We meet at Rudy’s Music in SOHO on a Thursday morning.
Not only does he show up looking cool on a hot NYC summer day in cuffed jeans and Oxford shoes, but he looks at HOME in the historic guitar heaven. Well, as at home as you can look while also looking like a kid in a candy shop.
We spend close to an hour at Rudy’s, where I photograph him in his element. He tries out a handful of guitars, most of which he wishes he could take home. He even humors me by playing a little bit of Hanson’s “Mmmbop,” when he and I get onto the topic of bands the shop clerk is too young to know.
John Hampson’s band is one of those (the clerk is 19-years-old).
John Hampson and his band, Nine Days, catapulted onto the scene with 2000’s hit, “Story of a Girl”. I don’t know about you, but it was one of my family’s favorites that summer. So much so, that while on vacation in Texas, my siblings, cousins, and myself broke out into song when it came on in a restaurant. It is a catchy tune with fun lyrics.
But, it’s not JUST a hit song to John.
Before we get into our interview, John asks if I have ever been to Ferrara (NYC’s Famous Italian Bakery). When I answer no (GASP), his eyes light up and we march right over to settle in for cookies and espresso – “The REAL stuff,” he tells me.
“You know,” he says, “‘Story of a Girl,’ is autobiographical. I exaggerated things and used tons of figurative language to express something, but it’s about me, and it’s about my wife – who was then my girlfriend – and her wanting to get engaged. I just wasn’t ready. I was basically stalling her and making her cry. I was good at that.”
That last part is said with a bit of a chuckle. Not nervous or maniacal, but reminiscent.
Hampson is now happily married to THE Girl. Together, they have 12-year-old twin boys, and live on Long Island, NY, where he teaches high school English.
But, we don’t get too far into where he is now, until we take a trip back in time…
John: I don’t ever remember not being completely enthralled with music. I don’t even know when it started because I don’t remember not feeling that way. There’s a song from the Doobie Brothers that came out in the mid 70s. There is a breakdown in the middle…”
I’d like to hear some funky Dixieland / Pretty mama come and take me by the hand
Maybe I was at a carnival when I heard it, I don’t exactly remember, but I remember being really little and visualizing that song. And the hand – instead of holding hands – I’m a little kid and take things pretty literal, so that pretty lady is my mom, and the hand is a ride in this carnival that you go on. So my mom would be taking me to this ride. That has been stuck in my head for like, 40 years.
There is something about music that just hit me in the deepest part. In the 70s, there were these giant, gas guzzling cars, and my mom would drive us to the beach in the summer when it was HOT with vinyl seats, and Billy Joel would be on the radio. Billy Joel is my GUY! Hearing him, hearing Queen songs, and then another huge thing was – I could not have been older than 7 – and I went to a friend’s house. Their older brother had a KISS poster on the wall. I had NO idea what these guys were all about. They did this poster in 1976 where they had full makeup on, and they did that pose like the old Revolutionary War – guy playing the drum – and I remember just seeing that and thinking, ‘Holy cow, what is that?’ When I found out that they were a band and they played music, my mind was blown.
My first instrument was a viola in 5th grade. I didn’t get a guitar until 6th grade, and I remember vividly – and sadly – thinking to myself, “Well, I’m WAYYYY too old to start playing this now.”
Erin: OH NO!!
John: Swear to it: 6th grade. ‘I’m never going to be good at this, I should have started when I was 5, but what the heck, I want to play.’ Then, I fast-tracked myself. I got an acoustic in 6th grade, an electric in 7th grade, and that was pretty much the end of it for me. The beginning and the end. The end of anything else, and the beginning of music.
(cookies arrive at our table)
John: The chocolate on THESE…it’s not even overkill.
Erin: When is chocolate ever overkill??
John: NEVER. I am a complete chocoholic. For a few years, we weren’t really touring, so I got on the scale and I was like, ‘Oh NO!’ I went on this really strict diet where I was cutting sugar out. I was eating chocolate every day though. It didn’t matter. I could NOT go a day without some morsel of chocolate.
Erin: Can you do dark chocolate?
John: YESSSSSS. Only as an adult. As a kid it’s the worst when you get those little dark Hershey miniatures and you’re like, ‘THIS IS HORRIBLE!! What IS this? I’m not eating this!’
Erin: So, this little kid that ABHORRED dark chocolate, did he start a band?
