Photo by Ashley Armitage.

Elah Hale is playing by her own rules

The 20-year-old artist and model on her debut EP and why she refuses to let the industry put her in a box.

by Beatrice Hazlehurst
02 December 2019, 6:28pm

Photo by Ashley Armitage.

On one of the last days of summer in 2015, 15-year-old Elah Hale was on a bus to a warehouse in New Jersey. Kanye West had monetized his clout to pivot into high fashion and Hale was cast in the New York Fashion Week Yeezy Season 2 showcase after learning last-minute of the open call. The unsupervised Hale (“Kinda fucked up, when you think about it”) made her runway debut in militaristic beige activewear afore North West and her lollipop. But, walking for the brand at its height was simply, in her words, “a blip.”

Such, apparently, is life for a native New Yorker. An East Village-born, Park Slope-raised child of fine artists, Hale was fated for a creative career before Beyoncé became mononymous. Now, the singer, performance artist, and playwright has realized it “wasn’t normal” to be elementary-aged and performing at rock camps as a lead guitarist or attending the concerts of rising rap stars like Joey Badass as a tween. Not many teenagers can claim to have flipped thousands of dollars-worth of clothes for studio time, or crossing fingers that modeling checks would arrive to cover collaboration debts.

“I was just busting my chops,” the now 20-year-old says with a shrug. “I had done the singing with the guitar thing and the Bandcamp thing. I would ask the studio to advance me time and hope I could pay the invoice when it would arrive… I think I haven’t even adjusted to music as my life.”

But it is. Despite the singer’s clear commitment to New York, her relationship with the East Coast is now open. Consequently, we conversed over herbal tea at an organic café in south Los Angeles. Because “the music industry is all here” Hale has been making frequent commutes to California as she prepares for her debut EP that will drop in February — less than a year after she sobbed on the phone to loved ones that she wouldn’t be able to complete her college degree and continue to pursue a singing career. Now it’s all music, all the time, and the inevitable stakes have been raised.

Photo by Natalie O'Moore.

“I’ve always been putting music out myself, it was like, ‘Here’s my idea and oh, it’s on the internet now. I think it’s the first time I have to wait. Now I have the luxury of being calculated and smart. I got to work will all these different people and have all these different experiences, but then it was like, ‘Shit I have to make this into a project.’”

And, just for the record, it’s not R&B. While it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a young black female artist would gravitate towards a different genre — the subversion wasn’t a conscious one — Hale can attest that to many, it very much does. Overhearing a conversation between the songstress and her manager on a recent Uber trip, the driver asked if she “made hip-hop.” Hale responded: “You’re asking if I rap?”

“The assumption that black women only stay in these spaces is hilarious, but people make decisions in marketing black women. I’ve always made the music I wanted to make and if that’s non-traditional then it’s non-traditional. But people subconsciously describe black women as these artists in these boxes. The music industry loves the box.”

Yes, Elah Hale knows the game — and she’s playing by her own rules. She knows that her queer identity could be a talking point, but she won’t let it. She knows bikini pics might elicit higher engagement, but she’ll post on her own terms, followers be damned. For an artist who has spent the last three years moving among steadfastly “anti-label, anti-industry” musicians, leaning into the machine hasn’t been easy. Hale was determined to stay independent, but was forced to acknowledge her hustle wasn't sustainable.

“For me, doing modeling and hating it and feeling disrespected, doing literally fucking anything I could to make $500 for an hour in the studio just didn’t make sense. And the assumption that you can juggle this with a nine-to-five and get as much out of it as you could if you were signed to a label just isn’t true.”

After Interscope Records' investment in the young singer this year, everything has changed. She no longer has to Depop her entire wardrobe or hawk skincare on Instagram to afford to record music. As a result of the influx in resources, Hale’s is primed to become alt-pop’s newest princess. Her new single, “Posters,” is the sonification of a sunset drive up the Pacific Coast Highway — somehow simultaneously managing to satisfy the listener’s needs and leave them wanting more.

“It sounds very different to what I was making in 2017,” explains Hale of her sound. “I find it difficult to compare it to anything because I feel like a baby in this space right now, and I would love to call other artists my peers, but I don’t feel like I’ve deserve it. There are so many people in New York City right now that are in the same position as I am… I have to prove myself.”

But for the most part, Hale is incomparable. Whether singing playwriting, modeling, or just moisturizing, she possesses the kind of star quality that sitting in her presence is to be set alight by proxy. Perhaps the Yeezy show had so little bearing on the singer because the Kanye co-sign will only mean something when she feels like she’s earned it. And when she does, only then will Elah Hale realize she never really needed it to begin with.