May 8, 2014

STRANGER: Louisa Hall
LOCATION: Big Bear Cafe, 1700 1st Street NW, Washington, DC
THEME: An evening with a ukulele-playing singer-songwriter

Louisa Hall is your friend.

Not only is that the title of the ukulele player’s upcoming debut album, but it’s how she approaches life: “I’m here, I’d love to entertain you, let’s be friends and have a good time.”

During a balmy night in Washington, I learned that she’s quick to laugh, can instantly spot the hilarity in awkward situations, and has a fine sense of humor. Those are all assets that should help in her quest to become the female version of the offbeat New Zealand band Flight of the Conchords.

She carries her instrument of choice most everywhere she goes, including to dinner with me at the Big Bear Cafe in the District’s gentrifying Bloomingdale neighborhood. A few steps from a busy street, the restaurant is nestled in among trees and row houses. String lights covered a large patio where we had dinner, tables distanced far enough apart that ambient noise wasn’t distracting.

Twice during the meal, Louisa popped open her ukulele case — signed by musician Jake Shimabukuro, well-known for his ukulele cover of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” — and gave me impromptu performances of other peoples’ music. She’s got a lovely soft, soothing voice and even managed to make a song about loyalist Irish paramilitaries sound sweetly creepy.

But I’d heard her voice before we even met that night. Louisa emailed me to arrange a dinner, and sent along a link to a YouTube video of her performing an awkward song.

I should clarify. The song isn’t performed awkwardly. Rather, the “awkward” song is about those awkward moments in life — like hugging goodbye and parting only to find you’re both walking off in the same direction, or waving back to a stranger who wasn’t waving at you. In the video, Louisa came across as charming and amusing, even managing to work in a kazoo solo. It wasn’t a fluke. The same personality was on show in other videos featured on her website. I had to meet her.

After placing our orders for pre-dinner cocktails (she ordered the Hanky Panky for the hilarity of the name), I learned that the kazoo was a reference to her very first day of childhood. While the doctor was delivering Louisa, in the final moments of labor he pulled out a kazoo and started playing “Happy Birthday” on it as he brought her into the world. That bizarre but hilarious incident “explains so much about how I turned out,” Louisa said, laughing. “So the kazoo has a lot of meaning for me. I want to find that doctor and say, ‘Thank you, my life is awesome.’”

Life for Louisa started in Virginia, with her early days in Springfield and high school years in Alexandria. She went to university at George Mason, studying “lots of things” because she wasn’t sure which degree to pursue. She tried her hand at nursing, because her mother is a nurse. “But I’m intensely empathetic, so it was difficult for me to see people in pain and not hurt with them. It was not going to be a good long-term fit,” Louisa said.

After trying other subjects, she settled on English literature which was something she’d always liked. The course covered several genres, but her favorite was the focus on 21st century literature as those were books she would have read anyway for leisure.

During her time at university, she auditioned for acapella groups and stage musicals, but at that point hadn’t yet picked up the ukulele and started writing songs.

Post-graduation, she went to work in her home state for the Century Council, a non-profit group funded by distillers that tries to prevent drunk driving. “Because the funding comes from the liquor industry they had great parties, but I always had a ride home,” Louisa said. She enjoyed the work, but then her fiancé at the time got work in Nevada, so they moved across the country.

While in Reno, she did a stint with Antarctic Expeditions, a small company founded by Robert Swan OBE — the first person to walk to both the North and South Poles. The company organizes educational expeditions to the Antarctic, but before Louisa had the chance to join the latest trek, her personal life went through an upheaval.

She split up with her fiancé, who to this day she calls “a great friend and supporter,” and moved back to the DC area in 2011. “I missed my family,” she said.

“When I came back I knew I didn’t just want any job. I wanted a place with solid benefits and HR, a real job at a fun company. And so I found Fishbowl,” a company that provides online marketing software services for the restaurant industry. For example, if a restaurant has a loyalty card, Fishbowl could work with the venue to devise a system for sending out alert emails to cardholders. “I really enjoy the scoping process, all the problem-solving involved,” Louisa said. “Plus I like to meet and interact with the clients. Yay, new friends!”

