By Evelyn Ashburn
Evan Stephens Hall is the singer of Pinegrove- a band formed in 2010 from Montclair, New Jersey. Pinegrove has been described as indie-folk rock, though I believe it’s better to listen to their music and judge for yourself. They released their fifth album in January of this year, titled 11:11. The album realizes themes of nature, climate change, politics, and interpersonal relationships.
Pinegrove recently finished a national and European tour, and I had the chance to speak with Hall about his creative process, inspiration, and views on touring and getting politically involved.
I’m always curious what an artist starts with when beginning a project, especially when it comes to music- a chord, a phrase, a melody, maybe a riff. Hall seemed to believe the process is less rigid than that, stating, “Well there’s no one way, and I think that part of what’s worked for me is trying to be sensitive to all the different possible ways that a song could begin.” He described how he may start with a chord and then flesh out what comes next, or how he might begin with a phrase, thinking, “this is a phrase that I’m interested in right now, I’m curious about, and I want to know how to connect it to a story.”
He mentioned that once finding that “little nugget,” he extrapolates it by playing it repeatedly until he finds its momentum. “Sometimes you have to settle for something that is just a placeholder,” Hall said. “But, one thing leads to another. You’re always looking for opportunities, little miniature opportunities that eventually accumulate into a song.”
Ashburn: Do you feel like then, a lot of your writing is an accumulation of different parts and pieces?
Hall: Yeah I do. At the same time though, the very best stuff just sort of comes out all together. I don’t know why that is and not all of my songs are written that way- like in a single day. One example is the song “New Friends,” which, although I’ve played it hundreds of times, I still like it a lot. And that song was one where the verse came quickly and then the outro came months later and I was trying all sorts of things. So I guess that’s a counterexample but that’s just to remind myself that really there’s no one way that it happens. To tell myself that there’s one preferred way [to write a song] is to limit myself.
Ashburn: If you look at the discography of Pinegrove, there’s going to be certain chords that are commonly used- do you have a favorite chord or word that you often use within your writing?
Hall: I’ve wondered recently- if all of the lyrics were collated and aggregated based on word usage and then ranked, what would be the most used word? Outside of stuff like “the” and “of,” you know, what’s the most used noun? I don’t know, but maybe the word “life.” But it’s all about the little words that you put around it.
His favorite chord is one I’ve learned through Pinegrove’s tablature- a variation on Cadd9 with a G, or the fifth, in the bass. Predating the release of their album “Marigold,” in early 2020, Pinegrove placed tablature- a form of music notation that shows finger placement rather than pitch- of most of their discography on their website. And they even put up the tablature for the upcoming album. This allowed listeners to create their own version of the melodies and instrumentation for each of the songs- a concept that was called “PineTabs.”
I asked Hall about this idea, and he said that “The things that [listeners] would have to do, that’s a lot of the decisions that a songwriter would have to make. So, I thought it would be interesting to task our listeners with having to write their own versions. I thought that was a very cool possibility. But then, the way that people actually went after it was so delightful and surprising. People really went all in and some of those versions- I like them just as well. There are a few melodies that I have in my head sometimes, that I’ve kept in my head since hearing them. It’s like yeah, that’s a little better probably.”
Ashburn: Where do you most often find inspiration and do you ever find it comes from books?
Hall: Yeah, I do. I don’t know you’re sort of catching me in a little bit of a, maybe a dry spell in writing. I haven’t been writing songs that much lately, which would mark the first time since, usually after releasing an album, I’m so excited to be working on the next one. And I do have some new songs but for whatever reason [I haven’t been writing much]. I think it’s just circumstances in my life right now. I’ve got other stuff going on and I’m not really in a very prolific mode right now. I’m just not. But, you know, I am trying to sponge things up. I’m trying to listen to music and read books and stuff.
Right now, he’s reading “The Tin Drum” by Günter Grass; and he cited “The Idiot” and “Either/Or” by Elif Batuman, and the new Ottessa Moshfegh, “Lapvona,” as the books he has most enjoyed recently. As for music, he’s been listening to Merle Haggard, and revisiting Loretta Lynn, Radiohead, and Alex G.
Ashburn: For me personally, and for probably a lot of people, Pinegrove’s songs make the listener feel validated and grounded. I always think of “Skylight,” that one line, “whatever you’re feeling is natural.” Are there any songs, or artists that make you feel that?
