Singer/songwriter John Hall has had a unique, fascinating career in both music and politics. He is best known for being the lead singer & songwriter for the pop/rock band Orleans, which was formed in the 1970s and still remains active today. He co-wrote (with Johanna Hall) two classic hit songs: ”Still The One” and “Dance With Me.” Also, Hall is a solo artist who has just released his new album, Reclaiming My Time (on Sunset Blvd. Records), which is his first solo album in 16 years.
In addition to his music career, Hall has the rare distinction of also being a former U.S. Congressman. He served two terms (from 2007 to 2011) in the U.S. House of Representatives, as a Democrat from the state of New York. Hall has been a political activist over the years, starting in the late ‘70s when he co-founded the Musicians United for Safe Energy (Muse) with Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Graham Nash. In 1979, Muse organized the famous No Nukes Concert, which became a concert movie and triple live album, and featured Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Browne, Raitt and other artists.
For his new album Reclaiming My Time, Hall reunited with several longtime music friends, who co-wrote songs with him or played on the album. He wrote two new songs with his former wife & collaborator, Johanna Hall. Also, Hall collaborated with country star Steve Wariner, singer/songwriter John Paul Daniel, Dar Williams, Dan Dugmore, John Cowan, Sharon Vaughn and others.
On the album, Hall wrote most of the songs with his close friend, John Paul Daniel. After Daniel’s wife passed away, Hall and Daniel wrote many new songs including the album’s first single, “Alone Too Long.” Other album highlights are the two new songs Hall wrote with Johanna Hall (“Now More Than Ever’ and “Lessons”), his collaboration with Wariner (“Another Sunset”) and the opening track “I Think Of You” (written with Vaughn).
Here’s the video of John Hall’s new single, “Alone Too Long.”
We are pleased to do this new interview with Hall. But before we get started, here’s a brief rundown of the albums Hall has recorded with his band Orleans, and as a solo artist. Orleans has released a dozen studio albums including Let There Be Music (1975), Waking and Dreaming (1876) and Forever (1979). As a solo artist, Hall has released 10 albums, including All Of The Above (1981) and Searchparty (1983).
Here’s our Q&A interview with John Hall. He discusses his new album, and he tells how he co-wrote his classic hits: “Still The One” and “Dance Wtth Me.” He also talks about his years as a Congressman.
DK: You’ve just released your first album in over a decade, Reclaiming My Time. Can you talk about the making of the album?
John Hall: It’s been 16 years since my last solo album. Most of the songs were written in the last year-and-a-half, and recorded in that time. Many of the songs were written with my good friend of 35 years, John Paul Daniel, who’s a musician and singer/songwriter and producer. He lost his wife to pancreatic cancer about a year-and-a-half ago, so I came down to Nashville from New York, for his wife’s funeral and to hang out with him for awhile. After her funeral, we wrote the song “Mystic Blue,” which is the third track on this record. Then we kept writing. We’ve been writing like fools (laughs), and most of the songs come from that period. Some of the recordings were done before the pandemic hit, but a lot of it was done in isolation with different players from different places. It’s amazing what you can do now with technology, and I’m lucky that my job can be done like that.
DK: On your new album, two of the songs were written Johanna Hall, who you wrote your Orleans hits with back in the ‘70s. Are these new songs that you wrote with her?
Hall: Yes. “Now More Than Ever” is a song that we wrote about a year ago. We started it just before the lockdown—we sat together and wrote the old-fashioned way and got the first verse and the concept of the song. Then we finished the song with FaceTime and Zoom. The other song, “Lessons,” Johanna and I wrote it with Jonell Mosser. Jonell is not only a great singer, but she’s a fabulous songwriter and lyricist. She contributed a lot of the lyrics for that song. The three of us have written about three dozen songs, so that’s been fun.
Here’s the video of Orleans’ hit, “Dance With Me.”
Another song on the record is “Another Sunset,” which Steve Wariner and I wrote together. He and I sing a duet on this song. Steve and I had written his #1 hit “You Can Dream of Me.” Most of the songs on the record are with writing partners that I have history with. And there’s one song that I wrote by myself, “Save The Monarch.”
DK: I like your new single, “Alone Too Long.’ In the press release about your album, it says that the song was written for a friend who lost his wife, and he was wondering when it was okay to start dating again. Was this song inspired by what your friend John Paul Daniel went through?
Hall: Yes. John Paul had been grieving his wife’s death for about eight months, when he asked a friend, “Is it okay to start dating again?” His friend said, “Don’t stay along too long…you might start to like it.” John Paul told me that, and I thought that’s gotta be a song. So I wrote the first verse and I had the musical outline, and Tad Richards helped write the lyrics for that song.
