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Ever since his days in Greensboro with the early-'90s folk-grass champions Boys of Blue Hill, Sean Hayes has had one of those voices you remember. It's warm and worn and full of existential anguish, cosmically suited for recalling the most painful of heartbreaks, a subject in which he's more than well-versed and references often.
"It took me a long time to figure it out, but I really do what I can do," he says. "I have a lot of certain limits, and I accept them and reveal. I just take my chances—this is what I can play."
His soulful, Appalachia-influenced folk, dotted with celestial imagery and religious iconography, now emanates from his home base in San Francisco, where he has studied the masters—you know, true folk masters such as Nina Simone and Marilyn Manson—and unlocked the secret to making a living by playing music without the help of a record label.
Hayes never set out to be a singer. He didn't know he could sing until a high-school theater class forced him to try. "You had to audition to join—everyone had to sing, whether you were a singer or not," Hayes remembers. "That broke the ice for me. It gave me an excuse—and I think sometimes people just need an excuse."
Back then, he used to listen to a lot of Zeppelin and Steve Miller on the "normal radio." He skipped school—"I had migraine headaches!"—to listen to his Beatles records. He wasn't even aware of old-school Americana until 1989. He was at East Carolina University when he first heard Irish music, and those songs changed the course of his life.
"I'd never heard a lick of Irish music before—I grew up on rock & roll—but my ancestry is very Irish," he says. "My friends and I started listening to that Irish music and playing some of it, and through that, I discovered bluegrass.
"The first few times I heard bluegrass, it took me a little while to get it," he continues. "And then one day it hit me: 'Wow, this is incredible!'"
Hayes was drawn in by the raw authenticity of the songs, so much so that he dropped out of college and joined up with a group of kids playing an odd country/folk/bluegrass amalgamation, plus the occasional Irish jig.
Though the Boys of Blue Hill did pretty well for themselves, Hayes got fed up with being in the band. He told one reporter, "I didn't want to be in anybody's band—I didn't want anyone depending on me. I said, 'Guys, I gotta go, and I don't know if I'll be back.'"
He left North Carolina and spent a few months in Colorado before heading back east to play solo sets of Van Morrison and Nina Simone songs. But then the woman of his dreams lured him to San Francisco, only to brutally dump him six months later for another musician. Hayes spent the next couple of years working a string of shitty jobs and writing a lot of sad songs, waiting for his big break.
In those days, he says, he had a sense that some great hand would come down and show him the way. By 1999, he got tired of waiting for that hand. He cobbled together enough cash to put out a collection of his early sad songs, A Thousand Tiny Pieces. Then, in 2002, came Lunar Lust, distributed via CDRs slipped into coat pockets in thrift stores. The next year, he released Alabama Chicken, a beautifully lush, fleshy album that earned him a fervent following in the Bay Area.
Since then, he has released five more albums independently—his latest, Run Wolves Run, came out in 2010—and worked with everyone from the Be Good Tanyas founder/folk mainstay Jolie Holland to Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman. (His "Turnaroundturnmeon" appears on her anti-poverty benefit album Big Change: Songs for FINCA.) You can even hear Hayes' buttery warble on Suburu commercials and NBC's Parenthood.
"It's definitely frightening—but I think all professions are," he says. "You never know when it's going to get taken away from you, so just do what you want to do.
"I make my living playing songs," Hayes says. "I do it, and I get by."
This article appeared in print as "Easy to Root For: Sean Hayes' Appalachian trail has led him to a DIY paradise in the city by the bay."