He's one of the greatest living songwriters, with seven #1 hits to his credit, including Paul Young's version of "Everytime You Go Away."
His songs are all autobiographical in some way. So when you hear "Sara Smile," you know there's a real Sara.
Sara (Allen) was his girlfriend and co-wrote many songs with him, including "Private Eyes," "You Make My Dreams," "Maneater" and "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)." They split up in 2001 after roughly 28 years together. He can still perform "Sara Smile" because he can separate the emotion of the song from the circumstance.
You won't find a negative word toward John Oates, and vice-versa. Hall & Oates still tours regularly (they played Dublin for the first time in 2014 - check out the Daryl Hall & John Oates Live In Dublin DVD, out March 31st, to see it) but they each have plenty of room to stretch: John has been recording in Nashville, and Daryl has Live From Daryl's House, which got renewed for another season on the Palladia network. The "House" will now be his restaurant/live music club in Pawling, New York, also named Daryl's House.
Away we go then...
Daryl Hall: The hardest part is coming up with the experience, or living through the experience that causes the song to be written. The writing is easy.
Songfacts: Really? Writing the song is the easy part for you?
Hall: Yes. You write a song in the time it takes to write it. It's just a matter of coming up with something that's worth saying. I write songs constantly. I could sit down right now and write one.
Chord progressions and melodies come to me like conversation, but coming up with something that matters is a whole other kettle of fish.
Hall: It's a funny thing about that. I don't know why I collaborated so much in the past. And I did. Let me set the record straight: a lot of these things that you think are collaborations are not collaborations. There's a lot of names on my records, including John's, that don't belong on there. It's what I call the "Lennon/McCartney" thing.
But having said that, I did go through a period where I was writing a lot with Sara Allen and Janna Allen, and John, of course. And that was mostly lyric collaborations, although Janna Allen came up with a lot of the actual music as well on a couple of the songs.
And of course John and I had a distinct way of doing it, where most of the time he would come up with some kind of a hook or a chorus, and then I would write the verse. Then we would collaborate on the lyrics. I don't do that anymore. I don't remember the last time. Maybe one song or two songs on my last album did I collaborate, but I don't really feel the need to do it anymore. I pretty much come up with these things on my own nowadays.
Songfacts: When you were writing with Sara Allen, were there any challenges having your girlfriend also be your writing partner?
Hall: No. Because she was really good at jumping into my thoughts and helping me to sort of coalesce them. That's really what it was all about. There were a couple songs where she wrote all the lyrics and I wrote the music. "August Day" is one of those. "Room to Breathe" is another one. So she did write lyrics on her own, too, but I would say for the most part, it was enabling me to organize my own thoughts, and of course the occasional idea, which made her a co-writer. That's really the way I mostly wrote with her.
Songfacts: You say living through these experiences leads you to the song. What was the experience that led you to "Say It Isn't So"?
Hall: Hmm. In that situation I mixed up a lot of things. I'm trying to cast my mind back. The idea was that John and I were outside of things. You know, that line, "We like to be the strangers at the party, two rebels in a shell," that had a lot to do with John and I's relationship to the world. And I think that was coming out of a combination of people's perceptions of us at that time – we were getting a lot of flack from various things. And being on the road, and feeling sort of separate from the outside world – because we were sort of in this "road bubble," and also the bubble of our success.
Songfacts: Another one you wrote, which has Sara and John's name on the credits, is "Adult Education."
Songfacts: What did you write the song about? What gave you that idea?
Hall: That song is about something I still believe: that one of the big problems with the world is people never grow up – no matter how old they get. And the song is a reminder that there is life after high school. That there's another way of looking at the world, and that other world is a false world and a meaningless world. So that's really what that's about.
Songfacts: In '88 you had a hit with a song called "Everything Your Heart Desires," which even has a little spoken interlude. Tell me about writing that song.
Hall: It's a funny thing. There's a couple of distinct things about that song. Nothing rhymes in that song. If you look at the lyrics, there are no rhymes in it. It was all just free, A-B-C-D-E-F-G, kind of lyrics.
