The black hole's song is the lowest sound in the known universe. It booms like a giant cannonball and travels in immense waves, laying waste any newborn stars in its vicinity. 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." It revealed that 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 easiest things for me to do was write a song."
Around that song—"Big Black Hole and the Little Baby Star"—Hayes recorded an album of the same name. That album was one of 2006's most overlooked. Which is a word that describes Hayes' quietly brilliant career: He was there when the freak-folk phenomenon erupted from 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."
Hayes' music—mostly acoustic, often accompanied by accordion or tuba or oboe or marimba—is loose, dusty, and alive. The worn, soulful twang of Hayes' voice is the byproduct of his North Carolina upbringing; the eclectic, kitchen-sink instrumentation is the fruit of numerous 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 is front porch music, if your front porch were to overlook a paisley-printed carnival parade. His most recent record, this year's Flowering Spade, is stripped down, Hayes' weathered voice a confidential rasp, the songwriting skeletal and haunting. Where Big Black Hole carried a jaunty sense of humor—tubas are funny, first of all, as is Hayes' random injection of swear words 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." 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 drawings spades forever. Guys have been strumming acoustic guitars and singing songs almost as long. Hayes imbues these archetypes with intention, and you could say the result is magical.