John: From the moment I got a guitar, the mission was: be in a band. Period. I took some lessons until I could figure things out on my own. Then I thought, I can’t keep coming here every day, it’s too slow for me. I am learning songs by playing a bunch of records. So, once that Rosetta Stone of guitar was presented to me, that was it. Then the mission was: I have to find musicians. So, my step brother played drums, and I just pushed him super hard: Get a drum set! Get a drum set! Let’s play!
I had a really great friend in high school, and we started playing. I would just head to his house, go in the basement, and play. The pure joy of creating sounds together…I can’t imagine anything better. No drug could be as good as that feeling. That was it. Since 7th grade, I have been in a band without fail.
Erin: So, as the main song-writer, do songs just come to you, or do you have to sit down and have a really long, thoughtful process with them?
John: Even before I got an instrument I was writing songs in my head. I don’t know where the confidence came for me to do it, but I did it. It wasn’t necessarily good, but I don’t think I was ever really horrible at it. I was a little kid in the 70s, and I was a teenager through the 80s, but I go back to the 70s because music was affecting me when I was really young. So, when you are 5, 6, 7 years old, you aren’t buying albums, you aren’t going to hipster joints and discovering live bands. You are absorbing radio. 70s radio was Queen, it was Billy Joel, it was Elton John, it was HUGE pop artists with BIG songs.
John: Yeah! Melodies, productions…Meat Loaf. I absorbed ALL of that. Listen to a Queen album. They jumped genres every song. They didn’t put out a record full of guitar hits for 10 songs. They put out, ‘Another One Bites the Dust,’ ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love,’ ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ I mean, come on! I have ALWAYS been a guy who just loves a great big melody and great writing. I have always been a writer. By the time I was a teenager and had started to get into it, I kind of knew that that was my strength.
I pushed myself to be a writer because I just felt that was my thing. I pushed and pushed and I worked at it. I consider myself an artist because I totally can work from inspiration. That’s what I prefer, actually. But I can also sit here with you, and in a half hour – probably less – I could craft a song. ANYONE can. But the point is, you learn how to do something when you are passionate. You aren’t clocking it: 20 more minutes, I gotta try to crank this out…Instead I am thinking: ‘I gotta get this thing done, it’s 2 in the morning, but I CAN’T stop now! I gotta get this, I gotta do this, I gotta fix this line. Well, crap, now it’s 3 in the morning and I gotta be up in 3 hours.’ You can’t stop yourself.
Erin: And this is the mentality that led you to ‘rock star’ status? Did you ever live the ‘rock star’ life? Or, because you are a self-proclaimed old soul, were you a little more calm?
John: You know what? Nobody has ever asked about it that way, and I have never thought about it that way. I always had a degree of detachment. When things were legit rock star-like – which they were for a short while – I always had a little detachment in the best way. I was able to step back and really think, ‘Holy cow, this is a scam. This is CRAZY, this is nuts.’ We played Jingle Ball for Madison Square Garden. FULL. 18,000 people singing “Story of a Girl” back to me.
Erin: That’s SO powerful!
John: It was, but, as I was up there, I completely had the wherewithal to slow time. I was thinking, ‘Do NOT let this moment fly by. Stop. Just take this in, because it will NEVER be bigger than this moment.’ I think it enabled me to survive it a lot better. So, when things kind of crashed afterwards, it didn’t destroy me at all. I wasn’t happy that it didn’t work out. Our hit came out in 2000, and by 2004, we had been through the whole machine. We had a hit, we had a hit record, we had recorded a follow-up, and we’d been dropped by the label (because the entire label imploded and at least 90% of the people involved in our record were gone).
My wife and I were married, and we had decided to start a family, and I woke up one morning in January of 2004, and I literally opened my eyes and thought, ‘What in God’s name am I doing? I just spent my whole adult life trying to get to this point. I have no interest in sacrificing everything a second time just to get back there.’ And I went to the local community college, met with a counselor and said, ‘I think I have some credits here from when I was 18,’ and I DID and they gave them to me! I had like 9 credits left over or something like that, and I enrolled! The spring semester started about 3 days later, and I never looked back. I still made music, I still did all that.
I went back to school as a 32-year-old freshman, I graduated in 3 ½ years, and I got a job teaching. So, I never had the crash that I could have had.
Erin: So, you teach by day, but do you play live at night?
