This, in addition to the standard questions that every singer/songwriter must deal with when participating in the recording process-How does this sound? What could I do to make this better? Should I add another part here, or should I keep it sparse? Am I ever going to see the light of day again?-seemed to be the question that was repeated the most by Hall, at least in front of me.
After a while, I have to admit that I, too, started to ask myself that question. Was she kidding? Was this humorous yet driven ball of energy going to follow through with her recording plans? Was she going to succeed in transcribing her uniquely emotional, softly melodic yet heartwrenching brand of music that students have come to expect from her live performances at Marsh House and the Black Sheep to recorded form? Where only time would answer my questions, I spent my Interterm allowing myself to speculate. I watched Polly smile and run around the cramped Buckley hallways, seemingly in awe of her own opportunity to be doing something that she truly loved. I watched her listen to countless takes with a perfectionist ear, well into the wee hours of the morning. And I think-at least it’s the closest estimation I can give you-that I made my decision while I was driving back from the Whately Diner at five in the morning with a near-delirious Hall in my passenger seat, pondering the title for this, her inaugural project. There in my car watching the sun came up along I-91, I realized that not only was she not kidding, she had dedicated several weeks already to the exhaustive process of saying “hello” to the world.
World, meet Polly.
Going into my interview and time with Polly, I felt that I had a pretty good grasp on her music. For those of you who haven’t heard her, Hall’s croonings can be most easily classified as folk or indie rock. Her lyrics carry with them an edge that you’ll find in the less political Ani DiFranco efforts, and while the comparisons to Amherst graduate Emily Greene ’01 are inevitable (Greene also recorded an album of original work, also played guitar at Marsh House, and also has a rather folksy style)-you shouldn’t be so quick to put Hall in a box. She has a sweet voice which belies her sometimes-sappy, sometimes-biting lyrics; and is just as capable of scraping herself against the gravel as she is of soaring with her high-notes. Her collaborators in particular speak highly of her style and vision. Andrew Barkan ’02, who contributed a few piano parts for the album, sung her praises in a brief interview: “I was listening to the radio the other day, and the stuff the alternative female songwriters were putting out wasn’t really better than anything we were working on …Yeah, I’m plugging her. She rocks.”
That having been said, I don’t particularly intend to review her work thus far here, or to pontificate any more about her talent or musical style. Most of my value judgements, incidentally, will be saved for a follow-up review when the album is available for purchase. I did however want to cover the various nuances of the project itself. As a student who has never even fathomed writing my own songs, let alone recording a full-length album on my own time and funds, I have to admit that the process and the build-up to Hall’s album fascinated me.
“Someone [came up to me] after one coffee house last spring and commented on a song that I sang that night and mentioned that she was ‘really excited that I was recording.’ I think she confused me with Emily Greene … but the thought hadn’t ever entered my mind-and I laughed at it, actually. But then I started thinking about it and I wondered why I didn’t take the idea seriously,” said Hall.
As I’ve mentioned before, one of Hall’s most frequent dilemmas concerns how seriously she should in fact take herself. “I don’t have to have a grand plan for this as a ‘career’ because the idea of me as one of those music industry icons is laughable, really. This album is about capturing a very ‘now’ segment of my life. I will probably listen to this when I am 30 and be frustrated at my inexperience, the way my voice sounds, the quality of the recording. But I’ll also listen to it and say ‘ahhh haaa haaaaaa, listen to me at 19 thinking I know enough to write a song about something.'”
Though Hall might not be at the apex of her maturity as a musician or songwriter, she has shown commendable dedication to her music and the recording process thus far. Recording engineer Muir echoed some of Hall’s other collaborators in his praise of her work-ethic and emotion, citing his biggest challenge as preserving the beauty and simplicity of her songs within the framework of other instruments. This is a common concern for performers like Hall, who find their most comfortable venues to be the dimly lit, quietly-rustling backgrounds of city coffeeshops. “To me, her songs are like gems,” said Muir. “They are small in scope, but the essential essence is clear and beautiful. Preserving that quality [the melody and lyrics] within their surroundings of other musical arrangements has been my main challenge. Getting emotive performances out of her has never been tough.”
Hall plans to follow the release of her album with a two-month-long cross-country tour. “So we’re going. We’re going to put the CDs in the back of a car and I’ll book gigs this semester and try it on for size. I have this enormous map on my wall and when people come into my room I make them stick tacks on it-we’re searching for attractions, favorite places, and people to stay with … also for favorite coffee shops, otherwise I will have no places to play and make no money-which is always a concern,” quipped Hall.
As the month of January comes to a close, Hall and her small team (fellow musicians Jason Blynn ’04, Mikiya Matsuda ’04, Laura Swearingen-Steadwell ’04, along with Barkan and Muir will be appearing on the album) are wrapping up with the recording process. Hall has approached this experience like every other one of her undertakings-as an opportunity to learn, to grow, to work hard and to ultimately have fun. She has worked three jobs this school-year to fund her project (along with the indie-rocker’s hope of finding generous souls along the way), and she’s definitely planned and followed through on getting her money’s worth. Most ironic is the fact that Hall’s search for recorded perfection is perhaps the opposite of what live performances strive for (Hall is no stranger to live, barely-accompanied music; in addition to her on-campus performances she co-directs the Bluestockings, one of Amherst’s a capella groups)-for what her poetry strives for-the delighting in moments and beauty of what is, rather than what should be.
“Recording has been such an ordeal … and it’s hard to strike a balance between how ‘perfect’ you want something to sound and how ‘real’ you want it to sound. There’s something endearing about the way a voice sounds when it cracks or squeaks hitting a high note, but there’s something annoying about it, too. And I’m a perfectionist, so instead of being thrilled by a take it’s instead a question of ‘what I can live with.’ And recording tells you exactly what about you is unpolished and shouts it loudly. When I listen to a take, I can hear every hesitation, every breath that is out of place, every fumble of my fingers picking the guitar. It’s almost painful,” Hall ruminated.
I can’t help but wonder, though, if that isn’t indeed the point of all of this. If learning to live your life, if learning how to speak about it, if laughing at yourself as much as you cry, if loving food, a warm bed, a smile in the afternoon light or even the sound of someone’s voice as they fall short of a particular note isn’t what it’s all about. And as painful as it is to be awake at five in the morning heading in the wrong direction on a lonely stretch of road, living and learning these past few weeks with Polly Hall has given me something to look forward to-where there was once only the blank hum of an AM radio station, her voice would soon accompany the sunrise.