The Niche Qualities of Lo-Fi Pop: An Interview with Ghost Orchard

By Ava Mirzadegan

A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of speaking with Sam Hall of Ghost Orchard. On the artist’s third album, Bunny, Hall’s lo-fi trap-influenced work is moving more towards a pop sound while retaining a unique blend of his musical beginnings. 

Having been mastered by Hall, the record is a stunning accomplishment in a modernized musical climate where the strands of genre are no longer distinguishable as much as they are felt as a woven fabric of sound. Hall’s lyrics evoke the desperation felt in one’s youth as well as the pain of leaving it behind. Despite the darker overtones of the modulated vocals, Hall’s voice comes across as vulnerable and sincere as they deliver phrases about highways, clouds, fitting in, time passing, and summer.

Hey, how's it going?

Hi Ava. I'm good. How are you?

I'm doing okay. I had to work today and my feet are super tired and I came home and I was like, I'm gonna nap and then I just like couldn't sleep at all. So I'm in that weird kind of delirious state. So my apologies if I'm super weird. 

That's okay. I feel like I have to take a nap every day after work even if I don't even want to.

We talked a bit about what Sam’s job is right now. WIthout going into too much detail or getting anyone into trouble, the phrase “popcorn nepotism” was thrown around.

Were you at work today?

No I've had a really relaxing day today. We went to a park for a while. And then after we were driving back, and I was like do you want to go to the dog park. So we went to the dog park and we don't have a dog or anything, but we want one really bad. We just kind of lived vicariously through them.

I always wonder if it's like creepy to do that though. It's like going to a playground if you don't have a kid, right?

Yeah, we get a couple weird looks every time, but the goal is to stay there long enough to where everybody changes over and they're like "they've been here the whole time they must have a dog."

There's a method. Yeah, I like that. Oh my God. Okay. So that's how you spent today. How is 2019 been treating you like? 

I've been sitting on this record for a really long time. So I've been kind of losing my mind trying to get it out and that mixed with this kind of like existential dread every day about the world that we live in. It's really fucked up. So I'm just doing my best to kind of find serenity and in places.

That's beautiful. Where do you find serenity other than at the dog park and in music?

I've been watching a lot of anime. There's this one show I really love called “Haikyu!!” -- it's this volleyball anime. I've watched it like four times now. It's the most pure television I've watched in my entire life. It's my happy place. Other than that I've been taking care of plants and that's really cathartic too. Just the little things.

You mentioned that you’ve been sitting on this record for a really long time and I read online that you had like hundreds of recordings that you chose from from over the years. What did that deciding process look like? How did you pick what made the cut for how many tracks are like 16... 14? How do you go from hundreds to 14?

The whole thing kinda shared the same idea thematically, but different songs just didn't fit aesthetically with each other or as a whole, what I was going for, production-wise. There's a lot of songs that I really really really love that just don't fit on the album at all. So I've been thinking that I wanna do like a big drop of all of the loose ends from this down the line.

Yeah, you absolutely should. 

I picked these because I made them all in the same period of time so it kind of just all came together in a more natural way than just piecing something together-- which I mean like if you can do that, I love it when people do that. But there's like bits and pieces of the older recordings throughout the record like at the end of songs I sneak in old tape songs that I used to do. But yeah, I mostly did it because it sounded right.

So on this new record your voice kind of comes out, I don't know, more in the foreground than ever before. Was that a scary thing for you to do? Of it not being as muddled and not in a negative sense of the term?

Yeah, with this record I wanted to make a pop record kind of. I wanted to make something that is widely listenable and not as niche as before. And with a lot of pop music the vocals are just front and center, but I have had a really hard time coming to terms with that. Throughout the record a lot of the vocals are pitched or heavily distorted or just other ways to kind of blanket the being very raw. A lot of the subject matter in the songs are extremely intimate and things that I don't feel uncomfortable about sharing but I also don't feel completely comfortable. So it's like it's a middle ground where I can pass it off.

That totally makes sense. Are you more comfortable recording stuff and getting to fuck with it behind the scenes or are you also comfortable playing these in front of people? Like how do those effects come into play when you're doing a live show?

It's kind of tricky. I'm still kinda figuring it out. Right now I'm trying to figure out how to work the vocal modulation into a live setting and also playing the songs without having a vocal backing track or anything like that. I want to get to a point where it's an established live band or whatever. But right now it's kind of just me singing along to the song, but yeah, it's scary. I think I have a hard time playing live in general. I used to play in a lot of bands before and this is the first time where it's kind of just been me and it's definitely a whole different thing that I'm very new to. 

Photo Credit: Jeen Na

Photo Credit: Jeen Na

I wanted to make something that is  widely listenable and not as niche as before.

Yeah of course. It's definitely scary to be on your own but I feel like when it's your project and you have it fully actualized that can be kind of calming instead of being part of someone else's project and not necessarily feeling like it's you that you're representing when you play, so at least there's that. 

This is me personally telling you this-- I can't wait for this to be out so I can not have to go through my email to find the link to listen to it, just because it's been like super calming to listen to any time I've been anxious. 

(laughs) That means so much to me.

Yeah, no, of course, but I just wanted you to know that. Is there like an artist or a record or song that you turn to when you're in your feelings? What's your thing when you're like, I'm not okay right now?

