Martin Hall’s 2013 album song by song

In the following article written for GAFFA (Denmark’s biggest music magazine) Martin Hall comments upon each of the ten tracks on his new album Phasewide, Exit Signs released on the 2nd of April 2013. The record was his first solo release for seven years. Hall didn’t give any Danish interviews in relation to the release.

1. Emblematic:

I recorded the opening track ”Emblematic” with the pianist Othon Mataragas whom I’d met in relation to a performance at Warehouse 9 in 2010. Othon has formerly worked with names such as Marc Almond, Current 93 and now deceased Peter Christopherson from Coil and Throbbing Gristle, but is classically educated, so there are quite a few parallels between his way of working and my own approach to music. I think the song is a good opening to the new album.

2. Muted Cries:

The main recording for this track is made in Montreal with another pianist, the Danish newcomer Linus Carlsen. From an overall point of view the songs on Phasewide, Exit Signs form a kind of musical logbook – they’re all written and recorded in a number of different contexts around the world. ”Muted Cries” was one of the first tracks I finished for the album and I think the song captures the sense of recurrent disorientation that I’ve felt in my life for the last couple of years very well. I always feel relieved when music plays itself as easily as this is the case.

3. L:

As it is with most music, the individual experience is often governed by the context it appears in. ”L” is an intermezzo, a crossover point, but nevertheless an important part of the full picture. Underneath the title you can hear the album’s “sub-sound” work … as it does most of the time throughout the record.

4. Tin Music:

The vocal for this track is recorded in a hotel room in the Polish city Białystok late at night, just after I had performed at The Podlasie Opera in the summer of 2012. I was completely exhausted, but travelled with a dictaphone, and the sheer mood and atmosphere surrounding the visit and the night itself – the city, the old opera and the enthusiastic responses from the audience – kept resonating in me. I hadn’t expected that I would use the recording for anything, but later in the process, after I’d returned to Denmark, I was quite surprised to hear how “ensouled” the recording was.

In general the new album is characterized by an occasional almost sketch-like production where the methods of recording include the application of dictaphones and old-fashioned cassette machines. In its final version ”Tin Music” was extended with a complete string arrangement, but at its core the song is based upon this very frail recording made in the hotel room.

5. Meth:

Something as straightforward as a declaration of love. The themes of the new album revolve around subjects such as loss, beauty and perdition. Aging and wear. The female body and its ever-changing cartography. The record is a series of instant images exposed over a quarter of a century. My generation has reached the age now where the years show, and if you’ve followed another person closely over a longer period of time, then it can be equally heartrending and touching to witness the silent changes that occur, physically as well as mentally. This also applies for the figures in the periphery – faces I remember from my early youth and by chance occasionally catch a glimpse of. Many of these people have paid a high price for their uncompromising way of life. I particularly recall a girl I once knew, a very composed as well as completely lost individual who basically survived on coffee and cigarettes and the stuff in-between. Later she took her own life. I imagine what it would have been like to sit in front of her alive, today.

However, as it generally is, a song rarely revolves around one single image – the face it describes is often put together by several characteristics. In the same way ”Meth” circles around a polyphonic gallery. It’s a portrait based on several lives.

6. Retrograde:

Quite a few people probably think that you write songs all the time if you’re a songwriter. Well, it’s not like that for me. I write remarkably few songs and lyrics for myself. I guess it’s an occupational hazard when you’re working with music, that it easily begins to feel quite pathetic to constantly express oneself. It has become quite a challenge for me to write lyrics for myself. By the same token it’s very rewarding if a song has its own power of persuasion – its own will and its own ”voice” – something that ”Retrograde” had from the very start.

It’s the second song on the album where I collaborate with Linus Carlsen and already the day after I wrote the basic melody line on top of the chords, the vocal version of the song was recorded. Technician and co-producer Johnny Stage listened one time to the tune after which he replaced the studio’s professional microphone with an old clips mike which he then carefully installed in the alcove of the window at the other end of the room. Then we recorded the song in the first take.

7. Forgetting the Details:

This track is recorded with Christian Skeel whom I have worked with on several occasions – e.g. on our 2001 album Metropolitan Suite. ”Forgetting the Details” was the first track I recorded for Phasewide, but for some reason the project then went into pause mode for quite a while. Meanwhile a very different version of the song was released in form of a single called ”Mirrorball”.

8. Red Lips, Marble Eyes:

I’ve always wanted to work with a brass band – not coming from any wish to explore the jazz genre as such, more out of a fascination for the kind of music used at funerals in the Southern States of America, particularly New Orleans … the swells of colonial melancholy and the sounds of twisted brass, the worn-out suits and starched shirts’ stubborn attempt to keep the ritual going. As a little boy I once saw a film where a funeral procession slowly passes by a crowd of random observers on a street corner in the French Quarter of the town. The funeral party is full of grieving people and musicians with trombones and trumpets, all dressed in black. The next minute one of the spectators is killed. All mechanically the mourning procession then picks up the corpse and puts it in the coffin – the very object that the dead guy stood and watched seconds earlier.

I wanted ”Red Lips, Marble Eyes” to have a similar twisted ceremonial sense to it … a kind of distressed reluctance. Make it sounds as if the song was about to crumble under its own weight. However, it demands quite an effort on the part of the musicians to make things limp in that manner, but my expectations were completely fulfilled by the team. It’s actually the only place on the album where you’ll find real percussion. Horns and percussive instruments.

9. Site Specific:

”Incestuous needs, a tender display on your pillow”. From Salon Kitty to Reeperbahn – it’s all about cues and impulses. I don’t think one should try to explain everything. As a matter of fact I think it’s been one my career’s biggest errors … that I’ve far too often tried to explain myself. It’s much better to just tell the tale.

10. Phasewide:

The title track and last song on the album was recorded under improvised circumstances one late night/early morning. I’ve always been very fond of recordings that make use of the authentic sound environment and on this track it’s quite evident how the room is working alongside the performance itself. The take appears as a kind of sonic biopsy. Not that this fact in itself necessarily is a good thing, but taking into account all the self-criticism and self-allergies that have aggregated in me during the years, then it’s slightly remarkable for me to be able to listen to the recording afterwards and not focus entirely on my own role as a singer.

Those who have followed my work over a longer period of time are probably aware of the fact that I don’t really regard myself as a great singer. However, a lot of the performers I’ve listened to during the years aren’t necessarily technical brilliant either. You work with what you’ve got and express yourself with the available means. What you might not have of technical superiority, you can hopefully compensate for with some kind of intimacy or personal presence. Hopefully. But that’s all up to the listeners to assess.

Martin Hall, Maundy Thursday 2013 (March 28)