Kristen Hall - Staying Outside the
Performing Songwriter - July/August 1994
Away from the bustling street life of Atlanta's bohemian Little Five
Points neighborhood, Kristen Hall settles into a corner booth of a
half-deserted restauarant. Despite having driven straight from the
airport in bumper-to-bumper traffic, Hall is in a remarkably good mood
during a conversation that offers frequent glimpses of her infamous razor
wit, as well as telling clues about her musical sensibilities.
Ever since her catchy, pop-inflected songs started attracting notice a few
years ago, the singer-songwriter has found a natural audience in the
contemporary folk realm. But when she cites her favorite writers, Kristen
Hall is just as likely to mention alternative artists such as Kurt Cobain,
Aimee Mann, Jules Shear, Elvis Costello and Paul Westerberg as she is the
more predictable singer-songwriter types. Categories and genres don't
matter that much, as long as she finds the music compelling.
"Melody - that's what turns me on about anything," she says. "I think
that's what people are looking for and the reason that country music's
gotten so big again. 'Cause all of a sudden, pop music was devoid of
Hall, a native of Detroit, moved to Atlanta in the early '80s, but
stagefright kept her out of the spotlight for several years. Still, by
the time she recorded Real Life
Stuff, her 1990 independent release, her repetoire was so rich
with disarmingly appealing tunes that the relatively unknown performer was
offered a publishing deal with BMG.
While first touring with the Indigo Girls as their guitar tech, Hall got a
rare, insider's view of their fame - and experience that left her
wondering if she wanted to face the pressures that come with bigtime
success. But later, as their opening act and as a busy solo artist, Hall
continued to win over larger audiences while honing her songwriting
skills. In 1992, Amy Ray's Daemon Records released Fact & Fiction - a collection of
thirteen memorable tunes that feature Hall on acoustic guitar and
harmonica - which was later re-released on Windham Hill's High Street
Hall's melodic gifts - brought to life by her warm, raspy vocals - are
even more fully realized on her new High Street release, Be Careful What You Wish For...
Produced by Jerry Marotta, the mature, sparse-sounding album builds off
the solid ensemble playing of Hall, Marotta, bassist Sara Lee and
guitarist Bill Dillon, complimented by guest appearances from Emily
Saliers, Matthew Sweet, Jules Shear and others.
As on her first two records, Hall's straightforward, intimate lyrics again
reveal a willingness to explore the dark edges of doubt and fear, but
she's just as adept at capturing life's most unguarded moments. "My thing
is, 'Come here, spend some time, let me tell you what I think and let's
see if it stirs any thoughts in your mind,'" she says. "With my music, if
you sit down and listen, you'll get it. And with Windham Hill, the
biggest advantage is that all of a sudden, that's a completely acceptable
When did you begin writing songs?
Well, I didn't finish a song until I was probably 19, but I always had
little ideas. I pretty much started writing my own songs out of necessity
because I couldn't play anyone else's as well as I wanted to. I didn't
know those really cool James Taylor chords and I couldn't play them just
like he did. And if I couldn't play them just like he did, then I didn't
feel it was fair to play that song - 'cause I knew a bad cover when I
heard it (laughs).
Like when they play the wrong chords?
Yeah. Or they leave a couple out because they don't know them. And I
knew I was doing that, so I just didn't do it. I started writing my own
instead. I was like, "I just won't use many" (laughs). I still don't use
many. I'm a real one-trick pony. You can tell what my new chord of the
year is on every record. Right now it's this step between E minor and G -
it's my chord of the year (laughs).
When you look back at your early efforts, is it obvious who your
influences were at that time?
Oh yeah. Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Alice Cooper and the
Beatles - obviously, the Beatles. John Lennon is - was and still is - my
But more than being influenced by any one person, I was influenced by
melodies in general. I was addicted to melodies. I think that's the
thing that makes me able to be a fan of somebody as mellow as James Taylor
and somebody as aggressive as Kurt Cobain.
So you've made it a point to emphasize the melodic aspect of your
I think that's the kind of thing where, that's what I like a lot and
that's what I listen to, so naturally when I go to create something,
that's what comes out.
I have to depend on melodies because I'm not a great guitar player. I
know maybe 10 chords, so that's where I have to get creative. I have to
take the same 10 chords and make them sound completely different than the
last time I used them. That's my game (laughs).
Your first, self-produced album, "Real Life Stuff," came out around
1990. According to a popular anecdote, Bonnie Raitt supposedly cited you
as an example of someone doing good work on a small budget. I'm curious
to know - is that story true?
I'm curious about it too. I don't know - I wasn't there. It's so
third-hand to me that I always deflect this question, because I don't know
and I can't say. And it's a crushing thought to me that Bonnie Raitt
would read it and go, "Who the hell is this and who made this up?"
But as it was told to me, she was talking about how production is
irrelevant for up-and-coming artists, when songs are good. Good songs are
good songs, whether they have no production or bad production. And that
up-and-coming artists shouldn't be spending tons of money, because for
five or ten thousand dollars you cannot make anything that sounds like a
Bonnie Raitt record currently does. And I was the example. All I know is
that all of a sudden a lot of people were knocking on my door, and that's
what they said about it. In fact, one of those people was Bonnie Raitt's
And it was fairly soon after that when you singed your first
publishing/development deal with BMG Music?
Oh yeah. Immediately thereafter. The next day. Russell (Carter) called
me and said, "All these people are calling here about you."
How were you helped by having that songwriting deal?
Well, living expenses were no longer an issue, so therefore I could have a
band and not worry that I wasn't making money. And having a band changes
your style, so the deal changed that for me in a sort of second-hand way.
