The black hole's song is the lowest sound in the known universe. It booms like a cannon and travels in immense waves, vibrating newborn stars to death. It's a sonic sweeping of stellar proportions.
Sean Hayes was reading the New York Times a few years ago when he came across the headline: "Music of the Heavens Turns Out to Sound a Lot Like a B Flat." The article said the destructive force of a black hole—via sound waves—can span billions of miles. "The article said this was a good thing because the black hole's song keeps the galaxy cleaned up, not too crowded," says the San Francisco singer-songwriter. "In my life at the time I was going through this thing where someone close to me was a little baby star and another friend of mine was definitely the big black hole. I was trying to figure out what to do about this situation, because I was stuck right smack in the middle of it. One of the easiest things for me to do was write a song."
So Hayes wrote "Big Black Hole and the Little Baby Star" and recorded an album with the same name around it. That album was one of 2006's most overlooked. Which is a word that describes Hayes's quietly brilliant career: He was there when the freak-folk phenomenon erupted in the Bay Area in '03 and '04, and though his music could easily be grouped with Devendra Banhart's or Jolie Holland's (a longtime friend and collaborator), he was never packaged as part of that scene.
"I'm a little bit older than those people," he says, "and I've never been too aggressive about the whole record industry and stuff like that. I've always just played my music and figured, hey, we'll see what happens. There's a big reality to getting out there and getting a machine behind you. All those people had record deals and publicists. You're gonna find out about them."
Hayes is his own machine—he writes, records, and releases his material on his own. He sells his CDs online and at shows and he books his own tours. It sounds haphazard, but there's strategy behind his DIY approach.
"I sell a record for 10 bucks at a show and I make that money back," he says. "Somebody on a record label sells a record for 10 bucks and they might make a dollar off it. So I have to sell a lot fewer records. My measure of success is totally different."
Hayes's music—mostly acoustic, often accompanied by accordion or tuba or oboe or marimba—is loose, dusty, alive. The worn, soulful twang of Hayes's voice is the byproduct of his North Carolina upbringing; the eclectic, kitchen-sink instrumentation is the fruit of friendships with a huge variety of Bay Area musicians. "I'm not really good with accessories," he says. "That's why acoustic guitar has always been good."
Big Black Hole and the Little Baby Star would be front-porch music—if your front porch overlooked a paisley-printed carnival parade. Hayes's most recent record, this year's Flowering Spade, is stripped down, Hayes's weathered voice a confidential rasp, the songwriting skeletal and haunting. Where Big Black Hole has a jaunty sense of humor—tubas are funny, first of all, as is Hayes's random swearing in otherwise low-key songs—Flowering Spade is confessional. Turns out its inspiration, the hand-drawn image on the album's cover, also came from something Hayes read.
"That image, that song came from an article in Arthur about sigils," Hayes says. "People used to consider them a magical device. You have an intention, and you would endow a symbol with that intention that you wanna do in your life. All kinds of things are sigils; they're all around us all the time, these magical devices, like the Nike Swoosh. They're really nothing—the Nike Swoosh is just this thing, but because of all the connotation, it's very powerful."
So Hayes made his own sigil and endowed it with the intention of "movement" and "creativity."
"That cover is what I ended up drawing," he says. "It's a spade, and it occurred to me that it's a flowering spade, and it seemed like an archetypal image that had been around forever."
People have been drawing spades forever. Guys have been strumming acoustic guitars and singing songs almost as long. Hayes imbues these archetypes with intention and the result, you could say, is magical.