Excuse the day job, but Doug Hoekstra isn't ready to retire the songwriter's dream just yet.
"If you feel you have people interested in what you're doing and you have something to say, then you keep doing it," the singer/ songwriter says from the Nashville office of a grant-funded family resource center, one of several jobs (which have included teaching and grant-writing) he's had over the years to supplement his part-time musician's income.
But that's not an indication of quality: One of the Southeast's finest songwriters for a decade, Hoekstra proffers loose narratives and keenly sketched vignettes in a speak-sung whisper-croon that's Reedier than Lou. It generally drifts over spare folk-blues, but Hoekstra's not limited to that sound. On his latest, Blooming Roses, for instance, a full band allows him to indulge the jazzy shuffle of "The Naper Vegas Scrabble Club" and the organ-fueled rock rave of "Part of the Problem, Part of the Solution." Aside from opening track "Acquired Taste," Hoekstra foregoes the backing female vocals that have colored his last several albums.
"I'm tired of all the divas," Hoesktra says, laughing. "Like anything, you don't want it to become a shtick. No matter how great or small your audience, hopefully you try do different things and mix it up a little bit. Plus, I had some great players on this record and I thought letting them stretch was one way to get some different textures in."
Like the nearly seven-minute closer "Everywhere is Somewhere": With an aching pedal steel gauze and a slow Hammond B-3 organ swell, it's a well-framed, dream-like meditation on peace and longing. "She says it's all about the moment," he sings coyly, "but I've got one eye on the clock."
Hoekstra's been a solo artist since his Chicago alt-country band, Bucket No. 6, broke up after releasing two albums. He moved to Austin in 1991 and to Nashville in 1994. He's released seven studio full-lengths that, as he sings on "Blow Beautiful Dreams" from 2003's Waiting, try to bridge "the void that always lies between who we are and how we're seen." Popularity hasn't necessarily followed, and he says it's not getting any easier or more gratifying, especially as the record—or its physical manifestation, at least—continues to disappear.
"I love the idea of the CD as a complete work. We put a lot of time into making it a complete entity, and that may disappear," says Hoekstra. "Historically, albums mirrored the live show mentality. Even back in Hamburg, The Beatles would play a lot of rockers, and then they have Paul do a ballad, or John do a country song because, otherwise, it's boring. That made them better because you're forced to go outside yourself."
For instance, his albums are generally marked by a preference for character sketches and narratives/ reminiscences. On Roses, though, Hoekstra concentrates more on images and atmosphere. Together, they offer a vibe that produces less episodic results. From the silk handkerchief of "Gavin Geist," who endures "Lord of the Flies every day," to the two people a world away in China and Chicago on the "Subway Train," watching life go by, it's an album more about evocative moments than absolute stories.
"I tried to handle it more like Dylan would, with the verses that are almost parallel and form a narrative in a different way," he says. "Not that there is anything wrong with doing a straight narrative. It's funny: You spend your life trying to develop a style, and then when you do, you kind of run from it."
Hoekstra's seeker determination applies outside of his music, too. In 2006, he released Bothering the Coffee Drinkers, a book that recounts Hoekstra's encounters as a musician, playing for attention-addled caffeine addicts. The series of short stories is far more autobiographical than his songs. Though hardly intended, Hoekstra took advantage of the cross-platform potential, playing some bookstores and art centers in addition to his regular coffee shops to promote the book.
"I read from the book in the middle of my set, and people really dig it," he says. "It somehow brings my music into better definition. They both complement each other in a way that helps people get what I do a little more."
It taps into that play-within-a-play idea and perhaps pulls back the curtains a little on his process. If it helps audiences better identify with him, all the better. Even a modest Luddite like Hoekstra can appreciate synergy.
"There were gigs early on, where I would just play music, and they would still buy a book," says Hoekstra, slowly winding back to the topic of the disappearing physical music product . "If people come to a gig and they dig it, I could have a CD, a book, a pocket blender, it's like this thing. If everything becomes digital, where will people get their thing fix?"
Either way, Hoekstra will still be creating years from now, if hopefully for a progressively larger audience. His curiosity, like his hunger for the better song, seems insatiable: "I don't understand how people have writer's block. To me that's arguably the most enjoyable thing—when you're starting from nothing and creating something. I always have ideas for that."
Doug Hoekstra plays Open Eye Cafe, Saturday, Feb. 16, at 8 p.m. The show is free, but you can always get your thing fix.