Listening to Tim Hill’s new album, Giant—a rugged, tasteful batch of cowboy tunes and Americana ballads that feel forged out of the embers of a desert campfire—you might assume that he’s been working on a ranch his whole life. You’d be half right: Hill is indeed a rancher, working in the Orange County, California, area of Silverado, but he’s actually a relative novice when it comes to tasks like tending to horses and driving a tractor. He only just got the job since the pandemic started, inspired on something of a whim: “I always kind of thought I could work on a ranch,” Hill says. “So I just looked around for some jobs and they had an opening.”
Hill is based in Whittier, California, where he was born and raised, and music has always been his guiding force. The son of a music teacher, Hill grew up playing various instruments in a formal manner, but eventually carved a niche for himself in local punk bands, before finding himself as an in-demand touring musician for artists like Nick Waterhouse and the Allah-Las. When the Las—one of Los Angeles’s most beloved psych-rock bands—decided to start Calico Discos, their record label, they knew just the guy for its inaugural release: Hill’s solo debut, a 7-inch for the 2018 song “Paris, Texas,” introduced him as an alt-country act to be reckoned with—and his full-length debut, 2019’s Payador, was an underground hit, with copies of the sold-out first run having gone for as much as $100 on Discogs.
Payador was “a simple and honest attempt at a first record,” according to Hill, which was done entirely at home on a four-track. When the project was finished, the fact was made quite cosmically clear: “It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds after the last take, the last overdub, the last cassette, that smoke began to billow from behind the four-track recorder,” Hill explains. So for his sophomore album, he decided that maybe it was time to upgrade the approach a little bit. Taking a drive down the 605 to Long Beach, Hill set up shop at Jonny Bell’s Jazzcats Studio, where he played all of the instruments himself, with the exception of two outside players—one for pedal steel and one for violin.
The result is a record steeped in affection for artists like Randy Newman, Warren Zevon, and Neil Young, but reimagined through the lens of the modern cultural melting pot that Hill lives in. (“I feel like I'm always trying to just rewrite [Young’s] “Out on the Weekend” in some way or another,” says Hill, “just because I like that feel so much.”) The choice of covers on the album speaks multitudes: Giant features a heartbreaking take on Townes Van Zandt’s “No Place to Fall,” a festive, authentic take on José López Alavez’s “Canción Mixteca” (which was notably covered by Ry Cooder and Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas), and two impressive takes on part of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “French Suites,” referred to by Hill as “French Sweet,” naturally. “My dad only listened to classical growing up,” Hill explains, “so it didn’t really mean anything to me then. But now I love it. I can listen to, like, Glenn Gould all day.”
But Hill’s original songs are the sturdy pickup-truck engine of Giant—songs like “Calico,” a dreamy ride into the center of the sun, and the opener, “The Clock’s Never Wrong,” a waltz that would get even the drunkest person at the bar to stand up and start dancing along: “I miss the good ole time when girls used to ask what car you drive,” Hill croons in that latter song, “and leave you with a hole in your heart.” On “Candlestick,” he takes his graceful chords and melody and applies them to a poem written by his friend, the artist Ry Welch. “It was just one of those things where I didn’t have to move any word around,” Hill notes. “I didn’t have to cut anything out. It just fit perfectly in that music.”
Of course, there’s also Giant’s title track, an operatic piano piece that presents a brief, episodic tale of the culture clash that occurs in so many forms in the U.S. these days. The song was inspired by the 1956 George Stevens film of the same name (itself adapted from Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel); Hill was enamored by the movie, and by James Dean’s performance in particular, in which he plays a ranch hand in Texas in the 1920s. “I really identify with that character now,” Hill explains.
Giant was the last movie Dean filmed before he died, and Hill has inherited a fitting ethos for what he’s trying to do with his album named after it—and with his whole career: “Like the string quartet on the deck of the Titanic,” he says, “I’d like to play something beautiful before the ship goes down.”