Bono called their music ‘genius’. Hip producers like the Dust Brothers and Stephen Lironi worked with them early on, even before millions of fans screamed their names and critics applauded them. But for Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson, it's always been about the music, and there's always been a message in the music for those who were really listening.
On HANSON's fourth studio album, The Walk, the messages are more direct. “It's the first record in a decade that we made completely from scratch as an indie”, Taylor says. “We've stepped it up a notch creatively, writing songs that connect to really personal experiences and recording them live ‘from the floor’” (playing together in the studio as they would in front of an audience). It’s a further exploration of the sound that prompted New York's ‘Village Voice’ to proclaim Hanson as simply “the best straight-up rock band in America, now sowing sonic oats as independents”. And it’s the independence in the approach to both recording and releasing their music that fans and critics alike will appreciate about The Walk.
Recorded at their Tulsa studio and released on their own 3CG Records, The Walk builds on the success of HANSON's last album, “Underneath”, which debuted on the Billboard Independent Chart at #1 and on Billboard's Top 200 at #25, making it one of the most successful self-released albums in history. Taking the reins both artistically and as entrepreneurs, the band came up with an innovative approach to rolling out their new CD. Each week leading up to the album's release date, HANSON will podcast an episode of a docu-series they've titled “Taking The Walk”. Fans will be treated to an inside look at the making of the album and the building of an independent label. “The docu-series lets people inside the process of writing, producing and releasing music in a way that has never been possible in the past. Now we can give people more than just a music video, this is TV for the ipod generation”, Taylor says.
To kick off the series, the band released their documentary “Strong Enough To Break” on iTunes -- for free. The critically acclaimed film chronicles their departure from a major label and the founding of 3CG. “We wanted to give everyone a chance to watch the documentary and see where we’ve been, before we show them where we’re going with ‘Taking The Walk,’” Taylor says.
For a band that's always written, sung and played nearly everything themselves, the freedom of having no major label ties was a tremendous creative boon, particularly for Zac, the youngest HANSON brother. For the first time, Zac takes the lead vocals on two of the album’s lead singles, the moving ballad “Go” and the ebullient “Running Man”, with its party chatter intro and handclaps. “I've hit more of my stride as a writer and have been able to bring more to the table because of that”, he says. “I pushed myself beyond the plateau. You have to do that as an instrumentalist to find progressions that are going to be unique, and to dig deeper into your emotions as a lyricist”.
The Walk expands upon the more introspective songwriting that the band began to delve into on Underneath. And for HANSON, looking inward means looking outward as well, at the state of the music industry and at their community. “The Walk is the walk of life”, Zac says. “People make decisions to go for dreams, to do something difficult, or they decide to be part of the crowd that watches. You have to make those decisions by yourself.”
Nowhere is that more evident than on the download-only release of “Great Divide”. Released in November in honor of World AIDS Day, the song opens with Isaac's funky guitar riffing and the poignant sound of an African children's choir, recorded during a trip the band took to Mozambique and South Africa.
“The watershed moment that sparked our journey to Africa came when friends of ours from a Tulsa medical firm were donating technology to a South African hospital to help fight the spread of HIV/AIDS”, Isaac says. “We were so moved by their example that we were compelled to take action.”
HANSON took off for South Africa and Mozambique, bringing with them a handful of songs for the upcoming album and some bare bones recording gear. They stayed at an orphanage in Mozambique and were awed by the overwhelming sense of optimism of the people they met, despite being surrounded by disease and poverty. “We began planning our trip to Africa right as we were finishing a song about hope called “Great Divide”. Certainly the AIDS crisis was in the forefront of our minds, but I think it was the message of hope that led us to Africa”, Taylor says.
The group strung up some mics in the orphanage cafeteria to record the children's choir onto a laptop. After playing a few songs for the kids and a teacher who helped translate, they found a handful of phrases that worked for the songs. “On “Great Divide”, they're singing ‘ngi ne themba’ which essentially means ‘I have hope’”, Isaac says. “I got chills when I heard that.”
