The Archivist's Tale: Evan Haywood Digs Through His Past to Help Define His Musical Future On New Live Album


Evan Haywood sits in his Black Ram Treehouse studio holding a red Gibson SG electric guitar.

Evan Haywood features a compelling juxtaposition of sound and genre on his latest live album, Canterbury Tales. Photo by Doug Coombe.

Evan Haywood remembers his first live solo show at Canterbury House in 2014.

The producer, musician, songwriter, rapper, visual artist, filmmaker, and digital archivist recalled feeling nervous about sharing vulnerable folk songs and playing a nylon-string guitar at the Ann Arbor venue.

“It was such a jarring experience almost to go from performing in sweaty clubs and bars where everybody’s dancing … and having a good time to this very stark, acoustic performance where I’m baring my soul,” said Haywood, a University of Michigan alumnus who had previously performed live with the local hip-hop group Tree City.

“I feel like that performance was some sort of watershed moment for me because I had to prove to myself that I could do it. I had never done a performance like that with just an acoustic guitar and myself.”

Fortunately, Haywood’s intimate performance was recorded on cassette by Fred Thomas and initially released on limited-edition tape through Thomas’ Life Like label in 2015. Today, part of that performance now appears on Haywood’s latest live album, Canterbury Tales.

“I spent the past 10 years or so honing them and working on the mixes and cleaning up some of the noise and things like that to get them to the point they’re at now,” Haywood said.

“When you’re dealing with tape, you have fewer options, so you really have to work in a detailed way to be able to massage those recordings and get the good stuff out and take some of the noise down. That’s something I’ve been tinkering with—those Canterbury House recordings—and I feel like now my tinkering is done.”

Haywood’s tinkering for Canterbury Tales also included a track recorded with Matt Jones for the River Street Anthology project in 2016 and four tracks captured by Chris Koltay from a full-band performance at Third Man Records in 2018.

“Maybe one in every 10 or 20 shows would get recorded and these are the recordings that have stood the test of time,” he said. “These are the ones that I feel deserve to be released … These are the ones magically where everything worked out.”

As part of that “magic,” Haywood features a compelling juxtaposition of sound and genre on the 12 tracks for Canterbury Tales. Eight tracks reflect a quiet, acoustic folk sound while the last four include a rowdy, electric blues-rock feel.

“I’m always looking to create something that has balance, so I decided I wanted to have something with two separate halves,” Haywood said.

“One is the acoustic half and one is the electric half and they’re very divergent from each other. Those were both sides of my performing career that were very pronounced at different points in time.”

To learn more, I recently spoke to Haywood about recording the tracks, exploring the album’s themes, comparing studio and live versions of several tracks, dealing with Ménière’s disease, launching the Black Ram Treehouse studio and Black Ram Sound label, being a digital archivist, and working on new projects.

Q: The album’s first seven tracks were recorded by Fred Thomas on cassette at Ann Arbor’s Canterbury House on December 10, 2014. How did Fred come to capture that performance and first release it on a limited-edition cassette via his Life Like Tapes label in 2015?
A: Fred Thomas and Shelley Salant are cassette masters, so they both can take the cheapest, most beat-up cassette machine and make something amazing with it. That night was me, Fred Thomas, ShellsRebel Kind, and Haunted, which is Emily [Roll], Fred’s wife. It was a great, very intimate show at Canterbury House and I had asked Fred to record it and then he ended up putting out a very limited cassette box set. I think there were 15 copies and it was the whole show.

I ended up making a cassette of just my performance, and when I would go on tour in the following years, I sold those. I think we had a hundred of them and those are all gone. I had released it in this very limited way, but there was one thing that Fred had done that I thought was very interesting. At the end of each track at the Canterbury House performance, he cut the tape when he was editing it right before any applause. I think that was so that it could fit on the cassette when we were cramming all this stuff on [them]. That creates an even more intimate kind of feeling to it that I wouldn’t have expected or have thought about if he hadn’t done that … it’s just me singing to you.

