Isaac Hayden is taking control | Closeup
Homegrown singer-songwriter Isaac Hayden is taking a break from drinking, he’s taking it easier on the hardwood and he’s working a 9-to-5.
It’s all new and it’s good, but it’s real change. Flash back a few years, and Hayden was living in Nashville, Tennessee, supporting himself mostly through his music. Life was more of a party. He’d scratch down lyrics in the early morning hours, with drugs and alcohol sometimes fueling the creativity. Some days back then he’d put in five-hour stints partaking in another love, which is playing basketball.
Life now is decidedly more regimented and domesticated.
“There is an appeal to it,” Hayden said. “There are nice things, but I’m finding myself pretty conflicted with the structure.”
The day to day is busy for the 38-year-old Jackson Hole High School graduate. He’s got a dog, a mini Australian shepherd named Willow, to look after, and he’s been helping out along the fringes at Cultivate Cafe, the breakfast and lunch joint his longtime girlfriend, Savanna Garnick, recently opened with her brother, Sky.
Full-time work for Hayden the past two years has been on the property management team at Teton Science Schools, where he keeps things clean and running. In the winter he’s an assistant basketball coach for his old high school team. He still sings three or four nights a week, including a weekly Thursday evening gig at Amangani.
Hayden’s voice and his folksy, lyrical Americana music took him much further than most aspiring professional musicians manage. Six years ago he signed on with Artist Revolution Records, and was paid to write songs. It was a crowning musical accomplishment, but there are plenty of others. Dial the clock back to 2011, and Hayden was a member of The Collective, a Nashville folk singing group that competed on the NBC Show “The Sing-Off.” Hayden, then 30, told the News&Guide at the time that he loved being a “starving artist.”
“I just love the freedom of it,” he said.
The genesis of Hayden’s music career traces to his time at Spokane, Washington’s Whitworth University. It was a rough stretch in life otherwise. He went to play basketball at the Christian liberal arts school but was caught drinking his first night and was later suspended from the team. Shortly thereafter his parents divorced. His GPA sagged below the 3.0 he needed to maintain his academic scholarship, and he was forced to drop out of school.
“The one great thing I took from there is that it’s where I found music,” Hayden said. “My best friend there played guitar. He would play and I would sing.”
When his buddy didn’t want to play guitar, Hayden taught himself to.
In the years after he hopscotched around the United States. He came back to Jackson Hole for a year. For a while he went to live in Balboa Island, California, to accompany his mother, who was going through a dramatic change in life and was distanced from her nuclear family.
“She was married to a preacher for 20-plus years,” Hayden said, “and then single.”
Like his mom, he was trying to sort out life. He was in a “bad head space.” The dream of basketball had been cut off. Next steps were unclear. Another try at college, this time at Costa Mesa Junior College, didn’t last long.
“It was confusing for a 20-year-old kid to figure it out,” Hayden said.
He was drawn next to Tallahassee, Florida, where he went to again reenroll in college, this time at Florida State University, and to link up with a good friend from the high school days. He was back home in Jackson Hole around that time when another friend heard him singing and suggested they record it. They put together a five- or six-song demo tape, which ended up in the hands of local music producer Kent Nelson. That was a life changer.
“I dropped out of school, because he offered to fund and produce an album for me,” Hayden said. “I took him up on it and recorded an album.”
The call of Nashville, aka Music City, dates to 2009. Through some family connections from his childhood days on Washington’s San Juan Islands, Hayden knew of a Grammy Award-winning mixing engineer living in Nashville. The man, F. Reid Shippen, became a sort of musical mentor from afar.
“We started talking, and for two years I sent him every song I wrote,” Hayden said. “He would write back and be like, ‘This sucks. This really sucks. This one is decent, but most of it sucks.’”
The correspondence wasn’t all critical, and eventually Shippen convinced him to move to advance his career. He loved Nashville and stuck it out for eight years, though he spent many summers and holidays back in northwest Wyoming.
Jackson Hole was really just another small town in Hayden’s mind until he was around college age, when he came to recognize and appreciate the majesty of the place. When he returned to live year-round it was because he was following Garnick, his girlfriend. The couple’s plan was to make the valley a pit stop to save up and regroup and then take off to Los Angeles.
That was three years ago.
“Now she’s opened a restaurant,” Hayden said, “and I’ve got a full-time job.”
For a while after moving back to Jackson Hole, Hayden worked for a company owned by Garnick’s brother-in-law.
“I was a fencer in Dubois,” he said. “I actually drove over there every morning.”
He transitioned to Teton Science Schools around two years ago, for a time living and working out of the Kelly campus along the east boundary of Grand Teton National Park.
In Hayden’s suddenly more stable life he’s putting his energy into self-improvement. He gave up drinking 18 months ago as a measure of self-control.
“I loved beer,” he said. “As much as you’d give me, I’d drink it.”
Today, he can look at a beer and, in his head, taste it. But the abstinence has paid undeniable dividends.
“I’m a new person,” Hayden said. “Just mentally, man. I’m trying to work through a lot of stuff and take control of my life, I guess.”
Even Hayden’s demeanor while playing basketball, which he still does regularly, has changed. Thinking on it, he can pinpoint why he pivoted away from a more intense, vengeful and sometimes bitter style of play. For a lot of his years, basketball was a “place of pride” where he felt confident when other parts of life were more jumbled.
“So I’ve defended it with a certain aggressiveness in my youth,” Hayden said. “It was like, if you stole the ball you took something from me and I was going to fight you to get it back.”
After giving up tobacco in Nashville, Hayden channeled an unsatisfied addictive side of his brain into playing more basketball. He’d hoop for hours every day and, in the big city, was playing alongside all kinds of great players, including some big ones. To avoid getting beat up, or even stabbed, he worked to quell the most aggressive of his tendencies.
“The thing is, when I would play that way and get mad, and it would last for hours,” he said. “I hated that.”
Plus, he came to admire how some of the great players he played alongside conducted themselves on the hardwood.
“They’d go up and get their shot blocked, and instead of getting mad they would give the guy props,” Hayden said. “There was an adultness and maturity to that.”
Hayden really wanted to get rid of the angry part of his game. So he worked on it, then he did it.