Singer, songwriter, guitarist — Ali Handal is all this and more. Her long-awaited new album, That’s What She Said, is a 12-song collection that tackles tough subjects, injects humor in unlikely topics, and showcases her mastery of the instrument. Handal unleashes electric guitar solos with the same ease as she does the most delicate acoustic passages.
Handal spent her early years in New York and her teens and adulthood in California, the result of a family move when she was an adolescent. At age 6, she fell in love with Carole King’s Tapestry album. Moving forward, she discovered Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin; inspired by Jimmy Page, she transitioned from piano to guitar and never looked back.
She studied music in high school and college, and went on to play guitar and sing in bands, perform at open mics, and slowly but surely work her way into the Los Angeles scene. She has toured internationally, sung background vocals for Neil Young, performed as a featured vocalist with Paul Williams, and had numerous film and television placements for her songs, including on Sex and the City, Dawson’s Creek, and iCarly.
Ali Handal was only days away from her album release when Guitar Girl Magazine connected with her via e-mail.
My goal was simply to make the best possible record I could. That process started with the songwriting. I worked for several years on many of the songs – writing and then re-writing them, getting feedback from people whose opinions I respect, and incorporating that feedback into my rewrites. When the songs were ready to be recorded I chose Seth Atkins Horan to produce the album, as we have a great working relationship and I loved how he got fantastic performances out of me and opened my ears to incorporating new sounds on my last record.
How did your working relationship with him come about and what makes him right for your music?
Seth was referred to me by the bassist on Make Your Move, Orlando Sims. When we got together, we realized that Seth actually worked as a second engineer for a couple of sessions on my very first record, Dirty Little Secret!
Seth is the right producer for me for so many reasons. First, he knows SO many incredible musicians and has a knack for choosing just the right person for the session – people who care about the music and take direction really well. Also, people who contribute their own creativity and enthusiasm to the project. For instance, the drummer on this record, Jimmy Paxson, is the foundation of this record and make these songs come alive, especially the funky ones! When all we had were drum tracks, I had a blast just listening to the drums as I experimented with how to put the rest of the tracks together.
Seth also suggests using instruments that I wouldn’t necessarily gravitate to (e.g., vintage keyboards, Glockenspiel). He has a great grasp on building texture within recordings. He’s also very respectful of my opinion – if we try something and I don’t like it, he has no problem moving on to another idea, and he never gives up until we’re both thrilled with the end result.
This is your fourth album. Over the course of that timeline, where do you see the most growth in your songwriting and guitar playing?
I’ve spent a lot of time and energy growing my songwriting. I used to write primarily through jamming on the guitar, finding a riff I liked and taking it from there. Now, I almost always write lyrics first and build the song around what I’m trying to communicate. I have a group of songwriters whose opinions I trust, and I often bring my songs to them to get feedback. I don’t take every piece of advice I get, but I do consider it, because I only ask people whose opinions I respect. This has helped me improve my songwriting immensely. I also co-write a lot, which I absolutely love. When I started songwriting, I didn’t co-write at all.
Guitar-wise, I think my growth has come in the form of incorporating various styles other than rock into my playing. I tour primarily as a solo acoustic artist, and I’ve incorporated percussive techniques (i.e., banging on the guitar with my hands), as well as some fingerstyle into my playing. I’ve also written some songs with a jazzy bent to them, so I’ve had fun using more complex chords. That being said, I’ve been more focused on how the guitar supports the message of the song in the past few years, as opposed to wowing people with super-fast playing or guitar solo histrionics.
Do the initial ideas — how you envision the songs when you begin setting the words to music — sometimes change while in progress, for example, what you thought would be a ballad ends up being more rock-oriented?
