After graduating from a rural Midwest college in 2011, Pinegrove frontman Evan Stephens Hall followed the path of countless singer-songwriters before him and moved to New York City to hone his craft. However, that dream didn’t quite turn into a reality and, instead of connecting with one of the five boroughs’ legendary artistic communities, Hall found himself—again, like so many others—disenchanted with the harsh necessities and burdens a massive city can place on a burgeoning artist.
“The narrative is that bands are supposed to move to Brooklyn, and then they make it—but why does that have to be the case?” Hall says, noting that the service-industry jobs he ended up working sometimes left him lacking the energy or even creative spirit to pursue his songwriting. “And isn’t that even perhaps a little bit phony? I mean, I’m not from Brooklyn; I’ve never really spent time in a city. And that type of pace and mentality just didn’t work for me. So I had a real epiphany where I was like, ‘I need to design my life to work around this thing. All my decisions should be in the service of my decision to write songs and make art.’”
A subsequent move back to his hometown of Montclair, N.J., gave Hall the breathing room to ramp up his musical production with Pinegrove— the group he founded with childhood friend and drummer Zack Levine—eventually leading to the release of their 2016 indie crossover, Cardinal. (Deserving or not, the record also landed them one of the more fascinating music-blog-generated genre labels in recent memory: “emo country.”) The album, recorded in the relatively lo-fi style that Hall and Levine have utilized for years, expertly showcased Hall’s gift for delivering intellectual and introspective lyrics that touch on self-doubt, remorse, community and redemption.
Now, at the other end of a decade that started with that ill-fated stint in the big city, Hall finds himself settled back into rural life at the Upstate New York house he shares with Zack’s brother, contributing Pinegrove multi-instrumentalist Nick Levine. Hall and company have already recorded two albums in their Big Pink-like oasis: 2018’ Skylight and this year’s Marigold, which is set for release in mid-January.
Hall, who admits that a sense of place is one of the stronger through lines in his songwriting, explains that the remote location—situated right next to a dairy farm that houses some 600 cows—affords the band a freedom that would be unattainable in many traditional studios.
“It’s quite isolated, so that means you can track a drum take at midnight if you want to,” Hall says. “That meant we could start and end when we wanted to. And that opens up a really particular type of energetic space where you’re more calm and confident and willing to take risks, and less willing to settle for takes. We’ve always self-produced, and I think the reason behind that, primarily, is that it’s a more spontaneous process. Rural America is a way more patient place to be. It’s slow. My relationship to time changed and that is a major theme on Marigold. We’re talking about how everything feels so stretched out—and there are a variety of responses to that. You can respond anxiously or you can respond patiently and you can see me oscillating between those two responses on the album—but I hope that the place I land is a place of patience.”
With Marigold, Hall and his extended family of collaborators—including singer/keyboardist Nandi Rose (who also records as Half Waif), multi-instrumentalists Sam Skinner and Josh Marré, and even Hall and the Levines’ fathers—deliberately tried to move away from the openspace approach that imbued Skylight’s tracks with an expansive, natural reverb. Constructing a series of sound-proofing partitions covered in colored cloth— Hall affectionately calls them “these really friendly little creatures”—the band sectioned off each instrumental take, making for a supremely intimate sound that matches how Hall views his recent writing sessions.
“I’m starting to notice a pattern in my writing, where I’ll take a long time to write a more conceptual project, and then the one that pops out right afterward, if I still have momentum, will be a more ‘heart on the sleeve’ attempt,” he says, referring to his different approaches to crafting Skylight and Marigold, respectively.
In 2017, as Pinegrove were growing a dedicated fanbase and prepping for the announcement of the followup to their breakthrough album, the band abruptly went on hiatus following a vaguely outlined but clearly tumultuous relationship Hall had with a woman who asked him to delay the band’s new record as well as their touring schedule—a request that they respectfully acquiesced to. On the other side of what Hall calls “a really complicated part of my life,” he explains that he feels a renewed sense of responsibility to his fans as his band returns to the public eye. (Pitchfork shined some much-needed light on the story, publishing an in-depth and revelatory profile prior to Skylight’s release.)
“I believe Pinegrove, at least for me, is the best way to spread a message of equality and inclusiveness. I want to make music that validates who you are and what you’re going through,” he reflects. “There’s a Rorschach element to what we do, and that’s on purpose. Rather than directing what emotion you should be feeling, it’s more like opening an energetic space for you to feel whatever it is you’re supposed to be feeling or need to be feeling at that moment. That responsibility—and opportunity—is a tremendously motivating factor in my life as an artist. More than ever, I feel responsible for doing my absolute best to open up that space for people and to affirm the human experience.”