Micah P. Hinson did OK by his 2004 debut full-length, Micah P. Hinson And The Gospel Of Progress. With his weathered voice and melancholy originals, the young Texan earned wide critical acclaim — particularly in Europe — and shared bills with acts including Iron & Wine, Devendra Banhart and KT Tunstall.
But with his new one, Micah P. Hinson And The Opera Circuit (released October 10 on Jade Tree), he enters a much more rarefied echelon, joining mega-stars such as Madonna, Kylie Minogue, and Marilyn Manson. No, not acts with platinum sales, but rather, ones who have done some of their best work while wearing a corset.
It wasn’t a fashion choice. Hinson, 25, was recovering from emergency back surgery. Miraculously, he managed to make his lack of mobility work in his favor. “It wasn’t like I would wake up, get dressed and go to the studio,” he recalls. Hell, he barely left the bedroom. “I’d strap on my corset, set up a couple of microphones, and just record.”
At times, this results in an air of heightened intimacy on Opera Circuit. “Seems Almost Impossible” opens the disc quietly, a wash of spectral harmonica and guitar, with Hinson singing in a deep, mellow register pitched somewhere between comforting and world-weary. “Drift Off To Sleep” is even more intimate: “I just set up two microphones, one for the vocal and one on the guitar, and sang. And that was it,” Hinson says. “There wasn’t a ton of takes. [The one on the record] was the first one I did, at something like 6:30 in the morning, when I couldn’t sleep.”
Working through his recovery ultimately made the record better, Hinson believes. “In hindsight, I feel that it really helped bring out who I was,” he says. “It enabled me to completely and totally be myself. I hear more intention and emotion in the vocals, which I really like.”
The new album also embraces a joyous sonic palette that outshines the gothic ambience on Gospel Of Progress. Bursting with banjo, strings and ramshackle percussion, “Diggin A Grave” bounces along like some kind of crazed Balkan wedding dance. “Letter From Huntsville” buzzes gleefully with what sounds like a dozen tissue-paper-and-plastic-comb harmonicas. “Compared to something like ‘The Nothing’ off my first record, that is some happy shit,” Hinson chuckles in regard to the latter tune.
Although he initially planned to make the follow-up to Gospel more ambitious and grand than his debut, he faced obstacles in reconciling that impulse with the reality of his circumstance. “When I really started honing in on making this record, it was more out of necessity,” he explains. “It had been two years since I’d released a proper full-length album, and I didn’t want to be seen as lazy.” (His interim release, The Baby And The Satellite, was an EP of refurbished old recordings, not new material.) Unable to tour, his funds were running low. “I had to get something in the can, or I’d be screwed.”
Folks rallied around him, and not just the ones near home in Abilene, Texas. H. Da Massa, who played harmonica on the first album, flew over from England to reprise that role. And Eric Bachmann from Crooked Fingers created orchestrations — too many, in fact. “I gave him the music, figuring we’d just do a little stuff here and there,” Hinson recalls. “And he came back a month later, with string and horn parts for every single tune.” In the end, Hinson actually had to pare back these enhancements: “It was starting to sound like a Frank Sinatra record.”
Adding to the unusual circumstances surrounding The Opera Circuit, Hinson was on a cocktail of painkillers, muscle relaxants and anti-depressants to help expedite his recovery. “The drugs probably did affect the music, although in a completely different way than if I had been taking a ton of hallucinogens,” he suggests. “Then it would probably sound like a Love record.” Hinson knows of what he speaks. Before he had even turned 20, he had done jail time for forging prescriptions.
The humor in this perverse timing is not lost on the artist, who saw his personal life (religious family, troubled relationship with former Vogue model, narcotics) splattered all over the U.K. press amidst the excitement over his first record. “During The Gospel, there was a lot of light in my life,” he observes. “I had pulled myself out of drug addiction, I wasn’t on pills. I was making new friends, I went overseas, I was living the dream. But all the songs were very sad and somber. The Opera Circuit was made at a much more desperate time. But although my life was in a much darker place, these songs have more light to them.”
“Music makes itself,” he says of the final outcome. “It’s just a matter of letting yourself be taken by the ghosts or the gods, whatever it is in those forces that are flying around giving people inspiration. Music can steer you in the direction it wants you to go. It has nothing to do with how you want it to turn out.”