By Erica Giancola, graphic by Christophe Young
Coleman Hell, a singer-songwriter from Thunder Bay, was in Ottawa on Nov. 24 performing at Zaphod Beeblebrox. The Charlatan sat down with him to discuss his unique name, music, and touring.
The Charlatan (TC): I hear Coleman Hell is actually your real name, not a stage name.
Coleman Hell (CH): It is, yeah. The last name is of German origin, I guess. The first name, I have no idea. My parents were like “Let’s make it even weirder!”
TC: So you played at TD Place earlier this year with Twenty One Pilots. What’s it like to be back in Ottawa?
CH: It’s exciting. I think every time I’ve played here has been a great experience for me. I played BluesFest. That was awesome. I got to play Canada Day on the Hill, too. That was cool. Every time I’ve come to Ottawa it’s been like, I’ve received a lot of love and everyone’s been so receptive and positive here. It’s always fun to come back.
TC: You released your debut full-length album [in October]. When did you know that pursuing a career in music was for you?
CH: I don’t know. I don’t know how conscious I was of it, but subconsciously, as long as I could remember, I would just avoid doing anything to do music. I hated responsibility, and school, and work, and any time I could get out of that and do music, I would do it. I guess maybe when I was 21, I graduated from university to appease my family and their pressures and I just moved to Toronto and just started trying to make it in the big city. That’s when I first did it, but I guess always in my mind I was thinking that this is what I would be most happy doing.
TC: That’s great. So your single “Two Heads” was obviously a huge hit. When you’re writing a song like that, is there something inside of you that knows that it’s going to be a hit?
CH: Kind of, yeah. Writing that song was very emotional, and I wrote it very fast. I think me, and my friend Latch, who I wrote it with, we instantly knew. We just wanted to put it out as fast as possible. We showed it to these radio teams, because at the time I wasn’t signed to a major label or anything. We were like showing it to these radio teams and they kept saying ‘It’s too slow,’ ‘It’s too repetitive.’ We were like, ‘Yeah, that’s why it’s cool, it’s cool that it’s repetitive, that’s why.’ No one really seemed to see it our way, so we decided to hire this girl in New York to work it to blogs. We just threw it on Soundcloud essentially, and then it just blew up. That felt pretty validating.
TC: Do you think that it has affected your songwriting, trying to follow up to a song like that?
CH: That’s a looming pressure, definitely. Whether I thought it was more noble to not do that, or I was just too afraid of trying to do that, I kind of avoided doing that. With this record, I just went to a cabin with my two friends and wrote these songs, and recorded them, and just blocked all that out of my mind. There was definitely the route of going to [Los Angeles] and writing with a bunch of people and chasing another hit. People were definitely trying to push me in that direction, and for better or for worse I didn’t do that.
TC: What’s your favourite part of the music-making process then?
CH: I don’t know. I think for me, probably lyrics. I really love lyrics. I listen to a lot of rap music, a lot of old folk music. I like things where there’s like tons of words crammed into a song. I’ve probably always liked lyrics the most.
TC: Do you have any artists whose lyrics you’re continually going back and listening to, or turning to for inspiration?
CH: Yeah. The lyricists that interest me the most lately are like rap and R&B stuff. Frank Ocean or Chance the Rapper, I really like. There’s this new guy, Kevin Abstract, his album is really cool. I listen to a lot of that kind of stuff.
TC: Awesome, okay. Switching gears to touring here for a moment. What’s the best part about being on tour, for you?
CH: Wow. Every part. I really prefer to being on tour to not being on tour, in a weird way. It’s just like, I don’t know. For some reason it’s just mentally calming to me, because your life has physical momentum. You’re constantly moving, leaving and going to the next place. It feels like, whether you are or you’re not, you’re moving forward. I just like the idea of constantly picking up and leaving, never staying anywhere too long.
TC: Do you have a favourite city you’ve performed in? Don’t feel obliged to say Ottawa.
CH: With this album and these songs I’ve made this year, they’re very summer-y. Going to places like California, playing LA and San Francisco, hot places, people seem to really get the music and be into it. I like playing those places.
TC: Do you have any funny stories that you want to share from any of your tours?
CH: I can give you an interesting anecdote. Before we got this bus, the driver—this is the same driver—he was driving Kanye West. So we found his tour itinerary in the back. We were like “Kim Kardashian’s butt touched this chair.” So that was probably it [laughs].
TC: What about any pre-show rituals for you?
CH: I visualize things. Sometimes I visualize a show before it happens. I spend most of my life visualizing things, I guess daydreaming. I believe in positive reinforcement. I spent so much of my life daydreaming that I would be a musician on a tour bus, on the radio. I just kept dreaming of that, and not really telling anyone. I live in this alternate universe in my head, and then I find that things just happen. I believe in this weird, almost like magical thing like that. I find that if I envision the show well, it goes well.
TC: And in terms of looking back on your career so far, what do you think has been your one defining moment? What would you say is the one great thing that stands out for you, or one of the greatest memories of your career so far?
CH: One moment in particular, is something recently. This maybe isn’t the coolest thing, but it was cool. We got to play We Day in Toronto, so we got to play this sold-out [Air Canada Centre]. I never really thought I would get to play at the Air Canada Centre and have it sold out. It’s not that it was sold out for me, but it was still cool to play the crowd. That was cool. Getting nominated for a Juno. Meeting the Prime Minister, that was cool. My song went gold in America, that was pretty crazy. That’s like more than triple platinum in Canada, so a lot of songs in a country that I don’t even live in. One of those.
TC: All of those sound great. What’s next for you then?
CH: What’s next for me? The next thing is I have a new single out, “Devotion.” I’m currently directing and shooting a video for that once this tour is over. In the new year, I’m going to be taking the Summerland tour to America, and hopefully somewhere in between taking a little time off so I can write some new music.