|ROCKWiRED iNTERViEWS BEN COOLEY HALL
OWN UPUsually when an artist breaks away from the band and goes solo, it is a time for all of the excesses to start kicking. To a greater degree this has been true with an artist like GWEN STEFANI and to a much lesser degree NATALIE MERCHANT who is still just as granola as she was in her 10,000 MANIACS days. For singer songwriter BEN COOLEY HALL, leaving his band THE MARY REILLYS and going solo for his album ĎOWNING UP TO A LIFEí (CAUNOUNICUS RECORDS) has been compounded with another life-changing event Ė fatherhood. ĎOWNINGÖí isnít the sort of debut that comes out guns blazing but it is a solid debut nonetheless with songs that speak to taking charge of ones life and being a frigginí grown up. Itís certainly not the most exciting thing to say in music in this day and age but HALL manages to give you something to hum in your head and demand repeated listens.
BEN COOLEY HALL TALKS TO ROCKWiRED
ABOUT HiS DEBUT SOLO CD OWNiNG UP TO A LiFE
LEAViNG BEHiND THE MARY REiLLYS
AND LiTTLE MOMENTS iN THE STUDiO
iNTERViEWED BY BRiAN LUSH
ROCKWIRED spoke to BEN COOLEY HALL over the phone. Here is how it went.
OWNING UP TO A LIFE is a great CD. This is your first solo release.
How does it feel now that the work is behind you and that CD is out there for people to hear?
At this moment, Iím already working on a bunch of new songs. Iím really happy with the record but there are certain small performance details that I wish I couldíve been a little more thorough in polishing up but the overall product is pretty much true to my vision. It was a very satisfying experience but there were times during it where I wondered how I was ever going to get it done. It was made during the first years of me being a father for the first time. I was trying to get the album done before my daughter was born but I was sick with pneumonia so I was only able to work on it for a couple of months before she was born. Even today as I continue to perform the songs Ė like all the songs I write Ė I continue to get new little glimpses of what I was trying to teach myself with them.
Other than fatherhood and illness, how different is it doing this on your own as opposed to being in a band?
It is very different. Itís a lot easier to schedule everything from performances to rehearsals, however there is something within me that really likes to play with other people. My band THE MARY REILLYS was definitely collaborative in a lot of ways but it was pretty much an outlet for my composing and singing. It wasnít like being in that band lacked freedom. Iím actually hoping to put another band together in the future to play my music but these days, performing on the road is a lot more complicated to schedule.
Being a parent probably makes it a little more difficult as well.
Talk about how music began for you.
My parents both loved listening to music. My dad had this super, seventies, hi-fi stereo system and we had this baby grand piano. We also had these two acoustic guitars that just kind of lived under the piano, so no one in the family really played them Ė including me. I remember when I was little I would get them out and strum on them but I never learned to play when I was living at home. My first instrument was the violin, which I took up when I was in the third grade. I threw myself into that and did a teeny bit of composing Ė classical composing Ė but it was just a couple of things. Mostly I just played violin and sang in a bunch of choruses, choirs and musicals at school. As far the music I would listen to, I listened to a lot of classical but my parents were into the music of the sixties and seventies so I grew up hearing stuff like THE GRATEFUL DEAD and THE BYRDS. Towards the end of high school I started turning the corner from this seventies pop and main stream contemporary stuff to indie rock kind of things like JOE JACKSON-
I could definitely hear some that in your music.
Oh really! JOE JACKSON! Thatís awesome! Thatís great to hear! There were all sorts of bands like THE SMITHS and R.E.M.
At what point did the listener become the songwriter?
I basically taught myself guitar in college and I started writing songs right away. That was around 1989. Iíve also been a diarist and a writer of poetry and stuff, which I still am. My brother got married in 1992 and I wrote a song for him. I actually wrote two songs but the first song came out soÖunfriendly. I had to go back to the drawing board on that one. Itís kind of interesting how you phrased that question. In terms of songwriting, I guess I just started going for it.
How did THE MARY REILLYS begin?