In the Third Man performance, there’s a lot more audience noise and people screaming and stuff. Again, I love the juxtaposition between the two because you’re hearing what’s just me and then me participating with other musicians and with the audience to create a collective vibe.

Q: “Wellesleyan Rain” was recorded by Matt Jones for the River Street Anthology on July 25, 2016. How did you become part of a project that catalogs Michigan folk music?
A: Matt went all over Michigan and recorded folk songs from many different types of artists as well. It wasn’t just limited to people who sit and play guitar. He made this big database and I was lucky enough to be asked to be a part of that. I went down to his little unfinished basement in Ypsi and I had that same Yamaha guitar and I was singing through a Fender amp that he had.

It was just one take, one mic … and it’s my favorite performance of that song that I’ve done. And that’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. That was another one where I definitely took some time and cleaned it up and tried to bring out some of the magic that was in that room at that time. It was a really special thing for me to be able to contribute to that.

Q: The album’s last four tracks—“Hoodoo Woman,” “Ain’t It Hard,” “Peaches & Plums,” and “Do Right By My Kin”—were recorded at Detroit’s Third Man Records on March 3, 2018. What was it like to work with Detroit engineer Chris Koltay on that live recording?
A: He does a lot of sound for Third Man and they needed an opener for a show that was coming up … for Jonathan Wilson, who’s a great songwriter. Koltay and I agreed that he would help me out and record the performance on Third Man’s awesome tape machine in their studio, which is in the venue. There’s another room behind [the green room] where there’s a million-dollar recording studio with all-analog equipment, so we were able to record it on that. It’s still pretty raw considering the sound of the band was pretty raw in the room, but it suits the music.

We did a whole longer set where we had some of the same songs that I played at the Canterbury House one, but then that second half was when we got into the heavier blues-rock stuff. To me, the recording and the environment suited those songs the best—the way that it sounds and that rawness to it. The second half [was] where we had the solos and we stretched out the songs that we were improvising a lot more. That to me was the gold in that set, so that’s why I took those specific songs from that set, which was probably a 12- or 13-song set.

Q: Stylistically, the first seven tracks of Canterbury Tales resemble Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic collection of stories due to their emphasis on adventure, spirituality, and travel. How did that timeless work loosely inspire those seven tracks and the album’s title?
A: It’s the idea of it being sort of this pilgrim’s travel … a spiritual travel to reach a holy place. I guess that is sort of my process as a songwriter. I try to travel into different parts of myself and pull things out that I might not know about myself and put those on paper and then I can understand myself better. I have a lot more self-awareness since I started that journey just because of all the things I put on paper. I read it back and thought, “Oh, OK, I guess that’s an aspect of myself that I hadn’t explored before.”

I didn’t necessarily have that concept before I wrote those songs or before I did the performance. I think it also fits just with it being sort of a stark baroque performance with nylon strings and all that. It has a little bit of that vibe—that medieval vibe. Also in the artwork I tried to put that across as well in the fonts and things like having people do old English text by hand and stuff like that.

Q: “You Can’t Hustle Time” struggles with letting go of the past and finding peace in the present. How did writing this track help you face that struggle and move forward? How does it also reflect on the time you spent in Kerala, India?
A: I went swimming in the Indian Ocean when I was there and that was a really powerful experience. It was symbolic of the experience in India in general. I was there for a month and a half and I studied music there and went to a lot of different places.

That was in the middle of a relationship, so the good part of the relationship happened and then I went to India. When I came back, a lot of things sort of fell apart and I wrote that song right as things were falling apart. That was when I was recording the stuff for Ramshackles, which was never an album that I planned. … Those songs came out of me because I was dealing with a lot of breakdowns of things in my life at that time. From that period came some of my best songs.

[Time] sort of has a double meaning. You can’t hustle it along, you can’t make it go any faster than it’s gonna go, but at the same time, you can’t hustle it as in you can’t cheat it. Time is ultimately gonna be the thing that ends all of us; it’s an inevitability that we can’t escape.

