Growing up in New York, Elah Hale has had many experiences that have shaped who she is as a musician — like getting a concussion at a Joey Bada$$ concert as a teen, performing as a lead guitarist at rock camps, people-watching along the St. Mark’s stretch in Manhattan. But it was viewing a sculpture, rather, which revealed to the 20-year-old singer what kind of artist she hopes to become.
“It was gigantic, a sphinx made out of sugar,” she recalls, describing the largest of 14 fixtures that comprised A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby (2014), an installation by the multimedia artist Kara Walker at Williamsburg’s decrepit, defunct Domino Sugar Factory. The monumental creation, a 35-foot bare-breasted sphinx with the head of a mammy figure and made of bleached sugar and resin, was intended as both a challenge to the art world at large and an evocation of the industry that drove the slave trade in the United States. Hale was 14 when she saw it.
“It really blew my mind,” she says. “I was like, ‘Holy shit. I want to make people feel this.’ I want to make pieces of art that really feel this enormous and encapsulating and amazing in that way.”
Much of Hale’s work today, conversely, has been inspired by small moments, and the small spaces in which she, like any true New Yorker, has lived and worked. Her debut EP, Room 206, which released last week (April 16), takes its name from her dorm assignment at Bard College, where she studied theater before dropping out to pursue her singing career full-time. It was there that she wrote many of the songs that would soon find their way onto the collection, a place where “relationships ended and relationships started” that she describes as “its own little universe.”
So, rather than creating something physically large, she hopes to make music that can have a broad impact, and be understood universally. With delicate production dusted by Hale’s soulful vocals, the musician sonifies relatable stories into cozy, alt-pop anthems: like hanging out and drinking wine with your crush (“My House”), cruising down a highway at sunset (“Posters”), and having brunch with a close friend (“Saab”).
Coincidentally, Room 206 dropped at a moment that Hale is confined to yet another small space, her Brooklyn apartment, where she has been waiting out the coronavirus pandemic with moisturizing face masks and her dog, and documenting bright, bold beauty looks on social media. But there are still even bigger things to come, she assures MTV News, including her first tour, on which she will embark later this year with Orion Sun.
MTV News: What have you been up to while you've been social distancing?
Hale: Yeah, I have been trying to do a lot of cooking and planting, living my best life, and then it all sort of falls short, which is disappointing. But I'm making it work.
MTV News: The name of your EP is Room 206. Why is it called that?
Hale: Room 206 was my sophomore dorm room in college. My best friend and I lived together, and we sort of cheated the system to get one of the better, if not the best, rooms on campus. And it was such a special place for me. My whole final year of college, it was really the room where relationships ended and relationships started. I agreed to my publishing deal in my dorm, just sitting there on the phone. So it felt right to honor it and that time, which led to me being where I am now.
MTV News: It's cool how spaces like that can have their own lives and energies.
Hale: It's crazy when I look back and I think about that time because it feels so far away and so different to where I am now, paying my own rent and living in my own apartment and being in Brooklyn. It was almost like its own little universe.
MTV News: What’s one really lovely or notable memory from that room?
Hale: My very best friend in this whole world, and my roommate at the time, we pushed together our beds. We called it “mega bed.” So we basically slept in this king-size bed for half of the year.
MTV News: That was at Bard, and you were studying theater there. Do you feel like that impacted your music at all?
Hale: At first I wanted to be a Gender and Sexuality Studies and Arabic double-major my freshman year, and then I was terrible at Arabic, so I wanted to, like, rethink everything. So then I tried the Bard theater program, and it was so amazing and the people were amazing. I was doing playwriting and performance art, and there was puppetry. I feel like my life shifted, and that really impacted the way I was consuming art, how I was thinking about telling stories and thinking about expressing myself. That happening at the same time that I was writing this EP really forced me to push myself. I was just adapting as it was happening at the same time.
MTV News: Listening to your music, there is a lot about love, which is, of course, a very universal theme. And then some lyrics, like in “I Know What It’s Like to be 16,” seem to describe coming of age experiences. What are some of the themes you like to explore?
Elah Hale: I think love songs are the best. That's always an overarching theme, love and its many facets. And I think exploration, the newness of everything. But yeah, coming of age is the right way to describe it, or just sort of dealing with the reality of many different relationships — friendships, family, of all of it.
MTV News: Do you have a favorite song on the EP?
Hale: “Saab.” It was one of the first times that I felt like I could write music that isn't so serious all of the time, that nonsensical things are sometimes absolutely fantastic and just as important as serious, sad, heartbreakers.
MTV News: Could you tell me a little bit about the story of making it?
Hale: My friends and I, we're driving to lunch and coming up with lyrics. We were like, "OK, driving in my Saab." And then we were rolling the windows up, like, "Roll the windows up." Then we went to this cafe called Honey Hi, and we were like, "My corn’s on the cob." We were just shooting things out there and anything that rhymed worked. We kind of sounded ridiculous.
MTV News: You’re going on tour later this year with Orion Sun. Will that be your first tour?
Hale: Yeah, it's my first time going on the road, which is crazy because I think a lot of my friends who also make music, would just go on tour by themselves. I think I was always too scared to do it, and I always envied their courage. So I'm excited to do it for the first time. I think it's going to be amazing.
MTV News: Why is now the right time?
Hale: A big part of it is that my music is just me. My friends that were in bands of three, four, or five people knew they had people to go with. But if I did it, I would be asking a lot more favors. So I think that is always what held me back. But now, opening up for Orion Sun and doing it with the backing of Interscope and with an amazing band and sort of with this outside support, I think really makes it the right time. And also, just financially, I never had the money to be able to sustain going on tour. Ever.
MTV News: You’re signed to Interscope now, but you were previously recording music yourself and releasing it on Bandcamp. How has the production process changed in that time?
Hale: Both ways of doing it are important and special, and I think I'd practice both ways still. But now, it really feels like I've given myself the gift of time. It's funny saying that in the midst of a quarantine, but being in the studio now, I can spend two days on a song. Where previously I had five hours, and I hoped and prayed that I could get a song done in an hour and a half so that I could do two or three songs. I made music I liked, but I think I wasn't making music that felt really fleshed out and full. Now I feel like I'm spending more time and really thinking and being specific and it's a more thought-out process.
MTV News: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned throughout that process?
Hale: I've learned to take an idea and run with it, and letting go. I have a hard time letting ideas go, because I've latched onto them and I care about them. I'm like, "No, I can make this work." And I think it does pay for things not to work, because they can just work later or in a different situation.
MTV News: What is the one thing you'd like people to know about you as an artist, or maybe just as a person?
Hale: I really stand by my decisions and my music. Because social media and everything is all intertwined, it often feels that people are personas. I put a huge part of myself, if not all of myself, into what I'm doing and the music I'm making, and it really is art that is a reflection of me. Even if it's not a story that is specifically about me, it's still something that is so deeply ingrained and embedded in who I am as a person and as an artist, and there is no true separation. There’s no Hannah Montana-Miley Cyrus happening.