Cris Cohen interviews singer / songwriter John Hall. Best known for his work with the band Orleans, John has also written songs for his solo projects as well as for / with Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt, Chet Atkins, and others. In a very different career move for a musician, John was elected to the US House of Representatives, serving from 2006 to 2010.
Cris and John discuss:
Interview recorded October 2021.
You can also watch the video of the interview.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Outside His Natural Range
Cris Cohen: What struck me when I was listening to “Reclaiming My Time” is that your singing voice is very different from your speaking voice. It's a lot higher. So when you sing, how much of it is, “That's naturally what comes out” and how much of it is, “This is the range I want to sing in”?
John Hall: I'm a natural baritone and I always wanted to sing like Little Richard or Paul McCartney when I was growing up. So I tend to write songs maybe higher than my natural range. I think “Lessons” on this record is probably the closest to my natural range. Some of them are a little on the high side.
But the Orleans records… people may get confused because the lead vocals on the biggest hits, “Dance With Me” and “Still The One,” for instance, were (sung by) Larry Hoppen, who had a legitimate tenor voice. I wrote those melodies and coached him through them, but I couldn't have sung those in those keys myself. But sometimes a guitar lick or a chord voicing will determine the best key for a song.
“Dance With Me,” I wrote the song on acoustic guitar first, and then Johanna (Hall) -- with me helping a little bit -- wrote lyrics to it. But I sing the third below the melody. And actually, Mason Taylor recorded the song and sang my part as the melody.
“Still The One” has that Chuck Berry-ish kind of guitar lick that opens it up, that rhythm part. And that just sounded great in an open E chord. So there's a ring, both to “Dance With Me” in the key of D and “Still The One” in the key of E, that to me were important. I could have moved them down until I could sing them myself, but the songs sounded better up where I originally wrote them.
Solo Songs vs Band Songs
Cris Cohen: As someone who is creating for yourself, as well as creating for a band, what determines whether a song is good for your solo project or good for Orleans?
John Hall: Well, songs that everybody likes and wants to do are better for the band. And the ones that I'm enthusiastic about, but nobody else is as enthusiastic as I am… or sometimes ones that I am very opinionated about how they should be interpreted, those wind up on my solo records.
We're actually doing “Alone Too Long” with the band live now. And we're going to probably do another song or two off of (my solo) record as we get further into the fall and next year. But we have so much material with Orleans to do when we do a show. People want to hear certain songs from the band’s past records. There's not a lot of time for new songs, but we work them in.
Every Song Is A Message
Cris Cohen: And you said in another interview that “every song is a message.” When you're writing, do you have specific recipients of this message in mind or is it more about letting fate decide who is going to receive this message?
John Hall: I try to write things that I know about or things that are important to me. And sometimes I know, or I think I know, who that will appeal to. Sometimes it's just, “I hope people get this.” Sometimes it's a lyric that came from things I learned, like “it's all up and down from here.” Somebody came up to me once, when I was celebrating a birthday, and said, “Congratulations, John. Well, it's all up and down from here.” You know, it's the truth in life. Things are never as good as you think, or as bad as you think. But life is really in the middle. So this is something I wrote because it meant something to me. And I also thought it was funny and would ring true to people. “Lessons,” same thing. “Everybody I've spoken to says I needed to learn patience. I wound up in a traffic jam.” Yeah, me too.
Trying to force an outcome of a situation, especially when you don't really know what the outcome should be… I've learned through trial and error -- and some pain -- that it’s best to show up and do my part and then see what happens, as opposed to trying to wrestle a person or a situation or a job -- anything in my life -- to try to make it go where I think it should go.
There are certain songs like “Save The Monarch,” which Dar Williams and I sang a duet on, and “World On Fire,” the environmental messages that… I hope more people will become aware of how dire this situation is with endangered species and the climate. Because most people now are aware of the issue, but they're not aware that it may completely mess up the food supply and cause massive migration and worldwide instability.
This is starting to come out. Reports are starting to be published, like the one that just came out from the Pentagon saying that climate would cause security problems worldwide. When I was in Congress, James Woolsey, who was the head of the CIA under both Republican and Democratic presidents, testified in 2017. He was the first witness that then-Congressman, Chairman Ed Markey, who is now a Senator, called to testify before the Committee on Energy and Climate, that I was a member of. And Woolsey testified then, 14 years ago, that climate change would become the biggest security threat to world stability and therefore to United States national security. And it's taken this long for the message to really get out that that's true. And we better take it seriously. Not to mention, I have a granddaughter and I'm hoping that she'll have a world that's livable when I'm gone.
