• Cherry Popper

Jennifer Hall Makes It Out Alive

written by: on August 26, 2015

In person, Chicago-based singer-songwriter Jennifer Hall is one of the brightest personalities one can ever hope to meet. But to write the songs she believed she was capable of writing, she needed more. To progress as a musician, and to heal as a person, Hall forced herself to wade into darker depths than she ever had, not knowing whether she’d make it out alive.

The result of her personal journey is an outstanding six-song EP, full of complex and emotionally charged melodies. Vocally, Hall delivers the performance of her life. Her octave-spanning vocal acrobatics have carried over from her first record, In This, though here she sings with far more vulnerability, less concerned with executing technical perfection. Now, she sings with a different determination.

On the self-titled EP, Hall taps into personal fears and past struggles. The lyrics—which, separated from their melodies, read like haunting, existential poetry—address her search for an internal safe haven; the fear that showing your true self will lead to rejection; and pleading with someone to stay by your side when you need it most. In doing so, she connects with listeners beyond those dazzled by her impressive voice, who see themselves in Hall’s raw inner conflicts—like the loss of a loving relationship that faced constant strain before its breaking point.

“My mom and I had a very troubled relationship,” Hall says. “She was very sick and struggled with mental illness, but we loved each other very much. She was an anchor of my life. After she passed away [in 2009], a lot came to the surface from a very deep, dark place. I wasn’t prepared for it.”

The impact of facing these memories seeps into the song “Time of Death,” which haunts its listeners with the crushing conflict Hall shares.

Every second of the song conveys deep longing, mourning a loss that began well before the time of death was called. In the sparse and chilling chorus, Hall sings, “Crying for mother madly, lying with one who had me/…/Waiting out the day for me/Sounding out the letters for me/Filing all the papers on me/Calling time of death without me.” Her voice dominates the track and rings with raw emotion.

But not every song recalls gloomy feelings; on the powerful and more upbeat “Beverly Road,” Hall sings of a path to inner peace, where she can reach stillness and feel safe.

She sings, “Oh, Beverly Road, where do you go?/Will there be angels there? Will there be strangers?/Oh, Beverly Road , how do you run?/How do you trace the signs? Hide from danger?”

When she started writing the EP over two and half years ago, Hall decided that this spectrum of emotional honesty would drive the new songs. Musically, she and the band tried to develop ideas without overthinking them. For the guys in her band—Noam Wallenberg, Ben Joseph, and Mat Roberts, who are each involved in a slew of other projects—the subconscious approach came easier. But it was Hall’s only project, and she was used to overthinking.

“I’ve monitored myself for a lot of my life,” she says. “’Maybe I shouldn’t say this. Maybe I need to hide this part of me.’ For the new songs, I wanted to turn off the aspect of overthinking and let the subconscious mind create and develop the ideas. I wanted to be honest in a way that I hadn’t before.”

The hard part wasn’t letting ideas flow from her subconscious; it was letting them live on once her active mind regained control, continuing to let those feelings loose regardless of whether she was prepared to face them. Though difficult at first, the songs provided a sense of closure, affirming what Hall had hoped but not expected—that she could heal.

In June, Hall performed “Time of Death,” and all the other songs from the EP, at a record release event at Subterranean. It was her first time singing the songs for an audience beyond the men in her band. Leading up to the show, she tried desperately to calm her nerves, but as the set progressed, the charge of the songs began to overtake her.

“With any performance, I try to be as genuine as I can, and let myself go to the place where the songs come from so I can make that happen,” Hall says. “By the end of it, I was so in the thick of it emotionally. I was really worked up. But it was real, and that’s the only way I know how to connect.”

It was one of the most powerful performances of her career. That show marked the start of a summer of nationwide performances and local appearances, but it was also a finale. As the last notes rang out over an overheated crowd, an emotionally drained Hall proved that she could dive into the darkest depths of herself and not only make it out alive, but carry back what she needed to share.

See Jennifer Hall’s stunning live performance Saturday, Aug. 29, at the Beat Kitchen, and check jenniferhall.com for upcoming tour dates.