Barbara Hall is a musician based in Los Angeles who also works as a Television Producer and Published author of 11 novels. She may be better known as a four-time Emmy-nominated writer and producer (Joan of Arcadia, Judging Amy, Homeland), but to avid readers she’s a novelist with 11 published works whose imagination has been honored by numerous institutions, including the American Library Association in both their Best Books and Notable Books categories. In addition to the fore-mentioned credits, Barbara still manages to find time to independently write, record and release her original music. Her newest album “Bad Man” is available on iTunes and CDbaby today. We asked Barbara a few questions about her start in music, her talent in writing, and how the two meld together in her world of music.
Entertwine: How did you get your start in music? Did the talent of writing and producing come before your interest in music? Which captures your heart the most?
I have an older brother and sister who were always bringing music into the house. But because I was just the little kid in the room, they never explained it or contextualized it for me. I heard the Beatles and it was like hearing God but nobody explained where it was coming from. I was always following behind them and replaying the records they had left behind. Because I had no real access to information, I grew up without an understanding of trends. I just responded to what spoke to me. This was a real gift because I never cared what other people were listening to. I was just drawn to the sounds that intrigued me. I’ll never forget hearing Rod Stewart and the Faces “Every Picture Tells a Story,” a record my sister just left lying around. Every song made me stop in my tracks but I was just a kid and I didn’t fully understand what I was hearing. I just wanted to hear it louder. I was left alone a lot and I sought refuge in music and was left to my own devices to interpret it.
When I was fourteen, a student visited my French class to play some of the songs we were learning on the guitar. I was mesmerized. I went home that day and told my mother I wanted a guitar. As the youngest kid, a fit like that was often ignored. But for some reason, my mother decided my request was valid and she bought me a cheap guitar for my birthday along with ten lessons. We lived in a small bucolic town so we had to drive thirty miles every Saturday for my lessons. I can’t say I fell in love with the process. I had a knack for playing by ear and that interfered with reading music. But I kept it at because it felt like this thing I was going to know how to do that no one my age—no girls, that is—knew how to do. I had fantasies of being asked to play a song at a party. That was the fuel to my fire. That never happened but it could have. My teacher was wise enough to skip over Mary Had a Little Lamb and go right to Bob Dylan. When I figured out that all I needed were three chords to play most of my favorite songs, everything changed. In my twenties I took more advanced lessons and learned finger picking, something for which I had a bizarre natural understanding. Later in life I began to study fingerstyle bluegrass and then I was cooking with gas.
I can’t say music spoke to me before writing did. It all kind of happened together. I understood the language of expression—whether it was poetry or short story writing or music. As a kind of shy, awkward individual, I learned there were ways to make myself heard without being direct and openly confessional. I could obscure my personality through creative expression. All the elements just came together. I feel I was born with a poetic sense of things and I was blessed to discover a number of ways to express that.
ET: You are more popularly known as a four-time Emmy-nominated writer and producer (Joan of Arcadia, Judging Amy, Homeland), as well as a novelist with 11 published works. I can imagine this being an incredibly humbling feeling. Can you tell the readers what the feeling is like being nominated for such a high honor?
BH: Honors and accolades have never enticed me that much. When I began to receive them, I was mostly confused. I’ve written great things which were ignored and other things which were brought to the forefront by nominations. I could see that there was a random element to it all. That’s not to say that nominations and awards aren’t important—they really are. But I never set my laser beam on them. What drives me is the desire to communicate. To reach an audience, to connect with people, to ask for an understanding. When I play music live, I feel I could start every song with the statement, “Listen, I have something to tell you.” If I fail in that communication, then I’ve failed. If I succeed, no matter how raw or imperfect, then I’ve succeeded. I think the purpose of any art form is to make people feel less alone, less disconnected. If I achieve that, then that’s the reward.
That said, I don’t want to be coy about it. Emmy nominations are a big deal. It means your peers are recognizing your efforts. I’ve yet to meet the person who doesn’t, deep down, care about that. And I’m no exception.
ET: So let’s talk about music! How would you describe your sound, and what influences you most to keep writing?
BH: My sound has evolved over the years. I started writing and recording about 17 years ago. My first venture out was an attempt to express myself as a kind of ‘roots music’ person. That wasn’t an actual thing back then. But I grew up in Virginia and as a guitar player, I studied bluegrass music as my most serious discipline. I practiced five hours a day. It was bordering on obsession. I got pretty good and one day my teacher said to me, “I can’t teach you anymore. You have to play in a band.” I put my guitar down that day and didn’t pick it up again for six years. Because that’s how paralyzed I was by the notion of playing with other people. Performance anxiety is an understatement. Six years later, a friend bugged me to start playing with him. I did. And then we started playing open mics in Los Angeles, and then we started writing and recording, and then the bug hit. I was writing the whole time so I had this huge backlog of songs. I met a music producer who liked our sound and agreed to make a demo. We did that, we liked it, and then we decided to make an album. A band formed and then I fell in love with that dynamic. We produced a full album (Come Back Soon, The Enablers), and we played all around town and in Vegas. After that I made a solo record, Handsome. Then there was a lot of down time.
The writers’ strike hit in Los Angeles and I spent a lot of time in my room, playing my guitar and writing songs, but I didn’t know what to do with them. I’d made friends with Peter Himmelman, who was the composer on Judging Amy, and one day during a casual coffee he asked if I had any songs. “I have ten songs,” I said to him. He said, “Send them to me and maybe I’ll want to record them.” I said, “I can’t send them. They’re in my head.” He said, “Come to my studio and play them, then.” I did and he liked what he heard and we made the record.
ET: Tell us about your most recent release, “Bad Man,” and what most of the album grasps lyrically?
BH: Lyrically, and musically, what was happening to me at the time was that I was living through the writers’ strike and the market crash and everything was just bad news. I sat in my room and played my guitar and wrote songs—for lack of another path of emotional release. The songs were all over the map. They were political and confessional and rock and pop and blues—there didn’t seem to be any connective tissue to what I was doing. I was tortured over the fact that I was writing all these songs but I couldn’t point to anything that tied them together. When I played them for Peter, he thought the fact that they were all disparate was the thing that tied them together. He heard what I was trying to do and helped me put the record together.
ET: If you ended up stranded on an island, and you only had the option to either write a short story, or compose a whole album, which would you choose and why?
BH: I’m tempted to write the short story because I find it the most difficult form. I think I could live on said island for the rest of my life and never come up with anything to compete with Flannery O’Connor or Alice Munro. But I know me. I’d choose the instrument and the songs. The guitar has always made me feel connected to something larger. Besides, like anyone else, I need to practice more.