How Hayden Pedigo Made The Next Great Instrumental Acoustic Album

Photos by D'Angelo Isaac, courtesy of the artist.

Hayden Pedigo. Photo by D'Angelo Issac.
Hayden Pedigo. Photo by D'Angelo Issac.

"A man can do all things if he will." This aphorism, attributed to the 15th century Italian artist and architect Alberti, became the tenet of what we now refer to as the Renaissance man: that rare breed of gifted guy who juggles several disparate disciplines, and who happens to be quite skilled at most (if not all) of them.

In our present tense, performance artist, politician, model and Mexican Summer recording artist Hayden Pedigo fits the above designation like a snakeskin boot. Homeschooled by his truck-stop preacher father in the Texas Panhandle, he's spent the past few years walking Gucci runways along Hollywood Boulevard and collaborating with veteran avant-garde luminaries who were once members of This Heat, Faust, and Henry Cow. Most notably, he ran for Amarillo City Council in 2019, as depicted in Jasmine Stodel's PBS-optioned documentary Kid Candidate two years later. It's no small feat that he's somehow managed to juggle it all before reaching the age of 30.

First drawn to the guitar two decades ago while growing up in Amarillo, Pedigo spent his early years on the instrument carefully studying and attempting to imitate Stevie Ray Vaughan's shredding and the slide stylings of Ry Cooder. However, it wasn't until his chance encounter at the age of 14 with the work of fingerstyle guitarist John Fahey—that pioneer of American primitivism that Pedigo frequently namechecks as "the greatest artist to ever do it, any medium"—that he was able to overcome a sense of imposter syndrome and was provided the freedom and confidence to write for six strings.

The official video for Hayden Pedigo's "Elsewhere", directed by Matt Muir.

Be that as it may, as is the case with most polymaths, Pedigo does not presently approach the carte blanche that might come with his primary pursuit with pleasure. "I'll start off by saying that I hate writing music," he explains to me via Zoom from the comfort of an Amarillo living room, where he is seated in front of a green Wurlitzer electric piano against a wall decked out in folk art. "I have a very short attention span and it's hard for me to work on stuff. What I do is I sit down and I try to write the best album that I can, and then I will not write another piece of music until my next album."

To combat this creative reluctance and promote a sense of focus, Pedigo typically goes through the motions of writing his albums by adhering to a regimented schedule. The making of his latest, The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored, was no exception. When Pedigo first explained his trusted process to Trayer Tryon, the album's producer, he was initially met with laughter. "He was like, 'You schedule when you're going to write music?' But it's not like inspiration hits and then I write," Hayden clarifies. "If I get a good idea during that time, great. If I don't, I just wait until the next time I've set aside. I can't write multiple songs at once. I have to write one song at a time."

The title of Hayden's new album is a reference to National Lampoon co-founder and Animal House screenwriter Doug Kenney, who mysteriously died at the age of 33 in 1980 after falling off a cliff in Kauai. Found scattered in his hotel room were notes for planned projects, one of which contained the sentence, "These last few days are amongst the happiest I've ever ignored". When Pedigo details the environment and state of mind in which he wrote the record—in Lubbock, the sleepy town two hours south of Amarillo in the heart of the Llano Estacado—the title feels all the more apt.

"It's maybe one of the most boring places on Earth and it feels like it was designed to be," he says of Buddy Holly's birthplace, where he relocated during the pandemic. "I had a bunch of time on my hands, and that's actually why I feel like I did really good work there because there wasn't anything to do. All I did was just ride my bike or write music. That's definitely the inspiration behind the record: just being bored." Hayden goes on to credit label deadlines as another driving force to finish what he's started. "When I signed with Mexican Summer, that was the first deal I had ever signed. Before that, it was all DIY labels my friends ran with no paperwork, but there are now stipulations of when I need to have records turned in. I like having pressure on me."

Alongside that welcomed pressure, the guitarist went into the production of The Happiest Times with a somewhat whimsical goal: to create, in his words, the best instrumental acoustic guitar album of the past 20 years. "I was only slightly joking," Pedigo is quick to admit. "I'm not saying that I accomplished that, but it was definitely the goal." Before entering the studio, Tryon and Pedigo studied the work of William Ackerman and his cousin Alex De Grassi, a pair of players who released "flawless, crystal clear" albums on the now-legendary new age label Windham Hill starting in the late 1970s. "The idea was that we wanted to make the most high-definition, pretty and pristine-sounding record we could possibly make."

Pressing play for the first time proves he was damn near close to his target. The record captures Pedigo balancing technical dexterity with smoky campfire warmth, and its seven tracks blend together several disparate flavors of guitar music: one can hear flashes of vintage strains of midwest emo, Pentangle-esque pastoral folk, and that shimmering sense of jazzy contemplation specific to an ECM recording. Underneath his performances is a bed of Tryon's meticulously widescreen spin on sound design, which has remained immersive and consistent since he emerged as a founding member of the sonically fluid Gainesville, Florida art rock band Hundred Waters a decade ago.

