“Can I sing to you?”
Hallie Spoor has been asking that question since she learned to talk. As a child growing up in Denver, she’d sing along to Disney movies on the family television and perform full-throated selections from “The Sound of Music” for anyone willing to listen.
Then came Denver School of the Arts and an emphasis on vocal performance, followed by college at Loyola Marymount with a double major in classical voice and political science. Senior year, she went straight from defending her senior thesis on women in Congress to her senior recital.
“Music is such a huge part of me, something I’ll always be doing,” she says. “I don’t feel I have a voice in the matter. It’s part of my personality I can’t shake.”
At 27, she’s still asking that same question she did as a kid. But now, she has turned her attention to nurturing a career in folk rock as a singer-songwriter — a decision that, two years ago, prompted her to move to New York City. But as so many artists have discovered in the age of the coronavirus, finding an audience can be a difficult proposition.
Spoor was planning a full summer tour in the constant effort to reach new fans. Instead, she wound up back in her parents’ Hilltop home, waiting out the pandemic and wondering where this will all lead. Her first stop upon arrival from New York: a two-week quarantine at her parents’ cabin near Fairplay.
“It was really a strange feeling of whiplash,” Spoor says, “going from New York City to total isolation in the mountains. It was really cool and liberating — I was the only person within 20 miles. But I also have been battling feelings of guilt. One, for not being more creatively productive at this time. I think a lot of artists are going through that.
“And two, for not being more inspired, more Walden-esque, where you go into the woods and write 15 songs and be a prolific artist. I wasn’t that. I had to accept the fact that I needed a break. I needed to recover.”
But she has used her Colorado hiatus to launch one particularly timely creative venture. Spoor’s song “City Angels,” which she wrote and recorded not long after her arrival in New York, turned out to have a much broader message, which she discovered while performing it for an online audience in the midst of the pandemic.
And so she created a video, using material she solicited from friends and family, that dwells on the simple joys of community and shared experience, “a narrative of missing and longing” that she hopes will be a reminder of the joy that preceded a time of isolation.
Spoor dabbled in songwriting in college, but didn’t really take herself seriously until she visited a friend for a weekend and played some songs for the friend’s father, who played in a successful Los Angeles band and worked in the label management business. He gave her some really encouraging feedback and one critical piece of advice: Her songs were missing a hook; she needed a chorus that listeners would remember.
Feeling more confident, she went back to crafting songs and realized she might have a knack for it. But getting gigs in L.A. isn’t easy for a college kid. For unproven talent, pay-to-play presents one route: Unknown artists must guarantee sales of a certain number of tickets to their show, or pay the equivalent out of their own pocket, in order to play the venue — often at less-than-optimal performance times.
Spoor and her band booked a gig at the iconic House of Blues on the Sunset Strip her junior year, shortly before it was torn down in 2015. She had to guarantee 20 tickets for a performance that would begin at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night. As it turned out, she had some dedicated friends and followers — the show sold out her room with more than 50 people attending.
“That was a huge moment of pride for me,” she says, “feeling like I can prove to a venue — a really cool venue — that I have something to offer.”
Spoor describes her voice as heavily influenced by the classical side of her training, but feels it’s constantly evolving. One of her first influences in that regard was Joni Mitchell, and it stuck: In 2017, 303 Magazine noted of Spoor: “…we were immediately drawn in by her raw, Joni Mitchell-esque voice.” Spoor adds that two of Mitchell’s albums, “Ladies of the Canyon” and “Blue,” informed a lot of what she tried to do as an artist, and Mitchell’s later, jazz-infused work “was too cool for me, but a big influence.”
But in terms of writing style, she echoes Carole King’s more structured composition.
“After I started writing,” she says, “I found myself more leaning into the country world in a way I never expected, from my guitar style. That got me hooked into Emmylou Harris, The Byrds, all these old bands. I definitely look backwards.”
She had planned to stay in L.A. after college, but fell ill and returned to Denver to recuperate. Once back home, she returned to her classical music roots, singing for Opera Colorado, a few church jobs and several smaller opera companies.
But eventually she gravitated to her passion for songwriting.
“It just grabbed onto me, and it felt more creatively fulfilling than classical,” she says. “Classical feels more like sport than a creative pursuit. You execute on a composer’s idea.”
