J. Hardin wrote songs for "The Piasa Bird" while working the night shift at a Madison inn.
The panic attacks were coming closer and closer together by the time J. Hardin had his first job interview in Madison. He’d been in town just two days; two days off the road from a two-month tour that ended in Los Angeles, a city he intended to make his new home. Two weeks into that, he bolted back to Wisconsin.
The long-bearded Hardin arrived to the interview wearing a threadbare, snap-button shirt, polyester pants and scuffed, pointy-toed cowboy boots. “About the only clothes I had,” he says. His long hair raged this way and that before succumbing to gravity and settling down across his shoulders.
He got the job.
“They were absolutely desperate,” Hardin says. Thing is, it was absolutely the job Hardin was desperate for — night-shift maintenance man at a Madison inn. An 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. gig where he could be alone with his jagged thoughts.
“I needed to be the guy staying up all night in a spooky old house figuring it out.”
That was in 2010, and in the months leading up to Hardin’s new career in the hospitality industry, he had slowly but surely become unglued. While touring the country with Chicago and Austin-based songwriters, his mental health had declined and self-medication had increased; drugs and alcohol had become part of a “daily maintenance.”
Those two weeks post-tour in L.A. congealed a plan that he’d been cooking up.
“I decided to eliminate everything from my life. Everything. To try to find out the meaning of it all.” Before clocking in to that first overnight shift at the inn, Hardin gathered up all the pieces of his lifestyle and put them on the shelf.
“I needed to get to a place in life where, if anyone took anything away from me, whether it was music or some kind of substance I was using as a crutch, it wouldn’t completely break me.”
So began a four-year hiatus from music for the now 31-year-old Hardin. Those were years, ironically, that Hardin claims were “easily the most valuable time creatively” in his life.
While he had no intention of creating music during that time, all but one song on Hardin’s new, powerful album of gothic folk songs called The Piasa Bird were the result of his journaling during those long, solitary nights at the inn.
Born and raised in the Mississippi River town of Alton, Illinois, Hardin is the grandson and son of Boeing Aircraft workers. He sailed from home at 19 and threw out the anchor in Kenosha, a choice he admits was like throwing a dart at the map. He quickly got down to business, writing, recording and performing under the pseudonym Everett (his middle name) Thomas (“a little more than arbitrary”).
In Kenosha he fell in with other talented Milwaukee musicians, including the slightly older, kindred folk-spirit Hayward Williams, who, over the course of seven days in Rockford at Midwest Sound, oversaw production of The Piasa Bird, Hardin’s first recording under his real name.
“He’s a courageous writer,” says Williams. “He sets a few targets down-range and hits every bullseye by the last chord. All I needed to do was find the right players and get out of the way.”
Among those players: Williams himself on bass and vocals, Dan McMahon (Cory Chisel & the Wandering Sons) and Miles Nielsen (Rusted Hearts) on guitars and keys.
A mythical creature feared and propagated by the Illini Indians centuries ago, the piasa (PIE-a-saw) was a vicious, lion-sized, human-eating bird that flew the updrafts of the Mississippi River bluffs where it dwelled. Hardin comes from that place, too, and the songs on the album have all the mystique of its namesake. Hardin’s sound combines the pioneer instincts of Levon Helm with the rapture and intelligence of Bonnie “Prince” Billy.
Hardin says he’s a words-first, music-later composer. That style suited the journal-to-music pathway this work was preordained to follow. Three of the last four songs on The Piasa Bird were the result of one very long piece of prose from Hardin’s Kerouac-style journaling during those quiet nights at the inn: “My Oh My” and “Oh, Sophia Parts 1 and 2.”
“I write the way that I listen,” says Hardin. “I like to take in all the details. I guess I like pulling the plow a little bit.”
Hardin goes back in the harness come February. That’s when he’ll join Hayward Williams for a two-month tour of Italy. Meanwhile, Hardin and his wife, Kaitlin, who he says has been a rock-solid support throughout these trying years, just bought a house in Madison. He says that Madison is “the first place in my adult life that has truly felt like home.”
“I’m still in the process of getting it together,” Hardin says. “But one thing I’ve learned for sure is that no one owes the world an apology or an explanation for who they are as an individual. Allowing myself to feel and experience life so intensely, and go through the doldrums, and come out of them having learned something about myself has been liberating.”