Q&A: Evan Stephens Hall from Pinegrove – ‘Being alive is very weird and being weird is very alive’

Evan Stephens Hall plays with his band Pinegrove in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Will Fisher/Creative Commons)

On Friday night, about 20 people piled into a house on Alder Street for an intimate performance with Evan Stephens Hall of the up-and-coming alt-country band Pinegrove. Hall is the lead singer and songwriter behind the Montclair, New Jersey, based band.

The audience sat on the floor singing along as Hall sang songs about everything from toast to the spirituality of vowels. He ended the set on Cardinal’s closing track, “New Friends,” with voices ringing throughout the room. The singer answered questions from the audience and talked about his affinity for “tiny art” and short songs throughout the set, making the night feel more like an intimate conversation than a concert.

Pinegrove’s Run for Cover Records debut, Cardinal, topped end of the year lists at Pitchfork and other music news outlets. With its meld of emo, alt-country and even pop characteristics, the band has found a unique voice that appeals to a wide range of listeners from all over the country.

The Emerald spoke with Hall following his performance.

Emerald: You talked about liking short art during your set tonight.

Evan Stephens Hall: Tiny art!

E: I like that specific wording. What is it about tiny art, that smallness, that draws you in?

ESH: I think it’s a rigorously editorial approach because I think that making art in the first place involves imposing a frame on something. All of these connections already exist; we are just isolating them. And the more potent you can make that observation, the harder it lands typically. So when we see something that is short that is really, really moving, it tends to be more memorable than anything else.

And I don’t think this has much to do with the trend right now of speed and scrolling through your newsfeed or whatever. It’s something slightly different. It’s more valuing the essence of what art is like.

E: I get that. I totally get that. Even in journalism we talk about writing more than you need to and then cutting, cutting, cutting. I think that’s a big idea.

ESH: I want to suggest too that maybe these are words to live by because the things that are positive in your life should be emphasized. The things that are negative, we should be editing them out. The people that you hang out with, they don’t treat you well? Don’t hang out with them anymore. You have a job that you feel you have nightmares about? Find something else if you can.

E: On that note then, do you think your music is more introspective or something outward, the opposite? Or do you think it finds a balance somewhere in between?

ESH: You know it might be a lot on the plate, but it tries to do both. It starts introspectively, but the editing process has to do with how I expect it to be received. I think there are a lot of authors that anticipate the criticism within their works, especially David Foster Wallace. He’s the king of neurosis. It’s like, ‘Yeah, I know you’re going to call me on being self-conscious, but I’m going to be way more self-conscious than the person that thinks I’m self-conscious.’ I think I maybe took a cue from that, trying to anticipate the criticisms.

This is all a weird way to say that there is an external thrust, there’s a gesture towards an imagined listenership. Now that I know that people are listening I want to be talking about things that matter to me and things that might help somebody.

E: On that note of gaining listenership and an audience, what do you want to come from this next year for you? As a musician, as a person, as an artist, what do you want now that you have an established listenership? What do you want to do next?

ESH: I’ve always wanted to do this, so it’s really strange to get what you want. I don’t know. I look forward to moving out of my parents’ house. I want to establish a space of my own that’s very productive and fertile for me. I want to keep traveling and learn the basics of camping and figuring out how to do that on my own. I want to write the best music I can.

E: You’ve been doing a lot of these house shows recently. Do you prefer this type of environment where you get to interact with the audience and ask these questions and have these conversations or do you like having some distance? What do you prefer?

ESH: They’re different. I really appreciate the support that my band members give me. There’s a certain consistency to that. This one is way more seat-of-the-pants, which I like. I like being able to be more talkative because there’s not an explicit set time. Part of this is about opening up and kind of performing vulnerability. That’s not really something that I can do that well with the band. As a six person group, we just don’t seem vulnerable because we’re a crew that’s pretty deep. That’s not really a priority of ours, exactly. But we’re doing different things and I love them both.

E: To end on a positive note, to ‘edit out’ and get rid of the negative things, what was your favorite moment of last year for you? Or favorite milestone that you’ve reached.

ESH: It’s been such a year. Like I said this is something that I’ve always wanted to do. That it’s a professionally viable option for me is just amazing and I’m grateful for it every day. Even though it’s hard to open myself up so regularly, I need to figure out how to find time and to protect myself. But I also feel like this is the thing I have and am best-suited to give in this resistance, in this revolution. I do what I can and this is the best outlet for me. It’s felt really good to be able to connect with people who feel really fervent about making the world a better place. It’s been great to meet people through this.

Watch Pinegrove’s Tiny Desk Concert on NPR below: 

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