A Rorschach Blot For The Listener
Cris Cohen: Although, one of the fascinating aspects… you write a song with maybe one thing in mind and then it expands as time goes on to mean something else. “Alone Too Long,” which, as you you've talked about in other interviews, was the story of a friend who lost his wife and was wondering if enough time had passed that it would be okay to go on a date. But by the time you released this, we’re all in the midst of this pandemic lockdown. What's it like from the songwriter's perspective to see the world kind of change or grab your lyrics and apply them to an entirely different situation.
John Hall: You can't plan these things. Johanna and I wrote the song “Power” in late 1978. It was released as the title track on a solo album of mine on Columbia Records. And three weeks after it came out, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant melted down. All of a sudden power was on the radio everywhere, in other countries as well as here. You can't plan that.
“Alone Too Long,” we started the song in January 2020 and then finished it in, I think, March. And in that intervening time, Coronavirus was declared a pandemic, things started to get locked down, and it wound up taking on that meaning. I'm sure other writers have these kinds of experiences.
I wrote “Welcome Home” on this record for that Vietnam veteran friend of mine who had a wicked case of PTSD. Then it wound up being heard by a lot of people and appreciated for a broader sense of that whole topic and that problem. And I wound up serving in Congress on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and sharing the subcommittee on Veterans’ Disabilities, which dealt with PTSD.
So stuff happens and there is change. There have been many songs written about how change is kind of the only constant. Songwriting becomes a Rorschach blot for the listener. I've heard songs by other artists where I misheard the words and thought there was something said that wasn't quite what I thought. Or sometimes I just attach a whole other interpretation to it.
Cris Cohen: You have been recording songs, but with people in multiple locations, because of the pandemic. While I understand the challenges in that, I'm curious, have there been any advantages to that?
John Hall: There are disadvantages and advantages. I still prefer and will probably always prefer, playing music with other people in the same room. But being able to record with somebody in another state, or another country even, will continue to be an advantage because it eliminates the travel needs. Somebody who is very busy can actually record… well, the new Orleans Christmas album. There’s a song “I Wish I Could Have Been There” that Bill Payne of Little Feat played keyboard on. He has played on all kinds of great records, with everybody from the Doobie Brothers, who he is currently on tour with, to Leftover Salmon. He's an amazing player. I sent him the track for the song. He recorded his piano at home, sent it back to me, and we mixed it in the studio here. And it sounds great. So those things now are possible and will continue to be done by recording artists, musicians, producers.
Cris Cohen: And speaking of the eclectic talent that you have on this album… a few years back I did some work with Sean Paddock, best known as Kenny Chesney's drummer. And he's a guy I don't think he gets the credit he deserves. He's got such a fantastic touch on the kit, but for some reason he doesn't get the press, the ink, that a lot of other drummers do. What drew you to him and his playing?
John Hall: Well, he's a friend. I was writing with John Paul Daniel, who I co-wrote with on “Alone Too Long,” “Mystic Blue,” “All Up And Down From Here”… about half the record. And we collaborated on writing with Sean on a song called “Big Mouth Shut” that's going to be on the Orleans 50th anniversary record that'll be out next year. And we just started performing that one.
But I know Sean from a couple of other things that we do together. He has a studio on Old Hickory Lake outside of Nashville. He calls it Lake Effect Sound. He's a good engineer with Pro Tools and a great player. Not only does Sean play great, but he gets great sounds on his drums in his own basement studio.
But I did have a couple of players… Peter O'Brien, who played drums on a couple of these songs, who played with Orleans on our live record in 1990. He played on two or three other Orleans records and toured the states and Japan with us twice. Andy Peake, who's a wonderful player. He’s played with lots of luminary folks, Delbert McClinton being one of them. He's another great Nashville drummer. Peter's from upstate New York and a son of a drummer.
It’s interesting. I know and have worked with a couple of guys, like Eric Parker, whose brother Chris played at Saturday Night Live and his other brother, Tony, is also a drummer. Their father was a drummer. So these things sometimes get passed down. It's kind of like the Manning family and football.
Cris Cohen: There's just something in that gene pool.
Sean Paddock, he can have kind of a subtle touch with the drums. He doesn't just always bash it out. There's some interesting work with ghost notes and that kind of thing.
And listening to this album, you have a very subtle touch with the guitar. Is that just your personality coming through? Was it a conscious choice, your particular approach to the guitar?
