If Woody Guthrie had hung around CBGBs, he might sound a little like Hamell on Trial.
The one man fusion of elements of folk (and anti-folk), punk, spoken word and irreverent dark comedy is hard to describe, and even when asked he struggles to come up with a definition. “Maybe if Henry Rollins or Bukowski played guitar like Johnny Thunders or Pete Townsend… I don’t know.”
New Yorker Ed Hamell has been playing under the name Hamell on Trial for more than 20 years, taking to the stage with nothing but a battered old acoustic guitar to bash out a brand of music that is as insightful as it is mischievous.
He may be one man with a guitar, but he shows are anything but sedate, sombre affairs that might be expected from a more low-key artist in the singer-songwriter mould. They are energetic, sweaty, angry, and
For better or worse, there’s nobody quite like him out there. “If you said to me, ‘hey we’re going to see this guy who yells and screams and plays the acoustic guitar,’ I’d be like, ‘No way!’ But if I saw it once I’d be like, ‘Awh I gotta go see this again!’”
In person he’s vibrant, full of life, and frequently digresses to another interesting point before even finishing the previous sentence. Not for nothing has he been compared to comedy legends like Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce. “And Richard Pryor,” he adds.
“Those three guys were very influential.” Hamell defines himself as a fan of rock and roll, but that is as much an idea, a way of life, as opposed to a genre of music. “David Lynch films or John Waters films, or Bukowski or William Burroughs, the Sex Pistols, all of those were rock and roll to me. Whereas Bon Jovi isn’t particularly rock and roll.”
Audiences in America didn’t know what to make of Hamell at first, but that didn’t stop him. He acknowledges the long haul it was to even get America audiences to try and understand what he was trying to achieve. “It’s funny cos I don’t really do comedy but it’s funny and it's sarcastic, maybe, or ironic, maybe, and they don’t deal with sarcasm or irony very well.”
This may be why he is such a regular visitor to these shoes. “In Ireland they immediately got it,” he admits.
His favourite thing about Ireland is the people. “I mean obviously they’re very musical; obviously they’re very literary; it’s got a great character, and I think the people are very irreverent in their intellectualism I guess. You know what I mean? They don’t mind taking the piss. I mean they’re hip to what it is, but they’ll still take the piss outta a taboo, whereas some countries don’t even know what it is, let alone take the piss outta it. So I think those combined elements, I get a kick outta that dichotomy.”
Hamell is currently taking part in an extensive tour of the country. He’s playing the Rhythm and Roots Festival in Kilkenny this weekend, followed by shows in Dublin, Dundalk, Sligo and Cork. Along the way he’ll be joined by a particularly irreverent Irishman, Dundalk singer-songwriter Jinx Lennon, who Hamell’s toured with over here before. “I love Jinx,” he says. “He’s a good guy. Just a real righteous guy, both onstage and off. What’s that song, Forgive the Cunts? That’s a great song.”
Hamell’s loud and outrageously cheerful demeanour seems to support the title of his latest album, ‘The Happiest Man in the World’ but when asked about he suddenly becomes quitter and suddenly more serious.
“I was married for 22 years and my marriage broke up, suddenly, I wasn’t expecting it. it was a very difficult time. And initially, I stayed close to home in the hopes of maybe keeping it together, and within a year it was obvious it wasn’t going to stay together. And it was very difficult to perform, because a lot of what I do is funny. But I had to because it’s the way I pay the bills.”
Realising that he needed to keep writing, Hamell set himself the challenge of writing a song every day for a year and posting them to YouTube. It was as much a way of keeping himself busy as opposed to an attempt to come up with any lasting material, but as he went on he found that he could really see something in the songs that were “hopeful,” the songs that had an element of “redemption” in them. “Once I walked though that fire of what was a pretty hellish period of my life I decided that I was going to have to call the album that.”
Hamell hit his 365 song goal, and his YouTube channel now has over 450 songs on it. But not only that, the material formed the basis of both his new album, and an upcoming one man show in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
But what Hamell really takes away from the whole experience is how it pulled him out of a very bad place in his life. Following the divorce, Hamell found himself taking care of his eight year old son. “And so as suicidal as I felt at the time, suicide wasn’t an option, because I had to take care of this kid. And I couldn’t show the kid the horror I was going through. I had to always be up and strong and he didn’t know what was going on in my head.”
The constant song writing meant that he “didn’t have time to be suicidal.”
“There’s nothing more cathartic but for me,” than writing says Hamell. Not only that, it was “therapeutic”, it was “cleansing,” allowing him to overcome the negative emotions with more positive ones.
Given his penchant for sarcasm and irony, the title ‘The Happiest Man on Earth’ could be a little disingenuous, but it isn’t. Hamell really means it. “I decided that I needed to be the happiest man in the world. Because what’s the alternative? You don’t wanna be the second happiest man in the world, and you certainly don’t wanna be the most miserable man in the world.”