She’s happy at Fishbowl, which she called an “amazing” place to work. But while she progresses at the company, she’s always got one eye on her ukulele.

If you’re at a coffee shop in the District, you might spot Louisa wandering in — she’ll be the one wielding her instrument in its signed case. She’s an avid fan of exploring the city and can often be found at coffee shops in various neighborhoods. That’s how she discovered the Big Bear Cafe, which is open late and has different food and drink offerings throughout the day.

We kept things pretty simple, sticking to just one main course and allowing the tasty libations on offer (the Hanky Panky of gin, sweet vermouth and Fernet Branca was delicious) to provide the rest of the sustenance. We placed our orders with the very laid back, friendly waiter, and then Louisa took out her ukulele. Not only did she guide me through the basics of the instrument, but also how she came to pick it up.

The ukulele comes in several sizes, ranging from the most common soprano size to concert or alto, tenor, and baritone. Louisa’s go-to is a tenor, and her favorite has a socket on the side for adjusting the volume and plugging in to amps, making it perfect for performing at bars and clubs.

She let me handle the instrument while teaching me to strum a chord or two (clearly, I’m destined for the top of the charts now), before I gingerly passed it back, afraid of breaking what looks like a guitar that’s been on the high heat wash-and-dry cycle too long.

When it was back in Louisa’s hands, she casually started strumming and then said, “This is one of my favorite songs…” before doing an impromptu performance of Brenda Lee’s song “If I Had You.” She sang beautifully, played tremendously, and got a round of applause from the patrons.

As the others at Big Bear Cafe returned to their own conversations, Louisa told me that when she was younger she had piano lessons, but gave them up. But she’s sticking with the ukulele.

She saw ukulele player Don Ho while he still alive, and has always loved to sing. Yet the first time she thought of picking up the instrument was while living in Reno. She was driving and listening to an NPR feature on a ukulele-playing community. “I started to think that maybe I should try that,” Louisa said. One Christmas she asked for a ukulele, and Santa brought it. What a nice guy.

She started group ukulele lessons at the House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park, Maryland, then joined other group lessons before taking private lessons with tutor Don Kim. “He’s the one that encouraged me to play it out in public,” Louisa said.

Kim suggested she take part in the Flashband Project, which launched back in 2012 and gathers musicians together to create bands that exist for one night only. They team up, write songs based around a theme (the most recent was Michael Jackson), and perform a set. Louisa had a blast with that group experience on October 12, but soon it was time for her first solo show.

Just 10 days later, on October 22, Louisa took part in what’s known as the Nine Songwriter Series. It pulls together nine local musicians, using their collective audience draw to book larger venues than they would be able to book alone. Louisa said it’s a huge boost for up-and-coming artists, because they get a chance to perform a solo set, but also to work with others on some spur-of-the-moment pieces.

That’s where she first took to the stage on her own. “I think being on my own for the first time was more nerve-wracking, it was very scary. I couldn’t hide behind the other musicians,” she said. “But Don gave me great advice. He said that as long as you’re having fun, everyone else is going to have fun too. Just relax and have a good time. And realize that audiences are really generous, especially music audiences.”

Those words of wisdom made Louisa more comfortable getting up on stage and performing self-penned songs about what she sees as life’s little absurdities. Hence the “Awkward” song, or another number about the cringe-inducing experience of internet dating.

“My life dream is to be the lady Flight of the Conchords. That’s what I want to do, just write silly songs on my ukulele and make people happy,” Louisa said. “That’s the dream.”

I had a simpler dream that night: to get fed. Thankfully our waiter didn’t make us idle too long before bringing out our meals.

Louisa is a vegetarian and chose a patty made of freekeh, a type of cereal made from green wheat. It was served with chickpeas, roasted beets and herbed yogurt.

The waiter told us that the freekeh cake would be “refreshing,” and Louisa said she enjoyed her meal. But when I found out she didn’t eat meat, I felt a little awkward as our server put down my plate.

