Ted Hattemer's isolation leads to solo album 'Exile Now'

Joel Oliphint
Ted Hattemer

Ted Hattemer hunkered down in mid-March, isolating by himself in his 1960s north Clintonville split-level. Not long after this period of home quarantine began, Hattemer, a multi-instrumentalist and veteran of several marquee Columbus rock acts (Moviola, Jenny Mae, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments), got into a hyper-focused creative mode.

“I stopped watching TV. I stopped listening to other music. I stopped doing everything except work and writing,” said Hattemer, an Ohio Arts Council employee. “It was kind of out of desperation of being alone.”

For about four weeks straight, Hattemer would settle in at his dining room table, away from his computer and all other methods of contact with the outside world, and stay there for days at a time, playing his acoustic guitar and writing in his notebook until songs began to form. From there, he headed down to the basement studio, playing all the instruments (drums, bass, guitars, etc.) and recording all the tracks on his own. Eventually, he had 10 songs — enough for a new album, the aptly named Exile Now, which officially releases on Friday, May 22.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more timely, relatable document of the bizarre, socially isolated experience of the weeks since Ohio’s stay-at-home orders went out, especially on a track like “Silence So Loud”: “As you wait out the clock/All alone, out of luck/And your thoughts just get stuck/Silence so loud is a shock."

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That topical overlap wasn’t necessarily Hattemer’s goal at the outset, though. His creative process purposefully leaves the door wide open to inspiration. “The way I write is from this book I really love. It's a tiny little book by James Webb Young called A Technique for Producing Ideas, and it was written for marketers to come up with catchy slogans or whatever. But it works for artists, too,” Hattemer said. “You dump everything you can onto paper or notecards — everything you're thinking, without editing. Just brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm — automatic writing. And then from that page, you can usually pick out a couple of nuggets to start building off of.”

While themes of isolation jumped off the page, Hattemer also found himself getting nostalgic. “When you separate yourself [from the outside world], and the future is so uncertain, your past really starts creeping in,” he said.

On folksy, ruminative leadoff track “Find the Time,” Hattemer mentions several people who were hugely helpful to Moviola over the years — friends from Surefire Distribution in Boston, Liz Clayton of ’90s zine Wind-Up, Bela Koe-Krompecher of Anyway Records — and follows up the name-drops with an invitation: “You and I should find the time.” For Hattemer, it’s not nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. These people have been on his mind, and he wants to reconnect with them — to find the time.

In that way, Exile Now is deeply personal. On Hattemer’s previous solo album, Mass Amnesia, a song like “Gave Up Today” referred quite specifically to his divorce, and Exile Now finds him sifting through similar emotional sediment. “I don’t think you ever get over things entirely. You get more and more used to them. And you carry all that stuff around with you. I’m not sad from [the divorce] today — it was a good thing to happen. It needed to happen. But I think songwriting helps me process it,” he said. “The challenge, to me, is having the guts to go there. A couple of the songs, I wasn't sure that I wanted to put them out because they felt too personal.”

In Moviola, which just released its first album in 13 years, Hattemer and his bandmates help to refine each other’s songs, but going it alone on Exile Now, he sometimes craved those outside opinions. “Being in a band, they'll tell you if you wrote something that's totally corny. Someone like Jerry Dannemiller is definitely gonna tell you. The beauty of Moviola is that you can edit those ideas early on in the process, whereas if you work alone, you’re kind of flying blind,” he said. “Working that fast and doing it one after another after another, you start to really lose perspective on whether or not what you're doing is any good.”

Hattemer felt particularly shaky about closing track “Stay,” a celebration of creativity and the essential role it plays in humanity. To an outsider’s ears, the song comes across like the credo of someone who spends his days working for an arts organization and his nights making his own art. But the track gave him pause, so he reached out to some friends, asking them if it sounded too hokey.

“They just said, ‘Don't worry about it,’” said Hattemer, who followed the advice, figuring that it’s especially important in these times to proselytize about the vital nature of the arts. “If we don't hang on to the people who make the books and the paintings and the movies and the music, and all the organizations that support those people, then what are we living for? In my mind, that’s what we live for. … Nothing grabs you like that song you heard when you were 13 and it changed your life, or that painting in the museum you saw that made you want to become a painter. Art is life.”