Kristen Hall’s Sweet Success

Two simultaneous Top 20 Billboard Country Singles hits. A guest appearance on Good Morning America. A standing ovation at the 40th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards, and a performance with 80’s legends Bon Jovi.

So how did a lesbian folk rocker from Michigan become the toast of Nashville?

Kristen Hall, who began her music career as a guitar tech for the Indigo Girls and developed into a solo performer known for her compelling acoustic sets, is enjoying sudden fame as a country artist with the band Sugarland. Fifteen years after the release of her homemade debut record, Real Life Stuff, Hall is shaking up Nashville with band mates Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush. She wrote the majority of the songs on Sugarland’s debut album, Twice the Speed of Life, which was certified platinum last month. At age 41, Hall is currently enjoying the biggest success of her career. [Ed. Update: Hall left Sugarland in January 2006.]

Raised in a suburb of Detroit, Hall showed an early affinity for music, learning guitar by age 13, writing songs soon after and citing Jackson Browne, James, Taylor, Neil Young and The Beatles as influences. But she was pressured to pursue a more traditional career and eventually put her musical aspirations on the back-burner. Hall worked odd jobs—selling shoes, working in a pizza parlor—and took college courses in Peachtree, Georgia when her family relocated there.

Boredom eventually brought her to Atlanta, and through some fortuitous coincidences, she found herself helping out in the recording studio where the Indigo Girls were recording their debut EP in 1987. Hall told Acoustics Magazine in 1992 that she received a co-producer credit on the EP, “basically for making coffee,” and soon after the Girls were covering her songs.

Indigo Girl Amy Ray was one of Hall’s most outspoken supporters, regularly goading her into joining them onstage to perform. Hall remembered in the same interview with Acoustics, “I had really bad stage fright, but Amy would encourage me to get up there and do it. I’ll bet she introduced me on 40 or 50 different occasions, and ‘whoosh’ I’d be out the door. But she never gave up and eventually I did go.”

In 1989 she recorded her first demo, Kristen Hall, in her home and played with different incarnations of her Kristen Hall Band for a year and a half. She eventually returned to playing solo, and with renewed confidence in herself as both a songwriter and performer, she released her first record, Real Life Stuffin 1990. The release helped her secure a publishing deal with BMG records, and in 1992 she was signed to Amy Ray’s independent label, Daemon Records.

Ray described Hall to lesbian magazine Deneuve (now Curve) in 1994 as “the ultimate pop songwriter. She can use the same three chords in ten songs and it’ll sound completely different. The songs seem very simple when you listen to ‘em at first, but in reality the songs she writes are the hardest songs to write: catchy and sincere and not calculated.”

At Daemon, Hall released what she once called her favorite record, Fact & Fiction. The record garnered critical favor and features guest performances by John Ashton (Psychedelic Furs), Emily Saliers (Indigo Girls), Cindy Wilson and Sara Lee (both of the B-52’s). The well-received record, full of both lovelorn ballads and upbeat romantic anthems, resulted in Hall’s first major label record deal with Windham Hill’s High Street Records in 1992.

Windham Hill re-released Fact & Fiction the following year, and followed with Hall’s first big studio album, Be Careful What You Wish For (1994). It was yet another critically-praised effort, filled with stellar guest performers (Saliers, Matthew Sweet, Jules Shear, and Michelle Malone). Be Careful What You Wish For also contained “Let it Rain,” which went on to become an international hit when recorded by Amanda Marshall on her eponymous 1996 debut. This success secured Hall yet another publishing deal and she relocated from Atlanta to Los Angeles.

As a resultof the West Coast relocation, Hall told Concertshots.com in 2003, “I realized how caught up I was in what worked for me in Atlanta and how felt trapped in it. I went out to L.A. and I wrote R & B and heavy metal and goth and it was so good for me. All of that stuff is in me.” Recognizing the diversity of her own songwriting talents laid the groundwork for the eventual formation of Sugarland. She returned to Atlanta, noting “I came back being a real songwriter. I learned how to co-write with other people and I wanted to do that here.”

