published Friday, October 21st, 2011

Q&A with singer/songwriter Jordan Hallquist

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with local singer/songwriter Jordan Hallquist about his upcoming third album, how he bought his first guitar and the obstacles he overcame to make his first record.

CP: Are you originally from Chattanooga?

JH: I've lived here my whole life. I was born about an hour south of Boston, but I've lived here my entire life. Chattanooga has always been home. I've traveled abroad and lived other places, lived overseas before, but I always came back here.

CP: Do you hear much of Chattanooga in your music?

JH: I do, especially on this new record. The title track, “Tired Man's Song,” was inspired by events I personally experienced in Chattanooga. A lot of the lyrics are inspired by the landscape and people who are close to me in this area. I definitely have a lot more Chattanooga influence on this record than the previous two.

CP: You started singing at age 3, what was the first song you sang?

JH: It was in church. Both my parents are pretty religious, and I was raised in a church. My dad actually used to play old gospel cassettes in our car, and I used to sing along to them when I was really young.

I did a kid's solo at age 3 during a kids' play we did at our church. I did my first solo with a “grown up” song when I was 5. Everything I did growing up was based around that, around gospel music.

My first song I sang in church was 'Amazing Grace.” The song for the play was one specifically for that play, and I honestly don't remember the name. [Laughs.]

CP: You started playing an instrument at age 10. What was it? Guitar?

JH: The first instrument I started playing was an 1960s baritone ukulele my dad bought back in the '60s. It was a Martin Company baritone ukulele. I started excelling at it and having fun with it, and my dad encouraged me to start looking at guitars. I ended up saving my money by cutting grass to buy a Martin dreadnaught. I still use that quite a bit live today.

CP: That's a nice guitar for someone so young. How old were you when you got it?

JH: I was 11, about to turn 12. My dad has always been one of the guys who said, “Buy whatever you can afford, but if you can afford to wait a bit to buy a really nice piece of equipment, that's the best route to go.” He always instilled that in me.

When I saw this guitar, I played it and loved it. I spent all summer cutting lawns and doing odd jobs. He promised he'd match me for half, so I paid part of it, and he paid the other half. There was a lot of grass that was cut and a lot of sweat that paid for that guitar.

CP: How old are you now? What kept your interested in music?

JH: I'm 26. My grandmother on my dad's side was very musically inclined. She sang on the radio back in the '30s in the Massachusetts area on a couple of local stations. My dad is also musically inclined. He played piano. His older brother played Hawaiian steel guitar. I have another uncle who is a DJ.

Music has always been there. I couldn't imagine not playing music on some level, whether just me by myself in a room or playing it out live trying to make a career of it. It's always been there.

It's like with athletes. Even after they finish playing pro or in an amateur league, they'll end up coaching. It's just in their blood. It's the same with me. I'm trying to make a living doing this. I couldn't imagine doing anything else or not having music in my life on some level.

There's definitely been a lot of downs and tough times when you're eating ramen noodles and living out of your car on the road and that sort of thing. At the end of the day, though, when you're doing something you love, that keeps me going. I do love playing music.

CP: What is it about music that you feel most drawn to?

JH: It's two main things. To me, music is a language everyone understands. A lot of people relate to hard times and struggle. One of my mentors, another local musician Mark Holder, taught me when I was learning to play guitar and writing music that people relate to struggle. Knowing there is some sort of hope at the end of the struggle and see people connect with that is an awesome experience. Not everyone has the privilege to experience that, as an artist.

To have that connection on that level with fans and listeners is really meaningful to me because we've all struggled and had that moment in time when it seemed like the struggle was just ours and no one else had gone through it when actually many of our struggles are ones everyone has gone through. To be able to relay that through music is an awesome experience.

Second, I don't think music was put here simply to entertain. I truly believe that music can make differences in a lot of circumstances. If a city is struggling with an issue or the nation is struggling with an issue, people turn to musicians to write a song because it speaks in a way a speech or a book can't. Music can make a difference on multiple levels, whether it's big or small.

CP: How does that belief affect your approach to songwriting?

JH: It challenges me to be very transparent and very real. It think there is beauty in leaving things to the imagination in songs and not being very blunt about certain things, but I think there's even more beauty in being honest and real and blunt as well.

I have a song on the new album called “Broad Street Devil” that's about a friend of mine, who was a drug dealer. I name certain types of drugs and certain types of struggles in the aftermath of using these drugs. From that one song that I thought was a bit edgy, saying those things from stage, I've had people come up to me afterward and say they were an addict and struggled with addiction. They say they appreciate my honesty with it. I really think that being open and honest and real is always going to be a challenge because you want to write that catchy, cool pop song that everyone can sing along to - at least, I do - but that's not necessarily the most real thing on the planet. This challenges me to stay real and transparent.

CP: Do you think you can achieve that happy medium between catchiness and message?

JH: Absolutely. The songs on this new record were ones where I tried to do that, tried to write songs with good hooks that are easy to sing along with. One of the greatest moments of singing a big rock show or just some guy singing with an acoustic guitar is when you have all of the crowd singing along with one lyric. At that point, everyone is equal and the same. To be able to write those hooks is a very excellent thing for an artist. I believe there's a happy medium where you can get your message across with something that is catchy.

CP: Who were you listening to growing up? Who were some of your influences?

JH: It was a good mixture of stuff, actually. When my mother and father met, she was an atheist and he was a devout Catholic. I had two very broad spectrums growing up.

She was raised in the Woodstock era and around that crowd. My dad was very straight-laced and listened to gospel music. My mother introduced me to a lot of Janis Joplin and Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. She ventured off into the blues side, too, with Bo Diddley and Son House and Muddy Waters.