Iím actually and ordained minister Ė a Unitarian Universalist minister. I donít serve in a church setting but rather a hospital setting, which serves people with chronic psychiatric and medical needs are cared for. Back when I was finishing with divinity school, I had sensed that I was neglecting the creative part of myself. With the help of some musician friends I recorded a three-song demo and then I found this really great independent record store in Boston where I was living called HI-FI RECORDS and the proprietress DEB KLEIN and DAVE GEISSLER were friends of mine and they wanted to listen to the demo. I put it on and as they listened I had mentioned that I was trying to get people together to form a band. As I had stepped out of the store, DEB ran after me and said that she be psyched to start playing with me. She played bass and sang harmony vocals while I played guitar. We also had a drummer KEIRA FLYNN-CARSON (now with THE SPECIFIC HEATS, currently touring in Europe) who was also extremely integral to the band. The band went through several different line ups. We even had a violin player at one point.
What would you have done differently in that band now that the experience is behind you?
I can easily answer that question. I wouldíve liked to have had a clue about publicity, promotion and booking. I loved being in the band. I loved writing songs and practicing and performing but I didnít have any awareness nor did I devote any time to publicity promotion and booking. Pretty much all of the gigs that we got were because of DEB KLEIN and connections that she had through her record store and that got us some gigs all around town. Now, as a solo artist Iím making all of these phone calls and e-mails. Iíve learned that in terms of booking, youíve just got to get out there and do all of this work. In hindsight, I look back and think that we had the songs and we had these shows and I didnít take advantage of that and get more performances.
How does a song get written for you?
It happens in a few different ways. Sometimes Iíll think of a line Ė musical not lyrical Ė and Iíll just jot it down on a piece of paper or sing it into a tape recorder. If Iíve got some time, Iíll just keep coming back to it for the next couple of days and start fleshing it all out. Maybe from doing that, I can get a whole song that is all music and no words. It seems to happen that way more often than any other way of going about it. Sometimes, I get either a lyrical idea or I have a general topic that I want to write about. Sometimes, there is an actual lyric that goes into my head. I jut wrote this song a couple of weeks ago and I was moving my wife into her new office. At times, my songs can be very introspective and heavy but sometimes I think itís better to be playful. As I was helping her move I came up with the lines Ďair conditioners sure are heavyí and I thought that I would start the song with that line. As soon as I had that line, I had a tune that went with it so I sat in the parking lot as my wife was turning in the keys for the U-haul that she rented and I just wrote out the words to this song.
For this album, were the songs from other periods or were they specifically for this release?
They were written over the course of about three years. When I first started writing these songs, there was no record in mind. But these songs were definitely assembled with a strong thematic idea in mind because most of them grew out of very specific events in my life.
What moments from this album stand out for you the most?
Do you mean like the creation of the whole thing?
I was thinking about specific songs but moments behind the scenes will work too.
Iíll do both then. In the creation of the album I remember holding my baby who at that time was about a few months old while I was working on some of the background vocals. On some of the tracks that I have, you can hear her making noises. Another memorable moment was when I finished recording the album and took it to a studio to get the whole thing mixed and the engineer said that he heard all of these electronic pops on some of the songs with the drum tracks and he said that he wouldnít be able to fix it and wondered if I would consider releasing it as an EP with only seven or eight songs. I was just shocked and dismayed and there was way that I was going to consider doing that so I bought some new cables and re-did the drum tracks. Musically speaking, the song UNTRUE has this part in the bridge where itís got this background vocal choir sound. I was actually hoping to get some female vocalists for that part but I never managed to ask anyone so I just did it myself. The vocals sound strained but I think they sound pretty good. I think itís a strong part of that song. The drums on DEPENDABLE DOWNER I think are kind of rockiní and I am very happy with them.
Talk about the album cover. Youíve got your back turned and youíre looking at lumber.
Iíve talked to a lot of people about this image. It was meant to illustrate owning up to something instead of being all happy-go-lucky and to take responsibility for my life. At the time I made the record I was completely overwhelmed so for the cover, I wanted to be looking up at some large thing and lumber was what came to mind. A friend of mine suggested that the cover has a very domestic quality to it because of the lumber.
What would you like someone to come away with after theyíve heard this CD?
A few things - first, I would like them to come away feeling as if they had listened to some music that they enjoy hearing and that they might still be humming a couple of the songs. Lyrically and content-wise, I would like people to walk feeling like there is hope for people who might feel burdened or trapped or stuck with a sense of depression or powerlessness and that they can gain more control of their life. That not say that life is going to be all fun and games all of a sudden, but itís a hell of a lot better than the alternative.