From Commune to Congress House

Mark Hallman

If you've sung a tune in an Austin shower, chances are there's a tape of it in storage at Arlyn. The recording studio's collection of master reels is part local history lesson, part graveyard. Yet between tapes of Fastball and Willie Nelson stand boxes upon boxes of Carole King recordings from the early Eighties. For whatever reason, they tend to stand out. Mark Hallman, who produced the sessions in Austin and Los Angeles, claims it's a "long story" about how they wound up at Arlyn, though how they got made and how Hallman himself -- now one of Austin's most popular musicians/producers/engineers/studio owners -- got here, is a far more interesting tale.

It wouldn't be a true Austin legend if it didn't start with hippies and Jerry Jeff Walker. The hippies were Hallman and his bandmates in Navarro, a mid-Seventies, Colorado-based country-rock outfit patterned after the Grateful Dead. After an illustrious local career of filling rented barns for after-hours shindigs, the band split apart in the late Seventies -- frustrated, says Hallman, that they couldn't parlay their cult following into a record deal. "Right after we broke up, Carole King called," remembers Hallman. "Dan Fogelberg used to occasionally sit in with the band and had brought her to one of our shows. I thought maybe I'd met her once. But she's telling me that she was knocked out by our show and the energy, and wanted us to come to Los Angeles and record. She wanted Navarro instead of the session cats."

Navarro reformed for the sessions, but in the first of a series of tough breaks, King terminated her record deal and the product of their association never came out. A year later, King signed with Capitol, again soliciting Navarro's backing, and using Hallman for guitars, keyboards, and some vocals. Capitol was duly impressed and signed Navarro itself. "They dropped us after the second record," says Hallman. "We just didn't have any hits."

Not long after, Hallman launched a solo career in Colorado and, once again, King called -- this time from a shack in the Idaho mountains. "All she had was a 12 volt battery and cassette player -- with, I believe, only a Jerry Jeff cassette," says Hallman. "She asked me to produce a record with her. I was nervous because all I'd produced was the first Navarro record, a huge disaster with a huge budget."

By recording in Los Angeles, Hallman believed he'd only make the same mistakes again, so, with King's love of Jerry Jeff in mind, Hallman chose Austin and Walker's seasoned backing band to record Touch of Sky. The album, a moderate success, led to another, and although Hallman hadn't officially settled here, he spent the better part of 1979 in Austin, drafting musicians for King's next project, Pearls, a retooling of her greatest hits. "I'd gotten a line on some of the players in town, like Christopher Cross and a hotshot guitarist named Eric Johnson," recalls Hallman. "We brought them in for the sessions, and I finally started to get the feel of producing. Carol did the basic tracks and vocals, and left me to do the overdubs, mix, and song selection. I really got to take control and learn what production was all about."

As any producer will tell you, the only way to learn about production is to spend years in a studio. Unknowingly, Hallman would wind up not only with his own studio, but also enough work that renting it out came only as an afterthought. And yet, perhaps only in Austin could one of the city's most popular recording studios have started out as a good ol' fashioned hippie commune. Long before Iain Matthews, Will Sexton, Sara Hickman, and Kris McKay labored over new projects -- with Oasis and Bob Mould dropping in for quickie sessions -- Hallman's Congress House Studio was just that -- a house.

In fact, when Hallman first began renting the building in the early Eighties, he didn't even live there. Instead, he used it as headquarters for his "little kingdom" of Colorado musicians. "They were a bunch of characters, but they were my band and I wanted to bring them down and set them up," explains Hallman. "I had some money stashed and was just going to play around town with them and try to build a following."

Rather than a following, Hallman's bandmates built a studio, adding rooms and rehearsal space to a house that was little more than a lot on a barren section of South Congress. And the commune/studio flourished at first, that is until Hallman lost his solo recording deal, found his band rejected by Austin clubgoers, and was eventually forced into bankruptcy -- necessitating that Congress House briefly become his home. A year later, Hallman moved himself out and moved in an 8-track recording unit from the band's makeshift studio van. It was now Congress House Studios.

"By that point, I'd already gone to the other studios in town and was a little disappointed, because at the time I was virtually the only producer living in town," says Hallman, admitting that the early incarnation of Congress House wasn't much better than his group's studio-in-a-van.