I remember sitting in my barn in Millbrook, New York. I was sitting on a hay bale, and I wrote those lyrics. That is about people who are dissatisfied. It's saying, Why are you dissatisfied? You know you have a really interesting world here. And all these people that you think are better off than you, or that you admire, they probably have their own problems, and probably worse problems than you have. So wake up and smell the roses.
Songfacts: I was watching the Dublin DVD and I loved it when you broke it down at the beginning of "She's Gone" and said the line, "Everybody's high on consolation." Those four words, that's the song right there. Was that what kicked off the song for you to write it?
Hall: Yeah. John and I were sitting in our apartment, and John had come up with the chorus. He wrote it on the acoustic guitar, I remember saying that it sounds very much like a Cat Stevens song, because it was like, "And she's gone, [sings melody] Oh I." You know, like "Wild World" – "do, do, do, do, do." It was kind of like "Wild World."
And I said, No, I think we should change the groove. So I sat down to my Wurlitzer keyboard and I played that hook [sings melody] – the thing that I do. And then I came up with this whole progression of a verse to fit this chorus. Then we sat down together, and the first line that came out was, "Everybody's high on consolation." I have no idea - I don't remember if he said it or I said it. It sounds like my line, but I don't know – it could've been him.
It was one of those things where the lines just flowed out, and we were banging it back and forth. To me that is the ultimate Daryl and John song, because that was so collaborative, and so much a part of both of our experiences and lives thrown together. To me, it was a unique and complete Hall & Oates song.
Hall: I had a friend who was my keyboard tech, who was sort of living at my house. He was in the guesthouse. He was a fan of Mike Oldfield, and I heard him play this song. I said, "Who's that?" He goes, "That's Mike Oldfield." I said, "Can't be. Mike Oldfield's an instrumentalist."
I knew it was a song that had potential. I could tell. I was looking for a different sound on that record, and I thought, Nobody's ever going to hear this song if I don't record it. It's one of those weird songs that nobody pays attention to, because it's not like Mike Oldfield. So we cut it, and everybody still probably thinks that we wrote the song. But it's a unique song – the lyrics really intrigued me.
Songfacts: I think you actually changed some of the lyric to that song. In your version the guy goes back to the girl and she's not there any more.
Hall: Oh probably. I think every song I've ever covered I've done something to the lyrics, because I always try and do something to personalize it.
In the early '80s, Daryl and John were united in their contempt for music videos, so they found a director who thought similarly little of the form, knowing he would just bang it out and get them on their way. That man was Jay Dubin, who told us that videos were "easy money," and splashed cold water on anyone looking for meaning in the clips. "It doesn't have to be real," he said. "It doesn't have to actually work. It just has to look nice and exist for a few short minutes."
Dubin did the videos for "You Make My Dreams," "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)," and the one that made Hall & Oates MTV stars, "Private Eyes."
Hall: They were weird days. And when I look back on it, it was a very interesting time. But in the midst of it, it was weird. That was so early. That was before people discovered production in videos. Nobody knew what a video was supposed to be.
Songfacts: Why did you record "Jingle Bell Rock"?
Hall: I don't know the answer. There's just so many Christmas songs I could've covered. I think I was in the whole rockabilly thing, you know? If you look at me in those days, I had my rockabilly hair and I used to dress like that. So I guess I just wanted to cut a rockabilly song.
Songfacts: You've talked about how you write very specifically to your vocal style. What are some of the sounds and structures you use to write to your voice?
Hall: Well, I know my range, so I write to my range. And I know everything about how to use that. But then I go into falsetto when I want to, so key is very important. When I'm writing for myself, I know who I'm writing for. I also know my sweet spots - I know what notes I can keep hitting on that are going to give it power.
This is not thought out. It's just something that happens naturally to me. I just write with that in mind. Other than that, I don't really think it through any further than that.
The show, which started on the web in 2007 (livefromdarylshouse.com), is now on the Palladia network. An intimate venue where guests come to talk about music and play songs with Daryl and his House band, it's the perfect setting for music-makers like Smokey Robinson, Jason Mraz, Cee Lo Green and Grace Potter.
