By Taylor Van Arsdale
When it comes to Hollywood, Barbara Hall has pretty much done it all. She’s a writer (Homeland, Northern Exposure, Judging Amy to name a few of her credits), a creator (Joan of Arcadia), a producer and a serious musician with two eclectic, country-infused rock albums under her belt. This multifaceted poetess is an artist in every sense of the word.
“I’ve confounded everybody since the day I arrived in Hollywood because I won’t stop doing everything I want to do,” she said. “Hollywood is such a weird place because they need you to do one thing and one thing only. For example when I first started I was a comedy writer and a drama writer and I would go back and forth and it would drive people crazy, and they were like, ‘what are you?’ And I would say, ‘I’m both.’”
And then to complicate matters, she wouldn’t stop playing music. But that’s a good thing because Hall’s down home bluesy tunes are the type of songs that get stuck in your head. On stage at the Mint, the site of her Bad Man CD release, Hall is an engaging performer, drawing her audience in with her subtle storytelling and lilting melodies. She deftly shifts gears with heartfelt intensity.
She has one rule when she plays, and that’s to have fun. She tries to make that come through in her performance. But it wasn’t always guitars and bars for the veteran writer. At one time she wanted to be a poet, but didn’t feel she could commit to the devotion it would require. We caught up to Hall at a local coffee shop and talked about rock n’ roll, her writing career and juggling creative pursuits.
“I went to the University of Bruce Springsteen,” said Hall, who saw him play when she was living in Southern Virginia. “I found him at the right time in my life and it changed everything, not just music. Everything I wanted to do came from that moment.”
Hall came to Los Angeles actually to be a music journalist. She started working for Music Connection Magazine reviewing bands. But one day she had a change of heart. She was about to give a band an unfavorable review when she realized that she hadn’t done anything remotely creative. So she wrote a novel. Hall’s sister was working in the industry at the time and unbeknownst to her, she passed the manuscript to an agent. Shortly after, Hall was offered a comedy-writing job for television.
“Maybe I had performance anxiety at the time, I don’t know, but I wanted something that felt more like fiction writing,” she said.
She honed her chops with Joshua Brand and John Falsey as story editor on A Year In the Life before co-producing Moonlighting and Anything But Love. In 1990, she began a tenure with David Chase (The Sopranos) as co-executive producer of I’ll Fly Away, which completely changed her creative approach. She said the process of being alone and working forced her to be a better writer.
She subsequently reunited with Brand, Falsey and Chase as consulting producer on Northern Exposure, after which she spent two years with Chicago Hope, first as co-executive producer, then as consulting producer. Then in 1999, she was tapped to executive produce Judging Amy, a one-hour show about a juvenile court judge and single mother, starring Amy Brenneman.
“I was having a good time, working with [Judging] Amy and CBS was struggling and suddenly we had a hit. I was really happy and there was no reason for me to do another show, but I had one idea that really excited me,” Hall said.
With a pre-teen daughter at the time Hall said she’d always been interested in updating the mystical experience and reinventing the Joan of Arc legend for modern audiences. What resulted was an Emmy-nominated CBS series Joan of Arcadia that explored the metaphysical relationship of Joan, played by Amber Tamblyn, an otherwise normal teenager who keeps meeting God in different forms.
Hart Hanson, a c0-creator of Bones, first worked with Hall as a writer on Judging Amy and later Joan of Arcadia. He said she is truly an amazing writer gifted with wit and good humor.
“When you mention the really great TV writers in town, Barbara is on that list,” Hanon said. “The secret to her success is she’s such a great writer. When you get a Barbara Hall and you can recognize her instantly. I think she’s terrifically underrated as a writer.”
Though she’s a four-time Emmy-Nominated writer, music remains Hall’s passion. Her most recent album, Bad Man is a compilation of 10 songs to make listeners think, laugh and cry. They are life-vignettes, mini-episodes, and like the ending of a good television show, they make you anticipate the next installment.
Grammy nominated composer Peter Himmelman, and longtime friend of Hall’s from her days on Judging Amy, produced the album. Himmelman brings a sound that marries the tracks together. He said they recorded it in two nights.
“For 10 songs this album’s brimming with intensity,” Himmelman said in press for the album. “It was easy, yes, but first you’ll need to find an artist like Barbara Hall, a fantastic singer, a writer who knows the magic of what makes songs connective and a hawk-eyed observer of both the foibles and triumphs of the human spirit. On second thought, that might be hard.”
“Bad Man” the title track, sets the tone for the album but it is also a departure for Hall in many ways. The lyrics are simple and to the point, yet provide a clever social commentary, “Everybody’s running to the doctor, everybody’s got a brand new pill. Ain’t that a thrill. Everybody’s reading the paper, everybody’s formulating a plan, except you, my bad man.”
For more on Barbara Hall and her work visit TheHallMonitor.com