Girl With Guitar
by Craig Silliphant
December 12, 2011A guitar-slinging blonde bombshell with a brain to boot, Val Halla was born and raised in Regina, but has since traveled North America, becoming a road-tested veteran and even doing a tour with The Motor City Madman, Ted Nugent.
Val Halla jumps around between the bluesy, guitar-driven rock that she grew up with, indie acts with big riffs, and a softer, new school country sound. In fact, some have referred to her fusion of these styles as ‘grunty,’ a cross between grunge and country. She refuses to be contained by demographics, and not even industry heavyweights can tell this firebrand what she should be thinking or doing.
She’s been featured in Guitar Player magazine, lived in Vancouver and Nashville, performed with Def 3 at the Saskatchewan Olympic Pavilion in Vancouver, and had Steely Dan’s Elliot Randall play on her recent album, “No Place”. I caught up with Val Halla, getting her thoughts on her music, women in the industry, and the controversial antics of The Nuge himself.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: What is your earliest musical memory?
VAL HALLA: I know my mom used to rock out to Englebert Humperdink - she had his music blasting in the living room when I was three or four years old. I still remember those lyrics to this day. The first 3 songs I ever remember falling in love with were Toto’s “Africa”, Billy Joel’s “In the Middle of the Night”, and Meatloaf‘s“Two Outta Three Ain’t Bad”. Around that same time, I wrote my first song called “My Dog Mickey”, which I still have the sheet music for. It was 1990, so I was either five or six years old.
CRAIG: How did you pick up the guitar itself?
VAL: My mom had an old nylon string guitar sitting in the basement I discovered when I was about 11 years old. I found a Mel Bay chord book and I was off and running. The first songs I learned were worship songs from this Christian horseback riding camp I went to for a week in the summer, and then I moved up to Weird Al Yankovic songs by the fall. I started taking guitar lessons when I was 12 and my teacher introduced me to Nirvana. That band changed my life forever. My next teacher introduced me to the blues and sealed my fate.
CRAIG: Who are your biggest influences?
VAL: Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Rage Against the Machine as far as guitar grooves and attitude. Ted Nugent has had the single biggest influence on me as far as another musician I have been able to learn from live and in person. James Brown and Michael Jackson are influences in both their work ethic and their intentions to use their success to try to make things better for people in general - people who are often considered ‘underdogs.’
CRAIG: What do you like to write about? What is your songwriting process?
VAL: I write about anything that eats away at me enough inside to prompt me to pick up some paper and a pen. I don’t usually sit down and say, ‘I am now going to write a song.’ I try to just constantly keep notes or jot down little ideas that pop up when something either disturbs me, or angers me, or makes me feel lonely, or happy, or loved, or unloved. [Whenever] I find myself in a trance, thinking about where your stare settles on one spot for too long and the room is more a blurred jumble than any one thing really being in focus. When I realize I’m in that mesmerized state over something, I will start to write if the emotions are compelling enough. Then when I have time to actually sit down and get to work, it’s more of looking through all the writing and trying to spot something that to me is very strong and the words make me relive the emotion. If it stands out at me from the paper I wrote on, days or weeks, months or years later, then I know it’s worth building around. That being said, sometimes it all just comes at once, lyrics and melody, and the song is finished in ten minutes and I can’t stop playing it for the next week straight. Those are usually pretty magical. I once wrote a song in my sleep with Sarah McLachlan. She even spoke in a different language at one point and I left that in the song. I believe it is Latvian. If I ever record or publish the song I guess I’ll have to include her as a co-writer.
CRAIG: Are you still based out of Regina? Is it easy to operate from that home base these days, with the internet and stuff?
VAL: I am indeed based out of Regina, though I did have an apartment down in Nashville from about June of 2008 until [August] of 2011. I was going back and forth constantly, and traveling and touring like a mad woman as well. I’m pretty excited to be back in Regina full time now and I’m not worried about location at all this point as far as keeping a career going. The internet definitely has opened up the entire world market to musicians everywhere. It is just fierce competition to get noticed in markets you aren’t touring in. So as a home base, Regina is a killer spot, but whenever I do end up hitting the road again, I will have to be strategic and diligent with my performing outside of Saskatchewan to maximize my music outreach program. Like the Blues Brothers, “I’m on a mission from Gawd.”
CRAIG: What is something about you that most people wouldn’t know?
VAL: After hiring someone to investigate our family ancestry, we discovered my great great-great grandmother was from the Red River Settlement in Manitoba, and we have Swampy Cree heritage. I think that’s pretty cool and I’d like to learn a lot more about that part of my heritage and Swampy Cree culture.
