Artist Interview – Crystal Monee Hall

by Matthew Blake on July 20, 2010

With Broadway experience as well as session work along side musical greats such as Elton John already on her resume, the soulful Crystal Monee Hall arrives the Bay Area with a lot on her mind, a lot to sing about, and a readiness to achieve her musical independence…

How much of a role does your musical and cultural background growing up play in your new album?

My musical and cultural backgrounds are the centerpiece of this project.  I grew up in the church, on blues and spirituals, work songs and field hollers, on call and response, learned how to sing listening to my Mama sing in the choir on Sunday mornings.  This album began as a rumination on these musical forms and how they’ve shaped me, not only as a musician, but as a person.

How does the Bay Area music scene compare to that of the east coast/NYC?

I’ve found the Bay Area scene to be far more inviting and free.  I love the NYC scene, the tenacity and hustle of it all, it’s amazing and propels you to work hard.  But I found I felt a little boxed in after a while of doing the same kind of work, being cast according to ‘type’.  I wanted to sing a new song.  I knew I’d need some space to reinvent myself, to discover what I really wanted to do.  The Bay Area scene affords me that space.  It’s a great place for self-discovery.  You take that self-knowledge and security back to the NYC scene, and you’re alright.  Or at least I’m hoping so!

So from church halls, to Broadway shows, to score writing, session work and now finally, your own record.  Which proved to be the most enjoyable process?

That’s hard…I love it all!  But I have to say that the sweetest thing has been the opportunity to write and tell my own stories.  I was made in the church halls, I learned who I was on Broadway, i stretched myself writing music for other people’s projects, and I love bringing music to life in the studio, but giving voice to my own feelings and experiences feels so good.  It’s like air, I need it.  I love performing live, being with the folk.  It’s really what drives me.

Describe your experience in working with Sir Elton John.

Startlingly easy!  It was an anniversary concert for his Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, I was singing backgrounds for the concert. It was amazing.  I’ve worked with and for some real self-important diva types, and at least the Sir would have been well within his rights to act that way, but he absolutely did not.  He was calm and chill and wonderful. He smiled a lot.  He talked to us directly and sweetly.  He patted me on the back.  I mean, literally, the Sir touched me.  It was awesome.  He’s the kind of artist you look at and say I want to be like that one day.

What are your musical ambitions beyond the release of your new album?

I want to touch and speak to people.  I want to speak for people who are voiceless and disenfranchised.  The verdict for the Oscar Grant case just came down yesterday in Oakland, and even though it’s my new hometown, the pain and struggle in the city was palpable.  It sounds corny, but I want to change things.  I want to change the world.  And I feel like my way to do that is to create timeless music that speaks to people, that finds us where we are and unites us.

Your lifelong influences range from Roberta Flack to Miles Davis.  Which musicians have influenced you recently?

I’ve been most inspired recently by my peers.  Artists like Shayna Steele, Valerie Troutt, Nhojj, Joe Bagale, Adam Theis, the list goes on, though as of yet, the names, like my own, aren’t widely known.  I feel blessed to be a part of a community of artists with something to say who are in the trenches striving to be heard.  I’ve also been listening to a lot of Janelle Monae, Robert Randolph and Esperanza Spaulding.  These young artists with unique sonic visions inspire me.  They’re fresh.  They make me want to work.

River Train is a mix of blues, jazz, soul and gospel all in one.  Was there a common theme in lyric writing process?

Definitely.  I grew up in Richmond, VA, which is built around the James River.  I love the James.  I’d go there, and still do, to think, to sing, to cry, to release secrets I couldn’t tell anyone.  Something about the rushing power of that river made me feel like I was going to be ok, that the energy would propel me somehow, that my ancestors who hid and slept and waded there were working with and through me.  When I was putting this project together I was thinking about this motion, the power of change, the energy of large bodies getting from here to there by any means.  I talk about transition, redemption, a washing clean.  In retrospect, I was writing my way home; back to the places and music and people that made me, a kind of journey to the within.  These themes show up over and over again on the album.  It was really a coming of age project for me. I discovered a lot about myself during the writing process.

You picked up a guitar only a year ago.  Any secrets to your accelerated proficiency, or is it just natural talent?

A little of both I guess! I learned how to sing and play by ear before I got any grounding in theory.  I play a little piano, so when I got stuck, I’d work out the chords on the piano and figure out how to play them on the guitar.  Then, I learned all the open chords, and used them within an inch of their lives!  It’s really just about playing.  You have to give it some time everyday.  I’m still very much a beginner, but I’ve had to get over being afraid to mess up and let the music speak.  My hands hurt, my fingers bleed, my neck gets sore;  it’s a sweet pain.  And it gets easier.  And I love it!  I feel so connected when I’m playing and singing.

You can check out Crystal Monee Hall at the following upcoming performances:

  • Jul 20 – Chop Bar – Oakland, CA
  • Jul 23 – Great American Music Hall – San Francisco, CA
  • Jul 27  – SF Weekly:  All Shook Down Music Festival at 525 Green Street – San Francisco, CA
  • Jul 27 – Chop Bar – Oakland, CA
  • Aug 3 – Chop Bar – Oakland, CA

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Dan Sauter August 30, 2011 at 6:39 pm

Great interview, and great debut album by Crystal. Check out a new audio interview with her at on Music Life Radio


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