Not usually to that extreme. Based on the lyric, I’ll know if a song should be funky and uptempo, or should be more of a ballad. But the initial ideas (e.g., the groove) can definitely change. With “You Get What You Settle For,” the groove, when we wrote it, was a straight-ahead rock groove. On the record, it’s got a definite swing to it, and the Dobro brings it into the blues realm, which isn’t something I pictured when I wrote the song with my co-writer Steven Gooding.
When you go through revisions and work on an album over a period of time, how do you know when it’s time to let go?
Well, the rewriting happens (usually) before we start recording the song. A good rule of thumb is when there is NO part of the song that I feel is weaker than the rest, it’s ready to be recorded. Usually I’ll know that if I get bored at a certain section of the song, or if there’s a lyric I’d rather mumble than sing out on stage, then I know the song isn’t quite finished.
By the time we record, we know the basic structure of the song – we just might not know what the arrangement should be (e.g., what instruments to use). The only time the song structure changes is when Seth and I agree that it isn’t working. Then we may go back and move sections around, add a verse or a guitar solo, or whatever we think will fix the problem.
When we’re in love with a recording, we know it’s ready and are thrilled to call it done!
Judging by the photos on your website, you have something of a passion for gear. What did you use on this album and why those choices?
I’m actually not as much of a gearhead as most of my guitar-playing friends. That being said, I’m probably more of a gear-oriented person than most singer-songwriters. On this album, I
played mostly acoustic guitars: a gorgeous Dobro I borrowed from a friend, my Gibson SJ200, and my husband’s handmade Kevin Ryan acoustic guitar, which has an incredibly rich and dark sound. For a couple of the more rocking guitar solos, I used my Fender Custom Shop Tele, plugged into a Vibrolux amp that Seth has in the studio. I also used a nylon string guitar for the solo in “Let Go” – that was a guitar just laying around the studio that we thought would sound good.
The Dobro sounded so great on the first song we recorded (“You Get What You Settle For”) that we decided to incorporate that slide sound (and that guitar) for several songs on the album. We chose mostly acoustic guitar because we wanted a less “rock” sound for this album. It’s still a pretty rocking record, but its sound is more rootsy than, say, my last album, which was full of layers of screaming electric guitars.
Are there certain recording and miking techniques that you swear by when tracking vocals and guitars?
I generally leave that to Seth to decide. He gets amazing sounds with the gear he has. He always mics my acoustic guitars with two mics – one close up and one farther away in the room, but beyond that, I’m paying more attention to giving my best performance than to what he’s doing with the gear.
Is the guitar also a vehicle for interpreting the lyrics? Is there a visual element to what you play?
Yes, the guitar is definitely a vehicle for interpreting the lyrics – especially during live shows! Sometimes there’s a visual element to what I play – especially when I’m hitting the guitar to keep time during my more funky songs.
In 2012, you wrote Guitar For Girls and created an accompanying CD for Hal Leonard. Why was that project important to you? Are there plans for a second volume?
In 2011, Hal Leonard approached me and asked me to write a book called Guitar For Girls. Being a feminist guitar player, I wasn’t crazy about the title (why do girls need a separate book from boys?), but I knew they were going to put out that book with that title. So I figured, I may as well be the one to write it and put together the best, most empowering book I could for them. So I chose the best songs I could find to illustrate the guitar techniques I taught. Almost all of the songs were written by female songwriters, and I made sure to include songs I thought every woman should hear (e.g., ani difranco’s “Not a Pretty Girl”). I’m extremely proud of the book and Hal Leonard did a beautiful job with the layout and publication. That being said, there are no plans for me to be involved in a second volume.
The industry changes on what seems like a daily basis. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned that still apply?
Be nice and work hard. Also, make friends with and collaborate with the most talented musicians you can – it makes the journey fun and grows you as a musician. And don’t quit. There’s a reason I wrote the song “You Get What You Settle For” – I got my record deal 17 years after releasing my first album.
For those who are just discovering your music, what do you hope they take with them when they listen to this album?
Joy and inspiration to follow their own hearts.
— Alison Richter