CRAIG: Your latest album is called No Place. Where did that name come from?
VAL: The original line came from my song “Black Butterflies” where I say, “This ain’t no place for the weak at heart.” Originally, I had intended that to refer to what it’s like to be in the music industry, pursuing your dream, and all the BS you end up having to go through in order to do that. When I started considering the phrase No Place for the album though, it took on a whole other meaning to me. Even before the album was out, I was being met with a lot of discouraging words from industry people about the genre the music was taking on. All these bigwigs were telling me that I needed to just pick one sound and stick with that. They may as well have just said “pick a sound and beat it to death with a stick” since that’s what record companies are notorious for. Being the stubborn prairie woman that I am, I wasn’t about to change what I was doing for the sake of some corporate boneheads. So calling it No Place became my own acknowledgment, [saying], “Yes, I know it’s different and won’t fit your marketing ideas or your radio formats - so either get over it or get out of the way.”
CRAIG: I love that. Speaking of the industry - what do you notice as a woman in the game?
VAL: It’s harder. It’s a male-dominated and male-run industry. The music industry is hard for anyone and everyone, but it can be dangerous for a single female trying to navigate her way through a workforce [made up of mostly men], where 70% are going to be good people worthy of trust, but 30% are going to be some of the most shady, slimy, cut throat, and manipulative men you’ve ever met. There are two young female guitar players I know, both under 20 with exceptional talent, that I have traded phone numbers with and told them to call me if they ever need anything. [I wish there was] someone who could have been watching out for me when I was growing up in this business.
CRAIG: You opened for one of my Canadian favourites, Burton Cummings - someone my Mom used to play around the house when I was little.
VAL: Opening for Cummings was a huge treat for me. I got to do the show solo with my hollow body guitar, and it was at this historic venue called the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. It was the venue where Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper all played their last show before getting in the airplane that would crash and take their lives. Burton laid it down that night too. I think he was inspired by his surroundings, being a big Buddy Holly fan. I grew up listening to The Guess Who too, so again it was another crazy night to have a girl from Regina opening for a guy from Winnipeg down in Iowa! It felt like we were part of a special members-only club in a room full of Americans.
CRAIG: You also opened for Alice Cooper.
VAL: It was very sentimental for our drummer Tristan Helgason, and I think for everyone in the band it was one of those moments where you get to sit back after all the rough bars, long drives, and poverty, and just go, “ahhh…it has all been worth it!”
CRAIG: You did the opening slot on a tour with Ted Nugent. As a woman, did it bother you to be associated with Nugent, who is known in the media to be a misogynist, homophobic, racist? How do you draw the line between, ‘I need to do this for business,’ and, ‘I don’t want to be associated with hate against women, gays, and other cultures?’
VAL: I find this a bit of a loaded question, as the opinion of Ted Nugent being a misogynist, homophobic, racist is strictly that; an opinion. The dilemma in my mind was, do I want to be associated with someone who has very different political ideals than my own? As far as his ideals and his words that I don’t agree with, I don’t see why any of that should reflect onto me. I’m my own woman, he is his own man. If people assume I think like he does just because I play guitar on stage before he plays guitar on stage, that is their own ignorance coming into play. He’s definitely one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. On a personal note, Ted never treated me as less of a person at any point (being a woman). He was very professional, showed a lot of respect, and treated me as an equal as a musician, even though I felt like a nobody compared to his accomplishments and musicianship.
CRAIG: So ultimately, it was a good experience for you?
VAL: Taking that tour was the best thing I ever did for my soul. It taught me about compassion, forgiveness, and communication. I learned a lot about American culture, and why and how it differs from Canadian culture. I learned about conservative values, as opposed to the more socialist values I had grown up around in Regina, and I was actually glad to hear from the other side.
CRAIG: So, life, fate, and The Nuge aside, what does the crystal ball hold for Val Halla?
VAL: [Writing] for the next 6 months. I’m planning to do another Val Halla album this summer, as well as a secret side project album I have on the go. So it’s time for me to get off the road and go back into my cave to make some more creations. Rest assured, the next Val Halla album will have a lot to say about the last 2 years and what I’ve witnessed down in America, as well as what I’ve witnessed in the inner workings of the music business. I would say there are a few scores that still need to be settled. So if my music was controversial in sound before, it might add a new level of controversy in terms of lyrics this time around. I’ve got nothing to lose at this point, and that is very liberating to me, and sort of terrifying to a lot of other people! I can’t wait to see what happens.
For more on Val Halla, visit her website at www.valhallaonline.com.