Sarah Hallman Q & A with
Sarah Hallman

Interview by Ren Tomovcik
( Photo by Petr Maur)

Sarah Hallman has always felt a connection to Ottawa, calling the city her perpetual home base.  Her passion for the capital has kept her in our city for the last six years now – "the longest consecutive amount of time that I have ever lived anywhere" – and we're sure proud to have her among us!

Today, the singer-songwriter is happily settled and making new music, stepping up her sound and working with other musicians to expand her repertoire. She has charmed audiences at various venues in the area this year, and she's about to cap off 2009 with the release of her newest album, Likely.  Sarah chats with Ottawafocus about songwriting, recording, and her many collaborations...

Sarah, what was the first song you ever composed, and how did that come about?I think I wrote my first full song when I was living in Montreal, going to art school, spending a lot of my time on my own. I was sunken into what I see now as a healthy kind of loneliness (at least I was being productive).  I was dabbling in collaborations for the first time with a couple of other players and songwriters. One of them had a four track, and the idea of being able to record a song on it was incentive enough for me to try and finish a song.

The song was called “Anyway” – it was about conversations that move on from getting too heavy by using the sigh of a word: “anyway…”  I remember lugging my guitar and amp across the city on a bus, then a subway, then another bus on the night that I recorded it at my musical friend’s apartment.  I was thinking, "hmmm…I must really want to do this!”

Sarah Hallman Would you say your music is autobiographical, or do you write mostly from your imagination?It’s usually autobiographical or based on my observations of people and how I see things out there.  Chords and melodies are usually the bed for where the words will lay… and then the challenge is to fit the right words into the right phrasing and melody lines. 

I rarely go into writing a song with a specific concept in mind.  I pick up a guitar when I need to, the way I pick up a pen and paper – for release and for clarity and discovery.  It’s usually only after I’ve written a song that I realize what it’s about.

Every now and then I’ll consciously try to approach songwriting differently. I wrote one of my most recent songs by pulling words and sentences from pages of letters a certain poetically gifted friend of mine wrote to me on a summer away. It was refreshing to step outside of my own word pool, and to be inspired by someone else’s feelings and observations.

(Photo by Brian Goldschmied)

You have many other creative passions besides singing and songwriting, including a talent for visual art.  How do your various forms of creativity link together?My visual artwork and my music feel like different parts of me – or maybe it's how I approach them that feels different.  Songwriting is more of a moody practice for me, more at the mercy of my emotions.  I can’t usually just pick up my guitar and get something done when I want to. As frustrating as that can be sometimes, I like it that way – I try to keep that process as pressure-free as possible.

When it comes to creating visually, I actually enjoy working within deadlines, and I work well under pressure.  Once I have my materials and tools at hand, and a show to work towards, I can just go with any given project at hand.

The two media don’t cross over in too many ways – I’ll either be in a songwriting headspace or a visual art headspace. They cross over in literal ways sometimes; for example, I designed the artwork for my CD. In general, I just like having variety in my life.

Tell us a little about the new album!
The songs are mostly down-tempo and melodic, with a hint of pop sensibility. I had enough of a collection of songs I felt good about that making another CD’s worth of material was a natural step.  Most of the songs were written within the past 3 years.  A few older songs were written and demoed as far back as 8 years ago, but they went through enough progressions of instrumentation and production that they felt like new songs again once they were complete.

Sarah Hallman
Sarah Hallman with her backup musicians. (Photo by Petr Maur)

How has your sound evolved or changed since the last album?The sound is a lot cleaner, and there is more variety in instrumentation and arrangement.  My 2007 release was primarily recorded live off the floor with the band that I was playing with at the time.

This time around, a lot more attention was paid to details, and there was consideration for the production of each song as a unit. I had the luxury of being able to record vocals when I wanted to.  I regained a sense of control that reminded me of when I recorded my very first (unreleased) CD on my four-track.   

How do you like working in the studio compared to playing live shows?I prefer the recording process, for the most part.  I find it an exciting process. There is a continual balance that asks to be struck between having control over an envisioned direction, and letting unexpected, good things happen. 

Performing requires a totally different energy – one that I am still getting to know. Although I’m not in my most comfortable element on stage and in front of people, performing songs really is a unique, and strange and unexpectedly gratifying experience for me. I also get a lot out of the energy that my backup musicians, Matt and Brian, put forth when we play a show. Socially, it’s a lot of fun too.

Sarah Hallman
(Photo by Petr Maur)

What are some of your favourite places to see and perform live music in the Ottawa area?The Raw Sugar Café is a special spot to play and to see music around town.  The Manx falls into the same “good casual venue” category.  Zaphod’s is enjoyable to perform at – I give huge points to a place that cares about how a show is going to sound, and has a dedicated and capable sound person.

I like the attentive audience up at the Black Sheep and it remains a reliable and magical venue to make a night of going to see a show. Other than that, Irene’s is supportive, and the Elmdale Tavern has an intruiging vibe of it’s own – nicely located in my ‘hood.

Which other artists have you worked with musically, and how have you been inspired by these collaborations?  I have learned a lot from the people that I have collaborated with over the years.  I was really shy about exposing my songs even to potential collaborators, but it did happen, slowly and sporadically at first, mostly in the recording studio. 

When I lived in Ottawa in the late 90’s, I was spending time with musician friends that I still look up to, like Michael Feuerstack (Snailhouse) and Jeremy Gara (Arcade Fire).  They both showed up on my first unreleased recording project and also on my self-titled recording in 2007.

Over time, I have contributed vocals to various projects in and out of Ottawa: the Hilotrons, Shannon Lyon, Octoberman, Poorfolk, Dave Gaudet, Brian Patrick Simms, Matt Ouimet.

When it comes to my own songs lately, I collaborate mostly with my partner-producer and multi-instrumentalist Matt Ouimet.  I play live shows with Matt on drums and and Brian Simms on lead guitar. 

Who would you love to collaborate with if you got the chance?More work with my past collaborators would be lovely. I want to collaborate more with Matt Ouimet – I want to sing with him more, and try to write songs with him. That and, only in my dreams, a duet with Ida Nilsen (Great Aunt Ida) or harmonies with Idaho or Mark Kozelek.  


* Check out Sarah's tunes on Myspace
* Visit Sarah's website
* Check out her art portfolio
* Visit her profile at CBC Radio 3

...Or come out to a live show!

Sarah Hallman with Caledonia and Matt Ouimet

Zaphod Beeblebrox,  Ottawa ON 

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