Hayden Pedigo. Photo by D'Angelo Issac.
Hayden Pedigo. Photo by D'Angelo Issac.

Pedigo and Tryon traveled to Gainesville to track the album at PULP Arts, a state-of-the-art studio operated by old friends of the latter's band. It would be the first time that Hayden would record in a professional facility. To mark the occasion, he packed an acoustic he received the week prior, built by Australian luthier Theo Nicholas of Opus Acoustic. "They had reached out to me a year prior about possibly building me an instrument," he says of the Adelaide-based boutique builders. "I was looking for a really rich tone, something in between a Guild and a Taylor. I believe what we ended up going with was an adirondack top and a rosewood back—it's loud, bright and has a lot of sustain. It sounds really pristine on the record."

After loading in at PULP, the team began by tracking all of the acoustic takes on the Opus live, one by one. As Hayden tells it, time flew by. "We started at 8AM and then 5PM rolled around and I realized that we had one song left. I had practiced these songs like crazy, and I was terrified I was going to show up and have performance anxiety. But we were able to track all the guitars on day one." According to engineer Davis Hart, Hayden's guitar was captured with four separate microphones: a stereo tube set of Telefunken ELA M 260s, and two vintage Neumanns, an M7 and a U67.

With guitar takes in the can, the remaining two weeks at the studio were spent fleshing out textures. "In the control room, they had a giant counter space above all the preamps where we had all our mainstay synthesizers set up," Hayden elaborates—the station included a Roland Juno-60 and a Dave Smith Prophet 08. "We had these plugged in all the time, ready to go, and would sit in there and lay out all the synth parts."

"The key was recording the album essentially as already mixed," Tryon explained of the production process in an email. "We played the Juno-60 at the level that you hear it on the record, rather than monitoring it loud and upfront. This kept the performance sublimated into the guitar for its whole life cycle. Plucked piano parts are nestled into the guitars to accentuate the sense that you are inside a clock. The album fully revealed itself with every step, rather than having to contort things into shape after the fact. It kept us moving at a very deliberate momentum, without wondering where the album really is."

When it came time to approach arrangements, Hayden adopted a trick he picked up from Texas experimentalist Andrew Weathers, who produced his previous Mexican Summer album Letting Go: working in bass parts to accompany Hayden's thumb patterns. "I never had bass in my music, and it made my music sound huge. It was a total game-changer." On the blissfully bucolic first single "Elsewhere", the fattened-up bass is courtesy of a Moog Subsequent 37, delivering a thickness that is frankly hard to come by on other recent acoustic recordings. "We kept it as a guitar album," Trayer told me. "Anything we added was only to glorify the guitar parts he'd written. The man worked hard on these songs and we weren't about to noodle them out of focus."

After certain elements were completed, Hayden would often exit the studio and leave Trayer to mix by himself, making ample use of the studio's plate reverb. "I have a rule that I don't like to backseat drive on a lot of things," Pedigo upholds. "A mistake I think a lot of musicians make when they're making a record is that they'll sit in the control room while mixing is being done. Sometimes that can be a damaging thing. With Trayer, I knew his greatest asset to me was his ear—he understands music and knows how it's supposed to sound. The way I see it: if you as the artist sit there during the mixing, you actually make the record sound worse, but if you leave them alone, you're going to get the best sounding mix possible. It's dangerous to be in the room. You psych yourself out and think it sounds bad, but no: mixing just takes time."

The official video for Hayden Pedigo's "The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored", directed by Matt Muir.

Between wrapping production and the start of the album cycle, Hayden published a handful of writings to his Instagram account reflecting on his path as a musician and his relationship to a changing industry. Over the course of our interview, I asked him to riff on his formative influences and the astute creative advice he offered in these posts. He spoke eloquently about the formidable impact Fahey's artistry had on his playing and his broader creative practice, including his "comical and sarcastic" take on album art and liner notes. He credited SST Records founder and Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn with revolutionizing the art of the artist-run label, and acknowledges the rap collective Odd Future as a formative influence on his work ethic as a DIY musician operating within an economy of means.

Pedigo has also spoken at length about the seismic shift in the music industry landscape that has occurred since he first began releasing music a decade ago—marked by the stranglehold of streaming services, the precedence of playlist culture, and the shuttering of several smaller independent venues. When I ask him if he has advice for young artists navigating this rocky terrain in the present tense, he takes time to mull it over. "This is a tough one because even my perspective is slightly skewed," he admits.

"I'm in a spot now where I have enough of a reputation where I'm not starting at the beginning now, and I can see a lot of the roadblocks, but I'm not starting from scratch. It's not arrogant if you know how to talk about your backstory. What I can say is you should get comfortable talking about yourself in a way where you're confident, and don't be afraid to build mystique. Be honest and genuine, and don't take it too seriously." For an artist who has lived many lives in his 29 years while navigating such saturated scenery, his perspective is about as potent as they come.

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