The Making of Backroad Carnival, chapter 4: Hawk On A Haystack

July 7, 2017

This tune is a good example of what happens when a bunch of ideas get mixed up in a bubbling cauldron and put on low heat for a year or three. I’m pretty sure I started hashing out the clawhammer banjo part based on various old-time motifs. It’s in Cumberland Gap tuning (fDGCD, capo 6 with 5 string raised to a B), one of my favorite banjo tunings (the Seznec Bros tune Red Road is in that tuning as is 21st Century Traveling Man off my first record). It takes a little harmonic side road at various points, and rhythmically the whole thing gets turned on its head with the bass and percussion emphasizing the offbeats. This combination of calabash and offbeats provides a more pulsating African feel to a tune that otherwise might have been a more middle-of-the-road ballad. In the studio we opted for a Juno analog synth to give it a more ethereal, pop dimension than a standard piano or organ sound. And lastly my friend Paolo Conti came in to lay some haunting pedal steel. So what is this? Who knows, but for me it really underscores how the banjo and the calabash can be really good friends.
The lyrics are simple and began when I was driving down a dirt road in Ethiopia, watching a young girl who was watching me. As I’m not one for poring over my lyrics in great detail, I’ll leave it up to you to interpret all this as you wish…

Watching you watching me, watching you watching me
Trying hard to see, trying hard to see
Ain’t no writing on the wall if you don’t know how to read
Ain’t no need for notes at all, just play the damn thing
Ain’t no need for history if it keeps repeating

Hawk on a haystack, prisoner of hope
Seeking its prize on the golden slope
But Ain’t no spoils for the victor in a land of barren dirt
Ain’t no aces tucked up your sleeve, if you ain’t got a shirt
Can’t keep your ears to the ground, if there’s nothing you haven’t heard

Watching you watching me watching you watching me… Hawk on a, hawk on a haystack…

Recording Process
As with Sell You My Soul, we recorded this live on a Studer A80 tape recorder at Tonehouse Studio with the idea of nailing the rhythm section (bass, percussion and harmonica). We then went back and redid the banjo to get a nice sound, and overdubbed rhythm guitar, shaker, synth (played by my brother Yann), pedal steel (by Paolo Conti), and of course vocals.

Here is a live video of Hawk recorded in March 2016 at the Péniche Anako in Paris (the sound isn’t amazing, but you get the gist):


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