Kristen Hall plays in town this week, including at Girlbar ( Jan. 18 ) and the LCCP benefit ( at 7:15 p.m. Sat., Jan. 20 ) .
One of the most remarkable things about Atlanta-area-based singer/songwriter Kristen Hall is that she's got an amazing voice for someone who doesn't want to be a singer. After a couple of major-label releases in the '90s, Hall achieved her greatest success with Amanda Marshall's cover of her song "Let It Rain." Hall's version is every bit as powerful and you can hear it on her album Be Careful What You Wish For ... . In fact, Hall's versions of all of her songs, including the 10 new ones on her most recent self-released album California Made Songs deserve your complete attention. Hall credits Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls with discovering her.
Gregg Shapiro: There are probably a lot of people who are familiar with you via Amanda Marshall's cover of your song "Let It Rain," which was a hit in 1995.
Kristen Hall: That was my favorite moment in my musical history. It was never my ambition to become a performer. I wanted to be a songwriter. It also came at a great time in my life, when I had quit touring and left the Windham Hill label, and my life was falling apart. It saved me. So that's really a thrill. I wish it had been a huge American hit. Not a dollars and cents thing, but because I'd like to hear it on the radio. I wish I had gone to Canada when it was huge, because I had friends calling me all the time, going "I'm doing business in Toronto and your song is on every five minutes!"
GS: Have your songs been covered by other performers?
KH: Yes. Funny enough, "Let It Rain" has been covered in three or four different languages. It was actually done by Ruben Gomez, who was also in Menudo with Ricky Martin. In Spanish it's called "Volvere'". It's been done in Portuguese, too. I've had the experience of having a lot of people cut stuff and then it doesn't make the record, which is kind of a drag. Half the time I find out that my songs are being used somewhere because I get an ASCAP check ( laughs ) .
GS: Your 1991 album Fact & Fiction was on Amy Ray's Daemon Records.
KH: Amy was just the person who got me started in the whole music thing. She was who encouraged me to sing in the first place. She gave me the money to make my first record because she believed in me and wanted me to make a record. I think she saw it as giving me money to make a great demo and hopefully be able to get a record deal with it, which is exactly what happened. But they actually ended up buying the record, too. I loved that. We made that record for $5,000 and to this day it's probably my favorite one. No click track, I didn't even know what one was. The stories that went into the making of that record were so incredible. We were literally mixing one day, and people came in and repossessed the mixing board six hours before John Ashton from Psychedelic Furs was to come in and play guitar, they came in and carried it out. We were freaking. So the whole record was just a great project.
GS: On Fact & Fiction and also your 1995 album Be Careful What You Wish For ... you worked with an amazing assortment of musicians, including Cindy Wilson of the B-52s, Sara Lee, Emily Saliers, Matthew Sweet, Tony Levin, John Sebastian, and Jules Shear, to name a few.
KH: How lucky am I? Don't leave Bill Dillon out of that mix. Bill Dillon is one of the greatest guitar players ever. He did all of the early Sarah McLachlan records that I love so much. He does Daniel Lanois and Robbie Robertson and Paul Simon's records. He's just awesome, too. ... To tell you the truth, I actually was considering not making a record. I didn't want to become a singer. My friends encouraged me to do it, among them were friends like Sara Lee, who were like "Kristen, we're gonna get all these great musicians who love your music and we're gonna play together and it's gonna be lovely!" All I can tell you is that it was really cool. In walked Tony Levin, who played with John Lennon. I was freaking out. I mean, Tony Levin, come on. And John Sebastian, who came over and played on "Seeds Of A Lifetime," but he hung out the whole time just because he liked it. We became buddies because we had the same exact guitar, which is kind of a rare Gibson guitar. ... It's weird, because if you've never been in a big studio and you don't know how big records are made. It was pretty overwhelming. That's how it became "Be careful what you wish for..." ( laughs ) . That's how that record got named.
GS: Your latest album, California Made Music, is a wonderful self-released disc. What can you tell me about the process of making this record?
KH: That record is almost like a thesis of my learning how to engineer and produce in the digital domain. In 1996, when "Let It Rain" became this huge hit and I quit touring, my publisher said "Look, if you'll come out to LA, we could hook you up to write with all these people, because you have this No. 1 song in multiple countries." So I moved out to L.A. for two years and did co-writing with everybody that they could hook me up with, and at the same time I kind of invested this little swell of money I had into buying a digital studio. I got this really bright guy from Guitar Center in L.A., Mark Dold, and said to him, "What are you doing here? You're the guy that answers every question that no one else can. Why don't you come work for me? I'll pay you what you're making here." I took him from Guitar Center, and he taught me how to use everything. As I was writing the songs that year, I cut them and recorded them and learned how to make it all work. That record is kind of my thesis, and I really like it. I think that what's really nice for me about it is that it helps lift me out of my genre a little, by having the ability to use different instrumentation or starting with a drum loop. I always loved songs like "Silence is Golden," which is just me and a guitar sitting there. It's probably my favorite song on the record. But at the same time if I hadn't been able to flip up a drum loop, I wouldn't have come up with "Shoulda Known Better."
