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Hayden returns after four-year absence from recording, performing

TORONTO - Hayden, that purveyor of timeless folk-rock, is about to release his first album in four years. By the way, he also released an album four years ago. It might be worth drawing attention to that fact, since Hayden never did.
Canadian singer/songwriter Hayden is photographed in a Toronto restaurant on Tuesday January 22, 2013 as he promotes his first new album in four years "Us Alone." Hayden, that purveyor of timeless, low-key folk-rock, is about to release his first album in four years. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO - Hayden, that purveyor of timeless folk-rock, is about to release his first album in four years.

By the way, he also released an album four years ago.

It might be worth drawing attention to that fact, since Hayden never did. No, he instead followed an essentially non-existent promotional plan for 2009's "The Place Where We Lived," refusing to support the record with any live shows or interviews.

It was a fittingly low-key strategy for the ever-humble mumbler, but it carried the not-insignificant downside that most people didn't know the album existed.

So the soon-to-be 42-year-old learned a lesson he'll apply to his expertly crafted new album, "Us Alone," which hits stores next week.

"I think I realized that you need to let people know you have a record out," he said, laughing, over coffee at a neighbourhood spot near his home in west Toronto.

To further that goal, Hayden (his surname is Desser) joined the roster of the powerhouse Canadian indie imprint Arts & Crafts.

"I felt like it was a particular moment for me, maybe 'cause I'd been away for so long, and I felt like I was re-launching my career in some ways," he said. "I mean, this kind of happens, truthfully, between every album. I take so long that I don't know what kind of shows to book off the top, because I think no one's going to show up.

"There's all these question marks. Is anyone going to care? Is anyone going to remember? It literally happens on every album. So this time it seemed so long, and I hadn't been actively in the music business for so long, I thought maybe this is a great time to make some big changes."

Fortunately for fans, however, the substance of Hayden's intimate folk has changed very little.

Sure, there are subtle shifts in esthetics. The record's instrumentation is unusually uncluttered, focusing mainly on a few essential elements — keys, guitar, drums, bass and the gentle hum of his vocals — played mostly by Hayden himself.

This was a conscious decision on Hayden's part, to resist the clanging, more-is-more approach toward instrumentation that's currently trendy.

"There's no sudden harp player that hangs from the ceiling for a section," he notes with a smile. "I just wanted to get away from that ... (where) every song is this explosion of sound. I was getting sick of that kind of record and I think probably a lot of other people were as well."

That economy in sound was, he says, the closest thing to a concept for his new music. But lyrically, he concedes the whole album is more or less about one topic: fatherhood.

He and his wife have a daughter now, and the resultant feelings colour each of "Us Alone"'s eight songs (plus a bonus track) in subtle ways.

Observe the delicate piano hymn "Old Dreams," for instance, an ode to a parent's self-sacrifice on which he builds to the rhetorical sigh: "What did I waste all my time worrying about before this moment in my life?"

Hayden's daughter has a rare chromosomal deletion that gives him and his wife more to worry about than some young parents. The situation complicates much for Hayden's family, including the comparatively trivial matter of his tour obligations.

"Our daughter is a challenge in many ways," he said. "So you know, I don't feel great about my wife having to do everything without me."

Hayden has never seemed all that fond of the road anyway. He recently endured a quick European tour — his first performances in four years — that was "terrifying at first," but gradually became easier.

He says he's genuinely excited for the slew of live dates expected to accompany his new record's release.

"That being said, we should talk in a couple months. 'God, was I saying I was excited? What is wrong with me?'" he says, laughing.

His occasional tendency to withdraw from live performances has given Hayden a reputation for reclusiveness, likely helped along by the intensely solitary nature of his introspective tunes. After all, he keeps a sufficiently low profile that he's been prematurely killed off by less-than-judicious Wikipedia editors in the past.

And it's true that he rarely plays impromptu gigs, or surfaces to check out some enthusiastically hyped local act, or drops by a preferred club to assist in a friend's set.

("I've probably offended a lot of people along the way by not doing stuff like that," he concedes. He has made occasional exceptions along the way and committed to appearing, after a friend had caught him on a good day. "And the next day I'm like: 'What did I agree to?!'")

But he thinks that myth-making notion that he's some sort of haunted hermit is well overblown.

"I'm not the King of Kensington," he says. "But truth be told, when I'm on the road, it's a polar opposite mode. You're out every single night.... You're talking to promoters, you're talking to the concierge, you're talking to the taxi drivers. You're just in a completely sociable state for months at a time.

"When I'm done with that, it's just a natural thing. Oh, well, I want to see my wife and my family. Do I want to be in a bar tonight? No, not really. It makes sense to me. But am I like a heavily bearded weirdo in a cabin? No."

The personable songwriter is also quick to dispel the implication that his spotlight-averse personality is somehow responsible for his relatively low profile in Canadian music.

"(That's) sort of implying that my stuff is really great and the only reason I'm not a huge star is because I shut it down," he says, again laughing generously.

"But for sure, my music isn't for everyone. A lot of people think I mumble. And that I'm mopey.... But there's a huge, huge possibility — and I'm not being self-deprecating here — that if I fully promoted all of my records crazily, toured my ass off, had U2's manager or whatever, had all the pieces in place, that I still wouldn't be a big artist."

On the wistful, harmonica-threaded gem "Almost Everything," Hayden revisits the fruitful period in his early career when 1995's "Everything I Long For" launched him into that lucrative (in the '90s, anyway) realm of alt-rock troubadours to watch. He was feted by Rolling Stone and invited by his hero Neil Young to perform at the Bridge School Concert.

He had a taste of rock fame and was, in some crucial way, sated. And that left him with an immense sense of creative freedom that has never really diminished.

"Knowing at that age and at that time how my personality reacted with that type of success ... I never was chasing that for the last 15 years, because I know how that felt," he said. "Maybe I had in those early 20s aspirations (about) touring the world, but it wasn't like this sort of Beyonce fantasy or anything.

"In the last 15 years, it totally freed me. I've never been like chasing the fame part of it or, truthfully, the riches part of it either because the '90s were good to me financially as well.

"I was in an extremely rare position where I was completely into and able to focus on making music that I was excited about."

But while he's in the enviable position of not fretting about commercial returns, let's be totally clear about one thing: Hayden still wants you to listen.

Or at least to know that he's alive.

"Oh, I want bigger audiences," he says as a wry, twinkling smile spreads across his face. "I just don't want to have to do the work."