Interview: Hal Linton – Singer, Songwriter and Producer

Posted: June 14, 2010 in interview, music
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Hal Linton

Date of Interview: 06/14/2010

Hal Linton is the latest musical export from the island of Barbados.  Following in the footsteps of Rihanna (Def Jam Recordings), Shontelle (Universal Motown), Livvi Franc (Jive Records), Jaicko (Capitol Records), Rupee (Atlantic) and Vita Chambers (Universal Motown), Linton is preparing his solo debut, Return to the Future, after garnering critical acclaim in his home country.

This summer, as part of Hal Linton’s introduction to American audiences, he will be accompanying Anthony Hamilton, Kem, Jaheim, Raheem DeVaughn and Abraham McDonald on Budweiser’s 2010 Superfest Tour. Before hitting the road, however, Hal Linton managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on the influence of Raphael Saadiq, the details of his initial contract with SRP, and the key reason he loves to experiment with music.

Clayton Perry: As a child, you grew up in a musical household. Describe the early influence your mother, father and other family members had on your career.

Hal Linton: In a way, I was kind of like most kids, because I really didn’t want to do what Mom and Dad did. Although they were musicians, early on, I tried to keep away from music because I didn’t want to be another Linton that sung. I guess you could say that their influence was more peripheral than direct initially. Looking back now, I see how influential they really were, in that I got the chance to be exposed to so many genres of music, from classical to reggae to hip-hop to big band to a cappella music. Their passion for music was a great opportunity for me to get really into various types of music. As I got older, during my teenage years, music became something that I took a strong interest in – singing, writing, and just playing instruments.

Clayton Perry: As you noted, you’re very multi-talented, and you take a very D-I-Y [“do it yourself”] approach to your music-making.  You have often cited Raphael Saadiq as one of your early influences. When you look at his career, what do you most admire about him?

Hal Linton: Well I just really appreciate Saadiq’s style and his approach to music. He was really influential, because I listened to a lot of what he was doing at the time, and a lot of the artists he was working with, like D’Angelo. Listening to him was one of the backbones to start me off in production. At first, I used to mess around with his type of sound. It was a real groove-based, progressive soul sound. I always liked it, for some reason, and it just sat with me. Saadiq was definitely one of the people that really formed my musical identity – especially when it came to how I was going to approach music. There were a couple of other artists as well.  There was Tonex, who’s a gospel artist, and D’Angelo of course. His Voodoo album is probably one of my favorite albums of all time. Also, Take 6 and. Mark Ronson, but moreso his Nikka Costa days – just before Amy Winehouse. Those artists and albums were the major, early influences.

Clayton Perry: When you initially signed with SRP, they only wanted you to be a writer and producer initially.  At what point did you switch gears and begin focusing on a solo career as a singer?

Hal Linton: Before I signed my production contract with SRP, I had already made up my mind that music was something I wanted to do and it was something I was definitely going to pursue on all cylinders. When I went to them initially, it was to be an artist. because that’s the approach to music that I wanted to take. For some reason, they didn’t really see me doing that, and saw me thriving more in the production aspect of music. It was kind of cool that they held me in such high regard, as young producer and writer, because they had produced several platinum records and hit songs. That experience was a boost for me, because I definitely wanted to produce.  I just wanted to be an artist, too. It was an interesting kind of a duality with my love of music. They eventually came around, and that’s how we moved on to Motown.

Clayton Perry: As a singer, songwriter and producer, which skill comes most naturally? And when writing a song, where do you typically begin – with the lyrics, with the melody?

Hal Linton: What comes naturally? That’s a good question. In a way, singing, writing and producing all feel like natural things to do, and its all fun for me. Funny enough, the skills all pretty much come from the same place, from a creative standpoint.  They are just different representations of the same emotion.  When you get up on stage to perform or go into the studio to write music, it all comes from the same entity. In a similar way, there’s really no definitive answer for the lyrics and melody. They both come from the same place, and no matter which comes first, it feels the same. Writing a great hook feels just as good as writing a good bass line or writing a great piece of music. I’ve done things lots of ways- I’ve started with lyrics, I’ve started with melody. However, if I had to choose, I would say most of the time it starts with the melody.. I normally have the melody for long periods of time before I write any lyrics to them. As we speak, I’ve still got a ton of musical ideas down that don’t have any lyrics attached. So, if anything, I think melody tends to come first. .

Clayton Perry: The title of your forthcoming debut is Return From The Future. When you reflect on the title, what’s the major inspiration?

