SOUTH LOOP — The slim gal with wet, curly hair at the South Loop coffeehouse fidgeted in her chair, nervous about what she was about to say next.
“For many years, it’s been difficult for me to be real about all the aspects of my life. I spent a lot of time trying to avoid who I really am, because it’s hard to admit what I’ve gone through. It was easier to run away from things that happened,” Jennifer Hall says as a prelude to what immediately felt like the confession of an indie soul singer.
“I spent too much time trying to reimagine myself as something else and building this person that’s far from the truth. It wasn’t me.”
Maybe you remember Hall and her hauntingly soulful voice on stage at Metro or Schubas when she first made a splash on the local scene a few years ago.
She made the kind of positive first impression that earned high praise from local radio DJs and Chicagoist, which tagged Hall as an “artist to watch.”
But then … she vanished. Well, sort of.
She broke up with her band, started working part-time marketing jobs to make ends meet and reshaped very personal songs that she’s ready to release as a “reintroduction to a more authentic version of me.”
When Hall takes the stage next month at Subterranean with her new band for the release of her self-titled EP — a collection of songs about defining moments in the 27-year-old singer’s life — it’s to tell the her real story, even the painful parts.
Hall grew up in a broken home in the Northwest suburbs, constantly moving from place to place with her mother, who suffered from mental illness.
“My relationship with my mom really shaped my life. At a very early age I learned about her sickness and became very acquainted with death and thoughts of mortality. Mom would say very often that she wished she wasn’t here," Hall said. “To hear that as a kid was really hard, set me up for negative thoughts and constant fear of death and a constant state of flux that made me feel very untrusting and not on solid ground.”
Growing up, she learned to find brief moments of joy on stage.
“I always had a tough time trusting people. I didn’t develop great friendships. I grew up with musical theater … 'Annie,' 'Fiddler on the Roof' and 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.' That’s what I loved," she said.
"I could be someone else and find peace in being emotionally removed.”
Her Subterranean show — and the songs she will sing — aim to highlight her struggle to find peace being herself by letting go of burdens she had carried too long.
“I know other people have gone through this. … I don’t want to speak for anybody else. I know there came a time in my life where I realized that you have to face the things you have experienced. You can’t change your experiences. You can’t change who you are,” she said.
“But I started to think that maybe some of the things that I thought weren’t good parts of me that I’d rather keep quieted inside me are things I should embrace and celebrate. Over the last few years, that helped me get in touch with my authentic self. And my music is very representative of that.”
Her song “Beverly Road,” for instance, stems from a moment the singer discovered what she calls an “internal safe haven” that helped her cope with moving on after her mother’s death in 2009.
“I’m free from harm/ from all things wrong/ I’m here,” the song goes. “Protection from the greatest beast of it all/ It's hiding along every frostbitten fear.”
Hall said after her mom died she began to question whether it was time to stop performing and do something else.
“I was questioning whether I should be singing at all, and maybe I should just get a different job and be done with it. But finding that stillness in myself — a place where your mind can be free from chaos — was so significant,” she said.
“For me the song means that no matter what, there’s a safe haven where I can mend, get in a position to give more wholeheartedly and worry less about being let down.”
A recurring theme of Hall's album is overcoming crippling fear — whether it’s through her story of the good that comes from risking rejection from a potential lover in “When I Went Falling” or a good-paying but soul-sucking job told in “Make It Out Alive.”
For Hall, that’s made all the difference.
“When you get to be yourself, it’s the most wonderful feeling. And when I get to do it on stage and see people listen and engage, maybe clap when it’s over, is really validating,” she said.
“Art is an offering, and an ability I developed after I lost my mom is being able to find this immense joy in giving and contributing to the world in the best way I know how.”
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