To the subdued beasts at the Como Zoo, humans must look like total animals. On a sunny April day, tiny children clutch the wooden railings around the cages, one of them screaming herself purple. Adults stare intently through the glass, faces smeared with orange and blue drippings from their children's Popsicle-stained fingers. And local singer/songwriter Jeff Hanson stands between them, gazing sympathetically at the object of their ogling: a mammoth bear. The mighty creature, who could probably shred these spectators' bodies into hot-dog filler with one swoop of the claw, looks a little defeated. Moving toward a concrete platform, he picks up his front two legs, then slides halfway onto his makeshift bed, too tired to haul the rest of his body onto it. His back end remains poking up into the air.
"Play with the ball!" commands a little boy.
The bear just looks at him, steadfastly refusing to perform.
Hanson watches the whole thing unfold. "Oh yeah," he says, shaking his head. "I've definitely had nights like that before."
At 5'7", with a wrestler's frame and thick, stylishly messy hair, Hanson looks like he might have a little bit of Ursus in him. And he certainly knows what it's like to be sleep-deprived: As the first Kill Rock Stars artist in many years to be signed solely on the basis of his mailed-in demo tape, the sandy-blonde singer is preparing for a nonstop tour with Portland pop band the Decemberists, followed by a July-August tour with indie songsmith Denison Witmer--at which point, he hopes that, unlike the bear, he'll have enough energy to climb all the way onto his own bed for a few days.
A few years ago, the former frontman of the now-defunct indie group M.I.J. was just another St. Paul musician plotting his solo career, recording songs in his apartment and sending them out to independent labels. He earned the money for postage by working at a daycare, and often brought the kids here to the zoo, where he's seen the bear many times.
"It was a hard job sometimes," Hanson says. "I was the one who had to tell someone's mom, 'Your kid called me a motherfucker today.' And the mom would say, 'Are you fucking kidding me? My fucking kid would never use that kind of language!'"
These days, this "motherfucker" is still contending with beasts, though they're more apt to be personal terrors than real live five-year-old ones. His debut solo album Son is filled with the kind of problems you discuss with your girlfriend when you've been up all night fighting, when "late" suddenly becomes "early," and sentences are not so much ways to convey what you're thinking as white noise that succumbs to the subconscious rhythms of sleep. "I should have known you'd be leaving," Hanson's voice hums over "Hiding Behind the Moon," sounding like Elliott Smith at his most fragile.
By the end of the album, though, the sun has risen, the weekend is over, and Hanson is admitting in his own befuddling way that all his monologues haven't meant a damn thing. "Hearing words over them and what we have/Is less than what you hoped for," he sings, his falsetto cry ringing behind his guitar in a way that makes you strain to understand what he's saying. But maybe the specific phrasing doesn't matter: Whoever Hanson is singing to would probably stick around just to hear that voice.
High, clear, and pure as those of a choirboy singing to himself on the walk home from school, Hanson's unusual windpipes might initially cause some confusion. Put Son into the CD player, and you'll think Kill Rock Stars accidentally slipped a Juliana Hatfield disc behind the album's sky-blue cover art. You can hear it when he talks: the androgynous croon of an indie-rock Jimmy Scott, the source of both shivery awe and genuine bewilderment. Hanson has come to accept such comparisons: Walking over to the lions' den, where he sits on a bench and lights a Parliament cigarette, he jokes, "I can't smoke too much or I'll start singing like a guy. The whole thing would be over if I did that."
Good thing the Wisconsin native is too much of a good-natured smart-ass not to laugh along when people mistake his Y chromosome for an X. "Someone at the daycare played my CD for the kids," he notes. "They asked if it was Enya."
One chick in particular digs a guy who is man enough to sing like a woman. Hanson's live-in girlfriend, Megan, was one of the first people to encourage him to explore a more pop-oriented, Beatlesesque solo project away from M.I.J. And despite all the kissing and cheating and loving and leaving on his album, Hanson insists that they've been in a happy relationship since they met five years ago at a St. Paul coffee shop. "I was sitting there by all of the pinball machines, and I saw Megan," Hanson recalls, staring off at the lions lazily sunning themselves in the dead grass. "I worked up the courage to talk to her--of course, the only thing I could talk to her about was how horrified I was to talk to her. In fact, I think those were my first words to her: 'I'm horrified.'"
Overhearing the conversation, a preschool-aged girl wanders over to Hanson, looking as if she'd like to take the seat next to him on the bench where he's smoking. "Hi," he says in his best faux-seductive voice.
She stares at him blankly, then quickly decides to turn back to the lions.
"Yeah," Hanson sighs, clasping his hands behind his head. "You can tell that I'm really good with the ladies."
When Hanson was the same age as his young suitor, he admits he was a bit "obnoxious" in his musical ambitions, playing guitar by the age of four, and starring in musical theater at ten. ("I played the Boy Who Cried Wolf," he later writes in an e-mail conversation. "I sang this really weird song in a very, very high voice. I had to wear knickers as part of my costume. How bad is that for a ten-year-old boy?") At the time, he was listening to nothing but Beatles records--and, he admits, the occasional Hall and Oates single. "I was like If John Lennon's gonna play the guitar, then I'm gonna play the guitar,"he laughs. Yet, at 25, he's no more a Lennonist than a Marxist: You get the sense that he'd be just as happy forging his own quiet path to indie stardom than taking an Abbey Road walk of fame. "Some people make it their job to hate you when you're successful," he says.
Maybe that's why Hanson envies the animals here at the zoo. "They don't have any predators," he says. "That must freak them out a little, but it's also kind of nice. What does an ostrich have to be stressed out about? It's not like it's thinking, 'How am I going to pay my rent next month?'" He looks around the zoo: The sun is streaming down, the kids have hushed to a whisper, and the ostrich is starting a strange little dance. Pleased, he throws his hands up, as if he's no longer thinking about the ostrich. "It basically has everything it needs," he says, smiling.