Christian Lee Hutson on Elliott Smith, Reality TV, and Finding His Voice

Christian Lee Hutson on Elliott Smith, Reality TV, and Finding His Voice
Photo by Jacob Boll
Photo by Jacob Boll

‎I spent a lot of 2020 listening to Christian Lee Hutson's Beginners, and his new one Quitters (get it?) is quite good as well. We hopped on the phone a while back to talk about his music, making music, and—of course—watching TV.

Upgrade to paid

Quitters has a different feel to it than Beginners right away because it was recorded to tape.

We just tried not to use computers at all, if we could help it. We even mixed and mastered it to tape. I'm not really an audiophile, but we were really interested in the performance limitations of using tape. If you fuck up, you can't just fix it in the computer. We're all interested in leaving in the mistakes you get from tape. When you have ProTools, it's so tempting to be like, "Eh, it's gonna bug me later, let's take it out." We wanted to capture that feeling of being in a room, fuckin' around as a band.

Do you think you're a perfectionist or someone who's more in-the-moment?

Recording-wise, I'm definitely leaning more towards capturing whatever the moment is. As long as there isn't something egregiously, outrageously wrong, it should just exist as it is. That said, I love things that are perfect, too.

Your style of songwriting is very specific in how you capture scenes, people, and basic gestures of everyday life. Tell me about developing your lyrical voice.

I really like things that are conversational. I like writing characters and imagining different people. Every time I'm writing a song, I'm imagining a person is going through a little arc. It's not usually me, but sometimes it is—or sometimes it's a person I met where I'm like, "Fuck, that person is so hilarious."

More and more, that's the guiding thing that helps me figure out what the song's narrative is. I just want to put things in there that make my friends laugh. [Laughs] My main goal in songwriting is, If this is good enough to send to my friends and make them chuckle, I know that I'm in a place where I'm happy with it.

It sounds like outside input is important to your creative process.

Oh, absolutely. Any time I write anything, there's my little list of other songwriters and people I'm friends with where I'm like, "I can't wait to show this person." There's a reaction where they quote a lyric back to me and I'm like, "OK, this is a step in the right direction." If I don't get that, maybe I'll sit on it a little longer and figure out how to work something into it that'll change the face of it.

What have you been watching lately?

I really loved Drive My Car. It's not been a great year for movies, I think. That's the most recent thing I can think of where I left with a good feeling of, "I love this world." There's a lot of space to sit with what you're being shown. As for TV, I watch a lot of garbage while I'm playing guitar. Sometimes, something someone says will make its way into a song, or I'll be like, "That's a funny character. What if I took something from that character and added it to one of these songs?"

J. Mascis writes songs in front of the TV too. He used to watch Sally Jessy Raphael while doing it, I think.

I didn't know that! That's fuckin' crazy. [Laughs] I know that a lot of people have to do something. It's such a perfect activity to distract yourself from what you're doing without being so critical of yourself.

Do you watch reality TV at all?

Not that often, but I have in the past. When I was in high school, I watched a lot of reality TV, and then I got too used to the formula—it became too predictable. I watched a lot of Real Housewives ten years ago, and then everything started to feel a little bit like that. I watched a lot of Great British Baking Show a lot during the pandemic. That show is hypnotic, in a way—like a warm glass of milk.

Can I make a recommendation?


You should get into Below Deck.

You know what? Will Sheff from Okkervil River also recommended that to me. He's always watching Below Deck, he's obsessed with it and has told me about it many times. I watch Queer Eye a lot. I rewatch it a lot. It's such a fuckin' feel-good show to me.

Below Deck is not a feel-good show, really. I got into it a while ago because Steven Soderbergh lists it every year as something he watches. It's not like most reality TV because it's about work, and the relationships they develop at work.

Sounds like I'd enjoy it. There's an author I like a lot who writes a lot about working minimum-wage jobs, and it's a little about the relationships you develop at work too. His name is Sam Pink—I think he's from Chicago. There's something hypnotic about that as well.

I also liked Station Eleven, that's something I watched this year. I feel like a lot of people are not watching it because of the subject matter. Nobody wants to watch more pandemic material right now. But I do feel like it's the best version of that, and it's quite uplifting.