Spoor recorded her first album, a 10-song collection called “The Brave Ones,” in a basement of a band member’s home in Lakewood. Today she calls it “rough around the edges.” She played some local shows, but ultimately didn’t feel like Colorado was the place for her. Meanwhile, she made ends meet with a job at a tech company.
“The Denver music scene was blowing up in a lot of ways, but for me, it felt too familial,” she says. “You had to be a friend of a friend. That’s the business in general, but I wanted a bigger music scene and a challenge. I looked at London, but my job didn’t want me to be in London. My other option was New York.”
So she headed east and eventually moved to another tech company, where she worked a 9-to-5 grind before shifting gears in the evening and pursuing her music, often deep into the night before rising again to repeat the process. She put out a second album in January, a five-track effort titled “New Ground,” that reflected on her move.
“The music business in New York has been dying for a while, but it’s still the most inspirational place to live as an artist,” Spoor says. “It’s so cliché, but the energy of the city and the people is amazing. The American Dream is so real there.”
She also flew all over doing shows in cities literally from coast to coast.
“I thought at that point I would lose my mind,” she says. “Trying to balance that is so hard. But the cost of living is so high, you need a good job. A lot of people do side hustles, but side hustles are just as hard as 9 to 5, and you need three of them to pay the rent instead of one.”
But earlier this year, that one good job disappeared as Spoor found herself on the wrong side of a companywide layoff.
“At that point, I decided OK, this is a sign,” she says. “I’d been kind of half-assing my dream, half-assing my day job. I didn’t want to do that anymore. So I pushed myself into music full time.”
She cobbled together some clients and gave music lessons in singing and songwriting.
“Then,” she says, “COVID happened. The city shut down, and the first week or so was weird. It was like when the lights go out, and everything’s spooky and exciting. But then the death toll kept rising. I got sick on March 7. I was never tested but I’m pretty sure I had it. During that time it got really dark.”
Like many artists, she turned to playing live-streamed shows. During one of those at the beginning of the shutdown, she was performing “City Angels,” a song inspired by a day in which she kept running into strangers who somehow made her feel like she could find a home in New York. Suddenly, the song revealed itself to her in a new way — almost an ode to community in light of the isolation brought down by the pandemic.
The original composition reflected the time, shortly after her arrival, when she was still lonely and uncertain about her move. She ventured out on a dreary, rainy day to see if she could get her record player repaired and kept encountering kindness, particularly from the man who fixed it.
Singing the song at that point in time, when health care workers stepped to the front lines of the pandemic, gave the piece an entirely new meaning. She filed the thought away. Soon the early audiences for live streams dissipated as performances flooded the internet.
Spoor figured it would be “better for my mental health to come home.” In mid-April, she returned to Colorado, heading straight to her parents’ cabin in Fairplay.
Once she returned to her childhood in Denver’s Hilltop neighborhood, she did another live stream in collaboration with the Rockwood Music Hall back in New York, the first stage that had welcomed her to the city and where she released her second album. That live-stream performance attracted a lot of viewers — about 500 people.
She also resurrected the idea that had struck her about “City Angels,” and in collaboration with Oregon-based video editor Kent Jenkins, worked via Zoom calls to create the video she released this week.
Although her songwriting creativity stalled at first, she eventually found her rhythm and composed a few new songs, and this weekend will head back up to the Fairplay cabin to do a photo shoot for her next album. For the first time, she’ll handle the recording herself — also in the Colorado mountains at the family cabin.
She bought a plane ticket. On Aug. 8, she’ll return to New York.
Spoor plans to try once again balancing the corporate life in New York — “if they’ll have me” — with her musical ambitions. But long-term, Nashville may be the place where she tries to lay down roots as a musician.
“It marries my two ideas of being in a super songwriting scene, a crazy-good music scene,” she says, “but also in the woods a bit, where I can have a yard, have a dog maybe.”
Her return to Colorado dipped into feelings of inadequacy as she found herself back in her childhood home and without a job. But it also brought her even closer to loved ones.
“I’m incredibly grateful for this time to be in Colorado with friends and family,” she says. “This really forced me to slow down.”