With his latest album in stores now, songwriter, comedian and author Rich Hall shares some thoughts on his comedic songwriting
e’s first and foremost a comedian – he’s a regular on UK quizcoms and won Edinburgh Festival’s prestigious Perrier Award. He’s also known as a TV presenter, having fronted the critically acclaimed BBC4 documentaries How The West Was Lost and The Dirty South. But lest we forget, Rich Hall is also a songwriter, with comedy songs forming a central part of his act.
Born in Virginia, raised in North Carolina, Rich Hall first found fame on US TV in the 1980s, writing and performing on the sketch show Fridays. Since the early 90s, he’s been based in the UK, making frequent appearences on shows such as QI, Mock The Week and 8 Out Of 10 Cats as well as touring the stand-up circuit.
With a new album called Waiting On A Grammy just released, we caught up with Rich on his Hoe Down tour to find out the secrets of his comedy songwriting success…
Did you get into the comedy at the same time as you got into music?
“Many comedians will say, if their dads or moms watched comedy then they watched comedy as well. I didn’t make any judgements. There were some I thought funnier than others but none I didn’t like. But what actually inspired me to become a comedian was seeing Tom Waits, more so than seeing comedians – his great stories, and some of his songs were hilarious. I thought I wanted to do something like that – I wanted to tell stories, I wanted to be funny. I’d never picked up a guitar at that time.”
So when did you start playing music and incorporating songs into your comedy act?
“I didn’t pick up a guitar until I was 47/48, when I’d already been a comedian for 15 or 16 years. When I started coming over here [the UK] I could try something experimental, moving around piano and guitar, and got some musicians. I invented the character Otis Lee Crenshaw, which made up for the fact I had no real musical skills because he was supposed to be self-taught, a guy who’d lived his whole life in and out of jail. He was bitter and couldn’t understand why his songs never got sold.
“It’s easier for me to write melodies than play them”
“When you surround yourself with good musicians, all you really have to worry about is the lyrics and the melody. It’s easier for me to write melodies than play them, and in this country, audiences are more receptive to doing something musical. In the US at the time, musical comedy was just about singing current hits and changing the lyrics around. Since then there have been songwriters like Flight of the Conchords and Tim Minchin, so musical comedy has gone past the point of just cheap knock-offs of popular songs.”
Had music been a big part of your life before that point?
“I grew up listening to country music: my dad was a great Johnny Cash fan. It’s ripe for parody but I didn’t want to do that because I have too much love for it. It’s a little hard to understand in this country, but it’s the only music where there is a whole lifestyle behind. It’s all that people had. It’s written for working class people. That is kind of my upbringing. It was always on the radio… still is. But nowadays you can drive down the road and listen to most country music and predict what the next line will be. You really have to work hard to find the good stuff.
“Then later I started listening to people like Warren Zevon, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan. I always liked lyrics. Lyrics were always more important than the melody. All true country songs are really three-minute soap operas. Zevon just blew me away. He is not as appreciated in this country but he has his fans. Zevon and Costello came out kind of the same time, and Squeeze. It all happened at the same time – a very vibrant time.
“John Prine was also a huge influence. I love the guys who just told great stories. The singing voice was never important to me. I always wanted to see someone put out a complete show and talk between songs. That was the part of me that appreciated the comedy.”
Do you have a particular technique for writing songs?
“No, not really. I was talking to Rob [Childs, Rich’s guitarist] about this the other day – and this is not to diminish songwriters – but it seems so much easier to write a heartfelt good love song or a serious song. If I started earlier I could probably write them. It’s hard trying to come up with a comedic idea, there’s no tap you can turn on.
“You wouldn’t believe the amount of songs I thought were going to work but just didn’t because they have to have a comedic element that works the whole way through. It just takes forever, and then I can never work out why one song works and another doesn’t. I wish I could be more prolific, but it takes ages to make one work.
“Having said that I do try to improvise or build patterns and try and work around songs – that has an immediacy that people love. It doesn’t always work, but people are very forgiving. To me the secret there is to not make people feel too self-conscious. I am singing to them, but you have to make it celebratory, for instance about where they’re from or what they do for a living. Or with a couple, you might want to put pressure on them to make something happen. Put people on edge. But they trust you that you’re not really evil. The evilest thing is putting them in the spotlight.
“If someone has a mundane job you have to turn it into something. You collect little bits of information and then try and work it back into a song. It’s really exhilarating and sometimes blows the roof off, and even when it doesn’t I think people just enjoy me desperately looking for a rhyme.”
A much-loved Otis number is The Scrabble Song, which starts with the lines: “You coulda played HEART / The word was right there from the start/But you rearranged the letters/And it came out HATER” and “finishes with “You coulda played BEDROOM and PLEASE/But you played BOREDOM and ASLEEP/And I don’t need these ACRIMONIES/So I’m moving to MICRONESIA”. What can you tell us about that song?
“A song like that is just about unlocking the puzzle. I probably went online to seek anagrams. As regards ‘Micronesia’, a viewer has since pointed out you would not be able to use it in Scrabble, because it’s the name of a group of islands.”
Your new album includes the song Bob Dylan (Is Getting Back Together), which tackles Dylan’s recent live performances and includes the lines: “The keepers of his flame at his feet did sit/Now I think it’s time that we admit/Since 1978 he hasn’t been that great and now Bob Dylan kinda sucks”. Those are controversial words!
“I love Bob Dylan, so I really wrestled with that song. I was in Montana working with a couple of musicians, and I was working on the lyrics and I tried it out with them. And the guy who plays guitar, his name is Shaun, who loves Bob Dylan and often does Dylan songs in his show, he just said: ‘I’m not singing this.’ I said: ‘I know, but it has to be said.’
“I’ve blown a good $300 now going to see him and he’s let me down every time. Now he just goes over and threatens to play piano and threatens to play guitar and sometimes he just sings and you’re halfway through a song before you realise what he’s singing. I’ve been told he doesn’t want people to sing along to his songs, so he changes them.
“We went in the studio to record it and that’s when I decided to play a bad harmonica. I can’t play it. But he is a horrible harmonica player.”
“I can only remember one song which I wrote all at once”
One of the most beautiful songs on your album is Atheist Cowboy. Can you tell us a bit about that song?
“That’s the only song, I’ve had a couple of musicians ask to record. You have to have the right audience. You really have to tune in and listen. It’s bordering on not being funny but I like playing it. But I very seldom do it: you have to have a small, rapt audience.
“It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment I came up with the idea… it just simmered in the back of my mind until finally it was there. Very seldom do I think, ‘Fuck, that’s a great idea’. I can only remember one song which I wrote all at once, which was Rodeo Man From The Shetland Islands. I was on a train, on the way to a gig, and it all came out at once. I did it at the gig that night just like that.”
Interview: Nic Rigby (@nicrigby1)
To keep up with all things Rich Hall, visit his official website. His latest BBC documentary, Rich Hall’s California Stars, airs on BBC Four on 20 July
Nic is part of Norwich band Emperor Norton – @emperornorton1 on Twitter – and organiser of Uke East Music Festival.