The last thing the crowd expects when they squeeze in to The Hotel Café for singer-songwriter Jim Hanft’s show in April is to be laughing throughout. His songs are the rhythmic, brooding and introspective kind, a mold many singer-songwriters tend to follow, and one that has endangered their species through saccharine similarity over the past decade. Hanft, pronounced as it reads, pretty much calls this out from the start by cracking a few self-deprecating jokes to warm everyone up in-between songs, saying things like “…and on that note, here’s another incredibly emotional song…” before launching into the next excellent, homemade ballad.
“Music started for me as a means to being funny,” Hanft explains. “I was always trying to be the class clown.”
“You still are,” fellow vocalist Samantha Yonack confirms. She is his editor, of sorts, and sings back-up on a number of his tracks, her sweet voice seeming to rise at just the right time, smoothing out Hanft’s subtle, twanged gruffness.
The duo has met me at a west-side diner and they are as charming in person as they are onstage. Hanft clowns around a bit, jokes about how he “hates himself as most comedians do,” while Yonack giggles and gazes at him lovingly and then keeps the conversation moving—they are who they are, onstage and off. Even more revealing, a peck from Hanft on Yonack’s shoulder during their performance was their first public admission to becoming an item in recent months, leading up to the release of Hanft’s most recent album Weddings or Funerals. “I don’t know why I did that,” Hanft admits about the kiss. “It just felt right, I guess.”
Acting on what feels right is something that took a lot of practice for Hanft. He was in comedy troupes throughout high school in Philly and college in Boston, coming out to L.A. as directionless as most young talents who don’t know where to begin in the daunting, sprawling entertainment capital. He worked a disappointing internship at Sony / BMG, ran tapes and documents from studio to production company through the clogged surface streets, casually played crappy small stage gigs at clubs on nights when no one who cared ever showed up. The meandering stopped abruptly when Hanft’s father suddenly fell into a coma. For two weeks, he, his family and friends gathered in sadness.
“There were tons of people sitting around, family and friends waiting for it to be over, wondering what was going to happen,” Hanft says, turning as serious as he did when he began a new song onstage. “All I did was write and play music in that time. It played when we took my dad off life support. It played at the funeral. I saw how it effected people in all these different moments and I knew then I had to do this the rest of my life.”
Shortly thereafter, Hanft and Yonack were couch surfing along the East Coast, playing everywhere they could on their own personal tour. After a particularly frustrating gig at an Italian restaurant in New York City—“people kept telling me to turn it down while they ate,” Hanft remembers—they played late at Googie’s, the upstairs stage at the Lower East Side’s The Living Room venue. Hanft was more off the cuff then usual and the performance caught the attention of Petra Marten, the owner of Sweden’s Veranda Independent Records. She bought a record and offered them a “very kind” record contract a few weeks later. A dreamy month after that, Hanft and Yonack found themselves in Scandinavia recording with producer Lasse Marten, who has made worldwide waves in recent years for the albums he has produced with the likes of Lykke Li and Peter, Bjorn & John.
The result of their work in Mother Svea is Weddings or Funerals, one of the best folk rock albums so far this year, if not last year as well. There are obvious comparisons to the great Ryan Adams and sadly absent Counting Crows in these tracks and if you’re doing folk rock right these days, there should be. However, Hanft’s sound distinguishes itself in it’s focus on the extremes. The opening track “Kerosene” hooks you in deeply and is haunting both tonally and in the fact you will be instantly humming it in some future moment of silence or obsessively playing it over and over again. “Lazy Love,” in which Hanft and Yonack vocally waltz together, is a dark, sing-along that bests even the best male / female singing duos already doing summer tours. The titular track “Weddings or Funerals” is Hanft’s singing and songwriting talents at their purest—simple, beautiful and, most importantly, memorable.
“There’s a certain escapism to both events,” Hanft says when asked about the title of the album. “Let’s laugh or let’s get serious. You don’t remember the mediocre days years later, but you certainly remember the great ones and you certainly remember the shitty ones. The extremes are what life is often all about.”