Hall: Yeah, definitely. That’s what we go to music for, I think. Well, you know music does a lot of things but one of the most powerful things it can do is bring you in and make you feel like [there is an intimate relationship between the artist and audience]. You know, especially when you’re listening with headphones. That’s just you and the song. Then, nothing else really matters. But, I think that there’s something really special about listening to the music that your peers are making. Alex G, just came out with a brilliant new album. I’ve been following his work since like 2013 or 2014. When we started to play shows together and knew each other a little bit and the other bands playing in that time period– like Porches, I really loved Frankie Cosmos and Steven Steinbrink– those became the major songwriters to me. And, [they] motivated me in all sorts of ways, you know, creatively and from a community perspective. I think that there’s something a little more potent when you're listening to music made by somebody you know, or somebody you could theoretically know. Or somebody who’s roughly your age or something like that.
There’s also just a certain age, I feel like. The music that we discover between, you know, 15 and 25– and this is speaking as a 33 year old– those years are for some reason really formative. Maybe, I was just lucky that there was great music being put out then and I’m just less connected to the scene now, or something like that, I don’t know. But there’s nothing that compares to, like in high school, listening to Sigur Rós or Radiohead– hearing that stuff for the first time and just falling through the floor.
This effect music has on people can be most powerful when listening live. Regarding his most recent tour, Hall discussed how people might be feeling more isolated from society right now, “and, so here we have an opportunity to all gather together and sing our hearts out and feel like a community, practice community.” But, he also mentioned how touring has become more difficult..
Hall: There’s a lot of things that go into making sure the show goes well and it’s a lot of work. But, I think we’re experiencing a real crisis now in the industry of shows being less and less profitable for bands. Corporations who, pretty much across the board, are making record profits and are still charging more and more for their items. I mean to try and realistically describe [the situation], yes, concerts are something we really need right now, maybe more than ever, and they’re harder than ever to put on. And harder for musicians to earn money from it. As Zach, Zach Levine, the drummer in Pinegrove, put it to me, there used to be one reliable way, one good way to make money as a musician, and that was performing live. Now, there are no good ways.
These issues regarding touring and its cost raise questions about capitalism and the financial crisis it has caused independent artists. Hall has been vocal about his support for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and he volunteered for the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2020. Issues surrounding climate change, public funding, and healthcare, especially, are being fought for by these platforms. He talked a little bit about his experience organizing for these causes.
Hall: I still am learning. I think that I was drawn to that type of organizing because I was volunteering for the Bernie campaign, and wanted to continue the effort of connecting with peers who were fighting for that sort of thing, and connecting with my neighbors on these issues.
He said he had a lot of time in 2020 to do reading on Socialism and came across the book “Bigger Than Bernie” by Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht. “That was actually great for a crash course on U.S. labor history and I liked the way it was written,” Hall said.
Ashburn: I think there’s this jump between having core beliefs about something, like maybe you agree with the basics of Socialism, but where you don’t feel informed enough to have discussions or knock on doors. How did you bridge this divide?
Hall: Oh I remember, this was pretty important for me. I just really, pretty thoroughly, read the Bernie platform when I was campaigning for Bernie, mostly as a phone banker. And then I had a pretty profound revelation the moment that I realized that this platform is the same for all [Democratic Socialist] candidates. You know, all of these people are fighting for the same things; universal healthcare, a Green New Deal, a livable wage, rent control, or universal housing even, and better funded public schools. I realized that if you know the platform of one of them, you know the platform of all of them. And so, you can phone bank for somebody that’s out of state that you’re not intimately familiar with because it’s really less about the candidate and more about this platform that we’re trying to pass. So that actually, I think, is a kind of salient piece of advice for anyone who wants to get involved in having these conversations. DSA has a platform that they’re aiming for and it’s pretty much the same as Bernie’s.
Ashburn: So, what do you think is next for you and for Pinegrove?
Hall: Well I think that we’ve decided we’re probably not going to be playing music in a live context, we’re not going to be traveling at least, for a while. I think that we’re going to focus more on writing and recording. But, I think that we just kind of need a break too, we’re just taking a little bit of time off. And so far so good with that. It’s just not safe or economically sensible to be touring right now, which is rough. And I don’t know the answer [to your question]. I don't know exactly what we’re going to do. But, we’re not getting totally pinched just yet.
Hall's passion for music, politics, and community is inspiring and hearing from musicians outside of their music is important: what they care about always seeps through. In whatever way Pinegrove continues, the community their music has created will be nearby and watching.