A fresh quest, because our needs are constantly changing. What am I? What are my needs now? What do I want to see actualized in my relationship for a healthy family?

The first track on the record feels very indicative of those questions, where all the money is folded in half. The song "Setting Sail" is really about starting over with Kelly and realizing we were starting a new family. Starting over with her has really revealed the kind of peacefulness that I've been looking for, that I hadn't found.

Also, congrats on Kelly being pregnant! Another one!

Another one! Bring on the babies!

It's been a tricky, emotional thing. Because, you know, the world. The world is on fire here, literally, a lot. There's been a major fire in Northern California every month. People are losing their jobs. I have close friends that are just uprooted and in total despair.

Personally, I haven't been touched by this pandemic yet. Or the fires. So I'm feeling lucky. But it's also a weird contrast to what everyone else is going through.

That also relates to the title of the album, St. Clare. I stumbled upon her writing in a passage and learned that she's a symbol for total and complete simplicity and minimalism. I'm feeling more at ease than I ever have relationally and I have a partner that matches that need of monogamy; of not needing more than the art that's in front of her, which is so beautiful to me. She's a jeweler, I make music and I'm an educator, and that sustains our individual drives for expression in this life. Our relationship supports that.

So reflecting on myself as an educator, students have asked me: "Well you're from a separated family. Why didn't nonviolent communication work?" That's something students have actually asked me and I think it's a great question. It's not that nonviolent communication is a solution to relationships. It's just a clarity about how to communicate to yourself what your needs are.

When we had our first son, my ex and I, that was less clear to me. And it was less clear to her. There are some songs on St. Clare that express that side of it. And then there's parts that express my new understanding of what my needs are, what I want a partnership, and what our plans are in the long term. We want to foster kids. We want to be artists for the rest of our lives and have a healthy family. We know that, and it's not changing. It hasn't changed since I've been with Kelly. And that's super reliable for me.

Pat, Kelly, & Lupin

It's been a beautiful thing to flip that coin, because it was nasty, dude... for so long. Going through that breakup with my ex and not feeling that peace; not feeling at ease in a relationship, and trying to figure out why it's a struggle.

I think that's what we do in our classes, like, "What is wrong?"

I'll take a tally, saying, "Who the fuck is stressed out right now?" and everyone will raise their hand! You know? What is wrong? Everyone wants to talk about it, at that point. People start calling out “my roommate... my mom... my partner…”

The myriad reasons why they can't be their peaceful selves is because of the relationships they're in. So we try to get down to the bottom of that, myself included. What the fuck is wrong? And I think that's the St. Clare element to this. I love reading her shit because she's kind of an anarchist. She was born of a rich family. She's like, "Fuck you all. All of you are stressed. You're constantly in this hierarchy of betterment, thinking you're better than other people, and you're constantly searching for the next thing."

St. Clare just sat for the rest of her life. She's like, "You know... I'm just gonna be here. I'm gonna sit in this room with nothing. I want nothing. And I'm at peace. I'm at ease."

That's a really intense version. But for me, it represented that kind of exploration that I took, of asking, "What the fuck is wrong? Why am I not peaceful? Why am I not at ease?" And I'll constantly be working it out, but I'm just thankful that I have music to help me express that tension.

Ryan Baesemann

is a writer, editor, and meanderer living along the central coast of California.

All contributions from Ryan Baesemann

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