Singer-songwriter Sean Hayes has been on the San Francisco scene for nearly two decades, self-releasing albums of plaintive, intimate folk and building an adoring local following in the process. But despite flickers of national attention, a breakthrough moment hasn't yet come for Hayes. Before We Turn to Dust could change that: Hayes' latest album sees him taking influence from rappers like Kanye West, and even writing on the piano, an unfamiliar instrument for the longtime guitarist. New songs like the title track and "Bam Bam" have a funky atmosphere and image-rich lyrics about Hayes' life, which changed drastically two years ago with the arrival of his first child. We recently spoke with Hayes about fatherhood, songwriting, and his national tour, which wraps up with two S.F. shows this week.
How's the tour going?
We were right on track with the hurricane, so both our Philly and New York shows got canceled. It was a little disappointing. We ended up spending one extra day in the D.C. area. The day after the hurricane hit we drove up to Brooklyn. Getting into the city was a little sketchy, 'cause we had to change routes and then find the one right bridge that was open. But we luckily had enough gas to get past all the madness.
Is it harder to tour now that you're a father?
I have a brand-new son, he just turned 2, so he's changing so much. I definitely miss him. But I also just love playing music every night, and I'm psyched to be out doing that. I also probably get to spend more time than most people get to spend with their kids when I'm not touring.
Does the family still live in San Francisco?
Yeah, we're still in San Francisco, even though we were starting to look up north. [It's] 'cause of our family, and 'cause the Mission's so crazy. We'd love to stay there, but it's getting kind of expensive, I don't know if anybody's noticed.
There's some kind of weird tech boom going on.
You've been feeling the squeeze a little bit?
Definitely. We almost moved right when we found out we were pregnant. We thought it was expensive then. There's definitely a new wave of money and stuff pouring into the Mission specifically, I feel like. A lot of people don't make it through San Francisco once they start having a family, 'cause the city kind of squeezes them out.
So you're a full-time musician?
I am a full-time musician. I've been doing it full time for a while now. I put out all my records on my own, and it's really just Chris and I, my manager, and he actually booked this whole entire tour. We're a very small organization for how far we've gotten.
People have been saying that you're about to blow up for a lot of years now.
Yeah, for many years. It's always a funny statement to me. I feel like music does what it's supposed to do. Good music makes its way out as far as it does.
Surely you could be on a label if you wanted to.
I've personally never really put any real energy into trying to be on a label. I have allowed people to do some of that for me, and people have come around before and shown a little bit of interest, but nothing's ever really gone there. So I'm not ethically against it, but I also just have never been one of those people that thinks about it.
How's the response been to your latest album?
I think it's really tricky this day and age in some ways, 'cause you really don't know how it's getting out there. It's been cool to see people coming from long distances sometimes to see the show.
So you were listening to Kanye West while you worked on this?
He was such a big artist, and I wasn't paying any attention to him for a while. Then I went back and listened to some of his early stuff, and was like, "Ah, that's just great." So there's some influence in there, there's some kind of straight-up pop influence going on. And then there's the influence of the piano, which is a new influence, because I don't really know how to play it, but I had one at my disposal the last year or two and I was able to bang things out on it.
Do you ever look back at your earlier songs and find yourself surprised by the sentiments in them?
I don't know if I surprise myself with them, I tend to be more critical and cringe at some of them. There's some songs that stick around that have more longevity to them. There's one song that I wrote so many years ago called "Mary Magdalene." It was a song about fearing having a family and fearing getting somebody pregnant, and the whole idea of being an artist, and how demanding that would be and how a family life would probably knock me out of my ability to do that.
So how does the real thing compare?
It's just amazing, and I'm ready now. I do think I wasn't ready back then, so I had some valid things going on with that fear. But now I'm totally in love and it's great timing for me.