Updated: Thursday, 2nd April 2020 @ 10:55am

From crazy days: Risa Hall on being an adopted Mancunian and the making of Second Chances

From crazy days: Risa Hall on being an adopted Mancunian and the making of Second Chances

By Liam Barnes

There is an old cliché about having a lifetime to write your debut record.

This usually refers to new artists releasing their debut albums as fresh-faced, naïve youngsters, often just out of school and wet behind the ears. Others, however, have more expansive experiences to share.

Risa Hall is a vibrant, engaging New Yorker with stacks of tales to tell, and during an in-depth interview she spoke about growing up with punk icons The Ramones, acting in a string of musicals and the tumultuous genesis of her music career.

Since 2006, the adopted Mancunian – she moved to Middleton in 1983 after marrying her first husband and now lives in Whitefield – picked up her guitar and rekindled her love for writing music, culminating in forthcoming album Second Chances.

A genre-hopping, multi-faceted curio, it showcases Risa’s range of talents, with touches of Traffic, Steely Dan and even patches of punk all underpinned by a distinctive vocal power and imagination. The worldly eclecticism reflects an epic journey.

“I started out in a prog rock group when I was younger, but I was an idiot and I messed up,” she said. “I didn’t know where to go with it, so I ended up pursuing acting for quite a few years.

“Over the years I did a lot of stuff with Granada and BBC, which allowed me to work and come home to my kids afterwards. With music there’s a lot more moving around and being away for long periods, and I couldn’t have done that when my kids were young, but now they’re grown up it’s easier.

“I really enjoyed all my years of acting, but music was always my first love, and a few years back when I heard people like KT Tunstall and Nerina Pallot – who I think are absolutely brilliant – it inspired me to start writing songs again. I did open mic nights and all sorts of gigs, and now I’ve got a really loyal set of fans who often travel really far to support me.”

Growing up in Forest Hills, Queens, she came from a hotbed of music, with high school alumni including Simon & Garfunkel, guitarist Leslie West and, of course, The Ramones.

“I was friends with Dee Dee, and my brother Dave was in a band with Joey’s brother Mickey, so we knew them really well,” she said. “They were really great guys – they even came to some of my gigs!”

Speaking about the early Seventies and the community of quality musicians, she added: “In those days loving people just congregated together. You don’t find it in the same way anymore; now it’s much less personal, more based around the internet.”

Second Chances was initially released as Glass Half... in May 2010 - “It wasn’t really released properly, physically it didn’t appear anywhere,” said Risa – but with backing from new record company Red Disc Records it’s finally getting the support it deserves.

Speaking about the reception Second Chances has received, she said: “Most people have praised it for its eclecticism, but there’s still continuity as I can perform in all these styles. I’ve been in rock bands and I’ve done lots of musical theatre, and it all comes together here.”

The broad range of styles was not a conscious decision, but more of an organic result reflecting the marathon, meandering formative process.

“I like to mix it up,” she said. “I never think I’m going to write a song in this way or that genre, it just comes out from how I feel at the time.

“You might think it’s mostly older people who buy my music, but I’ve had quite a few students at recent gigs who’ve bought the album afterwards. I suppose as my music’s quite eclectic there’s something for everyone to find in it, which is great.”

An erudite and enthusiastic fan of prog, punk and everything in between, Risa’s catholic approach to music is best seen in one of her favourite musicians.

Steve Winwood is my idol,” she said. “I was a big follower of his since the Spencer Davis Group and I’ve always been a huge Traffic fan. His solo work’s also excellent, even though it’s so different from his other work. He’s always been an inspiration.”                                                                                                                      

Another key player in the making of Second Chances was acclaimed producer Nigel Stonier. Also husband of singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore, Stonier provided invaluable support.

Risa said: “A friend works with him and I’m a massive fan of his and Thea’s work. I sort of admired him from afar, so my friend gave him a copy of my EP. I couldn’t believe it when he called, I was so happy!”

She added: “It was really lucky to get him to work on the album. He’s a genius. He played most of the instruments on the album, which really helped to keep recording time short and costs down. It showed how much he believed in me – I’m so grateful, he’s just incredible.”

Nigel, as well as Risa’s fans and friends, also helped out in a more direct way, donating over £2,000 to the making of the album through Pledge Music.

“I saved up a lot, then Nigel, a lot of my friends and other people chipped in to help – it was an absolutely incredible amount of generosity,” said Risa.

“The music community is so generous, and two of my friends even donated £500 each – they really were a huge part of making the album. I love them all.”

With the album ready to go, Risa has been busy planning for the future, with plenty of new material and a tour of Australia later in the year all lined up.

“I’ve got loads of songs ready for the second album and I think it will be even better than the first as I’ve developed so much,” she said. “I’ve done this for six years now and I don’t think that’s a very long time.”