‘My faith is a very core part of who I am, but I wanted to make a track that would appeal to everyone while being true to myself.’
Ahead of her new single ‘Promised Land’ arriving 18th June, we put in a call to California-based Rachel Hale to discuss everything from how gospel music influences her sound and appearing on American Idol, to why Nashville will always have a place in her heart.
Hi Rachel, thanks for taking time to chat with us, how would you describe your music?
I think the best way to describe it is gospel-infused pop with a country edge. It’s a long definition, but I definitely have my own sound and one that’s evolved over time.
With that broad range, what connected those influences together?
Well, it’s funny because I grew up in Southwest Arkansas, in a town called Prescott, which has 3500 people, and as a little girl I had a dream of singing. The only opportunities I had to sing were either in the church or little country festivals, so if I wanted to sing, I had to sing country or Christian music. Then I went to Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, and it was from there that I was cast for American Idol. After that, I began to lead worship at ‘Nashville Life Church’, which Cece Winans and her husband were pastors of. Cece’s music is extremely gospel and full of soul, so being around her, learning from her, and being in that environment definitely changed my sound in a good way.
Is that what led to the gospel influences within the new track?
So I’ve always loved One Republic, and one of my favorite songs of theirs was ‘Preacher’ because it was very pop, but had gospel elements to it. If I recall correctly, I took that song into the studio when I started working with Jonathan Crone, as I felt that sound would go well with ‘Promised Land’. My faith is a very core part of who I am, but I don’t feel like I’m only going to just sing in the church environment, so I wanted to make a track that would appeal to everyone while being true to myself.
‘I believe that I was born with a purpose, I believe I was born to sing, and knowing that helps me a true north in my life.’
Yeah, it’s so important for artists to be true to themselves, isn’t it?
Yeah, I think so. The music industry is such a competitive arena, and it’s become more competitive because anybody can get their phone and do a TikTok and upload it. There are so many masterclasses available online, and with those you can really hone your craft more easily than you could before. If you release something, you want to love it because people might like it or they may not. If you are dependent on praise, then you’re going to fall by criticism and if I was living off of praise when people criticised me I would literally fall apart. It’s going to happen, so I can’t anchor myself in what people think.
Turning to the lyricism of ‘Promised Land’ with it being based around scripture, were there any specific ways that you needed to approach the setting?
So I really didn’t want the song to come across as preaching, and while it is to do with the Promised Land in the Bible, I think it appeals to a larger audience. It’s funny because I laid down music for a few years, to finish school in California. I was also working at the news station and during that time I became a producer. I learned so much about people – which was really good for me – and when I look back on writing Promised Land, I didn’t want what I believed to be a reason why people wouldn’t listen to the song. We all have dreams, and I believe all of us were created for a purpose, so I wanted to write a song that would encourage people to keep going and persevere, leaving their mark behind. I also didn’t want my belief to cut off anyone from being able to receive that that message encouragement to keep going.
You’ve very much achieved that as while I’m not a religious person, it has encouraged me when listening to it.
Thank you, that means a lot. Someone that I really look up to is Rachel Platten. I love her music, I love Fight Song, and I love what she stands for. Listening to that song helped me to keep moving forward, and I want Promised Land to be something like that.
So has this new single helped keep you going through this tricky time?
So when Vince Scheuerman and I sat down to write it, I was feeling pretty discouraged, thinking, ‘When are my dreams ever gonna happen?’. I think first and foremost we wrote the song for me –‘How long must I wonder, how long I wait..’ and when I paused music three or four years ago to finish school, I would sing this song to my own heart to encourage it. We actually wrote it almost exactly six years ago to the day, but the world feels so dark right now that I really think it was written for now, and I feel like people need to hear it now too.
‘In Nashville, people are writing every day, all day, trying their hardest to get one person to record their song.’
Turning to your time on American Idol, how did that experience relate to you as an artist now?
American Idol was an amazing experience, and I learned a lot, but it was also very difficult. It was like a crash course into the entertainment industry and I learned that being an artist is so much more than being able to sing. Being successful in the entertainment industry takes more than having a pretty voice and being able to write a good song. You have to be tough, extremely flexible, and know who you are. You need to take feedback and listen to people who say ‘xyz isn’t a good idea’, but you can’t be swayed by people’s opinions. You have to be true to yourself and I think that that experience is actually what allowed me to release Promised Land. I also learned that it’s the rare things that the producers are attracted to – the things that are unique. It’s so easy to want to be like everybody else and be trendy and compare yourself to others, but that isn’t what makes people stand out. I like to say you can be either a thermometer or a thermostat, and I’m a thermostat – someone that sets the temperature rather than sway.
Were you surprised how different it was being involved rather than watching it?
At the time, I was at Belmont University in Nashville, and being from a tiny town Nashville was obviously much larger, but it was like a whole other world. It was very exciting, but definitely different than I thought it was gonna be. Things looked easier. For example, when you watch Hollywood week, and they say they aren’t sleeping, I think you believe them, but when you’re in it, and people are fighting, getting only an hour’s sleep, and then performing in front of 15 million people, you realise it’s a lot tougher than people think. Now when I watch it, I’m clapping people for doing it because it takes a lot of guts. My sound has really developed since then too. I’ve really stepped into who I am as an artist more as when I was on American Idol, I knew the songs that worked with my voice, and showcased my tone the best, but I don’t know if I had the confidence to say ‘Yeah, that’s my tone, but I actually love this too, so how can I bring them together to produce something that I actually really love, really want to release and feels unique.’
