Hello Shark Finds Strength in Delicacy
Hello Shark’s Lincoln Halloran tries not to come here too often. He gets anxious when he does. We’re seated in the backyard of Philadelphia’s El Bar, a cash-only dive spot between Olde Kensington and Fishtown, a locale that the lure of gentrification has — at the moment — largely ignored. “I know a lot of people at this bar. If I get too shitfaced and have a bad song, I probably know like 20 people here,” he explains, concerned. It’s Monday, karaoke night. The first Presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is being broadcast; the El Bar's patrons seem to pay no mind.
We’re at karaoke night because Halloran loves the stuff, and often treats live sets like the socialized singing form, dropping his guitar and opting to sing over a drum machine, alone. “I’ll play two songs by myself, and then I’ll sing karaoke-style and go back. It’s a nice little break,” he reveals. “I’m not very good at karaoke. It’s just fun. I like watching people do karaoke more than actually doing it. Anyone can do it; it’s like mini-golf.”
It’s been a long road to get here — Halloran has been making music under the Hello Shark name for nearly a decade, an exhaustive time frame when considering the years of development. “I was 19 [when I started]," he says. "I’m 28 now. I don’t remember the first song I ever wrote, but I had some really bad ones post-high school. I didn’t know what I was doing. I never really sang. I sang as a young, young kid, but it wasn’t anything that ever stuck. I think my songs are more word-y. I can’t really play that good of guitar or write music. I know nothing about music theory. I know harmonies and I try to have good lyrics, not to be muffled or just thrown in there.”
The words sound self-deprecating, but they serve to better illustrate the kind of artist Halloran is: thoughtful, nervous and introspective. When describing the origins of Hello Shark, he says, “It’s been me the whole time. I’ve had probably 20 different drummers in the past. It’s always different, but that makes it good — I can tour whenever I want. ‘Bass player has work, but we’re still going to play the show because my roommate can play bass’ — it’s three-chord songs. I don’t want to be held back by other musicians.”
His penchant towards individualism seems to be natural — before calling Philadelphia home, Halloran spent time in Savannah, Ga., Idaho, Maine, Vermont and Rochester, N.Y., the latter of which being where he wrote half of his new record, Delicate, with a friend in the band Attic Abasement. The new album is his first on Orindal Records (run by Owen Ashworth of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, more recently Advance Base). Most of the songs are written around existing American aphorisms (The “See ya later, alligator” of “Alligator”), or some he’s crafted from personal experience (“Lakes aren’t always blue / I don’t know what to tell you” in “Last Summer”).
“It’s about expecting shit you can’t get,” he says, defining his phrasing, “That actually did happen. That’s a true story, where I was home from school at a young age and me and this girl went swimming, and I lost my glasses on this rope swing. I have terrible eyesight, so she had to drive me home and was pretty upset that I was like, 'I have to go home. I can’t see or walk around this lake.’ She was going back to school. I was going wherever I was going.”
“Last Summer” is one of the best songs on Delicate because it manages to expose universal feelings while being built around a singular narrative. It’s the kind of storytelling that feels personal because it is personal, without isolating listeners with its specificity. In other tracks, like “Drake Night,” this is achieved … with some invention.
“They’re all fabrications," Halloran admits. "‘Drake Night,’ I didn’t see an ex at Drake night. I’ve seen exes at other fucking crowded parties. I went to Drake night once. I don’t go all the time. That’s the secret.” It’s a secret writers know well — while regurgitations of life-moments can make for excellent songwriting, they also force the artist to give up something. Emotion writes the composer, not the other way around. By mutating experiences into beautiful reflections, edited truths, Halloran’s storytelling requires and reinforces ownership. He’s in control.
That might come as a surprise to many on first listen to Delicate. Most of the album is quiet. Soft songs have an inherent openness to sentimentality, sweetness and sorrow in them — we listen and we have a certain expectation for them to pull on heartstrings, and it’s good only when they’re delivered upon. It’s a type of music Halloran has always loved. “I grew up listening to [bands like] Low, very soft-y soft music," he says. "It’s hard — because I sing soft songs and the music is soft, people are just like, ‘Oh, you’re a sad songwriter. All your songs are sad.’ They’re not. I just sound … I’m not sad. I’ve been trying to make the music more poppy.” He stops and thinks. “A lot of bands I hear, the vocals are through a bunch of effect pedals, and you can’t hear what they’re saying; maybe because it’s so exposed, it comes off a certain way. I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m not sure. I want to be like the Cure, where you can’t tell they’re really sad songs because they’re so poppy.”
There’s a human tendency to mistake soft for sad or openness for weakness. The pseudo-title track on Delicate is “Jackson Browne,” Halloran singing, “Baby, I’m delicate / I don’t want to quit.” I ask if fragility is a concept he’s always been interested in. He immediately answers, “Not really,” pauses and adds, quietly, “I’m just easy to break. Just vulnerable. That’s it. ['Jackson Browne'] was one of the last songs we recorded for the record. It’s weird because the chorus starts the song and then it goes back to it. It’s just memorable.”
We finish talking and go inside the bar. Karaoke has started, and there are only about 10 people participating — the same 10 people, it can be assumed, who have made this a Monday night tradition. When Halloran goes up to sing, it’s Akon’s “Don’t Matter.” It’s a sad song.