John: Yeah. I have never stopped, ever. I don’t tour. I am not going to get in a tour bus and disappear for a month. I know you can do it with kids, I know tons of people who do it with kids, but I chose a certain life. I was never going to be an absentee dad. So it was never a difficult choice for me. I never felt like I was giving up this thing. I did it already. I did a ton of touring and playing. I still play. The truth is, I have been able to be much more active with it the last few years because my kids are older now. I was able to orchestrate my life so I could be home and present and there. I still worked, played, and wrote. I spent a lot of time in [New York] City, writing for other people, and just keeping music a big part of my life while staying home. Now, it’s pretty amazing that we can make Nine Days a priority again, and we can go and play shows, and record records, and I can do it without sacrificing any other part of my life. It works!
Erin: What brought the band back together?
John: A few things. I said, you know, it’s been awhile – we had done one of those pledge campaigns keeping the fans in mind – so we self-funded a campaign with just our fans, and we did a bunch of shows, and it just felt good. And then we ended up signing with this management company in Nashville. They had a bigger plan, and it took about a year and a half or so to write the next record and get the right people involved, and – for everyone in the band – we reached a point that we could do it. And it’s been great.
Erin: So, how do you feel your music has evolved – both you, personally, and as a group – since you were apart for so long? Or is it like coming home?
John: You know what? It’s both. One thing coming into this record, there was a mission statement, for sure. ‘The Madding Crowd’ was the album that came out in 2000. We put out other records, but we did it on a very small scale, we never sought out distribution. It was basically direct-to-fans. I didn’t want to go on tour or do all this crazy stuff, there was no point in trying to get this machine that we were not going to be able to feed. This was different. With management, we said: We want to make a record where – here is 2000, here is 2016 – we folded it up so that, yes that time existed in the middle. We grew as people, as artists, as musicians, but this record should feel – in this crazy way – as a completely logical follow up to ‘The Madding Crowd’. It’s as if – even if we never played another note in between those two records – it would still make total sense that it was Nine Days. And it’s not hard because they are our songs. This time around we did work with some additional writers, and it was an awesome experience. It was a way to broaden horizons a little bit. But everything in the end had to feel like us or we wouldn’t have done it. You have an inner guide that tells you when you are doing something right or not. And I think we did that. We made this record that is definitely more grown up, but at the same time, it feels like a really logical extension or step from ‘The Madding Crowd’.
There is this song on the new album called ‘Star’. It’s completely autobiographical, [like ‘Story of a Girl]. I am completely aware that I am writing it about myself, but in my mind, I am also a character of me. So, ‘Star,’ is literally a time jump. That same guy, same point of view, same narrator, is now laying in his bed at 1 o’clock in the morning, next to his wife – who he married from ‘Story of a Girl’. His two kids are sleeping in the other room, and he is having that moment of, ‘Did I do what I wanted to do with my life? I don’t know if I am happy with the music side, I don’t know if I am fulfilled.’ A piece of the chorus is:
I should be happy, but I’m not / Satisfied with all I’ve got.
Then there’s a line:
My head’s still swimming with boyhood visions / I’m standing on the stage with my guitar and I’m a star.
So there is that part of you that is always going to be 13 and envisioning what it’s like to be a star. Now, that moment at Madison Square Garden, that was it! But, it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. Nothing ever really is. Because who doesn’t feel exactly that feeling at any given moment? Even if you reach the exact pinnacle of something that you wanted, when you finally get it, there’s always that moment, that pit in your stomach that is saying: Oh my God, is this it? And it doesn’t come from being unsatisfactory. It comes from the feeling of, ‘This has defined me, it has motivated me, it has been my reason for getting up in the morning. Now what do I do that I’ve got this? Who am I now?’ Not necessarily conscious or in the front of your mind, but part of your being. And when you get it, there’s sort of a hollowness, a: Well, crap. Now where do I go from here? And, if you are a healthy person, you figure that out pretty quickly and move on. You’re good. Then, there are others that don’t really have that wherewithal, and it can really gnaw at you. So, that’s that song.
At the end of the song, the narrator – me – basically says: If this is really it, then I’m good. I’ve got this amazing life and family, and I always imagine that this is the moment where the ME character smiles, closes his eyes, turns over, and goes to sleep. Content. So, that is sort of book ends to me, the whole thing. It’s a turning of the page. But it’s also catching up. What’s going on with these guys 16 years later?
What’s going on with John today is that he’s got a family cook out to scurry off to. Tomorrow, he leaves for a weekend in Nashville with Nine Days packed with shows, interviews, and meetings. We tidy up, say our goodbyes, and leave.
But not before John Hampson grabs a pound of Ferrara’s famous cookies to go to share with his family.