GS: Eight of the 10 songs on California Made Music were co-written with other people. What do you enjoy most about the collaborative process?
KH: That you usually finish it in one day ( laughs ) . I really like the idea of it lifting you out of your genre. When you collaborate with people, they're bringing something totally different to the table. Even if you're both known for the same type of music. For instance a lot of the songs and demos I've been working on here in Atlanta, I've been working with Christian Bush from Billy Pilgrim. We come from a similar musical vein, but we've been writing hard rock songs and country songs. Once you get past the shyness and insecurity of the sort of mental dance people do around each other, about feeling uncomfortable about letting their ideas fly ... two heads are better than one, quite often. It's why, when you go to rock shows, the band is usually doing a cover song at the end of the night. It's fun, when you're a performer to just feel free of the weight of having to please everyone with this piece of work.
GS: Was "Company" co-written by Michelle Malone?
KH: Yes, it is. She's one of those people with whom the "dance" is gone. We sit in a room and we know each other and we just throw stuff at each other until we get something we like. The thing that's special about that arrangement is that we almost always we end up with two songs of the same title, her version and my version. We're so comfortable with each other, and because we both perform, she'll say, "I'm not going to say that. I like it, but I'm not going to say that." I say, "Well, I like it and I'm saying it" ( laughs ) . There's usually a couple of versions of everything.
GS: The same-gender love song "Silence Golden" is beautiful.
KH: It was recorded live. I had Mark Dold, who co-produced the thing with me, go back and put a guitar part on, after I was done. I put it on tape a couple days after I finished it, which is my favorite time with songs. That's why I release demos instead of making records. Even though records are better, on some level, I love a song right at the beginning of its life. You feel it totally, instead of partially. It's about when I first moved to L.A. and I started dating this girl who lived in Venice and it turned into a really bad situation. What I learned in LA is that actresses act.
GS: You probably didn't have much experience with that in Atlanta. But in L.A., yes.
KH: Yes. And you learn quick in L.A. You may not want to wear your heart on your sleeve in this town. I came from Decatur, Georgia, where that was an asset ( laughs ) . So, I changed.
GS: Was it a good experience?
KH: It was a great experience. I loved living there [ she was there three years ] . I don't know if you've seen the property value in L.A. ( laughs ) , I couldn't really afford root myself in the way I wanted to there. I came back to Georgia and rooted myself here. I wanted to be closer to my family and friends. My father's health wasn't too good last year, and it felt bad to me being all the way across the country. But I love LA and I still talk about it to the point where people close by me are like "You wanna go back there or what?" Maybe I will one day.
GS: Has having a website been a positive thing for you?
KH: No ( laughs ) . NO! I'm looking for someone to help turn it into a good experience and I may have found her. It's been a bad experience, for me, because it got into a personal zone. There were some kids, who had an unofficial site, that were living here in Atlanta, had moved from Seattle or something, and they helped put KristenHall.com together, and I paid them a bunch of money. Then they wouldn't tell me the password. I felt extorted; they wanted more money. Right now, KristenHall.com is kind of frozen and we're trying to determine what to do with it—whether we want to keep the site as it is and go in and reconfigure it or just start over.
GS: I was watching the video documentary, "Daemon Records: A Decade Of Independence," and there is an anecdote about your performance anxiety.
KH: It's totally true. This is why I tell you that Amy is responsible for me being a singer. Before the Indigo Girls got signed, they would play every Tuesday and Wednesday at this pub in Atlanta, and I'd show up, and Amy would say, "You wanna play one of your songs tonight?" They were covering one of my songs, that's how I met them. I worked at a futon store with this guy, Frank, who had a studio in his basement. I had written two songs and they were covering one and this rock band was covering another. I'd say, "Yes, yes. Sure, I'll do it." As soon as she announced my name I'd just run out the door. ... It's taken me a long time to understand the depths of her determination and patience ( laughs ) . I must have done that to her at least 15 times. She was really shocked the night I finally did it. And it was a terrible experience, I hated it, I was shaking. I think I threw up immediately afterwards. ... I think it gets better when you find out it happens to other people and not just you. I remember talking to Joan Baez, one night, and she was telling me that she threw up every night before she played. She told me that John Lennon did too. ... You think, "Well I'm definitely not supposed to be doing this if it makes me throw up every time!" It's funny when it hits you, too. I remember the first time I played Radio City Music Hall. I'm sitting in my dressing room, trying to be calm ( laughs ) and I'm doing it, putting make up on for the first time in a year ( laughs again ) because I'm at Radio City Music Hall and I'm trying to look good. ... This friend of mine sends this note that somehow gets through and gets up to the dressing room and I open and it says, "Oh my God, girl! You're playing in fucking Radio City Music Hall! Can you believe it!?" As soon as I read it, I started puking. It was funny.