John Hall: I would like to say it's totally my own choice. But, you know, I'm not the shreddiest guy in the world. I've played some pretty complicated leads. Some of the early Orleans stuff was, I think, pretty athletic lead playing by me and my partner Larry Hoppen. But I really think of the guitar as a melodic instrument. And I try to play like a singer would sing or play it like a sax player would play. I've always found that one develops a more interesting style -- to my ear -- by imitating other instruments. Just listening to guitar players, you'll wind up playing kind of the same notes that everybody else plays. But I've done a lot of listening to everybody from Michael Brecker and David Sanborn to Junior Walker. Playing Junior Walker sax licks on the guitar is a very cool thing. I mean, look, I don't play like John Coltrane, but I listened to him. And I think everything that I listened to comes out in my music. I try to do what I do best. And what I do best is not shredding. It's playing melodic leads.
Working With A Guitar Legend
Cris Cohen: Staying with this topic, you co-wrote and played with guitar legend Steve Wariner, which I think would be both exciting and very intimidating.
John Hall: Great player and singer. He's just amazing. We wrote “Another Sunset” together and he played acoustic classical guitar on it. He actually played Chet Atkins’s old gut-string guitar, which Chet's widow gave Steve. And so, it was kind of a full circle, because one of the first songs I ever learned on electric guitar was Chet's version of “Glow Worm.” My grandmother had a couple of records I was really fond of when I was a kid, like five, six, seven years old. One was Pete Seeger with The Weavers, which was very influential on me. And then the other was Chet Atkins. And I finally actually got to play with Chet a little bit. I wrote a song with him and his guitar player, Paul Yandell. And he recorded “Dance with Me” and “Sails.” He did Johanna’s and my song “Sails” as a duet with Steve actually. There have been a few circles closed in my life where I got to work with people who I'd been a fan of and who were kind of heroes to me and Chet was one of them.
Cris Cohen: What do you learn from playing with guys like Steve Wariner?
John Hall: Modesty. It's just an incredible pleasure and it's inspiring. It's kind of like sports, when they say to try to play with somebody better than you are, because your game will improve. One of the things Steve is very good at is playing rhythm guitar, and rhythm guitar has always been kind of the bedrock of my songwriting.
I wrote the song "Half Moon," which was the first famous recording of a song of mine. Johanna and I wrote that song for Janis Joplin. And it starts with that guitar lick. I was listening to a lot of Jimi Hendrix at the time. And his songs are all built around rhythm guitar. "Foxy Lady" or "Wait Until Tomorrow" or "Axis: Bold as Love." Pick any Hendrix song, it starts out with a rhythm lick that the song is then built around. It's a skeleton that you can hang the rest of the song on.
And so, whether it's "Dance With Me" -- I started that with a guitar lick -- or whether it's "Still The One" or "Half Moon" or "What I Need" or, on this record, I would say, "Alone Too Long"… there's a bunch of them where the rhythm guitar is the foundation. That's just something I've come to value.
When I was playing guitar with Taj Mahal, recording that live double album of Taj's, "The Real Thing," I got an education in rhythm playing. I thought I was hired to play lead. Taj disabused me of that notion and really schooled me on rhythm playing. Ever since then, when I hear other players who do a great job with rhythm… Steve Cropper, for instance. He plays a couple of lead licks, but he's really known as a songwriter and a rhythm guitar player.
As I get older, my appreciation of different aspects of music has changed. Maybe when you're younger, you feel like flashy is better. Later you appreciate the importance of other things that hold the rest of the band up.
Cris Cohen: To me, rhythm guitar kind of influences people without them knowing that it's influencing them. The solo gets a lot of attention, and all eyes go toward one person during that moment, but it's usually the rhythm part that people end up humming or singing to themselves when they're thinking about the song. And so, it's almost more -- I don't know if “insidious” is the right word -- but it's the kind of thing that really makes contact with the listener.
John Hall: It's a feel. And I would say the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, neither of those bands would have probably existed were it not for Chuck Berry. And they would say the same thing. They have said the same thing. I was definitely influenced by Chuck. The Beach Boys wouldn't have… listen to “Surfing USA” or any of their early songs and you just hear Chuck Berry all over the place.
I also came to appreciate rhythm section work. When I was in my teens, I was listening to the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Mitch Mitchell and thinking, “Wow, that's a great rhythm section.” And Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. And then as I grew up a little bit and decades went by, I started to think Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn and Booker T and the Muscle Shoals guys, who produced Barry Beckett and Roger Hawkins and who produced the first Orleans album in Muscle Shoals in that studio. We were big fans of theirs, which is why we had them produce us instead of a couple of other people who we could have had.