Hal Linton: It kind of is a play on words. My whole concept behind this album is that I wanted to make soul music, but I didn’t want it to be retro-based. I didn’t want people to hear music and say, “This song’s old.” I wanted them to feel like I was trying to be progressive with soul music, because I find that soul has typically been in a place where it’s been more like throwback. People hear it, and they say, “Yeah, that reminds me of some seventies tune,” or something like that. Simultaneously, I think it’s hard to get away from the fact that soul music is going to remind people of something old, just because it is just by association. For me, that’s where the return comes in, like it’s a return, yes, but “from the future,” in terms of my thought, production, and decisions I made. A lot of the production ideas and musical ideas, even “Mind Control,” the first single, are really futuristic and have a lot of strings mixed in. It’s really a production statement more than anything else. Return From the Future is really a transition to creating a space for “soul pop.” That’s what I like to call my music – “soul pop.” Instead of soul being something that is just beautiful to listen to, I want it to be something that people can sing along with. They can still feel the soul in it, but it’s not that complex or too over their heads that they go, “Huh?.” I want to make soul music pop-oriented; find that hook that people will sing along with, but yet still have that soul state of mind. That concept was the true reasoning behind Return From The Future. It was really a production concept more than anything else.

Clayton Perry: As you look back on the recording process for your debut album, what thoughts immediately come to mind?

Hal Linton: Well, I mean, a couple of songs will always be special to me on this album. “Hey Love,” can be traced back to my roots of really starting to become a writer. It is literally the second song that I ever wrote.

Clayton Perry: Oh, wow!

Hal Linton: Luckily, that’s going to be on the album. It was the song that made me decide to want to write more, or want to get into music.  It has always been a significant song for me. “Press Play” is significant, too, and pretty reminiscent of what I was talking about earlier, about having a piece of the melody first. I literally did the melody for “Press Play” probably like two, three years before I even wrote any lyrics to it. It was just a piece of music that I always loved, and I just could never find anything to write to it, because I just loved the melody. The last song for me that was really memorable to record was “She’s Dangerous (Bang Bang).”  That was kind of the songwriter’s dream song. It was the sound that kind of happens purely on vibe. I wrote that with a pretty good friend of mine, Julian Bunetta, a new up-and-coming writer and producer who is really talented. We were in the mountains in Malibu down in California, just chillin’ at his house. Kind of had instruments in hand, just grooving, and it just all came together very, very, very, very organically, and really did set a tone for the album. I think those three songs for me are the ones that will always stand-out from this album. They kind of made the whole experience special.

Clayton Perry: Earlier in the year, you released a mixtape, to give people a sample of your musical style and direction. Playing off the title, The Rock & Roll Experiment, do you think that musicians are confined, in a lot of ways, to fit into a certain genre? And on the flip side, why is it important for you to kind of experiment with your music?

Hal Linton: Yeah, I do agree. I think it’s kind of unfortunate, but humans do think like that. They love to have a title for something and it seems like everything has a title, nowadays. It’s just how we are- We need order. But at the same time, I think that our need for order could be our greatest weakness, too, in that we never get to experience something different that, at the end of the day, may be good and may work for us. There is a chance that it may not work, but that’s why I think it’s better to experiment with it, rather than to write it off or to stay within a comfort zone, per se. I listen to lots of different types of music, to be honest. I just try to take from everywhere and see how that can then influence my voice and what I have to offer. But I think slowly, but surely, the lines are getting blurred between the B.o.B.s of the world and the Linkin Parks of the world. We’re seeing more lines being blurred when it comes to music, for example, with Snoop working with Willie Nelson. And my dream, personally, is for them to get blurred beyond recognition, so we can turn on V100 and hear Mos Def. I think it will be great for music when that happens. It will be kind of like it was back in the day, literally, like in the sixties and seventies where craziness came on the radio back to back. I know old musicians always tell me, they’d hear James Brown come on, then some Elvis. Honestly, if music starts to blur the lines, we will experience the world as a community more, and it’s going to automatically make us think more about how we can integrate as a community as well. I just think that as musicians, we don’t really see our true impact. But I hope, I really hope that it blurs more. I pray and I bow down when I see B.o.B. doing the kind of music that he’s doing right now.  And I hope Katy Perry calls me to do a song! [laughing]

Clayton Perry: That would be really interesting! [laughing]

Hal Linton: I’m just saying, I would love to see that kind of stuff happen. For lack of a better term, music people or people that are high up in the industry trying to do more stuff like that, other than always thinking about, Okay, well is this hip-hop or is it rock ‘n’ roll or is it where it’s supposed to be? I just think it will be a great day when we think about that less. That’s my opinion.

