For years, Ali Handal’s reputation has centered around her big riffs, burning yet melodic solos, and huge voice. But for her most recent album, That’s What She Said [Red Parlor], the rocker decided to take a little “quiet time.” Blame the Dobro.
“That gorgeous red/silver resonator influenced the character of the record, along with my Gibson SJ-200 acoustic,” she says. “As we started producing tracks, the Dobro’s rootsy, bluesy sound inspired us, and we kept using it on more songs.”
As a result, the album took a left turn from Handal’s rockier side, and charged down the singer/songwriter path. Electric solos were, for the most part, abandoned in favor of fastidiously crafted acoustic tunes—all of which brought forth the question, “How does a lead guitarist not solo?”
So “Rocker Ali” took a vacation for That’s What She Said?
Well, my mind tends to go to extremes. I had done full-on electric rock records, and this one was completely acoustic, so maybe I went too far in the direction of not playing flashy solos [laughs].
I’m curious how a guitar player who can rip decides to forgo solos on her own record?
I didn’t get where I wanted to be in my career. I didn’t become Orianthi. That’s what I wanted 20 years ago, and it never happened. People didn’t give a sh*t. And it occurred to me that people are way more interested in you when you have songs they remember. So I’ve really been focusing on songwriting the past few years, and I think the biggest strength of this record is that it has memorable songs.
You can’t have both—great songs and crazy solos?
Of course you can, and this is what I like about people giving me input. My pet name for That’s What She Said was #folkfail, because the idea was releasing something very acoustic. The solos I did play were done on Dobro or acoustic guitar. Then, I got this record deal with Red Parlor, and the owner of the label told me, “You built your fan base playing ripping guitar solos, and this record doesn’t have any. Don’t throw away everything you’ve done in your past, and all the things that people have liked about your previous records. Can’t we include some electric solos on the album?” So I grabbed my Strat, Tele, and Fender Vibrolux amp, and I added solos to “Everybody’s So Naked” and “You Get What You Settle For.”
Do you have a typical approach to fitting a solo into a song?
I don’t feel that solos have to fit into every song I write. I don’t like to play long solos, and I’m not into things sounding complicated or fast. There’s usually a main point I want to make, and then I get off it real fast. Maybe I just have a short attention span [laughs].
How do you hone your songwriting skills?
I’ve spent the last five years going to songwriting camps to get my songs critiqued by some amazing songwriters and teachers. Once, I played a song for Pat Pattison—who is a professor at Berklee College of Music—and he asked, “What’s the thing people say to you after a show?” I said, “They say I have a great voice, and I’m a great guitar player.” He’s like, “Right. They don’t mention your songs, do they?” That hurt, but he was right, because all the energy I was putting into my performances was overshadowing the songwriting.
When a teacher critiques your work, what specific elements get talked about?
A lot of it has to do with making the lyrics flow. For example, “Last Lullaby” is about the death of a loved one, and I wanted it to be a very cathartic song. But when I played it for one of my teachers, she said, “Nice song. That’s really pretty.” I did not get the response I wanted. Clearly, the subject matter was not coming across to her, because she completely did not get it. So I worked with one of my other teachers, and I ended up changing a few words. That made the difference. The rewrite enabled people to get that somebody was dying—it was a song of loss and grief. I guess the original lyrics were too poetic or vague. I learned it’s not about being clever. Nobody wants that. They want an emotional connection.
Are you one of those composers who crafts ideas 24/7?
I don’t write every day or have a set schedule. I tend to write when I’m in the mood. In fact, while I was working on That’s What She Said, I was actually more focused on marketing and increasing my fan base, because I wanted people I could sell the record to. Also, I don’t necessarily write for a specific project. Generally, I’ll write when I’m upset about something, because that’s the best way for me to process things. There has to be a really strong emotion behind my songs. Otherwise, I don’t really care enough to write something. One example of that is “Thank God For Birth Control,” which came out of people making assumptions about me not wanting to have children. I had huge frustrations with society’s expectations, and how people often speak to women assuming they know something very personal about them. I wanted to get across that I love my life the way it is, but I wanted the song to be funny. It started out as a poem, and it ended up co-written with Eric Schwartz—a friend, a brilliant composer, and one of my favorite comedy writers.
So what’s the next step? Does Rocker Ali return, or does Singer/Songwriter Ali continue driving?
I still have dreams of touring with a full-on rock band and shredding. My goal is to be successful enough so that I can bring a band on the road and play as loud as I want to [laughs].