Indie Musician Dave Hall Takes A New Direction
In the mid to late '90s, singer/songwriter Dave Hall burst onto the indy music scene with three CDs in quick succession: "Playin' the Man, Places" and "True." His sharply observant lyrics and muscular, guitar-driven musical lines quickly gained him a following and national airplay.
Although he released a Christmas album some years later, he spent most of the last several years working on musical theater, concert music pieces, and incidental music for theater and film.
This spring, Hall released a double album, "Songs of Boyhood/Songs of Brooklyn" and presented a new work, "Darkened City."
EDGE spoke with the artist about his latest projects and his life and career. [Ed. Note: Kevin Scott Hall and Dave Hall are not related.]
EDGE: On your website, you use the phrase 'contemporary classical' to describe some of your music. I've never heard that phrase, but it does seem to describe your double album, 'Songs of Boyhood' and 'Songs of Brooklyn'. How would you define it?
Dave Hall The term generally means new music by composers writing in the Western classical tradition.
I'm trained as a classical composer, but for most of my career I've done folk-rock, pop and musical theater. Lately I've returned to my classical roots, composing slightly more formal music - setting poems for myself and small chamber ensembles, like the string quartet on 'Songs of Boyhood' and piano and cello on 'Songs of Brooklyn.' So, my new music does rather fall into that genre.
EDGE: 'Songs of Boyhood' seems to be memoir through poetry and music. Any reason you decided to use third person narrative?
Dave Hall I always hope that when I write from my own experience it will resonate with others, that listeners will recognize things that also happened to them. And I always aim to find the universal in my own specifics. That being said, only a few of the poems on 'Songs of Boyhood' are based my own childhood, and even in the ones that are I wanted to take a step back and look at the boy I was from the perspective of an outside observer. Across the work I tried to capture certain universal aspects of boyhood while crafting a story of one boy's path to manhood.
To be less high-fallutin' about it, I wanted to take a look at the spooky and mysterious process we call growing up!
A special place
EDGE: Those of us who live in Brooklyn know it to be pretty special. In the album, you go from the whimsical ('Mermaid Parade') to the poignant ('Greenwood') and everything in-between, and really captured a sense of both personal and universal history with 'Atlantic Avenue.' What made you decide to devote an album to our borough?
Dave Hall In 'Songs of Boyhood' I examine the life of the individual; in 'Songs of Brooklyn' I take a look at the nation. I've heard it said that one quarter of all Americans can trace their family history through Brooklyn (and I'm one of them) so I think family stories of this mythic borough extend outward through the whole country. And if you look at Brooklyn you see America - its history of conquest, of war, of oppression, and of opportunity. And swirling around this history is this always-glowing vitality: humming streets, sparkling parks, and vibrant neighborhoods in constant motion...
So, while this song cycle was born out of my own history in and love and affection for the borough, as I wrote it I began to ponder the story behind the place, and to meditate on the nature of the city, the country and of democracy itself.
EDGE: A lot of that earlier stuff had a good dose of political commentary. I didn't notice it as much on 'Songs of Boyhood' and 'Songs of Brooklyn.' It's memories, stories, imagery. Was it a conscious choice to shy away from issues?
Dave Hall Umm... I think on careful listening people may find a tiny bit of politics in 'Boyhood' and maybe a bit more in 'Songs of Brooklyn.' But I've been much sneakier about it than in days past! You'll find nothing overt, but you'll see I did a bit of digging underneath the memories and the images to find the story of ourselves. 'Weeksville' for instance, (named after that section of Brooklyn which was the first free black township in New York State), is a bluesy but quite pointed meditation on freedom - one that I intended to have as much to say about the 21st as the 19th century.
EDGE: It took me a couple minutes to adapt to this new, unexpected sound from you, given the folk rock nature of your earlier work, but then I was entranced by the beauty of music and stories. Did you worry that the fans of your rock material might not come on board for this effort?
Dave Hall I think every artist worries a little whether people will be willing to follow where the artist feels compelled to go. I didn't think about that too, too much as I composed these works, because I really wanted to write them for myself; I felt there was something I needed to explore. However, I've been glad to discover that fans of my old stuff are pleased with this material too. Whew!
Embracing his heritage
EDGE: I was intrigued by 'Arabs,' the chamber piece you wrote after 9/11, which included text about Arab contributions to the world and famous Arab-Americans. What is your connection?
