Christian Lee Hutson balances heaviness with humor on 'Quitters'
Before his show with Bright Eyes at Kemba Live on Sunday, the Los Angeles singer, songwriter and guitarist discusses his new album and the way comedy coexists with tragedy
In Christian Lee Hutson’s songs, the main characters often try to bring moments of levity into heavy situations. “Reading the menu in an accent/Trying to get you laughing,” Hutson sings on “Atheist,” the leadoff track from Beginners, the California musician’s 2020 debut album for Anti Records
A similar scene unfolds on “Age Difference,” a standout story song on Hutson’s excellent new album, Quitters, which releases on Friday, April 1. “Do my impression of John Malkovich critiquing food in prison/At first it isn't funny, then it is and then it isn't,” he sings in a droll deadpan.
For Hutson, art imitates life. “I feel like my primary goal when I'm writing a song is: How do I get my friends to laugh?” said Hutson, who takes cues from famously funny songwriters like John Prine and Randy Newman, inserting humor into otherwise bleak narratives. “I think it sometimes helps break the tension of the heavy thing. It's funny when you miss three buses and your plane is delayed and then a bird shits on your head. … I feel like that is the closest to my world perspective. Everything is so [messed] up, but it's hilarious at the same time.”
Normally, Hutson writes songs while on tour, using outside stimulation to get his mental gears turning, then performing new material onstage to work out the kinks. When the pandemic put any kind of travel on hold, rather than waiting for inspiration to strike, Hutson began recording covers, later releasing a series of EPs titled The Version Suicides and featuring Hutson’s take on songs by Abba, the Cure, Shania Twain and others.
“Every day I'd wake up and learn a song and try to make a little recording of it just to keep my mind active,” he said. “That was really helpful in teaching me more about guitar and the structure of songs and what I like about the music that I like.”
Some days, Hutson would drive around an eerily quiet Los Angeles, revisiting old haunts. “I’d try to remember, oh, that's where I went to school, or that's where I got too drunk in high school and threw up on that corner. That's the bus stop where the guy showed me that he had a snake in a cardboard box,” said Hutson, who used to be embarrassed by his California upbringing. “I think people view it as this vapid place where everyone is having an easygoing time or chasing some sad dream. But I'm not as embarrassed to be from Santa Monica anymore. … I'm accepting the humor of it. It's this weird, sometimes suburban, granola place, and that's not typically where we want our songwriters to be from. We want them to have worked in some blue-collar steel mill or something, but I grew up watching people wipe out on a half-pipe.”
Hutson’s West Coast embrace infuses Quitters with a palpable sense of place (“California’s beautiful/I bet some people don’t think so,” he sings on “Endangered Birds"), populating it with colorful characters and narratives inspired not only by his surroundings but by the writing of Scott McClanahan, particularly his semi-autobiographical novel The Sarah Book.
“It's about a guy going through a really painful divorce and alcoholism — all this really heavy, dark stuff — but Scott has a way of dropping something heavy and wrapping it up in a way that is really beautiful and makes me hopeful. It’s like a Mr. Rogers hug at the end of these dark things,” Hutson said. “I also am so addicted to these characters that are deeply flawed and maybe don't exactly realize it yet or don't understand why their life is going the way it is.”
In early 2021, Hutson spent a week and a half in the studio with friends and fellow songwriters Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst, with whom Hutson and his band are currently touring, opening up for Bright Eyes at Kemba Live on Sunday, April 3. (Hutson also played guitar and co-wrote songs for Bridgers’ 2020 album, Punisher, and on the 2019 self-titled album from Better Oblivion Community Center, featuring both Bridgers and Oberst.) From the outset, Hutson wanted Quitters to sound less pristine than Beginners.
“We're all big fans of the Replacements,” Hutson said. “When there's a mistake on a record, sometimes those become our favorite part, so we decided to record this one to tape so that we couldn't edit ourselves as much.”
Most of the recording sessions featured just Hutson, Oberst, Bridgers and the rhythm section of bassist/guitarist Harrison Whitford and drummer Marshall Vore (both of whom also play in Bridgers’ band), which created a safe, comfortable environment. “[Bridgers] is my best friend, so it is very easy for both of us to be honest with each other. We have the same musical language and taste. We like all of the same things,” he said. “It’s easier to hear criticisms because I trust both of them.”
While working on the song “Age Difference,” for instance, feedback from Oberst and Bridgers took the track in a new lyrical direction. “I was trying to think of a list of different things that a man would condescendingly lie to a younger person about, like when someone overconfidently says that they know something they clearly don't and they're just making it up,” Hutson said. “So I had this lyric that was like, ‘There have always been an equal amount of men and women in the Senate,’ just an obviously ridiculous and not true statement. And Phoebe and Conor were both like, eh, that lyric could be better.”
Hutson came back with a different approach. “What if we made the character kind of sympathetic, so in a moment after he tells all these lies, he says, ‘I’m your biggest cheerleader, your smallest violinist,’” Hutson suggested. His friends heartily approved.
“It’s less funny,” Hutson said, “but it didn't need a joke there.”