Practical application: NCSA products choose the road less traveled

For many music-performance hopefuls at the North Carolina School of the Arts, the possibility of joining the ranks of the many Philharmonic and Met Opera success stories the school has produced is a prevailing motivator. For Steven Hall, it was a means to a far more common end. When he left NCSA in 2008, his transition from the friendlier confines of conservatory classrooms and recital halls to the more unforgiving world of public performance wasn’t quite been the unnerving experience it is for many. While studying classical voice and appearing in Die Fledermaus, La Traviata and an operatic adaptation of Our Town, Hall was hustling Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix covers in bars and coffee shops on the side while writing his own music. Alongside NCSA undergraduate Daniel Seriff (guitar) and grad student Nathan Scott (bass), Hall formed the acoustic folk-pop trio Small Town Gossip, the embodiment of his real, more commercially oriented musical ambitions.

The trio originally met through various side projects — Hall met Seriff through the jazz band and Scott through a cover band — and at the time, all were in different phases of their education. Hall left school in 2008 to focus on songwriting, while Seriff and Scott both earned their respective undergraduate and graduate degrees in 2009. It was at that time that the trio had committed themselves to pursuing music as a group, even if their chosen path was a pole apart from their classical training. Hall says it was his experience at the performance-based School of the Arts, however, that equipped him for the jump to the uncertain grind that is being a songwriter and performing musician.

“School was just another thing that helped me get to where I am, Hall said. “I wouldn’t be half the musician that I am today if I hadn’t study voice at School of the Arts and all the credit goes to my teachers there. You’d be able to recognize my voice whether I sang an opera aria or sang one of our songs, you know.”

Hall added that the vocal maturation he experienced and the conservational techniques he acquired were easily the most important tools he came away with, but it’s their upbringings that ring out the loudest on Small Town Gossip’s self-titled debut. Taking their name from a lyric in the song “Rocky Mountain Water,” the band’s name and Hall’s songwriting reflects the intimate personal relationships and shared experiences that are a commonality among each of the group’s members.

Hall’s robust baritone and simple, accessible lyrics recount times spent drinking beer on the porch and missed romantic connections, all amidst major-key folk and deceptively complex rhythmic patterns.

“The whole record is just a collection of completely different experiences. Honestly, I’ll tell you that some women do come up in more than one song. ‘Travels’ is one song that kind of discusses being at the right place at the right time for somebody,” Hall said. “I could probably have a relationship with umpteen number of women in the world but it matters where you’re at and where they’re at and what they’re doing in their life and where you’re at in your life you know, if it will work out. Each little location in that song kind of represents somebody, and that’s where they all kind of come together.”

During the recording process at Ovation Sound in Winston-Salem over the summer of 2009, the band took advantage of producer Bill Stevens’ musical associations and brought in Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge to lend color to one track entitled “Em.” Though Scott’s bass playing is stylistically similar to that of the veteran bassist, the song’s dense progressions were a natural fit for Burbridge’s subdued timbre, given the context of the piece.

“[Bill] called me and he said, ‘Listen, Oteil is coming into town and it would be great,’ we were working on the CD at that time, ‘if you could get him to come in and do something on one tune,’” Hall said. “So we felt like, we showcase him and it’s a great tune, you know? Just get him to be able to comment on something that we created is just really cool.”

The album was released in October via Soundlizard Productions and though the band has only played a handful of shows around the Triad since its release, Hall says that will pick up in the coming year.

“My ultimate goal for my life is just to share music with the world, something that I’ve created,” Hall said. “All I want to do is be a touring musician, it’s all I wanted to do since I met these guys.”

Small Town Gossip will perform at WineStyles in Greensboro on Saturday.