Singer-songwriter Christian Lee Hutson is good-looking in a vague way that encourages strangers to mistake him for famous people — he’s posed with multiple fans insisting, despite his protests, that he is the English actor Dan Stevens. Born and raised in Santa Monica, he counts Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers as friends, both of whom receive production credits on his new album, Quitters. He’s also spent time as a touring guitarist for Jenny Lewis, even though he didn’t own an electric guitar when she invited him. With his blond locks and blue eyes, he resembles the foil in an Alexander Payne movie, the attractive guy to whom good things just keep happening.
The reality is more interesting. Before breaking through with 2020’s Beginners, Hutson spent years playing in wine bars to audiences of “two people who would be polite.” He spent years prior to that as a failed Americana singer, complete with fake accent and hardscrabble backstory, to escape what he calls his “shitty California voice.” In other words, Hutson is blessed with the kind of true self-loathing that can only mint the greatest singer-songwriters, and he’s spent years painstakingly stone-cutting his way through an internal wilderness to find his voice. He recorded the songs on his Beginners up to five or six times, in all different styles and arrangements, until he knew he’d found their essence.
Hutson’s current hero is Elliott Smith, and it only takes about two seconds of any given song to realize it. On both Beginners and Quitters, he sings in the exact double-tracked whisper, and he mics the strings of his acoustic guitar with the same intensity, like a nature documentarian filming a single grass blade. Hutson seems drawn to the bright, pretty sounds Smith made when he migrated to DreamWorks to record XO and Figure 8 and availed himself of all the added guitar parts and string sections he could suddenly afford. Like Smith did, Hutson also seems to be squirming underneath the beauty of his arrangements, squinting in their glare like a native New Yorker wilting in the LA sunlight.
The songs on Quitters suggest an abiding interest in the lonely sorts of communities we join in life without realizing we’re members. Unlike, say, Ray Davies, who narrates his characters’ inner lives like he’s observing an ant farm, Hutson mingles with his subjects, rubbing shoulders and scribbling down dialogue. His lyrics are full of second-person pronouns, snatches of conversations — half the time when he’s singing, he’s relaying someone else’s words to you.