Evan Haywood is a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, and emcee. He has so many talents, it's easier to just say he's a music-obsessed freak and call it a day. Over the past decade, he's been best known as one-third of the Ann Arbor hip-hop trio Tree City. But this year he self-released his debut solo album Ramshackles, which could be described as cosmic folk. It's beautiful and transcendent, yet it does not lose any of its raw emotion or immediacy in its lush arrangements.
Though it may seem like a drastic shift to some observers, the truth is that Haywood has been making and immersing himself in all different kinds of music for most of his 27 years. Starting back in elementary school, he sang in the Boychoir of Ann Arbor, and went on to star in a production of the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors at the Music Hall in Detroit at age 13. "I put the money from that gig toward buying my first nice guitar, a Gibson SG," Haywood says. "That put me on the path to being where I am now."
Haywood began obsessing over rock and punk in high school, but soon caught the hip-hop bug and formed Tree City. He's also been working at Encore Recordings for 10 years now, which has provided a musical education and fueled his appetite for new and wide-ranging sounds. He studied at the University of Michigan, and set up a studio in the basement of a house he shared with other musicians.
The studio was dubbed "The Lands," and that's where the songs on Ramshackles were written and recorded at the start of 2013. "I was going through a lot of personal troubles at the time," Haywood says. "It was a brutally cold winter and I was living alone in a creepy old house, watching some people who were close to me descend into addiction and madness. The songs were really just snapshots of my mental state as I was dealing with all of this chaos and insanity. Writing and recording gave me a sense of purpose. It was like a calm eye in the raging storm of my life."
The basis of these songs is Haywood's voice and meditative, fingerpicked classical guitar. "The nylon string guitar has become a staple of my sound," Haywood says. "I first bought one when I was living in Chicago about eight years ago, after I developed an intense fascination with Tropicalia and the progression of Brazilian popular music. Os Mutantes, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, Gilberto Gil — all major influences."
"But I'd be lying if I said Madlib, Dilla, and many other hip-hop pioneers didn't have just as much sway over the way I work with sounds," Haywood says. "My favorite producer of all time is probably Lee 'Scratch' Perry, which explains a lot of the reverb, echo, and chaos in my work. And I've been obsessed with '60s psychedelic rock and folk for quite some time. Nuggets and the like taught me a lot about how to get weird with primitive recording technology."
"Everything was extremely immediate," Haywood says. "Many of the tunes were written in 30 minutes or so, scribbled on loose pieces of paper, napkins, anything that was around. The arrangements took shape over a longer period of time. I had to grow and reflect on what I had recorded for a couple years before I could finish the statement. At the beginning of the recording process for Ramshackles, I pretty much just pointed mics at things and made sounds until I had something I wanted to keep. It was a very exploratory and experimental time."
Many friends and collaborators stopped in to lend their talents to the record. The results are extraordinary — it manages to feel timeless. The songs retain their vulnerability while stretching out into fields of psychedelia. It's hard to think of another contemporary folk artist whose music sounds this spiritual.
"I had just returned from studying Karnatic music in South India when I started working on Ramshackles, so that experience had a profound impact on my compositional ideas," Haywood adds. "And most of the musicians I'm working with are deep in the Detroit jazz scene. The Afrocentric, experimental free jazz of Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Sun Ra, and many others influenced the spirit of my music on a fundamental level."
Haywood says his more than decade-long obsession with hip-hop has shaped his thinking about lyrics and rhythms.
"Rapping taught me about all the combinations of sounds a human mouth can make, and a multitude of ways to tell a story. Socially, I think it's something that sets me apart. I don't know any other 'folk' or acoustic artists in Detroit whose core social circle consists of left-field hip-hop, jazz, and electronic producers. But that's my family."
Haywood lives in Hamtramck now, and has a studio in the Russell Industrial Center. For the past year, he's been playing live with a band consisting of Ben Rolston (bass), Jon Taylor (drums), Kaylan Mitchell (cello), and Jake Shadik (sax). "We actually haven't played anything from the record. For now, the Ramshackles songs live in the recordings — that's the only way to hear them," Haywood says. "We have an all-new repertoire of songs, which I have written in the past couple years.
"My sound has definitely evolved as a result of playing with the live band," Haywood says. "The follow-up album has already been recorded. I'm in the arranging and mixing process now. I've been pushing myself to expand my range as a guitarist, singer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist. Sometimes being a jack-of-all-trades requires some self-imposed limitations, to keep things from getting too scatterbrained."
Evan Haywood performs with the Potions and Ohtis on Monday, Oct. 31 at Lo & Behold Records and Books, 10022 Joseph Campau, Hamtramck; doors at 9 p.m.