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Hala New Album, ‘Red Herring,’ Is A Genre-Hopping, Coming-of-Age Mixtape

[American Songwriter]

By Matt Wallock

It took Ian Ruhala–the 22-year-old Detroit singer-songwriter behind Hala–roughly three years to bring his new record to life.

“It is crazy to think that with Spoonfed–my 2016 release–I had just turned 19,” Hala told American Songwriter in a recent email interview, featured below. “Now, Red Herring is coming out two days before my 23rd birthday. I find this record to be the closest thing I have to a picture book of those years in between. I like to think Red Herring is very much a coming-of-age record, as well as a body of work that fluctuates in the emotion it provokes. I relate it to the concept of the tragicomedy. It is a collection of sad and silly songs in a way.”

Red Herring may be “a collection of sad and silly songs,” but it’s also Hala’s most sophisticated and varied release yet. Hala–who’spreviously said “I just want to genre-hop as much as I can”–fully embraces this impulse on the record, drawing from multiple eras of rock, pop, jazz, R&B, country, and folk.

“I wanted the record to sonically feel [like] a mixtape, jumping from genre to genre when it felt most applicable,” Hala explains. “Songs like ‘Camera’ highlight my love for old country and the more avant-garde Kinks’ recordings, while ‘Why Do You Want Anything To Do With Me’ and ‘Making Me Nervous’ were my attempt at making polished pop music.”

Red Herring will arrive this Friday as a highly-anticipated studio debut from an artist who ground his teeth tracking his own tunes in bedrooms, attics, and basements before uploading them to bandcamp. He recorded Red Herring at Seattle’s Bear Creek Studios with producer Ryan Hadlock, who’s best known as the producer of the Lumineers’ 2012 self-titled debut. 

“It was important to both of us that the record was a hodge-podge, in a way, of home and studio recordings,” says Hala of the production process. “So we combined many of the demo tracks I had worked on at home with the tracks done at Bear Creek.”

Hala spoke to American Songwriter about writing and recording Red Herring, the current state of lo-fi music, and some of his recent inspirations from The Byrds to BRONCHO. Check out the full interview below, and pre-order Red Herring here.

American Songwriter: When did you write and record the songs on Red Herring? What are some of the album’s throughlines?

Hala: I began writing the songs for this record shortly after my 2016 release, and I spent a few years demoing what would eventually become Red Herring. It took until the fall of 2019 for the whole project to be completed.

It is crazy to think that with Spoonfed–my 2016 release–I had just turned 19. Now, Red Herring is coming out two days before my 23rd birthday. I find this record to be the closest thing I have to a picture book of those years in between. I like to think Red Herring is very much a coming-of-age record, as well as a body of work that fluctuates in the emotion it provokes. I relate it to the concept of the tragicomedy. It is a collection of sad and silly songs in a way.

From a production perspective, how does this record compare to previous releases? I know you ditched your beloved bedroom / attic settings for the studio–why the shift? And what was it like to work with Ryan Hadlock?

Working with Ryan was great. For basically all of the sessions we did, it was just Ryan, his engineer Taylor Carroll, and myself, in the beautiful confines of what is Bear Creek. Some mornings I would wake up in the cabin on the property, and have to pinch myself to make sure I was actually present and there.

Ryan and I both had a hand in the production of this release. And, it was important to both of us that the record was a hodge-podge, in a way, of home and studio recordings. So we combined many of the demo tracks I had worked on at home with the tracks done at Bear Creek. I think the blend works nicely, and it makes the record more unique because it has two schools of thought being applied to the production process. 

You said in a 2018 interview that your music is “just like guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll through the lens of recording at home, so lo-fi is sometimes attached – but I don’t know, I’m not purposefully trying to sound like shit.” You also said “I just want to genre-hop as much as I can.” Does this extend to Red Herring? What’re some of the vibes or genres you dip into?

This most definitely applies to Red. I wanted the record to sonically feel [like] a mixtape, jumping from genre to genre when it felt most applicable. Songs like “Camera” highlight my love for old country and the more avant-garde Kinks’ recordings, while “Why Do You Want Anything To Do With Me” and “Making Me Nervous” were my attempt at making polished pop music. I don’t know, most records I like to listen to don’t sound like 12 tracks of the same.

That comment I think still holds true. I think some lo-fi music, from a production standpoint, can be the most thoughtful recorded music, because every instrument is tracked in a way to make the listener attentive to the production from start to finish. Sometimes I get lo-fi and hi-fi confused for this reason. I think more and more popular music is beginning to be made with this in mind too. In a way, it makes the whole song, and the gear used to record, an instrument all on its own. Like any good drink, it is the blend, and combination, that make it what it is. 

I wanted to ask about the album closer, “True Colors,” which is the shortest and sparest track on the record. What’s that song about? What made you want to end on that tune?

I knew I wanted “True Colors” to be the last track on the record long before my sessions in Washington. I wanted it to be the counter to “Red Herring,” which is the most involved track, production-wise. I think “Red Herring” ended up having well over one hundred individual tracks in the session, while “True Colors” had only two: the vocal and the baritone ukulele track. We ran the master into a Studer tape deck (similar to what Paul McCartney used on McCartney II) in order to further set apart these two songs. 

I was watching a lot of true crime television when I wrote “True Colors.” And, I thought it would be an interesting challenge to have a song that is lyrically quite dark, wrapped in cute instrumentation. I wanted the song to sound like a Tiny Tim b-side. 

You were still in school as of 2018. Did you end up graduating?

I aim to go back and finish my degree, because I value my education, but I am not in school currently. I was studying communication, which lended me many useful terms when it came to my songwriting vocabulary, including [on] Red Herring

Do you have a backing band at the moment? If so, how’d you get connected? Do you approach solo sessions or gigs differently than those with a band?

I do! It consists of my roommates–Austin Blicher and Jack Engwall–as well as my dear friend John Kick (yes, that is his last name, and yes, he is the drummer in the group). We got connected just like anybody else does in the Detroit scene, by going to shows and bumping into one another. 

When we play live, our mantra is to play fast, and play loud. We try to channel the live bands we adore. 

Writing and recording all of the music on my own, I have this freedom I really enjoy. I can take the songs to my bandmates, and they take on a whole different life of their own in that setting. With solo sets or sessions, I again feel this freedom, but in a much more independent mindset.

You’ve cited The Who and Paul McCartney as early influences. What are some recent influences? 

When recording this record, I was really getting into The Kinks, as well as Emmit Rhodes and Arthur Russell. McCartney represents to me a sense of artistic individuality that I always will to aspire to. And  The Who’s [Singles] 1965-1967–nothing beats that for me. I look at that body of work as the basis for punk music.

Recently, I have been listening to a lot of The Byrds, as well as BRONCHO. I just bought a twelve-string electric guitar as a result of the former. 

Red Herring is out May 1 via Cinematic.