DK: Back in the ‘70s, you formed Orleans and had the big hits “Dance With Me” and “Still The One.” First, can you talk about how you wrote “Dance With Me”?
Hall: I was sitting in the living room of the house that Johanna and I owned in Saugerties NY, which is east of Woodstock. It was a Sunday morning and I was playing guitar in the living room, fooling around with different tunings and progressions. Then I played that melody and Johanna called out, “Sounds like Dance With Me.” So we started to write the song, and we came up with the lyrics for the first verse. But then it took two months before the song was finished. We were coming back from a gig in Ithaca, NY, and we were driving back to the Woodstock area. I was driving and she was the passenger, when suddenly she said, “Pick the beat up and kick your feet up.” Then she started scribbling on the back of an envelope. By the time we got home, the song was finished.
DK: “Still The One” is probably my favorite Orleans song, and it still sounds great today. How did you and Johanna write that one?
Here’s a lyric video of Orleans’ hit, “Still The One.”
Hall: Well, this was the opposite—this was the lyric showing up first. Before Johanna and I lived in Saugerties, we lived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in an apartment. At the time, our neighbor downstairs was breaking up with her husband, and she asked Johanna if we could write a song about staying together, because there’s so many songs about people breaking up. So Johanna wrote the entire lyric of “Still The One” on the back of an envelope, and she handed it to me. She said, “Do you think you can do anything with this?” And I wrote the music in about 15 minutes.
DK: I read that you and Johanna wrote a song for Janis Joplin for her classic album, Pearl. How did you connect with Janis?
Hall: Janis actually asked us to write a song for her, and we wrote “Half Moon,” which was on her Pearl album. Johanna was a journalist before she became a songwriter, and she had written a favorable review of Janis’ Kosmic Blues album. After she left Big Brother and the Holding Company, she had this Kosmic Blues Band with horns, which was her attempt at an R&B setting. A lot of critics didn’t like it, but Johanna liked it and gave it a good review. Then Janis’ publicist set up a sit-down interview between Janis and Johanna.
So Johanna left our apartment in Manhattan to meet Janis at a Greek restaurant. That day, I was sitting in our apartment with a guitar, and the door opened and in came Johanna with Janis Joplin behind her, which I had not expected. Janis was already a huge star.
We sat there with Janis, and we played and sang Christmas carols. It was right before Christmas. Then I played her a couple songs that I’d written the lyrics and music to, and she said, “Well I like the music, but that sounds like a young guy speaking.” I said, “’Well, I am a young guy.” So she turned to Johanna and said, “You’re a writer. You’re a woman. Why don’t you two write something together for me?” So we wrote “Half Moon,” and we drove out to California to Janis’ home in San Rafael. We played the song for her, and she loved it and recorded it on her Pearl album. She also sang it at every show from then on until she died.
DK: In 2006, you were elected as a U.S. Congressman. How did you decide to run for office?
Here’s the video for John Hall’s new song, “World On Fire.”
Hall: I had run for and won a position on the school board twice, and for the county legislature. So running for Congress was not my first campaign. But it was my first campaign for national office in Washington DC. So it was a gradual transition that came out of my environmental activism I got from writing the song “Power” (for the No Nukes concert & film), and being involved in the Save Energy/No Nukes movement and various other causes, to direct involvement in politics.
DK: When you were elected to Congress and went to Washington DC, what was it like to be a Congressman and advocate for the issues you believed in?
Hall: It’s different. In some ways, being a performer, being a public figure or a candidate are similar in some ways, because you are the product. People talk about selling your guitar solo (laughs) or selling a song. It’s one thing to have a good song; it’s another to sell it with your performance. It sounds like a mercenary way of looking at it, but it’s true. And when you’re campaigning for public office, you are the product and you’re selling your ideas. As former President Trump said, “Only I can do this.” I had to convince 650,000 people in New York’s 19th Congressional district that I was “the guy” that they should vote for. I didn’t ever say “I’m the only one,” but the implication is, “Listen to me. I know this.” And it’s easier to campaign than it is to serve in office. Once you get elected it becomes, “Okay, you talked a good game, but let’s see you do it.” And that’s much more difficult, as everybody knows in any job.
Being a Congressman was the hardest job in the sense that it was 13 hours a day, seven days a week, if you do it consciously. That’s what it was for me. In terms of how it was advocating for the issues, I have learned so much about energy—renewable, safe, all sources of energy, and the risks that the old, dirty sources bring with them—that I had no problem discussing it or explaining to people why I was voting a certain way.