Q: “Catamaran” beckons for an escape and searches for a sense of freedom. How does a catamaran serve as a vessel for catharsis and relief on this track? How did travels to Andalusia, Spain inspire this track as well?
A: I haven’t been to Spain, but that was the place I went in my mind when I wrote the song. It’s more of a symbolic thing of this vessel that’s just floating there without anyone in it. That was right after the collapse of another relationship, although it was more amicable. She had moved to China … and we were just in different places in the world, so I was imagining this place where we were together, but at the same time, knowing in reality that we were in different places and that we were drifting apart. This boat is drifting off from the shore.

Q: “Wellesleyan Rain” addresses feeling heartbroken after a brief relationship that’s ended and coming to terms with it. How did writing this track provide you with some closure?
A: I had been in a relationship with a young lady from Wellesley, Massachusetts … and some of that was reflecting on our experiences when we had visited her childhood home. I had done a lot of traveling and I had also had this breakup. I had just gone to India, Japan, and China one year after the other—the three years before that was recorded. There’s a lot of unpacking those experiences and also unpacking several of the relationships I had in that period.

Q: You cover Gypsy Trips’ 1967 song “Ain’t It Hard” on Canterbury Tales. Why did you decide to record a live rendition of this track?  
A: I worked at Encore Records for 12 years and a big mentor to me, and who I’m working with on music now, was a guy named Patrick Pyne, who is going by Cloudburst now. Along with all of the other folks who have worked at Encore over the years, he’s somebody who helped to educate me on ‘60s psychedelia.

Working at Encore was an amazing experience because it allowed me to explore any genre of music I wanted at any given time. We were getting in hundreds and hundreds of new things every day and we got first dibs. It’s one of my favorite gems that I have dug out of that pile of rubble over the years because I have hundreds and hundreds of CDs and vinyl of obscure ‘60s bands.

That’s something I dug into and you can hear that influence a lot in my music, especially the stuff that has bigger arrangements and the things they were doing in the ‘60s with throwing in different instruments and trying anything. I’ve also been deeply influenced by the psychedelic experience, so I have that in common with a lot of the musicians from that era.

Q: “Do Right By My Kin” spotlights respecting others and treating them with kindness. How did writing this track help you address and process the political, religious, and societal struggles that we continue to face as a country? How does this track continue to be more relevant today, especially in an election year?
A: I think I wrote it a little bit before [the 2016 election] happened, but when it was gearing up and when that sort of xenophobia, racism, and just general divisions were being exacerbated so much by a lot of that rhetoric. Then, of course, we’ve seen that rhetoric take a foothold in American politics and society since then.

That song is an anti-racist anthem, which is aimed at the people in power who have victimized folks who are less powerful than they are and tried to cause harm to people who have not harmed them. My point is that karma will come around and those people will feel that same pain in some way or another that they’re inflicting on others.

Q: Studio versions of “You Can’t Hustle Time” and “Wounded Ways” previously appeared on 2018’s Ramshackles while “Ain’t It Hard” and “Do Right By My Kin” appeared on 2020’s Perfumed Gardens. Are there any plans to release studio versions of the other live tracks featured on Canterbury Tales?
A: Other than that, everything else has not been released in any other form. In some cases, it will be the opposite because some of these I have recorded in studios with my whole band … but they just haven’t come out yet. For some of them, the live version is going to come out first.

I think “Hoodoo Woman” and “Peaches & Plums” are probably only going to be on this [album]. I feel like these are the correct settings and I’m playing with the right people and [they] were recorded in the right way. I feel like I don’t necessarily need to do a studio version of those. 

Those are the ultimate forms of those songs, and “Do Right By My Kin,” the conclusion of that song, we as a band took it to the end of where it could go.