Clayton Perry: On a personal note, you covered one of my favorite songs on your independent album, Spirit:Life:Love – Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”  What special attachment do you have to that particular song?

Hal Linton: That was one of the songs I heard and I just liked Al Green’s whole sound. He’s also another pioneer when it came to how he approached songs. I just love the whole thing. It was super cool  and kind of effortless. It was soulful, but it wasn’t too much. He wasn’t over singing it It wasn’t like a million ad-libs. That’s one of my favorite songs, too, I must admit, just because of the concept, and the way he mixed the song, so it’s super cool. I want to feed off of that, so I will try to sing songs like that, that I just think are cool. Hopefully some of that coolness rubs off of the way I kind of approach things.

Clayton Perry: As I was watching your video to “Freaky Side,” I noticed in the closing credits that you had a directorial credit. Is there anything that you don’t do? [laughing]

Hal Linton: I’m an art dude right at the core. Again, as I repeat, it all really comes from the same place. To start with, I was a film student. I actually dropped out of film school to do music. But for me, it’s something that I didn’t want to push that hard in this first project. I wanted to build into it. The “Freaky Side” project was part of my mix tape, The Rock & Roll Experiment. I wanted to do some videos for the songs in the album just because I felt like doing them.  It was one of those things where I was curious to experiment and see what I could come up with. For no money. Just asking some friends to come through, getting my own footage, and editing the video and putting it together myself. I was really curious to see what I could accomplish by doing a creative idea and see what happens. Honestly, in the future I think you’re going to see more of that from me.

Clayton Perry: Cool! Well, I can not wait to see what you have planned for the future.

Hal Linton: I’m just trying to give some flashes of what I’m all about, now. Hopefully people get that I’m kind of artsy all around. I’m really into video and audio and lyrical content. That’s the kind of picture I want people to see when they think about me. Because all that is a flash of things to come.

Clayton Perry: I know the government of Barbados has been really fully supportive of your career. And over the past few years, you have won several awards back in your home country. What special words of thanks do you want to share with all of the people that have seen you grow and evolve over these past couple of years?

Hal Linton: I can only be in awe of the country I’m from, and it’s a beautiful thing that they regard art so highly. It also feels good to be part of a new movement there, because really before Rihanna, Shontelle, Vita, Jaicko and I, a kid couldn’t wake up and tell their parents, “I want to be an artist. I want to be a musician.” It didn’t really happen until a bunch of us started doing it more. Also, the government itself realized the potential for something fresh and new. They were always supportive of the arts, but they really took it up another level as we started to settle and be more serious. So I am truly grateful to my country, my island. They’re super-supportive. All I can do is thank them and hope they continue to be with me on this journey. Trust me, it’s a journey, and I’m still traveling. Hopefully, they will continue to be with me and I will continue to be with them. I’m also thankful to all of my fellow Barbadian artists, who are flying the flag and at the same time, simultaneously, helping me along. It has really been a collective effort. The collective 2-4-6 effort! [laughing]

Clayton Perry: Sylvia Rhone is perhaps your biggest fan.  And you have cited working with her as being hard, beautiful, educational and inspiring.  What is the best advice that she has given you as you prepare for your American debut?

Hal Linton: The best advice Sylvia has given me is to have somewhere to grow to. If there is anything I always remember, I think it’s that. Because of who I am, I can be really idealistic sometimes. That’s not always the best thing if you want to be part of the music business! [laughing]

Clayton Perry: Right.

Hal Linton: If you want, you can be a totally, totally revolutionary kind of figure, if you just want the music, and that’s fine. But I want to do music business. I want to sell records and I want to be part of the business aspect, as well as also doing good music. And with those two things, you really have to view things differently. For me, I kind of came in with the concepts of what I was about, what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, and how I wanted to look.  I had a lot of things worked out in my mind. You want to grow somewhere. You want to take people with you. And I guess Sylvia saying that to me, the whole idea of having somewhere to go or grow to, that made me think more about my fans and surrounding myself with the right kind of people. I have a journey to complete, and I think that is what makes it special.  That statement really opened my mind and made me become way more relaxed in my approach to evolution as being an artist, rather than coming in with a truly definitive idea of who I am. Rather, I have a skeleton idea of who I am, what I’d like, and where I will see myself going. So for me, I’ve got to say it would be finding time for me, and just my thinking when it came to how I was going to deal with this music thing, for sure. Now, I’m starting to walk on that path.

For more information on Hal Linton, visit his official MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/hallinton


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