And I think that I was so insecure about what I was doing at the time - it
offered a big arm of encouragement around my shoulder. I felt like, "Hey,
maybe this isn't so bad." And I definitely felt freer about what I had to
say. Confident really wouldn't be a good word - but less inhibited
Have you ever written a song with the intention of getting a
specific artist to record it?
I tried to do that once. I remember one summer, BMG called me and said,
"Barry Manilow is making this big Christmas record and if you get a song
on it, you're a guaranteed millionaire." (laughs) And I was like, "Hmmm,
Christmas song..." And I remember I was lying on a raft at the pool
going, "I can't do that. I just can't." That's not how I do things. I
went through this whole cycle of being so disgusted with myself for even
entertaining the notion.
Sounds like you have more integrity than me.
It wasn't even integrity - it was just a lack of imagination or something.
I could not even for a minute - on that day - imagine myself being Barry
Manilow at Christmas (laughs).
Under what circumstances do you normally write?
I usually write at soundcheck. Being on tour is a really emotional thing
for me because I'm away from home. I'm by myself. It's a hard thing.
And soundcheck is all of a sudden when I get my time. I get to do what I
want to do. I have my guitar, I have a sound system, they have work to do
anyway - so I just stand there and sing. I kind of tune out everything
around me for half an hour. Sometimes I'll just start playing some chords
and humming something. Or sometimes, something somebody said is stuck in
my brain and throughout the day I've been going, "How would this go in a
song?" When I get to soundcheck, I work on it. I start them at
soundcheck I don't usually finish things til' I get home.
Do you ever have to force yourself to buckle down and finish
A lot of times I have verses and choruses - and the bridge is never
finished. The week before I went into the studio to make my new record, I
wrote three bridges. This was after I'd told everybody, "Oh yeah, they're
all done. We're ready to go." (laughs)
I'd wake up in the morning and turn on my laptop and I'd go, "I'm not
getting out of bed til' this is done. So if I want to do anything
today, I have to write this bridge to this song."
I'm like that about everything, though. My attention span is short and
I'm one of those people like, "Give me ten gallons of paint and I'm gonna
splash it all around the room and do cool stuff." But when it comes to
painting the edges, I'm like, "Hire somebody."
But normally, you wouldn't finish writing your songs in bed, would
you? What would be a more typical scenario?
I usually go in my little studio, which has an 8-track digital recorder
and a piano. At first, I usually just put on a 90-minute cassette in a
boom box. My studio in my house is always in the room with the best view.
And I sort of open the window and look out, and I try not to pay attention
to the fact that I'm even holding a guitar - I just try to see where that
goes. And that's usually how I finish things.
I just try to get a mood going. If it's a real dark song, I do it at
night. I have some little Christmas lights up you know, I just kind of
hang out. Sometimes I drink a bottle of wine, take my electric guitar,
make the amplifier really, really loud - and deal qith sounds and see what
There's something very natural and direct in the way you write
You know, when I write, it has to feel to me like I'm having a
conversation. What I try to do - when the lyrics don't feel right to me
'cause they feel forced - I just sit thre until what I'm trying to say
fits in a conversational way. Like, "I know it'll come, but this isn't
it. And I don't like this 'cause it doesn't feel like what I really mean.
It feels like I'm trying to finish this song."
Listening to your newer songs, can you hear any obvious changes in
your writing style?
Yeah. When I first started playing in bars and nobody was paying
attention, I think I wrote in a much more aggressive fashion - based on
theatrics, I suppose. "I'm going to scream this out and you're going to
hear me out, damn it. And I'm going to say something you always wished
you had the balls to say, 'I don't need you anyway.'" Now, you know, I'm
a lot more mellow. I don't do that screaming thing too much anymore -
touring has taken a toll on my voice, so that's definitely changed the way
I sing. I find myself writing things sometimes and I go, "Oh, this is
wonderful, but I certainly couldn't sing this every night on tour"
After scrutinizing the songs on the new album so intensely during
the recording process, do you still feel good about them?
They still make me fidget in my chair, which I suppose is good. There are
a couple of really heavy songs on this record for me. They may or may not
be heavy for everyone.
The song "Nothing" I wrote about my mother - and the fact that I've been
in therapy for a while and she clearly thinks that's ridiculous and
unnecessary. And it just became so obvious to me how little we knew each
other and how terrible that made me feel.
It's the kind of song where every night, people come up to me and say,
"Whew, your mother and my mother should have dinner." (laughs) That's
probably one of the best responses you can get because it makes you feel
like you're not the only one, which is exactly what they probably thought
while they were hearing me sing it. So it's a reciprocal feeling.
Are there any other songs on the record that you're particularly
I love the song "Following My Compass" that Emily (Saliers) sings and
plays on. I strategically placed it after the song about my mother -
"Okay, this is how this made me feel, but this is what I'm going to do
about it." It's the first song I've ever written really for myself, my
first I-believe-in-myself kind of song. So yeah, I like that song a lot.
It makes me smile whenever I hear it. I recorded that song live and when
I listened back to it, it made me cry. So I thought, "Wow." (laughs) "I
made myself cry. Am I an egomaniac or what?"
With this first full-fledged High Street release, you'll be stepping
out into a more high-profile arena now.
Yeah, it's a neat thing being on Windham Hill, even though I'm sort of
like a sore thumb on that record label. It's like, if they lined up their
whole roster and said, "What's wrong with this picture," I would be the
first very obvious choice as the Christmas-tree-on-the-beach. You know
what I mean? (laughs)
Now why do you say that? What makes you the oddball?
I guess they all seem like normal, happy people to me. (laughs) I don't
know - that's probably just me and my paranoia. You know, I sometimes
feel very misfit in the whole realm of folk. Everyone else seems so
polite and nice, like they don't make waves. I always feel cynical and
bossy when I'm around folk musicians (laughs).