Q: The last four tracks—“Hoodoo Woman,” “Ain’t It Hard,” “Peaches & Plums,” and “Do Right By My Kin”—feature bassist Brian Juarez, baritone saxophonist Jake Shadik, drummer Jonathan Taylor, and Le Dawgs (backing vocals) performing with you at Third Man Records. How did they help you shape those tracks on stage?
A: All those guys are like free jazz kind of guys and they are very rooted in that tradition, so that allows them to stretch out and do things that your average rock player couldn’t do. After the lyrics end, everything after that point is improvised on all the tracks. We were just in the Ornette Coleman style of collective improvisation where everybody is improvising at once and you create this thing together. You don’t know where it’s going to go and it has this precarious nature to it and that’s what free jazz is all about.

It’s just creating something on the spot and having that danger of not knowing what’s going to happen next or what anybody else is gonna play or what you’re gonna play. That draws things out of you that you wouldn’t otherwise do. That allowed me to play some of the guitar stuff that I played which I never would have been able to write or sit down and come up with. When you’re in that moment and you have that energy and they’re propelling your energy forward, then everybody goes on that ride together and you’re on that ride until it ends.

Q: In 2018, you were diagnosed with Ménière’s disease, a chronic illness that can cause extreme vertigo and hearing loss. How did that diagnosis lead you to pause live performances and start your Black Ram Treehouse studio in 2020? How did it also result in you developing a hypersensitivity to sound?
A: In late 2018, I got sick and was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease at the same time I was starting grad school [at U-M]. It was like a week into my first semester of grad school, so I had to truck through dealing with my illness and complete grad school. I did that in a couple of years, and after that, I had to reevaluate and that’s when I decided to build the studio. I had worked as a graduate student instructor for U-M and I had some money saved up from that. I put my life savings into developing the studio. I thought, “Now is the time, I’m gonna seize the day and finish these things I’ve started and also just make as much new music as I can while I’m in that place.” 

In some ways, I am thankful for my illness because it’s brought me closer to understanding my creative process and it’s also made me hypersensitive to sounds in a different way. I’ve had to be so conscious of my ear; I’m always trying to hear where it’s at, what’s going on with it, and whether there are any issues. That has allowed me to just hear sound in a more detailed way than I ever have before. 

That also comes with the fact that I have hundreds and hundreds of hours of experience in the past few years doing more recording, mixing, and mastering. Between all those things, I feel like I’m at the best place I’ve ever been in my process as a producer and an engineer. That’s why a lot of people now are coming to me to help them with their projects. They see that I can do these things very quickly at this point and I have my process nailed down so that I have a very professional way of producing music from start to finish. 

Q: Releasing the live tracks for Canterbury Tales also supports your professional role as a digital archivist. How do you manage the archives of your material as well as material from other artists?
A: I was an archivist for my material and the material for my studio first before I decided to go and get a degree and do more historical preservation stuff. I have millions of files that I have to manage. I have probably a dozen hard drives that are each a terabyte or more up to 16-terabyte drives. I have a lot of material that I’m sitting on of myself and other people that I’ve recorded and worked with.

Learning to catalog those files is how I got into archiving and that led me down that path to a professional career as an archivist. I’ve always been my own archivist first and I enjoy it a lot because I know the material better than anyone else. I’m more qualified to archive my stuff than any other person in the world, so it works for me.

I get to combine those skills with creative skills and I just enjoy putting projects together. To me, it’s a form of archiving because often the songs that go on a project of mine were recorded in different places at different times and then they all have to find a home together.

Q: What’s up next for you later this year? Any plans to release additional new material?
A: I have been reevaluating my priorities and thinking about who I want to be as an artist and how I want to spend the next five or 10 years moving forward into that realm. I’ve been reevaluating and thinking, “What do I have that hasn’t come out yet? What music am I working on now that I want to put out in the future? Who do I want to collaborate with? How do I want to keep building my studio and my label?” It’s a time of great inspiration, but a time of looking for the resources to be able to complete a lot of these bigger-scale projects that I’m working on. It's still a great joy to be planning them and to be able to collaborate with some of the people I’m collaborating with … and have this catalog of music that I’m sitting on. Little things are going to start coming out one at a time, but there’s a lot there. 

Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of