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Lilly Hiatt Summons an Urgent New Nashville Sound on Her Album ‘Walking Proof’

At once electrifying and dreamy, the follow-up to Hiatt’s breakout ‘Trinity Lane’ cements her as a vital voice

Lilly Hiatt offers a dreamy escape on the new album 'Walking Proof.'

David McClister*

Lilly Hiatt likes being alone. Earlier this year, when one could still travel, she left her boyfriend and cat behind in Tennessee to spend four days exploring the Oregon coast. When she was a kid, she’d race off to summer camp, only to look forward to going home at the end of the day.

“I couldn’t wait until I was by myself later, with my imagination,” Hiatt says, calling from her apartment in Nashville where she’s happily been in isolation with her records and her cat. She walks every day for a natural recharge and is anxious to get back on the road with her band, but for the most part, the 35-year-old singer-songwriter has been enjoying social distancing.

“Probably a little too much,” she laughs. “I’ve gone through quite a bit of isolation the last year, not that I haven’t done things with others. But I spent a lot of time [alone], so I’m like, ‘Well, we’re just going to extend that period a little longer. I know how to do this.’”

Fortunately, Hiatt’s knack for hiding out has been our gain. Holed up last winter, she wrote the songs that tie together her exhilarating new album Walking Proof. It’s a potent listen, shored up by indie rock atmospherics (“Some Kind of Drug”), jangly R.E.M. guitars (“P-Town,” “Brightest Star”), and Hiatt’s straightforward country-like songwriting (the shuffling title track).

Hiatt is among a group of artists in Nashville who are carving out a new musical personality for the city. It’s nothing shopworn — not tired throwback country or overly earnest Americana, two subgenres that are reaching their sell-by date. Instead, it’s electrifying and urgent, an energy that is at the center of new music by artists like Aaron Lee Tasjan, Amanda Shires, Soccer Mommy, Caroline Rose, and Becca Mancari. It’s no coincidence that Tasjan and Shires both guest on Walking Proof.

“It’s like an era of anything goes. Things I did four years ago and I was reprimanded for, like using a synth on an album, are now celebrated. And I love that. We’re all buds here and trying to get somewhere together,” Hiatt says.

The idea of a changing Music City is at the core of the Walking Proof track “Some Kind of Drug.” Hiatt wrestles with the idea of gentrification in the lyrics — “Now who are these strangers in my town who just want to tear everything down?” she sings — as an unrelenting guitar line evokes the march of progress behind her.

“Watching cities start to become a haven for the elite, I’m not into. I see a lot of that and I question it,” she says. “Cities change. They always do. From what I heard of Nashville in the Seventies, it was a completely different city then. Of course it was. But seeing this uneven distribution of resources has always been troublesome to me. It doesn’t make any sense to me why some people are so unaccounted for.

“I understand the privileged elements of my own life and I’m not unrealistic about where I’ve come from,” she continues, alluding to growing up the daughter of the musician John Hiatt, who guests on “Some Kind of Drug.” “But I’m a humble human who works hard and doesn’t have a ton of money or anything. I’d just love to see things even out a bit more. A more level playing field for everyone.”

Produced by Lincoln Parish, Walking Proof isn’t meant to be an album of social commentary. Nor is it autobiographical, like Hiatt’s 2017 breakout Trinity Lane. Sometimes the LP simply serves as a dreamy escape. “Candy Lunch” is one of the record’s standout tracks, an amalgam of Hiatt’s quirky persona, her imagery-rich songwriting, and Parish’s airy production. Its message: don’t hold on to anything too tightly, especially things you can’t affect.

“The best things in life in my experience have happened out of complete surrender,” Hiatt says, “and when I think about that, it makes my world so wondrous.”

It may be difficult to find those bright spots right now, but Walking Proof can guide the way. Even the artist behind it has been finding hidden pockets of inspiration, like in the underlying theme of “Candy Lunch.”

“This sounds so cheesy, but I’ve been reminding myself of the lyrics in that song. ‘You wrote this and you need to live this now!’ Loosen your grip,” says Hiatt, who’s been fending off anxiety with repeated listens to Emmylou Harris’ 1975 album Elite Hotel and English songwriter Michael Kiwanuka’s eponymous album.

She’s been playing her own songs too, relearning them on guitar for the day when music fans can once again gather. On Wednesday night, she’ll do the next best thing, perform them online as the first guest on Brian Fallon‘s new livestream series Sittin’ Round at Home.

“All I gotta do is not obsess about the outcomes of things,” she says matter-of-factly. “Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s wonderful, but you get through.”