So would you do it again?
I totally would! 100%. The following year, you probably couldn’t have paid me to, but it was such an incredible season in my life. I love Los Angeles and the entertainment industry, and I’m so grateful for the experience.
Are you involved with other areas of the entertainment industry then?
I’ve had different opportunities – one being a background vocalist for an episode of Nashville on ABC – but when I got off of American Idol, I really plugged into Nashville and that became my focus. It’s the home of country music, but the home of Christian music too so I was really focused on pursuing that. I got offered a publishing deal, but I didn’t feel like it was the right fit, so I went to school, started working in a news station, and became a producer. I also have an IGTV series called ‘Hale’s Kitchen’ – totally a pun on my last name! It’s been fun and I’ve been partnering with companies to make paleo recipes and stuff. I guess entertainment is a part of who I am, and I would love to step into acting more in this next season of my life.
‘Being on a stage and releasing music can feel very vulnerable so having a team around you that has your best interests at heart is crucial.’
Returning to the new release, with it being written 6 years ago what changes have occurred?
Oh, we did a lot of changes. Vince Scheuerman – who I co-wrote with and is an awesome artist – did a great demo of it, and we thought about mastering that. He’s awesome but he’s moved to Montana now. I think we’re gonna start writing again though and he’s excited about the release. Then I found out about Jonathan Crone through a mutual friend, and I really felt like I was supposed to work with him. In the midst of recording, production, and post-production, I definitely had him make some changes, but it wasn’t a long process, I’ve just sat on it for a while.
Is that when the gospel elements were worked in then?
So it’s a funny story because this was down to one of my good friends in Nashville, Josh Wright. We went to Belmont University together, were neighbours, and both got cast for American Idol. It was hilarious. Went through the whole process together and both got cut in the same week too! Josh did the background vocals for the track and brought a ton of gospel elements to it. He played a massive role and I’m so thankful for him. Jonathan Crone had him come and record, then Jon added more elements to the sound. He’s a magician, stacking and mixing my vocals so they sounded awesome, and me adding in the gospel side of my voice too. If you watched American Idol, I would say people remember ‘People Get Ready’, and ‘Nothing But The Water’, which have these incredible gospel elements to them. I have that edge to my voice so I can bring that out when needed. Jon was extremely helpful, could hear what was needed, and was able to call it out. He’s an incredible producer and I love working with him
You were also involved as a co-writer for ‘Firm Foundation’ a couple of years ago weren’t you?
Yes, I was. I love co-writing. I can write by myself, but I’m an extrovert so being in a room for many hours alone is horrible for me. When I was at ‘Nashville Life Church’, we had a retreat with our worship team where we would write for the whole day and we wrote a song called ‘Firm Foundation’. Then I left to go to school, and in the summer after my first year, I heard that Selah were potentially going to record the song. They had their fans vote for the title of the album – which was ‘Firm Foundation’ – and it was released as a single. Then it won ‘Inspirational Album of the Year’ at the 51st Dove Awards last year. It’s been so cool because I’ve just been really trusting God, but it’s also really great because so many people are in Nashville and it’s tough there. People are writing every day, all day, trying their hardest to get one person to record it. People will get publishing and record deals, but never get a song cut or put on the radio, so the fact that I was not even in the town, and the song got picked up without me pitching it is absolutely wild to me.
So was the final sound what you would have done with it?
When we wrote it, the bridge was very different – starting softer and building up, and then right before we recorded it the worship director for the church said ‘What do you think about changing the bridge?’ I really trust the people that are around me so we did that, and it was received really well so Selah kept it true to the format that Nashville released. To be honest, I couldn’t have cared less how they did it because though I felt like it was a message of encouragement, I didn’t necessarily feel like I was the artist to carry it. I love the song but didn’t want to be the one to sing it everywhere, so when I found out that they wanted to record it, I was pumped. They have a massive fan base so I know the message is gonna reach a lot of people.
‘I love co-writing. I can write by myself, but I’m an extrovert so being in a room for many hours alone is horrible for me.’
You mentioned earlier that there may be other projects on the way. Will those be with the team that you work with normally?
So there’s some pretty exciting stuff in the works – most of which I can’t talk about – but I have been developing a team in California. I was so plugged in in Nashville and I know who my people are there, so I’m slowly but surely connecting with new people here. Figuring out who is right to work with is really important and you need people who are going to encourage you and tell you you’re amazing. Plus, being on a stage and releasing music can feel very vulnerable so having a team around you that has your best interests at heart is crucial.
Did I see that you’ve been on stage recently?
Yeah, I got to play some shows in Nashville, which was so fun and it’s amazing that things are opening back up. There are these things called songwriter rounds which are a really big deal. When people like Tom Douglas and Allen Shamblin play one, people will pack out venues to see them because they’re the ones that wrote all the songs that people know. It’s a coveted thing to get to play in some of these places as a songwriter, and as Nashville is known for songwriting it’s a really special thing getting to do some of those.
So are there any other gigs coming up?
To be honest, I’ve been really focused on this release and actually getting the single out. I am going to be going to Texas to do a talk show and stuff to promote the single, but I don’t have a fully booked tour or anything. So many people are doing things virtually right now, but I just want to get great music out to my audience. There might be something that opens up where I could end up going on a tour doing something like that, but I really just want to get some more music finished as my fans have been waiting a little too long for it.
Thanks Rachel Hale for chatting with Listen to Discover