HANSON decided to put the recording to good use by helping those who are already doing the most important work – all proceeds from downloading “Great Divide” will go to the Perinatal HIV Research Unit (PHRU) at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, South Africa. “We felt like we left Africa with a message we could relate to others – the understanding that you already possess something that can help in the fight against AIDS”, Taylor says. “It can be as simple as spending .99¢ on a song, or buying formula for an infant so she won't contract AIDS from her mother. It doesn’t mean we must all go to Africa. It means we all have a role to play. We should be asking ‘Are we doing all we can?’.”
The Walk, however, is more than just the story of three brothers whose interest and compassion led them halfway around the world. It's one more step in a journey that began when HANSON extricated itself from a major label. “Our last album was a three and a half year process of writing, recording and moving labels”, Taylor says. “It was half major, half indie. On the new album, we took a different approach – everything was done from the ground up.”
Co-produced with the legendary Danny Kortchmar (Billy Joel, James Taylor, The Eagles), the pace of making The Walk was quicker and the process unfolded more naturally. Rather than doing what is more common with many artists today, building up tracks by overdubbing individual instruments, the group chose to record many of the songs ‘live’ off the floor. It's an old-school approach that serves the new songs well, just as it did some of the early rock ‘n’ roll records that first interested the band when they began to play together.
“The first music you really fall in love with is more than just music”, Taylor says. “It's something that clicks in you beyond the song, it’s a message or image that causes you to jump in and not let go. For us it was Elvis, The Beach Boys, Stax/Volt records ...”
Those classic influences have remained the threads that run through HANSON's music, and on The Walk they're echoed on songs like “Been There Before”, which talks about Otis Redding, Johnny Cash and the roots of rock ‘n’ roll (embellished by another gorgeous sound byte from the African choir). “It’s rare for us to directly reference our influences like that”, Isaac says. “Ultimately, the whole world sings their songs.”
Starting out nearly 15 years ago in 1992 by releasing their first self-made albums, HANSON could not have predicted that one day the whole world would sing their song. Yet that's exactly what happened in 1997, when the band's sunny single “MmmBop”, a song about the ephemeral nature of most relationships, became a worldwide number one hit. Their pop-Motown flavored major label debut, Middle Of Nowhere, pierced the gray fog of 1990’s grunge and earned the band three Grammy nominations. The follow-up albums kept the hooks and the critical acclaim while revealing HANSON's evolution. Their sophomore effort, This Time Around, leaned toward rock, blues and gospel while 2004’s Underneath was a more richly textured and organic twist on the band's signature brand of pop-rock, as heard on the album’s lead single “Penny and Me”, which made it to #2 on the Billboard Singles Chart and notched the band a top 10 in the UK Singles Chart.
The Walk combines all three approaches as seamlessly as HANSON itself, drawn together by the tight performances that are the foundation of the album, with each member of the band bringing a distinct sensibility to the fold. Zac, understated and poetic, is the master of the sweeping and structured melody, audible on songs he initiated like the anthemic “Fire On The Mountain”. Taylor, forever in search of the perfect hook, adds the soulful pop punch of “Georgia” and the relentless drive of “Blue Sky”. Isaac, technically-minded and truthful, brings the groove, which you can hear on the album's opener, “Great Divide”, and the straight-to-the heart emotion of “Watch Over Me”, a song he co-wrote during one of HANSON's annual songwriter retreats.
“Every year we invite about 15 songwriter friends to Tulsa Oklahoma”, says Zac, who co-wrote “Go” and “Running Man” at the last retreat. “But it's less about what comes out of it and more about community building. It used to be that musicians would drop in on each other's recording sessions, and you'd have really big events like the ‘Concert for Bangladesh’, where everyone played together. That type of thing is far less common these days.”
Whether it's a trek to Africa motivated by hope, building a community of like-minded musicians or a vibrant community of online fans, HANSON's ‘from the ground up’ ethos is inspirational. The weekly podcasts of “Strong Enough To Break” and “Taking The Walk” will show that philosophy in action, connecting listeners to the notion that a small step can lead to anything from making music on your own terms, to helping in the fight against a deadly illness.
Even a great message, though, is lost without great songs, and writing great songs, as you'll hear on The Walk, is what HANSON does best. Each brother brings his own artistic inclinations into the studio, but their collective vision and extraordinary talent result in a band that's in it for the long haul.
The Walk full length album will be released in Summer 2007.