“What makes the caged bird sing?”
It’s a line that stands out early in the 10-song run of “Lovers and Leavers,” the fifth album from Austin singer-songwriter Hayes Carll. Coming at a dramatic pause in “Sake of the Song,” written with Nashville ace Darrell Scott, the question crystallizes much of what Carll seemed to be seeking in his own music, and perhaps his own life, as he put this record together.
In the five years since his last release, “KMAG YOYO,” Carll has left the major-label ranks, gotten divorced, found love again, received his first Grammy nomination, and pointedly redefined his artistic priorities. A troubadour at heart who rose from playing solo in small-time bars on Texas’ Gulf Coast, Carll found himself leading a rockin’ honky-tonk band and recording for Nashville’s Lost Highway label. His was a genuine success story — yet something wasn’t quite right.
“I was writing songs, but I just didn’t feel true to my life at that time,” Carll says of the years leading up to “Lovers and Leavers.” Recorded in Los Angeles with renowned producer Joe Henry, the album comes out this week on Carll’s own Highway 87 label. He celebrates its release Friday with a 5 p.m. in-store performance at Waterloo Records, and with a main-stage set April 15 at the Old Settler’s Music Festival.
“I felt like what I was doing was not as fulfilling as I wanted it to be,” he continues. “Rather than walking offstage and feeling invigorated or connected, it was starting to feel like I was surviving.”
Carll doesn’t mean to sound ungrateful; he knows precisely how lucky he is. “I’ve got this amazing job; I’ve got the only job I ever wanted,” he readily admits. And so, he figured, “I’m too blessed to be unhappy. I’ve got figure out what it is that is the issue and change it.”
Part of the change was lifestyle. A resolute road dog since the release of his debut album “Flowers & Liquor” in 2002, Carll knew that the constant touring, accompanied by a lot of drinking, was taking its toll — not only on his health and personal life, but also on his creative impulses. “I just thought, ‘I see where this road is heading, and I’ve got to do something about it,’” he says.
Musically, that meant getting back to basics onstage. “I started doing trios, doing duos, doing solo shows, and getting back to kind of what I had started out as, which was a songwriter, a storyteller,” he says.
The new approach began to pay off. “I was walking out feeling invigorated rather than beaten down,” he says. “At the same time, my personal life was going through a lot of changes, and my marriage was ending, and I was trying to figure out how to be a father to a soon-to-be teenage boy.”
If Carll, who’s lived in Austin for 10 years and turned 40 in January, wasn’t quite facing a mid-life crisis, it was nevertheless a personal reckoning point. What makes the caged bird sing?
“I wanted to do something that made me feel good and connected every night, rather than something that was escaping or hanging on,” he says. “The way I had been living in my 20s and 30s was just not working for me anymore. So when I was writing this music, I needed something that reflected where I was, and where I was trying to get to.”
The turning point was “The Magic Kid,” a song inspired by his son’s fascination with magic tricks. At first, Carll didn’t take it seriously. “He was constantly showing us these card tricks, and I was not super-supportive because it was annoying,” he says with a self-deprecating laugh. “But he just kept at it and was so persistent: He had found this thing that he loved, and he had this spark.
“He told me one time, ‘I just love the look on people’s faces when they have that look of amazement, when I blow somebody’s mind.’ And that’s when it hit me. I was like, ‘Oh, I know that feeling.’ This thing that I’ve been annoyed by is actually your passion, and you have not let your father’s negativity deter you. You have not let the world’s negativity deter you.”
Carll, co-writing again with Darrell Scott, set that sentiment to a straightforward country-folk melody: “He’s never stopped the show for fear or doubt/ Like the rest of us did/ He’s the magic kid.”
“The more universal part of that song was the line, ‘Who we are is who we are/ Why is that so hard to be?’” Carll says. “It’s that idea of anybody having the courage to be themselves, and not be conformed by a world that’s trying really hard to beat everybody down. It takes a lot of strength, especially for a kid, to just be themselves.”
“The Magic Kid” became a key unlocking the door to a set of songs that are very personal in nature, and full of extraordinary insight. “You Leave Alone” tackles mortality head-on; “My Friends” is a toast to those who “have seen every side of me.” And, as the album’s title suggests, love lost (“Good While It Lasted,” “The Love That We Need”) and found (“Love Is So Easy,” “Love Don’t Let Me Down”) are central themes.
Carll seems a tad uneasy at the notion of “Lovers and Leavers” being a breakup record. Normally loquacious, he takes careful, heavy pauses as he tries to explain. “Not everything on here is autobiographical,” he says. “But I relate to everything and every character in there. I was trying to make sense of my life through some of these songs. Some of them are just stories, but yeah, some of them are personal.”
There’s new love, too. Those who follow Carll or singer Allison Moorer on Instagram may have noticed a synchronicity in some of their posts lately. Moorer, recently divorced from singer-songwriter Steve Earle, and Carll have known each other for a long time — Moorer sang on Carll’s 2005 album “Little Rock” — but only recently started dating.
It’s a long-distance relationship, as Moorer has a young son and still lives in New York. But they’ve co-written some songs, and Moorer joined Carll onstage for a few numbers at Threadgill’s last month. He adds that she’ll attend Old Settler’s Music Festival next weekend. “If she’s around, I try to take full advantage of having that talent up there,” he says.
The talents of another acclaimed singer gave a major boost to Carll a couple of years ago when Lee Ann Womack recorded his tune “Chances Are.” It was nominated for best country song at this year’s Grammy Awards, and although it didn’t win, Carll says it was just a thrill to hear Womack singing it.
“I don’t have a lot of songs where I think that they lend themselves to covers. But that one I thought, somebody could really knock this out of the park. A classic country voice was kind of how I’d always envisioned it.”
One could envision the same for the new album’s final track, “Jealous Moon.” Co-written with J.D. Souther, the song is an exquisite heartbreaker, using the moon as a metaphor for a sadly unfulfilled soul: “She would give most anything/ To open up her heart and sing/ But no one hears her tune.”
That might have been Carll’s own fate, if he hadn’t stopped to ask himself what makes the caged bird sing.
Record release in-store
5 p.m. Friday
Waterloo Records, 600 N. Lamar Blvd.
Free; priority admission for those who pre-purchase Carll’s new CD.
Old Settler’s Music Festival
8:40 p.m. April 15.
Salt Lick Pavilion, 13300 FM 1826, Driftwood.