“Jeff is the single funniest person I’ve ever met in my life,” says Ryan Hanson, referring to his brother, Jeff Hanson. “His wisecracks were downright unrepeatable, but they were sharp and they were quick. If you consider the fact that some of the underpinnings of humor are anger and frustration, Jeff is interesting because he felt very, very deeply.”
Ryan and I are sitting in a quiet, sunny conference room at Minnesota Public Radio. I’d invited Ryan to come tell me more about his brother, whose three albums have continued to find new listeners in the six years since Jeff’s untimely death at age 31. I’d been thinking about Jeff, and about how musicians are remembered—by both their fans and their families.
“He always struggled with depression on some level,” continues Ryan, “and all of these things became this incredible study in contrasts. This incredible vulnerability that he would exhibit through his music…he cared about things, and he cared about them deeply, to the point where it would consume him. You contrast that vulnerability with the fact that there were some levels where he just didn’t give a damn.”
I unfortunately never saw Jeff Hanson perform live, but those who did say they’ll never forget it. My colleagues at The Current have described to me how their jaws dropped when Jeff opened his mouth and began to sing in a pure tone that was higher than you’d expect, but immediately seemed exactly right. That’s where reviews of Jeff’s shows and albums almost inevitably began: that expressive, unmistakable voice.
Jeff told interviewers he’d discovered his distinctive voice when he stepped in to sing the female parts in a school musical because he was the only kid who could hit the notes. Pitchfork called Jeff’s voice “an otherworldly instrument likely able to make nearly anything sound as intimate as a lover’s whisper.” It was “one of the most incredible and truly unique voices you’ll ever hear,” raved NPR.
If it was Jeff’s voice that first caught many listeners’ attention, what held their interest were his complex, heartbreaking songs about love and loss. His music often inspired comparisons to Elliott Smith—whose sister knew Jeff’s music, and sent a note of condolence after Jeff’s death—but Ryan said his brother’s musical influences were incredibly eclectic.
Ryan says that while Jeff’s songs came from his heart, they don’t lend themselves to simple interpretations. “Of the hundreds of friends that Jeff had, any one of them could hear one of his songs and every one of them would have a different way of interpreting it,” Ryan explains. “Any one of them would have a million different stories to tell of how they related to the song and how they felt about it. There would be common threads, but we would all have different experiences.”
Jeff (born in 1978), Ryan (born in 1974), and their sister Sara (born in 1976) were raised in Glendale, Wisconsin, in a musical family. “Music was always a central part of who we were,” says Ryan. “We had a number of musicians in the family, and we would joke that my dad was the fifth Beatle.” Early trips to concerts by the Beach Boys and the Everly Brothers “really made an impact” on Jeff.
“When Jeff actually began to really dive into music, he got a drum kit for Christmas,” Ryan recalls. “This was the single greatest thing he’d ever received in his entire life; he would go upstairs and just wail away on those drums for hours. After that, he ended up getting this crappy little keyboard. It had a couple of pre-programmed tracks on it, and he would just write nonsense songs around those pre-programmed tracks. Then my uncle Dan, who was a guitar player, gave Jeff a guitar and Jeff played it until five of the strings had broken and he was on a one-string slide. Even then, he managed.”
Jeff’s interest in music continued to burgeon as the family moved to Waukesha, Wisconsin, when Jeff started fifth grade. Ryan says that Jeff quickly found a circle of close friends, and two of them—Ryan Scheife and Mike “Goat” Kennedy—were in Jeff’s first band, M.I.J. “Their debut was out of Scheife’s garage,” remembers Ryan, about M.I.J.’s first show. “It was a blast, and I could see [that he would be] continuing for years.”
After a few releases with M.I.J., Jeff went solo. He signed to the label Kill Rock Stars, which ultimately released all three of Jeff’s solo albums: Son (2003), Jeff Hanson (2005), and Madam Owl (2008). Jeff’s national profile rose as he toured—including, after the release of his third album, a successful tour with Chris Koza.
As his career took off, Jeff settled in St. Paul, where apartments on and near University Avenue provided years of good times and humorous misadventures. “Those were the sites of some really, really fun gatherings,” Ryan recalls. “The music would be playing, and it would be loud—and they knew it was loud, so they made a point of going and inviting all the neighbors.”
The suddenness of Jeff’s death shocked and saddened his family, friends, and fans. His family was hurt by reports that characterized the cause as a “drug overdose.” The reality, explains Ryan, was more complex.
“It was mixed drug toxicity. The medical examiner found nothing illegal in his system at all. All they found was his anti-depressants, his anti-anxiety medication, and he had been drinking.” The individual medications were in their prescribed range, “but for whatever reason, the sun, the moon, and the stars all aligned in a particular way where it ended up becoming toxic. We went back and looked at the prescriptions that had been written, and you want to place some kind of blame—but you can’t.”
It’s now been six years since that painful event, but Jeff lives on in memories—and, of course, in his music. “His records are still selling,” says Ryan, who credits Slim Moon and Portia Sabin at Kill Rock Stars for unstinting support. “They send us statements of what’s going on. My parents find a tremendous amount of comfort in that. They find excitement in the fact that his music is still played.”
What brought Jeff Hanson to my mind this spring was a song, “This Time It Will,” that we played on The Current’s local-music stream one day when I was hosting. That evening I biked home listening to “Madam Owl,” and was once again moved and impressed by the subtle arrangements, the soaring melodies, and the tremendous depth of feeling.
As music writers, so much of what we do is pegged to specific events: someone has a show coming up, or a record is being released, or a musician does something outrageous and lands in the news. Listening to Jeff Hanson, though, I decided I wanted to write about him because—well, just because of the music. I wanted to learn more about this Minnesota musician, and to help share his story.
I’m not the only writer thinking about Jeff Hanson: Ryan said the family still gets quite a few inquires about Jeff, though he said they typically decline to comment. “It’s hard to do interviews,” Ryan admits. “Because Jeff’s the youngest, we’ve always been fiercely protective of him.” The family’s painful experiences with what Ryan characterized as “lazy” journalism at the time of Jeff’s death have left his family wary of media attention.
Jeff, says Ryan as our conversation draws to a close, is “the only person that I’ve ever met over the course of my lifetime that I’ve known from birth to the end.” That gives Ryan a special relationship to Jeff’s songs: songs that, like all the best songs, are intensely personal but evoke universal longings. “The thing that Jeff always talked about was laying yourself bare. The nature of his work—the cruelty of it—was that you generate a product that is born of your soul.”
For all the praise Jeff garnered, there was also criticism—including some from people who knew him personally. “At some level,” says Ryan, “when they’re critiquing you, because your product is your emotions, it’s how you feel about yourself, it becomes intensely personal—and it’s sometimes hard to reconcile what people think about you in your personal and your professional life if the two of them cross over.”
As we stand to walk out the door, Ryan tells me that as a fan, if I wanted to hear the songs that are especially meaningful to members of Jeff’s family, I should listen to “Losing a Year,” “The Last Thing I’d Do,” or “Nothing Would Matter At All,” at the beginning “when he’s singing about wondering what he can do for a living—‘something that makes you all proud.’” In those songs, Ryan says, “That’s the Jeff we knew.”
This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between 89.3 The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the June edition of The Growler.