The Music Makers: Song Spinner Lilly Hiatt
This article originally appeared in the fall issue of University of Denver Magazine.
When you’re the daughter of a highly regarded, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, a career in music can seem like destiny. College might be an afterthought.
And while Lilly Hiatt had settled on her career path by age 6, written her first song by 9 and picked up a guitar by 12, the Nashville-based country-folk-rocker couldn’t have done it without a psychology degree from the University of Denver.
“It changed my life being at DU,” Hiatt says. “I learned a lot, I read a lot, I met a lot of people. And it was in college where I really became a writer.”
Hiatt grew up in Music City—Nashville, Tennessee—where her father John was well-established as a composer and performer. His songs have been covered by everyone from Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson to Iggy Pop and Paula Abdul.
But college was always part of the plan, and when Hiatt found a DU pamphlet in her high school counselor’s office, she applied. One visit to campus and she was sold.
Colorado took her breath away, literally (the air was noticeably thinner, she notes, than the air in the humid South), and she became enchanted with the mountains and outdoor lifestyle.
Her mind still on music, she opted to study psychology because, “I’ve always been really interested in people and the mind, and I thought it would help me with writing and understanding people better.” She also picked up minors in English and women’s studies.
“I think all that paper writing [in psychology] combined with poetry [classes] helped me apply discipline to it but also let it flow,” Hiatt says.
Her prowess with the pen is evident on "Walking Proof," Hiatt’s fourth studio album, which debuted in April. Spin magazine notes her “whimsical, diary-detailed … studies” of her sister, her hometown, the touring life and the pursuit of stardom. (For the first time, her dad helps play her music, singing harmony vocals on “Some Kind of Drug.”)
The record, she says, comes from a place of confidence in her life, admittedly challenged by the coronavirus pandemic, which led to the postponement of her album tour. Still, Hiatt wants people to see she’s proud of her idiosyncrasies and has confronted her vulnerabilities.
Hiatt’s journey hopped in the express lane at DU. A teenager with stage fright began to grow into a rock star, after meeting classical guitar student Eric Knutson at a party. They frequented open mic nights and formed a band, Lush for Life, which played eclectic sets at venues all over Denver: Bar Bar, Cervantes, the Walnut Room, the Border and Boulder’s Fox Theatre. She drew inspiration from the diverse music scene.
“It makes me really happy [thinking back] because it was before I had made a name for myself in any way,” she says. “Everything was bright and brand new. It was an unforgettable time in my life, the beginning of everything for me.”
Listen to Lilly’s new album Walking Proof at lillyhiatt.bandcamp.com