Eric Hagen’s Semiconscious Songsmithing

Writing music while fully conscious doesn’t come easily to Eric Hagen. More often, inspiration finds him through hypnagogic half-thoughts.

“A lot of my ideas [come] either when I’m drifting off to sleep, or in the early-morning hours when I’m in a state between awake and sleeping,” the Sturgeon Bay singer-songwriter said. “Unfortunately, you have to force yourself to wake up to write down your idea. I think I’ve lost more ideas than I’ve been able to force myself to write down.”

Still, Hagen has written down plenty. A notepad app on his phone is full of snippets of thoughts and overheard conversations that haven’t yet found their place in one of his songs, but they already sound like lyrics – “Memories don’t love you back,” for example, and “If you don’t want your past to follow you, keep your shadow behind you.”

When he’s ready to assemble the scraps into a song, Hagen weeds out the lines that sound “kinda dumb” (because what sounds good to him when he’s half asleep doesn’t always impress him when he’s fully conscious). Then he picks one phrase and writes the rest of the song’s lyrics around it.

“I don’t think I ever sit down and just write a song completely,” Hagen said. “I find that line, and I start playing guitar and find a melody for that line, and then I make up some jumbled words that maybe rhyme with it. Sometimes another line comes out of the gibberish you just sang.”

Inevitably, Hagen’s songs end up being about himself in some way or another. (“Musicians are pretty self absorbed,” he said.) Recently, he’s been trying to branch out by writing about other people, but that’s easier than it sounds.

“I was intending on writing about some guy I met in a bar in Kentucky,” he said. “Then I listened back [to the song] and realized that it was about me, too. Damn it.”

But just because his songs are personal doesn’t mean they’re unrelatable, according to Hunter Hildebrandt, Hagen’s friend and musical collaborator.

“They’re songs about growing up, loving, living, working,” said Hildebrandt, who’s known onstage as Hunter Gatherer.

The two met at a 2022 group concert to raise funds in the aftermath of the Butch’s Bar fire. Since then, Hildebrandt has come to know Hagen not only as a friend, but also as an impressive songwriter.

And Hildebrandt is certainly not the only one who thinks so. Last fall, Hagen signed with Spectra Music Group, one of America’s largest independent record labels.

“I always feel so bad when something is called a ‘best-kept secret,’” Hildebrandt said, “but I truly do think that Eric is one of Door County’s best-kept secrets. I think that his music could be on par with a lot of nationally touring acts, but for some reason, a lot of folks around here haven’t heard of him.”

Eric Hagen. Photo by Ty Helbach.

A Passion Revived

Hagen’s first album started coming together in the midst of a long stretch of partial consciousness. COVID-19 and pneumonia knocked him out physically for a month in late 2020, but during that month, his mind was flooded with song ideas.

“It was a weird experience,” he said. “I decided if ideas are flooding in, I should just go with it. It might not ever happen again.” 

So Hagen put together an EP, Crossroads Motel, which he recorded that winter and released the following April. 

Two years later, he’s gearing up to release his first full album. The new, eight-track record is named Revival because that’s what it is for Hagen: a renewal of his long-standing love of music. 

He grew up idolizing music legends such as the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin, and he’s been writing songs on and off since college. That’s when he bought a cheap guitar on eBay and taught himself to play – mostly, he said, out of boredom.

His musical style had started off on the heavier side of rock – “I was a grunge kid,” Hagen said – but it has since mellowed out to a measured mix of rock, country and blues. And maybe Americana.

“I guess you would label it as Americana, [a term] which gets thrown around a lot,” he said. “I don’t know if people know exactly what it is. I don’t even know if I know what it is.”

Hagen started playing live when he moved to Sturgeon Bay in 2006, but he was never too serious about it. Then, after a year or two of live performances, his focus switched back to his family and his work as the owner of Sturgeon Bay’s Bayside Home Medical. It wasn’t until the pandemic that he returned to his musical pursuits.

Even in the interim when Hagen wasn’t as active in the local music scene, his talent was still shining through, though sometimes in unexpected ways. His friend Curtis Judd, a fellow musician, recalled how he met Hagen while interviewing him for a job around 2011.

As the two talked, “I noticed his voice was very unique, deep, rich,” Judd said. So he paused the interview and asked Hagen whether he was a singer.

He was, of course, and the two hit it off. They collaborate on music to this day, and Judd is still impressed by Hagen’s sound. 

“He’s one of those guys who has that voice that makes everyone lean in a little,” Judd said. 

Ready to lean in? Hagen will perform April 28 – the night of his debut album’s release – at 8 pm at the Tambourine Lounge, 59 N. 2nd Ave. in Sturgeon Bay. Tickets are $20 per person, and 50% of the proceeds will go to support the Steel Bridge Creative Foundation. 

Check or his social-media pages to stay in the loop about upcoming concerts. 

Related Organizations