Laughter is the first sound cutting through the tape hiss on Quitters, the sophomore offering from L.A.-based singer-songwriter and guitarist Christian Lee Hutson. It comes from session player Harrison Whitford on bass, caught in a giggling fit over the near-dozen false starts to “Strawberry Lemonade,” the record’s breezy and brutal opening ballad. But it doesn’t take long after the chuckling fades for things to turn.
“What a pitiful hill to climb / every night of my evil fucking life,” Hutson sings from the perspective of a partied-out nostalgic, head pressed against a taxi cab’s plexiglass partition after a night of serious drinking. “208 to the end of the line / I swear I’m really done this time.”
You’ll meet similarly desperate characters across the rest of Quitters’ 46-minute runtime: emotionally stunted thirtysomethings in questionable relationships (“Age Difference”), injured ice skaters reckoning with new realities (“Triple Axel”) and a menagerie of other lonely and wounded Angelenos who stitch together the record’s intimate collage-style approach to storytelling. The combined effect is similar to Hutson’s 2020 debut, Beginners; but here in his heartfelt follow-up, a complicated love letter to California, he pushes subtly but surely into new territory.
“It feels like my entire life was writing Beginners,” the 32-year-old says of the fault line between his twin LPs. “It felt more like a mission statement of what I am interested in musically, and just songwriting in general. With Quitters, I wanted to take aspects of all the things we did before and see if there’s still room to move around … to experiment and see if it’s any good.”
Story is still king on Quitters, but part of Hutson’s experimental drive meant finding opportunities to pull away from the comforting embrace of narrative and into a more impressionistic mode of songwriting. Take the back-half’s moodiest offering, “Black Cat,” which finds Hutson doing his best double-tracked Elliot Smith impression (a mellotron used in-studio by the late music icon appears earlier on “Endangered Birds”) while skating across a series of disparate images: a yawning feline, an actor’s thrown roses and a handful of pocket change fished from a public fountain in the stillness of a sun-drenched morning.
“I was trying to get out of my own head,” Hutson says. “I can get very formulaic in the way I write, and that was a fun way of just breaking up the formula by not having any rules, and not being precious about it.”
Hutson’s approach on Quitters ran counter to the strategy behind his fussed-over debut, whose songs were recorded in a number of different styles and arrangements before becoming the meticulously crafted collection released by indie juggernaut ANTI- Records in the pandemic-crushed summer of 2020. The refresh was spurred in part by the decision to forgo digital recording for analog tape, which meant exploring the creative possibilities of imperfection.
“I like those moments that remind you that you’re listening to people in a room playing music,” Hutson says. “You can really strangle the life out of a song by going over your mistakes and getting them exactly perfect. Since none of us really knew that much about tape or how to use it well enough to really get proper edits done, they had to stay in. That makes a record feel alive to me.”
This people-in-a-room vision for Quitters is a natural growth point for a career built on creative collusion. In addition to working again with collaborator and indie superstar Phoebe Bridgers — returning in her producer role alongside Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes — the album features contributions from a murderer’s row of musicians and songwriters rounding out Hutson’s extended network of fellow travelers.
“I just really like working with my friends,” says Hutson, who co-wrote songs from Bridgers’ 2020 breakout Punisher, along with the Bridgers-Oberst collab Better Oblivion Community Center and debut EP from “sad-girl” supergroup Boygenius. “It’s like the difference between being a solo artist and being in a band. When you’re a solo artist, it can sometimes feel like you’re on a whole other planet by yourself — so a bad show can feel like an indictment of your entire personhood. When you’re in a band, if you play a bad show, you’re part of a team. No one has to take the full brunt. The victory and failure is distributed evenly.”
But there’s something more fundamental to Hutson’s collaborative spirit than spreading around the glory and gloom of creative life. It’s also an opportunity to color his work with the kind of eye-to-eye authenticity that comes from an honest exchange between peers. And as the artist looks at the map of possibilities spreading out before him in his emergent career, he sees a path best taken together.
“I have a tendency to be very hard on myself and think I need to be perfect when I’m alone. And I’m reminded of how much more fun and interesting it is to not be perfect when I get to work with other people,” he says. “I think it’s easier to make an honest contribution that way.”
ON THE BILL: Christian Lee Hutson and Fenne Lily with Anna Tivel. 8 p.m. Saturday, May 20, Bluebird Theater, 3317 E. Colfax Ave., Denver. Tickets here.