HARDY describes the 17 tracks that make up his new half-country, half-rock album, the mockingbird & THE CROW, as his ‘mission statement’. Yet his modus operandi could be boiled down to one song in particular - the caffeinated screamo anthem, ‘SOLD OUT’.
The key lyric, “And my last name / Is a whole lot bigger than I thought it'd be / A lot of things changed / Except one thing - me” summarises the Mississippi native’s relentless quest to remain as true to himself as possible, regardless of how many awards and accolades he now has hanging on his sheetrock.
‘Authenticity’ is a subject he repeatedly returns to during our conversation. While artistic declarations about being ‘real’ can sometimes descend into pretentious or affected territory, this is never the case with HARDY. His words are underpinned by a noticeable warmth and sincerity, and it’s this endearing, down-home candour that has elevated songs such as ‘One Beer’, ‘A ROCK’ and ‘Throwback’ into beloved fan-favourites.
On the new record, HARDY’s cri-de-coeur of championing the simple life instead of succumbing to the rat race bleeds welcomely into ‘I AIN’T IN THE COUNTRY NO MORE’, ‘REDNECK SONG’ and the Morgan Wallen-assisted ‘red’. It seems the aching desire to rally against the modern pace of life, which was the catalyst for HARDY’s first ever project, Hixtape Vol. 1, is still on the singer-songwriter’s heart all these years later.
HARDY’s unrivalled adaptability has enabled him to become one of the most highly regarded songwriters in modern country; few artists could flit between the wide-eyed innocence of ‘screen’ to the sinister whispers of ‘JACK’.
Over the course of the album, the enchanting country of the mockingbird and the electric metal of THE CROW are locked in a fight to the death. However, it’s clear from the way that HARDY speaks about this new sound that he sees his central protagonists as being two sides of the same coin.
HARDY’s live shows have become notorious for their raucous atmospheres - at one point during our chat, he grins as he recalls obliterating a guitar on-stage - and THE CROW persona feels tailor made for these settings. But when speaking about the inspiration behind each song and the various easter eggs he’s hidden for avid listeners, you can’t help but feel as though the ‘real’ HARDY is much closer to the charming, amiable character that we meet in the mockingbird.
Having spoken to HARDY back in 2019 when he was an eager, up-and-coming artist, the impression affirmed during our latest discussion is just how accurate that ‘SOLD OUT’ lyric really is. Now, in 2023, he has graduated into a regular performer on late-night talk shows, a guest-star at WWE contests and the reigning ACM Songwriter of the Year.
But despite all of the success and celebrity that HARDY now enjoys, it’s refreshing to see he still speaks with that same impassioned glint in his eye that he had when he was just a little-known ‘boy from Mississippi’.
You’ve spoken openly about having a family history of alcoholism. Country music has a very thorny relationship with alcohol - one that you tackle head-on in the mockingbird & THE CROW. There’s a clear duality between the fun, celebratory ‘beer’ and the nefarious, whiskey-drenched protagonist in ‘JACK’. What inspired you to showcase two different perspectives on this debate, and which side do you lean towards?
The ‘JACK’ and ‘beer’ thing was a complete accident, but it turned out to be really cool because of the duality of the album, with one character being positive and one being negative.
I drink, but I'm very careful because of my family history. My mom and a few other people have always said to take a break from alcohol every now and then, just to make sure you can, and I do. That’s out of the respect I have for my family, and my determination to not let it get a grip on me because of what other people have been through.
I guess you could say I’m right in the middle of ‘beer’ and ‘JACK’.
Out of the various characters we get to meet on the mockingbird & THE CROW, which do you identify with the most? I’m going to make it difficult and say that you can’t choose ‘the mockingbird’ or ‘THE CROW’.
Man, that’s a great question. Honestly, right now I would say the character singing ‘screen’. That’s been weighing on me a lot recently - the need to put the phone down and enjoy what’s going on in the outside world.
I’ve got to be honest, when I play my shows and I get into some of the biggest songs, and people are more focussed on videoing it than being right there in the moment, that bugs the hell out of me.
It doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say that ‘happy’ is already one of my favourite songs of the past five years. Are you putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, or was it born out of something a little more personal?
I don’t think I’ve ever said this in an interview before, but I was thinking of writing a children’s book. Someone told me a long time ago to stay away from drugs, because ‘you’re borrowing five days worth of happiness just to have it in one night’. That always stuck with me. So for a brief second, I thought I’d love to write a children’s book called Happy, detailing elementary ways of how to be happy.
But that went by the wayside. Then one day, I was driving to the golf course, and I had this idea pop into my head about personifying ‘Happy’. I was so excited to write it that I sat down at my house that night and just wrote the whole thing. It’s the first song I’ve written by myself in a long time.
