Twenty-year-old Elah Hale exists as a true renaissance woman. A singer, songwriter, playwright, and model, the New York native’s talents are widespread, and all coalesce to further her budding music career. Blending jazz, R&B, pop, soul, and blues, Elah’s music swings from bright and engrossing to deeply tender and heart wrenching. Her debut EP, Room 206, features nine fetching tunes, each with their own body and bubbling energy. There is a lightness of spirit to “My House,” where Elah is coy and gentle with her potential lover. On standout “Holding You Close,” our hearts break as Elah Hale walks away from a dying love.
“Room 206 was my sophomore dorm room in college,” Elah tells me of the EP’s title. “It was the place that a lot of the music stemmed from. I didn’t realize it was my final year in college, and I had to make really big decisions about what I wanted to do. There were so many moments in that room… I decided to sign my publishing deal; I agreed to work with my management. All the big milestones happened in that room [and] I wanted to honor that time.”
The sleeper hit on Room 206, “Saab,” captures all the goodness of Elah Hale. The writing is buoyant and direct, the delivery equally so. Elah sounds confident as she hits sweet high notes over crashing percussion. Piano rolls rain down, and Elah disappears behind bleeding chords. The song, less than two minutes in length, feels like a glorious summer’s day. Elah Hale unfurls on “Saab,” and we feel oh so close to her soul.
“I was at a place where I could be creative; I could just write music; I could just be in studio sessions,” Elah explains. “I really wanted to take that and run with it and give it my all.” And she does give and give, but there’s more to Elah Hale than wounded moments and introspection.
“I would have to say ‘My House,’” Elah begins when I ask her which song she hopes fans most connect with. “It’s the true ‘fun’ song, and I feel like I haven’t done a fun song ever. I want people to connect with it and accept I can do things other than sad love songs, even though sad love songs are the best thing. I hope that people appreciate [‘My House’] and want to be a part of the fun songs, too.”
Whether she’s singing her sad love songs, or diving into a wonderful lightness of being, Elah Hale is decidedly one to watch from a city with unbridled talent.
DJBooth: When did music first come into your life?
Elah Hale: It’s always been a part of my life. Both [of] my parents are in visual arts, and they wanted me to make music. At around five, six, they enrolled me in Third Street Music School. That was when it was like, “Okay, you’re gonna study guitar, and maybe you’ll do music theory.” That was the moment I was introduced to music in a different way than listening. Right after that started, I had an absolute, newfound appreciation.
How did you know you had a knack for singing?
I still feel like I don’t have a knack for singing. The difficult part, when it comes to singing, is it all sounds so different on other people. When I think of YEBBA, and power and soul and runs, [I feel like] holy shit, I should stop singing; I should just be a songwriter. At nine and 10, I was doing Hannah Montana covers. It didn’t sound very good, but I stuck with it. Around 14, I joined a choir and got voice lessons, and that’s when I began formal learning and figuring out [singing] for myself.
You’re also a playwright and a model. How do those two artistic endeavors influence your music career?
Modeling is not the serious one. It’s the one I used to do more because I needed the money or something I could force my hand at so I could afford to do music. But, the theater and playwriting thing taught me a lot about music and the way I write music. For the short time that I was in college and doing playwriting, I had amazing professors and peers. I just learned a lot about storytelling and creating a scene. That [experience] positively impacted my music and the way I try and build a song.
That makes sense because your writing is gorgeous and direct. It makes the listener feel so close to you. Was that the goal?
I don’t think there was any specific goal, but... I was at a place where I could be creative; I could just write music; I could just be in studio sessions. I wanted to take that and run with it and give it my all. I was at a place where there was so much going on in my life, it was like, “Now is as good as any time to make music, and push yourself and prove yourself.”
Let’s talk about the debut EP, Room 206. What’s the significance of the title?
Room 206 was my sophomore dorm room in college. It was the place that a lot of the music stemmed from. I didn’t realize it was my final year in college, and I had to make really big decisions about what I wanted to do. There were so many moments in that room… I decided to sign my publishing deal; I agreed to work with my management. All the big milestones happened in that room. It was also the ending of relationships and friendships and the beginning of friendships. There was so much happening in that small space that was my home. I lived with my best friend—it was a mix of so many different things, so I wanted to honor that time.
How scary was it to leave that room, knowing all the importance it held?
There was this moment where I was sitting with my two closest friends, and they were both crying, “You’re not gonna come back. You’re gonna go off and do all of these things, and what if we never see each other.” It felt like, “No, that could never happen.” Then, reality happened a few months later. It felt really scary—and it still feels scary sometimes. But at the same time, the thought of having to write an essay right now is very funny.
You have such a lush and tender voice, which leads to highly emotive music. I think of the wrenching “Holding You Close.” How do you muster the courage to pour your heart out?
I work with really great producers. Daywave was who I did most of the EP with, and by the time we started working on “Holding You Close,” we’d done a lot of stuff together. There was already a [existing] level of trust. It was Daywave and Henry Nowhere. It didn’t feel like I was doing this super dramatic thing at the time. It felt like we were shooting out ideas and putting things down and deciding what made the most sense. Then it was like, “Wow, we really made this song.” But it felt simple and not heavy at the time, which is good!
“Holding You Close” is my favorite song, because you tackle the importance of letting go of dying loves. How do you find the strength to walk away from things that no longer serve you?
I say this a lot, but I like to know where my line is at all times with all things. It’s a scary place to be because you have to accept that the line has been crossed… For me, that’s my meter. If I know what my values are and how I would like them to be respected, and they have been crossed, then it feels like the next logical connection is to let something go.
Which song was the most important for you to write on this EP?
Probably “Holding You Close” or “Impatient.” Those are both songs that are very near and dear. “Impatient,” especially… I wrote it, and I didn’t like it at first, but I think it was because sometimes it’s hard for me to accept that something means something. I wanted to push [those thoughts] away and [say], “This isn’t how I’m feeling,” but sitting with [the songs], I accepted that’s the way things are.
I find I need space from a feeling to really process it.
Processing is important! I always talk about how I don’t feel like I do a lot of processing with other people. I do a lot of processing in my head. I do a lot of processing making music. Having an emotional release is so important and so special. Obviously, talking things out and going to therapy are important, but having that extra tool [music] is empowering for me.
What’s the one song on Room 206 you hope fans connect with most?
I always wanna say, “All of them!” I would have to say “My House,” just because it’s the true “fun” song, and I feel like I haven’t done a fun song ever. I want people to connect with it and accept I can do things other than sad love songs, even though sad love songs are the best thing. I hope that people appreciate [“My House”] and want to be a part of the fun songs, too.