I opted for the meat pie. Hearty cuts of pork shank and shoulder, served in a buttery, flaky and inch-thick crust, topped off with gravy and served with carrots and mashed potatoes. It might have been the wrong temperature for such heavy food, but the pie was outstanding.

Big Bear Cafe apparently sources a lot of its food from local vendors and farmers’ markets, and if they get this pie from a supplier, I want to find that person and marry them.

As we enjoyed our meals and sipped on a second round of cocktails, I asked Louisa about how she felt after the first couple of concerts performing her own material. She told me that she enjoyed the experience of being up on stage, playing her songs for others. And she’s working on ways to improve her presence in front of an audience of strangers.

One method she’s working on is taking part in an ongoing comedy improv class. “I thought improv would help with my stage presence and writing songs, because I like funny, offbeat songs. I thought this would give me the courage and inspiration to do that.”

Louisa stressed that she is not an actress but feels that her stage skills have grown during her time with the Dojo Comedy improv class in DC. “It’s pretty decent, it’s making me think on my feet. But it’s weird because when I perform improv, I’m pretending the audience is not there, but when I perform music, it’s all about making a connection with the audience.”

Through her music, she tries to make those connections with her quirky songs, telling me another favorite that she co-wrote about Craigslist’s Missed Connections section. For the uninitiated, that’s a site where people post short anonymous messages about strangers they might have had an interaction with or spotted on the street and liked the look of, urging them to get in touch.

The opening lyrics of Louisa’s riff on Missed Connections are a good example of her type of humor, with the male of the song crooning:

I saw you walking off the Metro
I could hardly walk away
So I followed you all the way to your house

Then the female part of the song takes over with her take:

I was walking home from the Metro
And I didn’t feel alone
So I stole a quick glance behind me

And so on the song goes, until the guy asks, “Won’t you be my missed connection?” and gets rejected with lines like “Please change direction” and “I’ve got my Taser for protection.”

Louisa laughed again as she reminisced about the song, flashing a broad, pleasant smile. Her outgoing attitude and fondness for making new friends is also likely an asset whenever she takes part in The Nine Songwriter Series and other events with local musicians.

“There are a lot of full-time musicians in the DC area, but a lot have side jobs,” said Louisa. She’s one of those dividing her time between her day job and the ukulele.

When not working or exploring the city, she focuses on improving her songwriting craft. She hopes to start recording an album soon, which she’ll title Louisa Hall Is Your Friend. First she needs to write a few more songs, aiming for a compilation of about 12 songs.

Her method of writing is to pick up the ukulele and start strumming until she finds a chord progression she likes. Then she’ll start making up words over the music. “Sometimes I have something in mind I want to write about, a topic or an idea,” she said.

In addition to honing her writing skills, she’s also interested in polishing her technical playing of the ukulele, and would like to take singing lessons. Louisa also said that one day she wouldn’t mind being the tutor of a ukulele novice. “I love that moment when you’re teaching someone something, and they get that look in their eyes where it just clicks, that’s the best feeling.”

While sharing those last few thoughts with me, Louisa had again been strumming at her instrument. And I felt bad for not recording her beautiful rendition of “If I Had You,” so I asked her if she wouldn’t mind giving me an encore — this time on camera.

I told her that the Craigslist’s Missed Connections song was sweet but creepy. So she offered to play her cover of The Decemberists’ “Shankhill Butchers,” a song about the Irish paramilitary gang of the same name. “That’s the creepiest song I know,” Louisa said.

So I hit record. Apologies for capturing this in portrait rather than landscape format. What a rookie social media error! But just listen to the playing and overlook that fact.

After the song — and another polite round of applause from the remaining diners — Louisa said that how she acts off-stage and on-stage are pretty much the same thing.

“I’m a shy extrovert but when I’m around a lot of people, I get excited and put on the Louisa show. I don’t mean to.” She laughed again. “I realize I have a big personality, and can be loud and aggressively jolly sometimes. I don’t want to be. But when I’m on stage I’m amplified Louisa. That’s all it is.”

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