Cris Cohen: Right. Admittedly, with say, drummers, what initially caught my ear were some very busy players. Some people doing incredible things, but a lot of notes per second. But then, you get older, and you start to notice more subtle differences. Like recently we lost Charlie Watts. He was one of those guys who doesn't get a lot of attention, but professional musicians all point to people like him, saying, “What he's doing is fantastic. And it works perfectly for the song. There's not a lot of flash, but it just has a fantastic feel.”
John Hall: Absolutely. And most people who have written or said, “The Rolling Stones are the best rock band in history,” they may not know it, but Charlie was instrumental. He was an indispensable part of that feel that they get up and dance to. They say, “Yes! ‘Street Fighting Man’ or ‘Honky Tonk Women’!” We don’t realize until it's gone, how important that drum part is, or that drummer.
I mean, Al Jackson, rest his soul, who played on so many incredible records, he's not known as a fancy player.
Another guy, who is known by a lot of people as a fancy player, Steve Gadd, who can do anything on the drums, from that one-take solo on Steely Dan’s “Asia”… But I heard him recently with James Taylor on the road. And, you know, playing in 20,000 seaters or more, where the room echo, the delay coming back from the room, is enough that you can't really get away with playing a lot of fancy stuff. And anyway, supporting James is like, what's in service of the song and the artist? And he does it. He plays simply when the music needs simple, but with a touch that's identifiable as his. And, you know, give him a chance every once in a while, he’ll cut loose. But that's musicianship, I think, to be able to recognize when it's appropriate to be busy and when it's appropriate to just support the song and play straight ahead. There are drummers who can do both and Steve’s one of them.
Cris Cohen: Yeah. That's why he's Eric Clapton's first call whenever he's on tour.
And then also, to bring it around, the whole reason Sean tends to use black drumsticks is kind of his personal homage to Steve Gadd, who he considers one of his idols.
What Makes For A Good Co-Writer
Cris Cohen: And then, talking about a lot of collaborations and co-writing, from your perspective, what makes for a good co-writer?
John Hall: Well, for me, a good co-writer is somebody who can help me finish a song I was having a hard time finishing. It's always about the best result, but it's also about whether it's fun in the meanwhile. Because you're spending time with whoever you're co-writing with, and it's a pretty intimate process. You have to open up to ideas that are personal, or you have to be able to get past the inhibitions to saying, “Well, this might be a really stupid idea, but what do you think of this?” I like people who I can get past that with, and they can get past it with me, and we can finish the song and then go out for lunch. [laughter]
It doesn't always happen. “Alone Too Long”… John Paul Daniel and I worked for probably a month on that song. And then we were hung up on the lyrics. And Tad Richards is a friend from Woodstock, New York -- fabulous painter, sculptor, author, poet, and lyricist. He helped finish the lyrics in a few hours, by email going back and forth.
The first song on the record, “I Think of You,” I wrote with Sharon Vaughn. And that was a case of, we had just been introduced to each other. I loved her work and she liked mine enough to book a writing date in Nashville to sit down and try to write at 10 in the morning. And by noon, the song was done… and we went out for lunch. [laughter]
But she's just so good at her craft. That's a case where she wrote the lyrics. I might've kibitzed a little bit, but it was basically her lyrics and my music. Sometimes the match is so good that you go, “Boy, I want to write with that person again.” Steve Wariner is one of those (people). I wrote a song that was on the Orleans “Grown-Up Children” album that we cut here in Nashville… “A Language of Love,” which he also recorded on one of his albums. And then “Another Sunset,” which was on my record. It's just always been really easy.
“You Can Train Me,” Steve's number one country hit that he and I wrote together back in the 80s. I finished playing racquetball at the YMCA in Nashville. And I had a date to go to Steve's house and write after that. I was actually in the shower at the Y and had this idea, “If you're dreaming of someone, you can dream of me. I'm not going to follow through on it because I'm not free to do that. I'm not available. I'm with somebody else.”
But I heard the music for the chorus and sang it to myself the whole way there in the car so I wouldn't forget it. I walked in the door, sang it to Steve, and he said, “Great! Let's finish it.” And we did, in probably an hour. He's also really good at… I think of it like unearthing a fossil. If you find a little bone in the desert somewhere, it's like the foot of some dinosaur or some creature that's mostly buried. And you brush away with a paint brush at first to expose more of it. And then you get to the point where you can pull on it. You don't want to break it by pulling too hard on it, speaking of patience. But the trick is to unearth that song and not destroy the vision of it or the initial inspiration.