So there are records where in my head I'm like, "oh I want to listen to this when I'm feeling fucked up or whatever", but then when those times actually come I can't put it on because it'll be too much almost. 

No, I feel that.

Yeah, like my favorite records are probably-- I really love this record by Julia Brown It's called me To Be Close To You. It's probably my favorite album of all time, but I can't really listen to it after because I pretty much just like cry for 30 minutes straight.

I know that feeling.

So I have to schedule like one listening per year to make sure that I still love it as much as I do. So it's that and Blonde by Frank Ocean. It just holds so much weight in my life.

I can hear that listening to you.

Yeah, I mean, he's the guy. But recently I've just been going back and listening to a lot of Alex G and Blithe Field recently. There was one Blithe Field record called Face Always Towards the Sun that came out on Orchid that was such a big record in my life. There's no lyrics on the whole thing and it just it says everything that there has to be said without saying anything and that goes a long way,

I don't know if I've actually listen to that. So I'm going to after this. That and Julia Brown. You're gonna severely fuck me up tonight, but like I can't wait.

There's one song on the Blithe Field record called "Paul's Birthday" and it is so pretty. The whole thing was just made with this little like toy keyboard and it stretches it as far as fact. It's so cool.

That's amazing. I know you use, I don't know like a Casio over like some sort of keyboard on your stuff. Where did you like start with playing instruments? Like where was your musical beginning? 

I started playing music when I was like 10 or 11. I was in this really bad cover band.

What did you guys cover?

Mostly Nirvana songs. A lot of Nirvana. I think Nirvana was the first band that really really got me into music when I was in like seventh grade or something. So after that-- I used to live in Massachusetts and I moved from there when I was like 12 years old or 13. 

Woah that's a tough age to move. 

Yeah, probably the worst time to move. I moved to Michigan when I was going into eighth grade and I feel like between 7th grade and eighth grade is when like all of the friend groups kind of form. Middle school is the worst time of like most people's lives. 

Was it rough for you? 

I mean, I was 13. But I feel like every 13 year-old's life is awful. So I'm just sitting there, angsty and smelly. But yeah, I was in a garage rock band, and I did not want to be loud anymore.

Do you think that like 13-year-old you would like what you're making now? 

Probably not. It was a time where we like denounced auto-tune and rap music. Now it's come full circle.

That's amazing that you've grown into this person that you as a kid probably wouldn't have liked.

Maybe surface level I wouldn't have liked me but maybe if I'd talked to me for a little while.

Okay, so we talked a bit about your musical beginnings and stuff. When did you start like actually doing your own project? 

Like Ghost Orchard as a whole?

Or even writing songs for yourself that you felt good about.

I started writing music around 12 or 13 but it was really bad until probably, I don't know. I think the first songs that I was comfortable with were the first Ghost Orchard songs. So 2015. I think I was 16 or 17. And yeah, that was just kind of, it was the first time that I had really like recorded my own music. I got a Macbook and it kind of changed my life. I got it with the intention of only getting it to learn as much as I could about audio and music In general. So it was kind of creative stretch of time where I wanted to know as much as I could and so naturally I started getting more comfortable with it over time

Are you self-taught on everything when it comes to like audio stuff?

Yeah. I taught myself production and mastered the album. I took guitar lessons for a little while but it was just to play songs that I knew. Ever since then, YouTube is literally the coolest resource that I've ever seen in my life, I think.

It's amazing how you can just get stuck in this like hole of learning, it's ridiculous. And so wholesome.

Yeah. I feel bad. A lot of people go to school for audio stuff, and I'm like it's all right in front of you! It's free if you want it.

I mean, I'm one of those people that's like I feel like I would do better if someone personally talked me through stuff. 

Oh yeah, that's super valid. I feel like with a lot of the stuff I learned would have been so much quicker if someone was just there to  ask questions from or just explain thoroughly instead of fucking around on the computer for like six hours.

A few more questions and then I'll let you go. Who's riding the bike on the album cover?

(laughs) I'm 6'5", so I wanted someone to ride a BMX bike on the cover and BMX bikes are really small. I'm also like really lanky. So it wouldn't really work I don't think. I thought of my cutest friend, and I asked him. His name is Micah. He is a photographer and he skateboards. But yeah, very very cute boy. I'm glad he's on there.

I am too. I'm also so glad that you've now said that he's your cutest friend. I hope you've told him that. Like he deserves to know.

We have secret crushes on each other I think.

You have some shows coming up soon, right? I feel like I saw that somewhere.

Yeah, I'm playing with Hovvdy and Lomelda. I have two shows with them.

That's a dream lineup.

I booked Hovvdy, probably two years ago, in Grand Rapids. They are really really wonderful people. So yeah, Im playing in Chicago and I wanna say Madison, Wisconsin? Yeah at the end of the month on the 25th and 26th.

Yeah. I wish I could be there!

I wish you could too.

We then talked about how the music industry and working in it can be hard, overwhelming, and can cause disillusionment. But ended on a positive note of why DIY spaces are important for the vitality of music and reminding us why music is special in the first place.

Ghost Orchard’s Bunny is out now on Orchid Tapes.