Hall the Way
Even one listen to his My Love, Sex, and Spirit CD reveals James Hall to be another moody British pop auteur, crooning and posing in decadent affectation. But in fact Hall is a Nashville-bred Southern boy currently living in New Orleans, an appropriately steamy, seamy place for his brooding tunes, which are expected to enjoy a major-label debut (on Geffen) later this year.
Hall's voice comes out of Glamland, somewhere between Robert Plant and David Bowie, and his intricately constructed tunes speak of art-rock sensuality -- dark and aggressive, yet catchy and danceable in their own way.
Such a combination leaves writers at a loss for words; they typically end up throwing around the "goth" peg. Deep and dramatic vocals don't always equate with gothic rock.
For one thing, with blaring horns (Hall learned to play the trumpet a few years ago and incorporates it regularly) and jangly six-strings, his sound is too guitar-driven to be gothic. Think of U2's unusual chord progressions, combine them with Love & Rockets's moodiness and danceability, toss in some Jane's Addiction-style chaos, and you come close to what Hall sounds like.
Which is not to say that his is a hodge-podge of plagiarisms. On the contrary, Hall has plucked the ingredients he needed from wildly varying influences and stirred them into a musical cocktail spiked by his own impulses and instincts.
He cites a broad spectrum of influences, beginning with Bowie's Station to Station -- "All the different styles on that one record is amazing," he gushes over the phone from his home in the Crescent City -- and Scary Monsters. "I'm coming from [Bowie's] school of recording. I don't rule out different instruments 'cause some are vintage and some aren't. So I guess you can call it eclectic."
Hall also hails a wide variety of predecessors, from Iggy Pop to James Brown to Ted Nugent to Stevie Wonder. "There are lessons all over. Coming in at a time when rock is not that new, I have the benefit of learning from the masters. Music is a form of communication and needs its messengers, even if someone else invented the language. In order to invent something of my own, I have to learn how someone else invented their stuff."
On-stage the 27-year-old Hall is the opposite of the grungy slacker types so popular of late. He's more like Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, in his commitment both to expressing an angry and sexual inner voice and to leaving audiences gasping in titillation and possibly shock.
Slight and pale, Hall looks like a younger, more handsome Morrissey. With a natural penchant for theatrics, his stage persona brings to mind greats such as Bowie, the New York Dolls, even Prince. He has received critical raves for his shamanistic performances -- cathartic stage shows often culminated by Hall stripping down to sheer black pantyhose.
"For me, all of that is the dynamics of the music," Hall says of his histrionics. "If there are no dymanics, there's no reason to move. If you have an act with a real rise and fall to their set, if the musicians are interested, they will move around."
James Vincent Hall grew up in Nashville, and while his family wasn't much interested in rock, he early on discovered Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix -- "the heaviest sounds to ever come off a Mickey Mouse record player." He learned guitar, discovered he loved performing, and has been playing in bands since his preteens. Other formative musical experiences included touring with his poorly funded grade-school orchestra.
In 1987 Hall, then nineteen years old, moved to Atlanta to form the gothedelic late-Eighties band Mary My Hope, cutting his first 24-track demo with the band at Curtis Mayfield's studio the same year. The hard rocking and inventive MMH boasted moderate success and a cult following with its debut album, Museum, which came out in 1990, the year Hall left the band. With Hope, Hall was especially Reznorlike when the band appeared at Churchill's Hideaway in 1989, lean and dark, brooding and other-worldly.
Hall soon moved to New Orleans, where he was playing acoustic sets in clubs by the end of the year. "In [Mary My Hope], I wasn't the leader per se. I had a lot to contribute to the music, but I wasn't the business head," the singer explains. "I have a feeling that if I play the music that I want to, and try to convey what I believe through music, the rest will all come."
After a couple of years of gigging in the Big Easy, Hall was approached by guitarist Lynn Wright. He then met bassist Grant Curry, and shortly thereafter hooked up with drummer Mark Brill, who played on My Love, Sex, and Spirit before being replaced by Sterling Roig.
"They were the ones who came to me, they made themselves available to work with me, and as time has gone by, the friendship has remained. It's not always the easiest thing in the world, to change from struggling to make ends meet to not having to worry. And you wonder if things will ever be the same again, but they are."
After Hall and his bandmates recorded My Love, Sex, and Spirit, it was released (in 1993) on Indigo Girl Amy Ray's nonprofit label, Daemon (Ray has backing-vocal honors on the song "Madness Is a Numbered Face"). The eleven-song collection explores dark eroticism and the joyful and painful conditions of the soul. Of his songwriting, he says: "It's kind of a mystery to me where it all comes from. I'll wonder myself. It's all a matter of spending time lubricating the passageways between the conscious and subconscious minds."
Although the influence of bands like Roxy Music and their art-damage Eurotrash ilk is evident in Hall's music, he says his sound and style has an American side that emerges when he's performing. "That sound was what I grew up with, but I didn't know what Roxy Music, Joy Division, and all those bands looked like. I never saw them live. Twenty years later, I'm taking it back to the U.K. and they see it as something new and different from what they brought to us, because I may put some James Brown into it. And growing up in Nashville, I was not immune to country music."
Hall still is continuing his musical education, checking out percussionist Ray Barreto, David Byrne, and salsa, and beginning to tap into gospel. But he says he doesn't listen to too many new things without going back to favorites for balance. "Doc Watson, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Hank Williams -- late at night, it's peaceful for me to put some of them on.
"Late at night, I used to go up and down the AM and FM, looking for something different. As much as I love that Courtney Love and Hole are able to get airplay, there needs to be a balance of all types of music to show that we have not always been ensconced in Alternaworld. I feel the same way about race and sexuality -- it doesn't seem to work the other way."
Touring in support of My Love since late '93, Hall will travel to Tampa, Gainesville, and Georgia after Wednesday's show at the Stephen Talkhouse. Then he heads overseas for a three-week stint in the U.K., after which he may go to the Continent, his second trip there within the past four months. "I'm trying to establish something over there, but it takes time, like planting a garden."
His major-label debut on Geffen won't be out until much later in the year -- the band hasn't even begun recording yet. Hall's Talkhouse concert marks a first for the club: an ages eighteen-and-over show. Local band Muse, which opens for Hall, requested a lowering of the age limit because "we wanted to bring in a younger, college-age audience that never gets to see us," says manager Jose Pulido. "We really liked James when we played with him last year [also at the Talkhouse] and we thought he'd be great for that kind of audience."
As for Hall, he just wants to continue creating music that interests him. "The rest is windfall. For me, good music is good music, and it doesn't matter where it comes from."
James Hall performs Wednesday with Muse at 9:00 p.m. at the Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Admission costs five dollars.
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