I love that song, man, and it is personal - everybody is seeking happiness. We’re all looking for ways to either stay happy or be happy, and this song is a nice little guide. I tried to write it in a way that isn’t judgmental or anything like that.
When you announced a part-rock, part-country album, many listeners thought you might explore the fairly rock-leaning sound that we heard on your previous record, A ROCK. But on this new album you go all in - it’s not just rock, it’s full-on screamo. Did it feel that if you were really going to do this, it had to be all or nothing?
I think so. I would say the closest song from A ROCK to this new sound would be ‘BOOTS’. I just think it’s becoming more and more true to my authentic sound as a rock artist. It could get even heavier, I don’t know. I’m really proud of it, because I don't feel like there’s any lack of authenticity.
Some tracks on THE CROW begin as country songs, like ‘REDNECK SONG’ and ‘I AIN’T IN THE COUNTRY NO MORE’. Was it clear from the outset which songs would be on THE CROW and which would be on the mockingbird?
You know, it’s funny that you say that. None of them ever started as one thing and then we thought, ‘Oh, let's turn this into full rock’. Something I want people to take from this record is that, although THE CROW side is rock, there is still a pretty heavy country lyric on all of those songs. Although it’s rock and roll, it’s also my version of country music, and I think putting a country lyric over something sonically rock is a good way to prove that.
Hearing you speak about it as your truest sound to date, it definitely doesn’t feel as though this is a one-off concept album. Is this the direction you’ll continue heading in for future releases?
Yeah, man - hopefully this serves as my statement of who I am, and then from here on out there won’t have to be any dichotomy or duality, the two styles will be interwoven. There might be a time when I just want to write a super country record again, or even a heavier rock record. But I would love for them to both exist within each other’s universes.
On ‘drink one for me’, we hear a response from the deceased friend on your 2020 single, ‘GIVE HEAVEN SOME HELL’. There are so many fascinating protagonists on the mockingbird & THE CROW. In the future, could we get a second perspective for the characters in ‘beer’, ‘JACK’, ‘wait in the truck’ or ‘happy’, for instance?
Oh yeah, dude! I had a crazy idea about rewriting A ROCK, where every song would mirror the original, but it would either be years later or from a different perspective. I also want to be able to drop a reference to the previous record in every record that follows - like on ‘screen’, I sing, “These days under ‘a rock’ doesn’t sound half bad”. So I’ll try and figure out a way to drop ‘the mockingbird and the crow’ into the next record. I love little easter eggs like that.
The title track carries a message of defiance, which spreads throughout the second half of the album. Bearing in mind this idea of being forced to be the mockingbird, is there any music you’ve put out in the past where you thought, ‘I wish I could just scream this chorus or put a crazy rock guitar solo on it?’ but felt restricted by the demands of country radio, the label, etc.?
That’s a really good question. Not really, but there are definitely some that I think I could do over, especially now that I’ve learned how to scream. I would love to redo ‘BOOTS’ in that way. I would also love another shot at ‘4X4’, which was the very first song I recorded. That was all me, though, nobody else was pressuring me to record it like that, I just hadn’t really figured out my sound yet.
There are quite rigid boundaries and ideals regarding what does and doesn’t constitute as country music. The rock industry can hold a similar kind of scepticism towards experimentation. As you venture into this new genre, how satisfying has it been to receive the stamp of approval from the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, and to be booked for Florida’s Welcome to Rockville festival?
It’s huge, man. I feel like a young, first-year artist again. I love country music and I will always be a country artist, but I loved rock and roll so much when I was growing up. To know that I’m in that format now, to know that I don’t have as many haters as I maybe thought I might have and to see that people are really digging my sound, that’s the coolest thing in the world to me.
I can’t wait to play that first rock festival. I have full confidence that we’re just going to give it everything we’ve got, put on a hell of a show and really win them over. I’m excited for that!
Lastly, do you have any news on Hixtape Vol. 3? Are there any songs in the works, and will you be featured on the next project?
The next Hixtape is going to be completely different - in the best way! We have the ball rolling on Hixtape Vol. 3. People are going to be like, ‘No way, really?’ I will be on it - I should be on every Hixtape in some form or fashion. We’re hoping that Hixtape goes for 20 years. I want them to be like the NOW That’s What I Call Music CDs. I want it to go on and on.
You can always expect a Hixtape at least every other year. But the next one we have in the works is pretty bad-ass. So keep your ear to the ground, because it’s really cool…
HARDY's 2023 album the mockingbird & THE CROW is out on Friday January 20 via Big Loud Records.
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