Hall: Yeah. One of the interesting things about that show is when artists come to me and they ask me questions about the songs. When Pat said that, that surprised me, because Pat has a higher voice than me. Pat Monahan could sing that song in his sleep. But sometimes when you're hearing something from the outside, it's different. I think it was a revelation to him that it wasn't as hard as he thought it was.
I just had Ben Folds on, which hasn't been shown yet. He was really interested in the chord progressions of "Private Eyes." That really fascinated him, and he never really knew them. He was watching me, and I sort of gave him a lesson on how these chords fall together, and it really surprised him. So these kind of things, they really interest me. And I'm interested in other people's songs too. The same thing: I go to them and say, "How did you do that? Let me see that. Whoa. Okay." So that's one of the fun things for me on the show.
Songfacts: What's been your favorite performance on that show so far?
Songfacts: Yeah. And he took on Sara Smile, which I thought was unbelievable.
Hall: Oh yeah. I mean he's the greatest. He is just the greatest.
Songfacts: How do you pick the songs for guests to perform?
Hall: I usually let them pick. I figure the artist is a guest in my house, so let them sing the song they want to sing. I say, Give me four of your songs, and then give me two of mine, and that's what they do. Sometimes I help them a little bit, but I generally let the guest artist pick.
Songfacts: Tell me about writing the song "Did It In A Minute."
Hall: I was in the car with Janna, and she said, "I got this idea for a chorus," and she sang that chorus. That's how it all started. And I said, "That's great."
We got out of the car, I went to a keyboard, and I put the chords to it. I worked on a verse, and then Sara and I sat and wrote the lyrics together for the verse. So it was sort of a three-way collaboration on that song.
Songfacts: Did Janna also come up with the title for "Kiss On My List"?
Hall: She came up with most of that song. That was her song. That was the first song I ever wrote with her. She was only 20 years old, and she said, "I have this idea for a song." I was at her apartment, and there was a Wurlitzer piano there – my Wurlitzer – and we just kind of banged it out.
Songfacts: You get a lot of your album cuts in at your concerts, but it seems like they deserve a Billy Joel Songs in the Attic kind of thing where you can just do an entire show with nothing but album cuts. Have you ever considered doing that?
Hall: Yeah. I've considered it, but I also temper that with the idea that when people pay money to come to see a show, they have certain expectations, and it's not my job to be indulgent, and it's not my job to teach them anything. I want them to have a good time.
But at the same time, I want to surprise them and play them songs that they haven't maybe ever heard before, or forgot about. So that's why I mix them up. The same with Live From Daryl's House. These days I am very much emphasizing the songs that are not the usual cast of characters. I always tell the guest artist, If you're going to pick a song, go deep. Don't tell me "Rich Girl." Go to some other place, because I want the world to hear these songs. I'm very proud of all my songs, or most of them anyway. I feel that a lot of them deserve the light of day, and to revisit them is a good thing.
Songfacts: Is there one song that you're not proud of?
Hall: [Laughs] Yeah. There's more than one, probably.
Songfacts: Any of the hits?
Hall: A hit? No. I don't think there's any hit that I'm not proud of. There's some that I like more than others, but I'm proud of all that stuff. There's a couple songs I've written over the years that I just said, "What was I doing? Why did I write that song?"
Songfacts: When you go to Alice Cooper's restaurant you can get the Welcome to My Nightmare chili. At your restaurant, you have so far resisted the temptation to name the food after your songs [You Make My Dreams calamari?]. Are you planning to do that anytime soon?
Hall: I resist the temptation to do lots of things in life. [Laughs] And that's one of the many things. You're not going to see, in any of my clubs, giant monuments to Daryl's career – any of that kind of thing. And foods named after the hit records and all that stuff, to me that's cheesy. No pun intended. I'm trying to run a classier joint than that.
February 19, 2015
Further reading: interview with Todd Rundgren
More Songwriter Interviews