From Mmmbopping to Walking
Hanson talks to The News about artistic freedom and fighting poverty
By: Meg Massey
Posted: 4/17/08

The term "Hanson" still conjures up images of three long-haired pre-pubescent boys singing an addictive song called "MMMBop." Which is unfortunate, because if the rest of us were still judged on what we were like in middle school, the world would be a pretty terrifying place.

In fact, the Hanson brothers-Isaac, 27, Taylor, 25, and Zachary, 22, all of whom are now married and starting families-have evolved over the past 11 years, as people and artists tend to do. In Hanson's case, the band has become a credible indie rock act, not to mention pioneers. They founded their own independent label, 3CG Records, in 2003; they have become very active in the fight to end AIDS and poverty. Within the music world, they are also the founders of Fool's Banquet, an annual songwriting retreat that has attracted the likes of Jason Mraz and Steven Kellogg.

"It's about kind of setting ourselves free as artists from the feeling that we have to write a certain type of song or we're not capable of collaborating or something to that effect. It's about freeing our creativity," said Isaac Hanson in an exclusive interview with The Mount Holyoke News. "To just say: it doesn't matter whether this is for your record or not, what matters is that you have a good time and that you write a song that you feel like is decent, that you feel like is the best song you could write today."

Artist freedom is the bedrock of Hanson's music philosophy. The brothers, who have always written and performed their own songs, split from their major label in 2001, citing a lack of creative control over their music. They turned the story of their departure into the documentary Strong Enough to Break, a blistering critique of hegemonic record companies. Their first indie effort, Underneath (2004), debuted at #1 on the Billboard independent charts and remains one of the most successful independent albums ever released. The record had a more acoustic vibe than either of their commercial releases, relying heavily on piano ballads. But The Walk (2007), their latest album, represents a return to a vintage '60s sound, featuring gospel-tinged ballads and bluesy piano and guitar hooks.

"We were focused on performing the record as much or as live as possible, trying to bring out the kind of rawness, the rootsiness of the performances as much as we could," said Isaac. "Trying to restrict the amount of colors we used to the painting, to give an analogy…This whole record was about simplifying."

But in addition to the creative benefits, going independent has allowed the band to cater to evolving music technology while major labels have continued to focus on profits.

"Record companies have been very resistant to digital music, very resistant to the evolution of fan culture, very resistant to understanding that it's not that a music fan wants to steal a record; they just want their music to go with them in the way that their life has evolved," said Isaac. "In the same way that people stopped buying LPs and started buying cassettes so they could put them in a little Walkman, and you know, walk around with headphones on…They want to be able to listen to [MP3s] and have the opportunity to buy a single, to buy one song or three songs because they can. And that's totally fine."

In addition to adapting to online technology, Isaac also talked about the importance of touring.

"I think that that's a huge part of being a band and making a career happen," he said. "If you're in a situation where you're signing to a record company and you're not getting anywhere, just go out on the road, just go. Stop worrying about whether or not you've got the perfect single. Just go. Just play. Find an audience."

The Walk was inspired by the band's 2006 visit to Soweto, South Africa. There, they volunteered with AIDS prevention group HIVSA, whom Isaac says have helped to reduce mother-to-child HIV transmission rates by 90 percent. They released "Great Divide," recorded in Africa with an African children's choir, as a charity single on iTunes in 2006. When their latest tour began in 2007, Hanson also teamed up with Tom's Shoes for another charity endeavor; for each pair of Tom's Shoes sold at a Hanson concert, a pair is donated to a child living in poverty. Thus far, more than 50,000 pairs have been donated. Before each concert, the brothers lead fans on a one-mile barefoot walk to highlight the issue of global poverty.

"I believe that we as a generation, as a country, have the opportunity to move beyond just being aware of a problem and have the opportunity to, with technology to direct communication with one another, to truly take action on issues," said Isaac on activism. "And I think for me, that is the crux of the issue. It's not being aware-we're all pretty darn aware. The question is how do we act? And what do we do?"

Having to think about those questions is a far cry from where most of us were in middle school. And even as mature college students, we may not have the answers. But, as Isaac pointed out, in the twenty-first century the point isn't necessarily finding an answer.

"I think the goal should be to challenge each other to search. And then hopefully through that-you never know," he said. "You might find an incredible idea, an incredible group, an incredible technology, an incredible organization of people."