Barbara Hall is a four-time Emmy nominated writer and producer (Joan of Arcadia, Judging Amy) as well as an accomplished author (she is responsible for 11 published works as a novelist). As a musician and songwriter, Hall has released two solo albums and is also a founding member of the alternative country rock band The Enablers. Hall’s latest album, titled “Bad Man”, was produced by Peter Himmelman and is available on iTunes and CD Baby. Enjoy our interview with Barbara Hall after the break!
“I was led to writing the way that anybody is led to do something they feel called to do. I understood how to put words together in order to express an experience or an emotion at a very early age. I started writing poetry when I was around eight years old. I really keyed in on this concept of arranging words to capture a moment in time and became obsessed with that idea and never let go of it. My circumstances helped (as well); I was the youngest child and was often benignly ignored. (Family members) would forget I was in the room, so I mastered the art of listening and observing. I grew up in a small town where there wasn’t much to do or to distract me. I spent a lot of time in my room and grew comfortable with solitude, relying a great deal on my imagination. This small town was in the south where the music of language and conversation is always at the forefront of personal experience. Storytelling was a sport and a pastime and I became a student of it. At JMU I had the great privilege of being a big fish in a small pond (I was one of 100 English majors in my class of a couple thousand). No one really wanted the mantle of creative writing diva, so I took it. I wrote for and edited the art/literary magazine and became an editor of the newspaper. I took every film and creative writing class they had to offer. I found a great deal of support from the teachers in the English department and felt at home in the writing community. People ask me why I write in so many different mediums and I think that’s one reason; no one tried to pigeon-hole me there. I was encouraged to try everything and I did. It also helped that JMU is situated in one of the most beautiful places on earth, the Shenandoah Valley. I’ve always felt that environment is conducive and essential to creative expression. The place had a romantic sense to it and that appealed to the romantic pathways in my brain.”
What life events or experiences led to the writing and recording of your album “Bad Man”? What are the major differences between this album and your 2005 release of “Handsome”?
“I wrote most of the music on “Bad Man” during the Writers’ Strike in Hollywood. I wasn’t able to write screenplays and I was exhausted from writing novels (I had just finished one, The Music Teacher, for Algonquin Books). I spent hours and hours in my room with a guitar, sitting in front of a TV with the sound turned down. (During this same time) we experienced the market crash. I felt isolated and the news was all bad, so I played the guitar and wrote songs to relieve my anxiety. The resulting songs reflected the frenetic nature of my moods. I felt everything from talking blues songs (to express my frustration) to pop songs (to escape my experience) to the cover of ‘Thunder Road’ (to alleviate my sense of nostalgia). “Bad Man” is kind of the psychological landscape of a person with too much time to think and it evolved over a couple of years. “Handsome” was a much more immediate process, mostly cataloguing a romantic experience I had over the course of a year. It was about addressing a very personal heartache and because of that, I think it has quite an intimate and comprehensive sound. “Bad Man” covered a lot more territory, historically and psychologically. When I brought the songs to Peter Himmelman (who produced the record), I said, “I have no idea what the connective tissue is with these songs”. He said, “I think it’s that there’s no obvious connective tissue”, and then he found it for me.”
“The Enablers was the earliest incarnation of what my music eventually became. Our first record (something of a demo with a little more production value than that), “The First Seven Songs”, was just an exploration into seeing if this dog could hunt. The songs were very ‘roots music’, though that wasn’t even a thing at the time. It built on my influences as a girl from Virginia (drawing heavily from the bluegrass tradition, which is the form of music I spent the most time studying as a guitar player) and leaned hard on the stuff I already knew how to do. The second record we did as The Enablers was a bit of a departure: I was heavily influenced at the time by Wilco’s record “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”. I wanted to do something old and new the way that they did, so “Come Back Soon” was a bit of a hybrid, full of alt-country rock songs, full-on rock songs, and a hint of blues and pop, with some experimental effects. It was a necessary step in the evolution of what I ended up doing on “Bad Man”.”
You’ve published 11 novels over the course of your writing career; how have you been able to remain so creative in such a consistent and laudatory manner?
“People have asked me this my whole professional career: my glib answer used to be “it’s a mental illness”, which made people laugh but is not altogether untrue. I was unnaturally driven in the early part of my life. There was nothing on earth I cared about as much as writing and publishing or producing everything I needed to say. I don’t know why but early on I became fixated on the notion of publishing or becoming successful as a young writer (most likely an unhealthy identification with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Carson McCullers). Looking back, I wish I’d been more relaxed about it all, but there was something in me that just couldn’t rest or even consider the other things in life until I’d established myself as a writer. Here again, it helped to be the youngest child; I felt like nobody ever listened to what I had to say, and I had no choice but to write it down and force it on others. I do believe that social media and blogging and all that subtracts from the fierce desire to express oneself in a higher creative form. Back when there was no other choice but to forcibly impose your point of view on others, by way of publishers or producers, a writer’s ambition was inexhaustibly fed by that desire. The compulsion to create something comes from a kind of trapped energy. If we let that energy leak out in little fits of expression, it detracts from the larger goal of saying something big and honing it to perfection.”
“The process is a carnival: you write something and then a hundred plus people show up to make it happen for you. When my first pilot was produced, I arrived on the first day and saw all these huge trucks, all these people running around, and I wanted to say, “no, wait, I didn’t mean for all this to happen”. Judging Amy came to me as a partially formed idea. Amy Brenneman wanted to tell the story of her mother, a juvenile court judge and it was my job to figure out what made that story universally appealing. As a writer of Young Adult novels, I understood that juveniles are wonderful protagonists in that they are not autonomous as their circumstances are always at the mercy of someone else. The rest of it was about telling the story of a single mother who works in a man’s world. This was, at the time, an experience I was living down to the ground so all I had to do was type. Joan of Arcadia was a little different: I wanted to modernize the Joan of Arc story, a figure I’ve been fascinated by since childhood. I had a pre-teen daughter at the time so I put that experience at the center of it. Then I had to create fictional rules for the metaphysical world; I was intent upon it making sense, so I studied science as much, if not more, than religion when I was preparing to write it (the rules had to add up in the physical realm). Then I just turned the whole thing loose and watched how it landed. I had no idea if anyone would connect to it at all. It was writing without a wire and I was as surprised as anyone when it struck a chord. The greatest thing about writing for TV, after you’ve been working alone on novels, is that people come to the party. Suddenly you’re thrust into this collaborative medium, collecting points of view and you’re all engaged in making this vision come to life. It’s unnerving and unsettling at first, but then it becomes liberating and exciting. The experience on Judging Amy made me fall in love with the process. By the time Joan of Arcadia happened, I really knew what I was doing so I could just participate in the process and enjoy what emerged.”
What can you tell readers about the new television program you’re working on with Morgan Freeman and Tea Leoni?
“Morgan Freeman’s company is producing the pilot called “Madam Secretary,” which is about a female Secretary of State (played by Tea Leoni). It’s for CBS and we are in pre-production. As with Judging Amy, I was approached with a concept which needed to be developed. And as with Amy, I have zeroed in on the idea of a woman in man’s world. How do you meet with the President of the United States in the morning and the President of the PTA in the evening? How do you simultaneously focus on keeping the world safe for democracy and keeping your marriage together? It’s easy to depict a woman in a position of power if she’s just relentlessly smart and tough; it’s harder if you have to depict her being strong when she needs to be, soft when she needs to be, goofy when the occasion arises, right when she has to be right, and wrong when it’s fine to be wrong. It’s the journey of a modern woman in a position of power; that’s about all I can tell you, except that it will be delightful and you should watch it.”