Dave Hall I'm an Arab-American, and though I've never shied away from that part of my heritage (in fact I'm extremely proud of it), I always found it much easier to come out as gay than as Arab. Homophobia is intense but hatred of and ignorance about Arabs and Muslims is particularly deadly right now. After 9/11 many Arab-Americans felt compelled to come out, stand up, and adamantly assert who we really are.
So for my part I wrote 'Arabs.' And while I did include a list of famous and beloved Arab-Americans, plus a movement that that highlighted major Arab contributions to world civilization, the centerpiece of the work is the setting of several phone calls I fielded when volunteering at an Arab-American social service agency in the days after the attacks. Those calls ranged from death threats, through pleas from local Arabs afraid to leave their homes, to offers of assistance from clergy and everyday citizens.
EDGE: You embody many identities: male, gay, rural, urban, American, Arab. How do these markers shape you as an artist?
Dave Hall My mother was an Italian-Lebanese from Brooklyn, my dad is a Yankee from Vermont, and so I've always been a half-city/half-country, half-wasp/half-Mediterranean guy. And my being gay has been fairly central to my work. My childhood musical influences were varied: Italian opera, Lebanese folk music, British broadside ballads, country, plus practically every other genre that my music-loving parents and brothers could get their hands on. And reading was always important in our household. If one of us complained of being bored my parents would ask, 'What are you reading right now?' We were always expected to be reading a book. So, words have always seemed important. There is a great Arab poetic tradition and of course an English one, too. I feel as though I can't help but draw upon all these influences when I tell my stories and write my music.
EDGE: Long before gay marriage became a political issue, you had a song about it ('Biff 'n Tony's Wedding,' 1999). And you've been with your partner, Joe, for a long time. How long has it been?
Dave Hall Almost 24 years!!!
EDGE: I'd like to know what the secret is! But also-and I may get into some trouble here-I've always wondered why, as the talk of gay marriage grows among us, so does the proliferation of Grindr, Scruff, and the like. What do you think is going on there? [Laughs] Do you dare comment?
Dave Hall Oh, golly! I don't know what the secret is - Joe and I both come from Catholic families, and so it's sort of in our DNA to 'stay married' though we aren't legally married! Seriously though, we have a lot in common in terms of the things we like to do, vacation-wise, entertainment-wise, plus we share the same ethical ideas. And, we try not to get bored. Joe always has new interests, new projects - he does stuff! So I still find him entertaining. Irritating at times, but entertaining.
But marriage isn't for everyone. As far as Grindr and those apps, it seems to me they are just quicker ways to hook up than having to actually show up at a bar and have a conversation first like people used to do. There's a faster way to do everything now.
The contemporary music scene
EDGE: You were early in the game of independent artists producing your own work and putting it out on your own label. How has the music changed in the last twenty years, for better and for worse?
Dave Hall The music business is harder than ever. It's extremely difficult to make any money at it if you're not a superstar. Many people don't know that the online streaming services are seriously underpaying artist for the music we create, which is the product they sell. They make huge profits and we, the creators of the music, get paid very little. There is a movement afoot to change this and to educate music listeners and buyers about the value of what music creators do. Readers may want to call their congressional representatives on this.
On the plus side, making music has become very democratic. Everyone has Garage Band and can record at home, and they can upload their recordings and videos to sites like YouTube, and sell their stuff themselves. So, what was once an expensive endeavor that required serious backing from record labels is now possible for almost everyone. And that's pretty cool.
EDGE: How do you explain this prolific work output at this stage of your life? The double album just came out a few months ago, and you're already on a new project, 'Darkened City.'
Dave Hall I was rather unprolific for a while; I had a lull during which I was afraid I'd run out of ideas. Like Hercule Poirot, I tried growing vegetable marrows and like him, decided it wasn't enough. So I thought about what I should be doing with my life and decided that if I didn't panic and just gently mulled things over I'd find that maybe I still had something to say. Plus, various political, social and environmental issues came to the fore and gave me tons of material.
EDGE: 'Darkened City' is a series of YouTube vignettes about New Yorkers on one winter night. It's a fascinating piece that subtly challenges the listener to do something about the world we're living in. What is your hope for this piece?
Dave Hall My hope for the piece in the long term is that it might entertain and make us think about our relationships with one another, that it might encourage us to examine how our system is or isn't working right now.
I'm actually developing 'Darkened City' as a theater piece. I'm pretty excited about it - it'll be a multi-media show with dance, music, poetry... stay tuned!
EDGE: Please let us know about any upcoming performances or events or things we should know about!
Dave Hall Those interested in following me can visit my website www.davehallmusic.com and can get on my mailing list. I send out newsletters so people know what I'm doing.