The Singer and Songwriter Balances Familiarity with Subtle Twists

(Last Updated On: June 14, 2017)

Coco Hames was driving around Arkansas helping dogs. When I called her last week, the singer and songwriter was doing good deeds, assisting with rescue dogs, reducing canine suffering, making sure formerly neglected or abused animals get food, water and shelter. Hames lives in Memphis, Tennessee, so she was only on the other side of the big river, not too far from home.

Hames, along with some friends, helped start a nonprofit organization devoted to animal rescue in Nashville, where she was living before heading west to Memphis. So, the all-creatures-great-and-small outreach isn’t out of character for Hames, who will headline the first Sunset Thursday event of 2017 at Bailey Park in Winston-Salem on June 15.

“I’m one of those crazy dog ladies,” says Hames.

The Winston-Salem show will be among the first extended stretch of performances for Hames since releasing her excellent self-titled solo debut on Merge Records back in the spring, a record that can conjure the Ramones, Dusty Springfield, Tammy Wynette, delivering pop-punk, Brill Building and countrypolitan charms from one song to the next. Part of the reason that Hames, the former frontwoman of garage-punk revivalists the Ettes, is essentially doing album-release shows several months after the actual album-release date is that her 16-year-old dog died at around the time, and it basically laid Hames low for a time.

“I was like, ‘I can’t do anything,’” says Hames of her decision to stay put for a time instead of getting on the road.

Hames grew up in central Florida. In addition to her Tennessee stints, she’s lived over the years in Los Angeles, Madrid, London and Berlin. Rambling, being on tour, is something she’s pretty comfortable with. But this time around, with the recent loss of her pet, the newness of being a solo artist with her own name on the marquee, instead of being a part of a band, Hames felt like she wanted to let things filter through on their own a little more before heading out on the club circuit. She could have hopped in her Prius and done a string of solo dates without a backing band, but the songs on the record, with their tasteful restraint, retro style, and subdued twang, seemed to call for more. So Hames wanted to wait and see what came together. “I’m a big procrastinator,” she says. She was, as she puts it, engaged in “a very active laziness.”

Active laziness might sound vaguely oxymoronic, but it could relate to the keen attention to detail and cool patience that characterize Hames’s music. Really good songs tend to balance a mix of the familiar and the new. To take elements — lyrical, melodic and harmonic — that somehow sound classic and yet don’t, in fact, follow the same exact contours of anything we’ve heard before, that’s an ideal spot for a songwriter. Despite her talk about sitting back and waiting, Hames says she’s a control freak, and that combination might be the key. Hames has written some songs that definitely evoke big names from eras gone by. Listen to “I Do Love You,” which can bring to mind Roy Orbison, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Byrds and the Shangri-Las. It’s one of those rare songs that’s studded with hooks, in the verse, in the chorus, and in the bridge. At first, listen, the song sounds like a reiteration of a variation of “I love you,” one of the most often repeated sentiments in popular music. But Hames wedges in that emphatic “do,” which suggests that the love in question was somehow in doubt. And the refrain of the title is followed in the chorus by the line: “And it’s a long way, too,” which adds a degree of mystery to the equation. What appears on the surface to be a traditional expression of something we’ve heard a thousand times turns out not to be.

“It’s sort of my way of being like ‘It’s not that obvious is it?’” says Hames about the little twists that can make her songs so satisfying.

Singer Coco Hames plays Sunset Thursday concert in Winston-Salem.

Singer Coco Hames plays Sunset Thursday concert in Winston-Salem.

Something similar happens in the catchy and energetic Go-Gos-ish “I Don’t Wanna Go,” a song that suggests some strange interpersonal coercion when someone keeps trying to get the singer to go places when she’d prefer not to. A song that sounds simple and straightforward ends up being built around a fundamental ambiguity, one that keeps presenting itself after repeated listens. Where are they trying to take her? Why is she insisting on staying put?

Hames thinks about all this stuff. Sometimes the slippery lyrics are intentional. Hames says she used to avoid using gendered pronouns in her songs because she wanted to make sure everyone could relate to them.

“I used to have an issue, or a block,” she says of the practice. “I wanted for it to be applicable no matter who was listening to the song.”

She gravitates toward phrases that are colloquial and real, stuff that you might overhear someone saying, but she musses things up, giving her songs that appealingly scuffed and natural feel. She’s not necessarily a member of the first-thought-is-the-best-thought school.

“I don’t let an idea walk out the door just because it walked into my mind like that,” she says.

But if Hames puts her own work under a microscope, she doesn’t analyse it and dissect it to the point of draining the life out of it. She understands that music has to retain a vital unconstrained energy in order to be worth making, worth listening to. It’s supposed to be fun.

“It’s called playing for a reason,” she says.

Hames said she started writing songs as a teenager. As a kid with headgear, she used songwriting as a way to win admiration from her otherwise contemptuous peers. She’d augment the lyrics of the day’s radio hits to revamp them into tunes that ridiculed their teachers.

“I think that this happens to a lot of kids that get picked on; if you can turn into something else, like the class clown, then people seem to like you,” she says.

So, music-making had an element of both defense mechanism and character-defining activity for Hames. As a songwriter, Hames says she can be motivated by both a stubbornness to communicate a particular idea and a sort of openness to the path of least resistance.

“I can’t always tell what’s guiding me,” she says.

Coco Hames plays the first Sunset Thursday concert of 2017 at Bailey Park, Winston-Salem at 8 p.m. The show is free. Winston-Salem’s Victoria Victoria opens at 7 p.m.