I wanted to talk to you about the beginning of your career with The Driftwood Singers.

I was in that band when I was 18. Growing up in L.A., I became really interested in country music and the Carter Family, the Anthology of American Folk Music, Hank Williams, George Jones. L.A. is the furthest place you could be from a legitimate attachment to that style of music—raw fuckin' people with real heart and real lives. That was so appealing to me at that age, and I wanted to figure out how to do that.

Wherever you grow up, it feels like the least interesting place you could be from because you know it so well. I think we started that band to cosplay a 1930s rural American dust bowl dress-up. [Laughs] But in a cool way, it taught me a lot about the things that appeal to me to that type of music. Similar to Elliott Smith, it was immediate, and if you had an acoustic guitar, you could write a song and play it and that would be enough. You didn't need to have drums, or a band, or a swelling string section. You could just write a song in a day and record it, and if you wanted to, you could release it.

The first tours I ever did were also with that band—driving around in a sedan, playing little country cowboy bars, and fuckin' pass out at night in a fuckin' three-piece suit on someone's couch in the 21st century. It was a funny thing to do. I was searching for an identity, I guess, that felt acceptable to play music through.

I didn't feel like there was an example at that time in my life of what it looked like to be a songwriter from L.A. All the songs that were coming out were from these real songwriters that came from real places—not this place that everyone hated and was full of vapid, shallow people, in everyone else's view.

What was the Los Angeles music scene like for you when you were starting out? In New York, people can't shut the fuck up about it sometimes, but I never hear about it much in L.A.

I thought it was cool. I was in a bunch of punk bands in high school. It felt like there was a bunch of cool indie rock stuff happening that didn't really make it outside of L.A. There wasn't much that happened here that made it on a national level. That started happening later for bands like HAIM, who I saw play a lot when I was in high school. They were almost like a fuckin' hard rock band back then.

Then it kind of shifted, and it felt like L.A. became this weird, fake cowboy town, which I was a part of in a funny way. [Laughs] I always felt like it was really supportive, and everyone went to each other's shows. Similar to New York and even Nashville now, you get a lot of bros standing with their arms crossed watching bands, which isn't always the most inviting audience to play for. But as a scene of bands, I felt like it was very supportive, and I had a lot of good pals.

Songwriting, in general, at least when I was growing up, wasn't really popping off here. It wasn't until I moved back here in 2015 that it started to feel like people were valuing good lyrics and quiet, simple music.

What has your experience been like in the music industry so far?

I felt like I was outside of it for a really long time, and I've been really lucky in the last few years to work with people that I like. I love my team, I love my label. I know some people have been really beaten down by the industry, and I feel lucky not to have had that experience—but that's probably because I didn't feel like I was a part of it for so many years. I toured independently for a long time, playing the fuckin' Spaghetti Shack, so it felt a little like, "Well, no one's trying to pull a fast one on me here."

I feel like I've been lucky to have a good group of friends and team who are all similarly minded in values about music. Maybe all that other stuff is on the horizon for me and I'm unaware of it, but it's been nice and supportive so far. I feel like I've been doing this for so long that it's nice that there's even a place for me.

You mentioned Elliott Smith earlier. I'm a fan too, and I've loved his music for so long that I feel like I rarely take a beat to think about how special he is to people. I hear some kinship between you and him too, musically. What makes Elliott Smith special to you?

Similar to the Carter Family, it was that same feeling of making that much music just as one person. You could sit with a guitar, and you don't need all this extra shit. It's immediate. I learned how to play guitar from listening to his records because I wanted to figure out how to fill up space musically, and he does that really well. He also leaves a lot of room for you, as the listener. He's not trying to bash you over the head with an idea of something. He just gives you the impression of a feeling.

When I was younger, I was connected to how sad it felt—that feeling of isolation or loneliness that you feel really heavily when you're a teenager. Now, what I value most about his music is that he's very generous. He allows you to do a lot of work on your own. It's very easy to put yourself in his songs. They're not singular experiences that can only be interpreted one way. It's hard to come by.

Subscribe to Last Donut of the Night

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson