If you’re reading this then it’s more than likely that music plays just as much a major part in your life as it does in mine. But there are times when even the most passionate music fan can get a little jaded, especially as the years pass by. There are times when it really does feel that we’ve heard it all before; thankfully instead of abandoning our passion for music totally then we tend to return to those records that were a part of our formative years until we hear something new again that re-ignites the flame.
When I first heard the opening song, ‘Can’t Take Away’ on Risa Hall's debut album ‘Glass Half…?’ I thought that, although here was an exceptional, powerful singer and the song was impressive, that maybe Risa wasn’t going to hold my attention throughout her ten song strong album. There was certainly something about Risa’s mix of blues and jazz on that opening song that caught your attention but I put that down to her striking vocals. But there are many worse things than sitting through an album of such well-constructed songs if the mood is right so I settled down for a pleasant ride.
It was more than a surprise when the following song, ‘Shooting Stars’ took a completely different musical path to ‘Can’t Take Away’. A melodic slice of pop/rock that’s so catchy it had this non-singer actually trying to sing along towards the end of the very first listen before the song faded away all too soon. It was like a switch going on ; if the opening two songs could be so different while still mesmerising the listener then maybe here was an album that offered the something new that we all need to hear once in a while to reaffirm just why this music thing means so much to so many of us.
From then on each song threw up another side to Risa Hall. The album was in many ways a journey through a variety of musical styles, but what held the songs together so well was not only the excellent production from Nigel Stonier but Risa’s vocals. Here was a singer who could turn from pop to jazz, throw in the occasional show-type tune and even mix in a little folk and punk and still not sound out of her depth but most surprisingly the whole affair hangs together so well. We’ve all heard albums where, to the artists credit, they’ve tried to cover many bases but it comes off sounding disjointed; it just doesn’t flow as a whole. ‘Glass Half…?’ flows beautifully and part of the album’s charm and success is due to the fact that Risa has the talent to mix different styles of music to produce a varied album that demands your attention rather than loses it.
There had to be a reason, apart from those incredible vocals and Risa’s ability to tackle any genre and win, why the album worked so well. As Risa Hall was a new name to us we were delighted when she agreed to answer some questions so we could maybe find out how and why Risa has succeeded in making such an eclectic album work when so many others have failed.
PB: 'Glass Half…?’ your latest album has been the introduction for many people to the music that Risa Hall makes. But is that album the first music you have released?
RH: It is the first complete album I have released. I did an EP called 'Apple Tarte' in 2008 which featured four songs. Two songs, 'Outta the Streets' and 'Roses', were of a classical nature and two songs, 'Blink Twice' and 'Simple Life', were more rocky. I have enough material for another album in the future, but, as I am an independent artist, I would have to ensure that I have the finances to do it.
Some of 'Glass Half..?' was financed through PledgeMusic, which was started by my friend Benji Rogers. Fans, friends and family pledge for something an artist can offer them - a house gig, a credit on the album, etc - and a percentage of the money goes to charity. My studio time was paid for through Pledge, but I still had my producer, mastering, photography, replication and everything else to finance. 'Apple Tarte' was done in two days and 'Glass Half..?' in ten. You don’t have that luxury of taking months and months in the studio when you are paying yourself. You have to expedite the work on your album!
PB: You were born in New York but live in England now. Is that right? Are you based permanently in the UK now and why did you leave America?
RH: I was born in Manhattan and raised in Forest Hills, Queens, New York. Famous alumni at my High School included Simon and Garfunkel, Leslie West from Mountain and the Ramones. I am so happy that the Ramones are finally receiving Grammy Awards as they were my friends and were certainly punk’s true innovators.
The reason I left the USA was because I got married to a British bass player and ended up in the Manchester area. Even though I am no longer with him, he actually plays bass on 'Blink Twice' and 'Simple Life' on my EP. I have three great kids from that relationship and re-married in 1997. My husband plays bass for me now at live gigs, but he has a different vocation which involves book conservation. My brother plays bass for me in the New York band when we do US gigs.
PB: As there were so many musicians at your school, it is hardly surprising that you’ve taken a career in music but you were an actress for quite a while we hear. Can you please tell us a little about your background?
RH: My brother David was best friends with both Jeff (Joey) and Mitch (Mickey) Hyman from the Ramones for years. Their mom Charlotte was like a second mom to Dave. Doug (Dee Dee) was my friend when I was a kid and gave me my 'Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake' album. He was responsible for turning me on to the Small Faces. Johnny lived in my Grandpa’s building. David played both in Birdland with Lester Bangs and Mitch and then the Rattlers. He is the featured bass player on ‘Rattled’.
I have been passionate about music since I could walk and talk. My mum plays piano and guitar and my stepdad was in the big bands with Tommy Dorsey and Gerry Mulligan playing trumpet so music was ubiquitous in our household. He also went to school with Tony Bennett in Astoria.
I started acting doing workshops at HB Studios in New York and had started university doing acting (with art and music as a minor subject). I did tap, jazz and ballet at Farnworth and Hauer in New York. When I was at University, I went to an audition for the Broadway cast of 'Grease' and got the part of Frenchy, a part I played for a year. I used to do many voice overs including Playstation games such as 'Stuart Little 2' and television such as 'Red Dwarf'. In the UK I did 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' with William Gaunt, Julie Graham and Joe McGann as well as a musical with Sinitta, but I always loved radio plays for Radio 4 the most and did quite a few of those including 'Three For the Road' and 'Four on a Tour' as well as a 'Thanks for the Memories' which was about Bob Hope.
PB: So which do you prefer, music or acting?
RH: The last acting job I did was an original one woman show called 'Presenting Eloise Fleigel' which premiered at Taurus in Manchester and then went on to the Fringe in Edinburgh. It involved acting and singing and a childhood friend of mine wrote it and used real anecdotes from my life, so I suppose it was autobiographical. That was in 2004. It was my university dissertation and I got a first. After that, I decided to do a graduate diploma and got a PGCE in Drama.
In 2006 I picked up my guitar and wrote as many songs as I could and started doing open mic nights. I suppose I loved the acting when I did it and don’t regret that aspect of my life, but there is no competition- music will always come first! I wrote my first song at nine years old and never wanted to do anything else but perform.
PB: You’ve taken elements it seems from all phases of your career to create quite a unique and eclectic collection of songs on ‘Glass Half…?’ but has any one artist or band influenced your music in any way?
RH: I didn’t set out to write an eclectic album. I just write songs that are coincidently eclectic. Sometimes I am in a jazzy mood; sometimes I just want to rock out and other times I could be folky or classical. Every now and then the thespian in me will emerge and you get a song that might be reminiscent of a show tune. I have all kinds of influences and love all music from Motown to opera.
It is difficult to pinpoint my influences down to one artist or band, but as a kid I loved Motown and still do and especially Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, Stax Records people such as Aretha Franklin and all the 60's British bands such as Steve Winwood, the Beatles, Stones, Kinks and Who. I have always adored Stephen Sondheim, George Gershwin, Rogers and Hammerstein. Every decade had bands or artists I would love and listen to. Led Zeppelin, Bowie, Yes, Genesis, Queen T Rex to Janis Joplin, Grace Slick and Hendrix, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello. The Clash, Sex Pistols, Blondie, Talking Heads. In the 80’s I loved Tears for Fears, Japan (and even went out with David Sylvian!) Nick Beggs’ bass playing in Kajagoogoo, Matt Bianco(I still love Beggs and Basia), Level 42. All the Britpop in the 90’s was cool and currently I love Nerina Pallot, Thea Gilmore, KT Tunstall, Maia Sharp and Sheila Nicholls. I was lucky enough to support Nerina in late 2009.
Steve Winwood is still my idol and I would like to think that some of my music has hints of Traffic in it. I love using flute in my band. I saw him play a few months ago with his band, but have also seen him play with the Funk Brothers.
PB: Nigel Stonier is a well-respected producer and you have Paul Burgess playing drums on ‘Glass Half…?’ How did your association with such respected musicians come about?
I was a fan of Nigel’s and Thea Gilmore and had been to see them play quite a lot before I actually met them. Nigel worked with a friend of mine on his album and I asked my friend if he could pass a copy of my EP to Nigel. Nigel was impressed with it and got in touch with me to say he would like to work with me. Not only did Nigel produce the album, but he also played a multitude of stringed instruments as well as keyboard. I have nothing but admiration and respect for him; he is a true genius.
