Alan Hampton’s stunning debut The Moving Sidewalk shows off the standup bass players’ supple voice and way with words. We quizzed the New York City artist about his songwriting process: “I don’t mind writing a bad song. I just aim to finish it, and know that a better one is around the corner somewhere.”
Take us through the arc of your career so far. How did you end up on a label?
I started playing bass on gigs around Houston, Texas in high school. I went on to study music at the New School in NYC, and eventually the Thelonious Monk Institute in LA, all the while, playing gigs and networking as a sideman and bassist. I always loved writing music, and would occasionally get one of my tunes played on someone else’s gig, but wasn’t really leading my own band. So at some point, I decided to make a record, and start trying to play under my own name. I contacted Pete Rende based on a strong recommendation from a friend, and we tracked the whole record in his apartment in Brooklyn, and eventually mixed it with David Boucher in his LA garage. I’d go out on the road as a jazz bassist, and come home to work on my vocal record. So when the record was finished, it was a bit of a surprise to some of my colleagues that my debut record was one of sung songs rather than the bass and instrumental tunes. Luckily, some of them liked the record and my voice and started asking me to sing and write for their records. Now, writing and co-writing is the top focus in my career.
How do you typically write songs? Words first, or melody?
I usually start songs by singing one sentence or phrase melodically. That sentence will give me a pretty good idea of what the song is about. So then I’ll start to fill in the tune and the melody, and then later come back and fill in the lyrics.
Do you find yourself revising a lot, or do you like to write automatically?
I do some revising, but tend to get more excited about just moving onto the next tune. I don’t mind writing a bad song. I just aim to finish it, and know that a better one is around the corner somewhere.
Who were your most profound musical influences?
Of course, there are the greats: Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach, Lennon, McCartney, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Ravel… But I really think I’ve been mostly influenced by the people I’ve worked with: Josh Mease, Pete Rende, Robert Glasper, Gretchen Parlato.. I’ve learned the most from watching them write and perform.
Who are some of your influences lyrically?
Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen.
What was the last song you wrote?
“The Darker Things.” The melody got stuck in my head while I was walking down the street somewhere. I wanted to write the lyric from the prospective of an angsty teenager, moaning about only relating to sad things. I wanted it to seem a little ironic and cheeky. But in the process, it became a more introspective conversation with one’s self about that mentallity.
What’s a song on your new album you really want people to hear, and why?
“There’s This Side.” I like the character of this one. The lyric is about the darker side that everyone has, and has to deal with — a heavy topic, but the melody is simple and sweet, and always reminded me of John Lennon’s “Love.” The harmony around the lyric is haunting, but has moments of relief that lighten the mood and give the song buoyancy.
What’s a lyric you’re particularly proud of on the album?
“Oh My God.” I wrote it after watching Nacho Libre. I was charmed by Jack Black’s character who wants to set out and become a hero so he can come home and be praised. I think everyone can relate to that feeling. The song makes me chuckle a little.
Are there any words you love, or hate?
“Beautiful” and “perfect” are two words I don’t love to hear in lyrics. I also don’t usually like songs about New York, or coffee. That being said, I think I’ve written songs with all these things in them…
Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?
Josh Mease. Everyone who knows him knows he’s incredible, but since he’s not a superstar at this point, I’d have to say he’s underrated. Each song fits together like a house of cards – if you changed one chord or note, the song might not work. He’s that careful and meticulous.
What’s a song you wish you’d written?
“Happy Birthday.” I’d be a rich man…