No one who has experienced love would wish heartbreak on another person, but if everyone were always lucky in love, well music would certainly suffer. “I wear my heart on my sleeve, and my songs are ultimately a direct reflection of my own experiences,” says Halle Petro, songwriter and vocalist of Halle & The Jilt, whose attempts prove the vagaries of love can help creatively transcend it’s boundaries. Like her 2011 debut album, Lucky You, which Petro playfully dedicated to those “lucky enough to break my heart,” relationships, and both their dissolution and retribution, feverishly imbue the blockbuster new album Three Roads Home.
“My writing is … literal. Most lyrics are direct references from personal diary entries, adapted to fit the form of the songs.” The album highlights Petro’s versatility as a songwriter, genre-skipping from blues/soul to pop/rock, she takes the listener through all the relative stages of grief. From Shock (“Graveyard of the Ocean,” in which the singer compares herself to a wrecked ship lost at sea), Anger (“Kiss My Ghost”), then Forgiveness (“Confessions”) and finally Acceptance (“Signs,” whose buoyant melody mimics the hesitant relief one feels in the beginning stages of getting over love) “Sometimes I feel like I’m destined to write about love and heartache, but at least this time there is hope for recovery!” says Petro.
i’ll be fine / ’til i can’t decide / if i’m holdin’ out for what may come / with you / a sign
A sign however, is not the fateful indication one needs to get what one wants, as evidenced by the fact that Petro wrote music, lyrics, arranged, produced and released both albums entirely on her own, without waiting for label support. “I don’t believe life is about waiting for something to happen to you,” says Petro. “The title of Three Roads Home is a reflection of this. Home can be defined as a place, another person, or yourself. The choices in our lives represent the roads we can take. The record is about chance and taking risks, simple, door #3 kinda thing.”
The road to NYC began in Cleveland, Ohio, where Petro developed her love of music under the guidance of her father and grandfather, both aspiring musicians. “I remember fiddling with the radio knobs in the station wagon, trying to find the Motown/Oldies station my Dad loved to sing to.” As a teenager she became captivated by Broadway, and moved to New York to study theater and pursue her dreams. Some five thousand versions of life later, she was working on rock cover songs with a band when it dawned on her that she had something to say of her own. Soon Petro was scrawling lyrics on the blackboard she’d painted on the wall of her Brooklyn apartment, and humming melodies in the shower. “It was both terrifying and empowering to sing my own lyrics,” she said. She formed a band, Halle & The Jilt, and quit the day job she’d taken to produce Lucky You. An overwhelming response from her fans eventually drove a successful Kickstarter fundraising campaign, and the recording and production of Three Roads Home.
To help bring her vision to life, she enlisted Michael Gomez, lead guitarist from reknowned jazz band Hazmat Modine, as a co-writer. Gomez, who had played various instruments on the first album, conveniently met Ms. Petro in the building they both lived in. “We never had to travel far to write together,” she laughs. To preserve Petro’s vibrant stage presence, in which her performances morph her from coquettishly vulnerable to devilishly bellowing, they recorded much of the album live. “We had so much fun making this record, and we laughed a lot, I wanted to really bring the listener in, as if we were playing in the same room.”
Musical influences ran the gamut from modern-day artists such as Patty Griffin, Michael Kiwanuka, Donny Hathaway and Norah Jones to the Oldies of Petro’s youth. “We listened to a lot of old funk and blues records; Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Jimmy Reed, Bessie Smith,” says Petro. That music influenced the hallmarks of Petro’s style: simple driven melodies and powerful vocal presence. “I think what gives a person the ability to create and connect with others, is invoking those intimate moments captured in the writing, every time they are recreated on stage or in the studio. To me singing is like being in a dark room spilling all your secrets.” Petro and Gomez also found inspiration in unexpected places. When writing “Take What I Can Get,” one of the album’s most empowering singles, “I was totally referencing pop songs like Robyn and Kelly Clarkson,” she says. “And Michael was referencing Alan Lomax’s Parchman Farm Recordings, prison chain gang chanting,” she says. “It was ridiculous, but we complement one another like that, and it just works. Michael’s knowledge of repertoire is astounding, and I love that process of learning from those you work with.”
The press has noticed. The LA Examiner says “Halle & The Jilt is a breath of fresh air.” Host Dee Perry, of Cleveland NPR Radio show “Around Noon,” says the songs on the CD are “some really lovely music … it catches the ear right from the first few notes and continues all the way through.” The Boston Phoenix says “her self-released debut album … shows an artist with a unique musical innocence and lack of snobbery, one not afraid to mix her fun, curious spirit with trademark crispness.” The NY Daily News hails her as a “group that draws from blues, folk, rock and jazz influences for a richly unique sound.”
For the kind of relationships Petro writes about, she may have discovered a way to break the chains, if the lyrics to “Take What I Can Get” are any indication: “Just because I made you love me / doesn‘t mean you do,” she sings in victorious staccato. “In no other way do I take what I can get / so I’m getting away from you.” Get away she has. With her band, Ms. Petro has toured New England, been featured as part of the Boston Powerhouse Emerging Artist Series, played jazz clubs in the Midwest, Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles and the famed Yoshi’s in San Francisco. In her hometown of New York, she has played clubs and hosted residencies in venues such as City Winery and The Living Room.