Paul Burgess is a good friend of Nigel’s and coincidently a good friend of mine teaches Paul’s son drums. Kids will never learn from their parents, will they? It is a small world. I have always loved both 10cc and Jethro Tull, both bands that Paul plays for.
PB: ‘Glass Half…?’ is very much an independent release; it’s even on your own label. Am I right in saying that you’ve really done almost everything needed to get the album released yourself?
RH: You got it in a nutshell. I mentioned previously about having to raise the money and use a huge amount of savings, but I didn’t know about things like how to get a barcode, how to get ISRC numbers from the PPL and registering songs with the PRS. All those things are time consuming, but have to be done in preparation. The PPL were extremely helpful in giving advice on the codes needed.
PB : You got fans through PledgeMusic to pledge money to help fund the recording of the album. How did things work out with that?
RH: As I said earlier PledgeMusic was a real catalyst in helping me do the album, but they only allow you to raise a certain amount they decide on based on your social networking base. It worked out really well in the sense that the whole studio time was paid for, but I had the other aspects of the album to finance which Pledge didn’t cover. I even used a radio plugger for a while and they are not cheap.
I do everything myself now (contacting press, radio stations, etc.) and that is extremely time consuming. It is almost impossible to get played on Radio 2 without pluggers, which is still my aim. I have had radio play on the prestigious WPKN in the USA and the Andy Crane Show on BBC Radio Manchester has been so supportive. I will be on again March 27th with members of my new band.
PB: It’s warming to know that there are musicians out there who will do all they can and make sacrifices to get their music heard because they believe in what they do. Given that you must have come up against so many hurdles in getting the album recorded and actually released, do you feel it was worth it? Would you go through it all again?
RH: I would absolutely go through with it again, but I was very fortunate that two of my friends donated £500 towards the album. I might not have reached goal otherwise. I can’t really expect that in a recession people are going to have the disposable income to do that. I can’t expect those people to do it again either. There were many hurdles in doing the album. I cashed in a year of a teacher’s pension which was all I had. I used my entire tax rebate, you name it.
I looked at it this way- I don’t drink or smoke or go clubbing. I don’t have expensive hobbies. My money will go into my music and I will make sacrifices.
PB: Are you touring to promote the album?
RH: I would tour at the drop of a hat, but my band all have ‘day’ jobs and are in other bands and teach so I can only gig in areas that we can realistically get home from. I also have to work part time teaching the arts myself. I did manage to get from Merseyside to Cornwall to do live sessions for the BBC and will continue to get to as many places as I can. I was fortunate enough to be asked to do a live performance at BBC Radio Lancashire to a sold out audience. I have been invited to do a session near London this year and would love to play there. We will do gigs in New York and the tri-state area to promote the album as well. I would love to play Scotland, Ireland and Wales. It would be wonderful to get a big support slot on a tour.
PB: Presumably Nigel Stonier, who played a number of instruments on the album, and say Paul Burgess, may not be able to undertake any tours you have planned with you. If you do tour will it be ‘solo’?
RH: I suppose if I was a ‘solo’ act it would be less of a problem, but I have always been a band kind of girl and love to have those layers of instrumentation behind me. When I write I can hear the violin and flute parts in my head. Nigel plays with Thea Gilmore, his wife, and any tours he does are with her. Paul Burgess works mainly with 10cc and Jethro Tull. I wish I could have them in the band, but am fortunate enough to have them on the album. I actually have a cracking band now and love playing with them.
PB: What are your future plans? Hopefully with the positive reception that ‘Glass Half…?’ has received you will stick with music for a while and leave the acting on the back-burner for a while?
RH: I don’t have a theatrical or voiceover agent anymore and haven’t since 2006 when I started pursuing my music again. If someone rang for me and asked me to do a voice over or radio, I would consider it, but only if it didn’t conflict with my music. Never say never!
PB: Finally Risa…is that glass half empty or half full then? I’d take a guess you’d answer with the latter!
RH: The glass varies from being half empty to half full, depending on my mood and circumstances, but I would like to think optimistically and look at it being more half full. Life ebbs and flows and I suppose so does the glass.
PB: Thank you.