My dad had the gospel side of it, so he was into guys like Larry Norman and Andraé Crouch and some of the more straight-forward crooners like Frank Sinatra and Perry Como.

There was always a big emphasis on vocals. Growing up, I initially started training my voice when I was younger because of that. Later on, I started getting into guys wh were known for their playing skills like Hendrix. It was a good hodge podge of everything. I was thankful for that because it's all blended into my music.

CP: What do you do for a living now? Is music your sole gig?

JH: Music is my sole gig right now. About three years back, I did it for about a year, and I went into it with the wrong mindset. I wasn't focused on the right things, and I wasn't able to pay the bills, so I got another day job.

About four months ago, the shows I've been playing have been averaging three or four a week, and my job was great about working with me, but I had to drop the job. It's been good. It's paying the bills and even have a little extra spending cash, which is nice. It's going good.

It's a hard balance, too, as an artist. The shows that pay the bills right now, for the most part, are cover song gigs. I'll end up playing a couple of those a week to pave the way for me to play original gigs to get my own music out there as well. It's a tough balance, and sometimes it's a little discouraging, but all in all, I have to look at it that I'm playing music for a living, and if it takes me a couple nights a week where I'm playing someone else's songs, I'm OK with that for now.

CP: When did you start to consider music as a something you wanted to pursue professionals or semi-professionally?

JH: It's always been in the back of my mind to be able to have the sort of life as the people I grew up listening to, to be able to go out and sing for people. That's always been in the back of my mind. When it became more of a reality was when I was coming up on the end of high school at 17 or 18 years old. When I graduated, the opportunity to go to college was there, but I didn't go to college. It was one of those things where I really didn't want to go, and my folks didn't force me when they saw the desire in me to go after music. That's when it really started to take form.

CP: Tell me about “Broken, Bruised and Scarred … A Tired Man's Song.”

JH: The songs on this CD have been written over a year and a half, close to two years. It was some of my favorite ones that I felt connected with a lot of fans and listeners. There are more songs, but I took the 10 best ones that I felt connected with people the most and connected with me the most and put them on the record.

There is one song on there, “Bourbon Cigarettes,” that has been out for a couple of years, but I didn't get a chance to record it. The last one was more of a concept album. We tried some more experimental stuff in the studio on that one, and that song is very straightforward, musically and lyrically, so it didn't fit. I didn't have an opportunity to put it on a record until now. I wrote that one almost four years ago.

The album title came with one of the most recent songs I wrote, which I wrote less than a year ago. It sounds gloomy, but it's not supposed to be that way. When people hear the title song, they get it. It's not a depressing album. There aren't a lot of downer songs on it. The album as a whole is about how, if you've been knocked down or hurt by somebody or life has given you the finger, it's not such a bad thing. It's OK to be scarred or bruised because you'll remember what you went through, and you'll be a better person because of it.

The “Tired Man Song” came from me. I used to have a lot of bitterness and angst - not in an emo music way, but I was very defensive. I didn't let people in, and I didn't listen to a lot of people. I really just became tired. I wasn't upset anymore; I was just tired of missing so much. I was worn out physically, emotionally and mentally.

The lyrics of “Tired Man” song really sums up who I am and what I've gone through that's changed my mindset in the last few years. It wasn't anything spiritual or anything deep like that, just some circumstances that changed my mindset on music and life in general. I'm happy being scarred and bruised. It's OK for that to happen to anybody and to be able to recover from those things because when you recover, you have a story to tell.

“The Tired Man Song” isn't supposed to be anything down. It's supposed to be about my city and me and my family and some close friends and artists who really, really inspired me.

CP: Where did you record it?

JH: I recorded it at Spanner Sound, a studio here run by Charles Allison. It was recorded a little less than three months ago. The entire album was recorded in less than six hours.

I've known Charles Allison for a while, and he's got a knack for what he does, a real gift when it comes to recording people.

In recent years, I've always dreaded the time of year when it comes time to record an album, but I've never had a more relaxing experience or more productive experience. We got in there in the morning, got started and just rock and rolled. It's a very stripped-down album, just me and my guitar.

CP: Are you happy with the results? How does it compare to the other two?

JH: I've never been more relaxed and happy about a record. I feel like this has really captured my sound as a person who plays a lot just me and a guitar. It's giving listeners and fans that on a record. I've never done a straight acoustic record, and I was worried about doing it because, even thought it's simplistic to record it, it's also very challenging because there isn't much to cover up your mistakes and faults.

With Charles behind the wheel there, it worked out so well. I'm just really, really excited about this record. It's my favorite record, to date.

The CD release show will be very different from what people have seen me play in the past. It's going to be broken up into three sets. It's hard to make a record for me because I do a lot of shows with just me and a guitar, but I also play some shows with me and the band where it's full electric. Then, years ago, I used to play a lot of keyboard in live shows, too.

Every portion of what I do and am able to do is going to be incorporated into the show. It won't take away from the record, either. People will hear the record live, from start to finish.

CP: This is your third release. What were your previous projects?

JH: The one before this was released early last year was called “When Hope Falls.” It was a full-band record, minus one track. It was a five-song EP. I still play a couple songs live off that album that are a lot of fun.

The one before that was definitely my worst work on a record. [Laughs.] I had never recorded like I did on that one. I lived over in Thailand for three months, and when I was over there, I got a lot of inspiration to write new songs, and I ended up going and recording an album at a studio in Thailand. It was very rough quality. They didn't have extremely nice equipment, which was fine, but many of the rhythms don't synch up. It was also interesting because my producer didn't speak a lick of English, and I didn't have an interpreter. [Laughs.] There were many things not going in my favor there. [Laughs.]

That was one was called “Crossroads and Steeples.” It came out five years ago.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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