Friday night, singer/songwriter Hayes Carll will be playing smack in the middle of the Greenville Zoo, as part of the PNC Bank Zoo Tunes Concert Series. The series, which is presented by the Greenville Zoo Foundation, raises money for the foundation’s work in animal care, conservation, and education. And despite the unusual setting, it’s far from the oddest gig the veteran Houston performer has ever played.
“I’ve had a few doozies over the years,” Carll says. “But one of the strangest shows I ever did was when Mike Nesmith of The Monkees had this office space in northern California where he was experimenting with Second Life (a massive multiplayer online role-playing game). I played in front of a green screen, and the show was streamed on Second Life. Mike pulled down a projector screen so I could see my audience online, who were all in avatar form; they were all animals.”
As Carll would finish a song, his audience of flamingos, hippos, and other various forms of wildlife would show appreciation the only way they could.
“They would pirouette,” he says. “That was their sign of applause. So it was this surreal gig where I’d finish a song and it would be silent except for Mike Nesmith from The Monkees, who I grew up watching on TV, and a screen full of pirouetting flamingos. So it’s safe to say that whatever happens in Greenville, I’ve had a weirder experience.”
In addition to a flesh-and-blood audience, Carll will have another advantage at the Zoo Tunes show: a new album’s worth of rough-hewn country-rock gems to play. That new album, called “What It Is,” came out in February, and its 12 songs find Carll in quite a different form than his previous release, the introspective, largely acoustic “Lovers & Leavers.”
“The ‘Lovers‘ record was a departure for me,” he says. “I wanted to do something differently and make a stripped-down singer/songwriter record, and I feel like I accomplished that. So that freed me up on ‘What It Is.’ I was just having fun with the music, and I was able to incorporate elements beyond acoustic guitar and vocals, so there was a wider range of things happening musically.”
But the more upbeat songs on “What It Is” didn’t come about just because Carll wanted to go in another direction musically. As he himself admits, “Life plays a part.”
Carll married fellow singer/songwriter Allison Moorer earlier this year, and their relationship played a vital part in the making of “What It Is” in a couple of ways.
“A lot of the songs on the record were really pertinent to where I am in life, and where I am is in a pretty good place,” he says. “I’m certainly more optimistic than I was when I did ‘Lovers & Leavers,’ and I think that shows through.”
But Moorer also played a key role as a co-writer and co-producer of the album.
“I’m lucky that my partner is an artist, and someone I admire greatly, with a really broad but unique skill set,” he says, “and I’ve learned a lot from her. We collaborated a lot on the songwriting side of things, but she’s also the person I go to for advice and opinions and the person I talk to about my vision, and what I found was that she was really good at articulating that in the studio in a way that I struggled with sometimes.”
Carll says that, thanks to his experience making “What It Is” and to Moorer’s presence in his life, he no longer subscribes to the old cliche that a true artist can’t do good work when he’s happy.
“I realized that if I couldn’t be an artist without being unhappy, that’s more a testament to my ability as an artist and a craftsman than anything else,” he says. “I’m no longer a believer that you need to be unhappy to do good work. It’s about being present and finding ways to communicate that through the song. I feel more balanced as a person and an artist being able to do that.”
What: Hayes Carll
When: 7 p.m. Friday, June 28
Where: PNC Bank Zoo Tunes Concert Series, Greenville Zoo, 150 Cleveland Park Drive, Greenville
Tickets: $49, $99
Info: (864) 627-4200, https://greenvillezoofoundation.org