Upon her return to Atlanta, Hall felt confined by the confessional folk song model that had earned her accolades from critics and fans. She said in the Concertshots interview, “I traveled around as ‘Kristen Hall’ singing these dingy songs about having my heart broken or being pissed off at my parents or whatever it was, and finally it got to where I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t do this anymore.’ I don’t know how people like Tori Amos can get up every day. God bless her out there singing about the worst moments in her life day after day.”

Dissatisfied with the style that had once served her so well and eager to work more collaboratively, Hall began seeking out other songwriters in the area. All roads seemed to lead to Jennifer Nettles, a local singer known for her powerful voice and charismatic stage presence. But as collaborators, Hall and Nettles initially just didn’t click. Later, when Nettles joined Hall and Kristian Bush (of the folk rock band Billy Pilgrim—nicknamed “the Indigo Boys”) as the lead vocalist for Sugarland, the musical magic began.

In 2001, they made their first stab at playing a song together (“Baby Girl,” which eventually appeared on Twice the Speed of Life and became a Billboard Top 5 hit), the trio’s chemistry was obvious. On the band’s official website, sugarlandmusic.com, singer Nettles remembers, “We connected so well and the sound was so good, it was such a fun sound. There was a moment when we just said, ‘Wow.’” Within a few months Sugarland was playing sold-out shows and had signed a contract with Mercury Records. Success came quickly to the band, and it was something they had aimed for from the start.

“From the very beginning my friends were laughing at me,” Hall told Concertshots,. “When they would ask what I was doing, I’d say, ‘Ah, man, I’m putting together this country band and we want to be the biggest country act of all time.’” Like many artist who struggle in relative obscurity for years before finding mainstream success, Hall has since been asked by peers if she isn’t selling her soul to the devil. “All I can say is, ‘No, I’m trying to get my songs on the fucking radio. Is that such a crime?’”

And Sugarland has taken over country radio with a vengeance. In May 2005, they had two Top 20 songs on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles and Tracks chart, “Baby Girl” at number 14 and “Something More” at number 19. It was the first time in recent history that a debut group simultaneously had two singles in the Top 20. “Something more” hit the number one spot in July.

Hall and her band mates will tour this fall with established country artist Alan Jackson, and also with Brad Paisley and Sara Evans as part of the CMT on Tour: Time Well Wasted tour. This means plenty of stops at music festivals, casinos, county fairs, and….Wal-Marts? Yes, Wal-marts. Just last April, Sugarland performed at the Saginaw, Texas Wal-Mart parking lot as part of the Road to CMA Music Fest Tour. The band signed cds, photos, and even babies.

In fact, the Wal-Mart tour is in line with the way in which Mercury Records is marketing the band: good-old-fashioned wholesome country music. The official website for Sugarland proclaims, “The passion and optimism of the trio courses throughout Twice the Speed of Life. Declaring strength without deteriorating into stridency, the songs are a celebration of all that life has in store and finding the silver lining even in the darkest clouds.”

On the site, Hall is referred to simply as “a singer/songwriter specializing in searing heartache,” and there is a brief mention of her ties to the Indigo Girls. It’s a public relations tactic that may surprise Hall’s lesbian fans. Hall has long been open about the fact that her “searing” songs are written about relationships with women and she was, after all, featured on Rhino Records’ compilation Lesbian Favorites: Women Like Us.

Time will tell if Hall’s lesbianism will become a talking point as the band continues to grow in popularity. In a June 2005 interview with gay and lesbian news magazine The Advocate, Hall was clearly identified as an out performer, but she made no mention of her unique position as an openly gay performer in the often conservative world of country music. The focus was squarely on gratitude for her sudden good fortune with Sugarland.

Before Sugarland began racking up hits, Hall had continued to work on a solo project and had half of an album recorded. But the strain of being a country music legend-in-the-making has limited her studio time, and a “best of” package with a few new songs may be her next solo release in the near future. Hall’s prolific writing will no doubt keep her and Sugarland flush with songs for years to come.

In 1992, she told Acoustics, “I think people need to stick with what they do best. What I do best is writing these little acoustic pop songs, and it may be out of fashion for 10 years, but on the eleventh year, when it comes back around, I’m going to have this whole arsenal of songs. I missed a niche about four years ago. I wasn’t ready then. Next time I will be.”

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