After establishing himself and his upstart studio with a pair of Iain Matthews albums and other assorted demos and independent projects, Hallman got an offer in 1989 for his first post-King major label recording: Will Sexton's solo debut for Zoo Records. Hallman updated the studio to a 24-track for the occasion, but as luck would have it, Sexton got dropped just after turning in the record. Keep To Myself, a title Hallman jokes that he warned Sexton against, wound up seeing a limited European release. "It was a great record, but it was AAA before AAA took off," says Hallman. "The timing was bad. But it started me wondering if I was the kiss of death."

Even without sales success, however, word soon started spreading about Congress House and Hallman, with production jobs for new albums by Matthews, David Halley, and Sara Hickman coming one after another. The latter musician had called Hallman to work on vocal production (what he calls his specialty) for her Necessary Angels album, at that time still slated for release by Elektra. The pair worked so well together that they finished the album themselves even after Hickman's Elektra deal fell apart. Eventually, it was released by Discovery, but Hallman says the experience solidified a new career philosophy: Record on speculation and shop the finished product later. "I suppose what I've mainly done since is investing," he says. "I have a studio, musicians, and can play a lot of things myself. I can make a record happen for very little money, sell it, and invest in something else. It puts me in the A&R game, and I've been lucky so far because they've all been released."

Those records, Necessary Angels, Mr. Rocketbaby's Make Believe, Kris McKay's Things That Show, and five Matthews albums, make up the bulk of Hallman's production cannon, although he soon found that simply engineering was a good way to pay the bills. "Eventually, I had to get into engineering," says Hallman. "The budgets had gotten so low, I couldn't afford to hire engineers anymore. It was by default, but I started to get outside engineering jobs like Tish Hinojosa. Often, I even found myself enjoying not being responsible."

Last year, it was one of Hallman's engineering jobs that brought new and unprecedented attention to himself and Congress House. Indie sensation Ani DiFranco, who produces and releases albums through her Righteous Babe label, chose Hallman's studio to record Dilate -- a critically acclaimed set of folk-driven punk. A collaboration with folk poet Utah Phillips and a double-live record later, and DiFranco's still in and out of Congress House, reviving the commune feel by shacking up in the studio's spare rooms for month-long stretches.

"I learned a hell of a lot from Ani about sounds I originally wasn't comfortable with. She'd pump the bass to where it's way too loud and punch it some more. Ani's got a lot of urban sensibilities I wasn't used to, from the hip-hop elements to the looping," says Hallman, who adds that he'd like to experiment with some of the DiFranco techniques on new demos for Kris McKay and an upcoming Johnny Goudie solo record.

Thus far into their relationship though, the learning curve has swung both ways in that Hallman has taught DiFranco how to use the studio's automation system and essentially replaced himself. "She's a quick learner, but what I really learned with Dilate was the beauty of working with the record company instead of against it," says Hallman. "And with Ani, the artist is the record company, so it's much easier. And that's the same reason I appreciate doing records on spec, making the record and selling it to somebody that appreciates what it is.

"A lot of people don't realize you have to please the record company, and that's maybe why I've had a little trouble. I'm artist-oriented. Like with Will's record, I initially tried to work with the record company, but his A&R guy didn't know what he wanted other than to have Will sound like the Black Crowes. And Will didn't want that. So, rather than get stuck in the middle, we didn't do the Black Crowes thing. Will was the artist and we went with his vision. They dropped him." In the end, Sexton's album wound up a plush songwriter's album -- something Hallman now considers his ultimate specialty. "Musically, my career started with rock, then I got into acoustic elements, and now I kind of do acoustic rock as my specialty. And because I'm a songwriter I suppose I have an affinity towards people with great songs."

Hallman's own songs surface in Hamilton's Pool, a recording and touring collaborative that teams Hallman with Matthews, Halley, and Michael Fracasso. "Invariably, I get invited to play with whoever I produce, for whoever can't be there on any given night. And because I play bass, guitar, drums, and piano -- and I know the songs backward and forwards -- it's easy to fall into it. With all that practice, my musicianship is actually getting better."

Business itself is getting better, too, says Hallman, although he admits he's had to find ways around new studio competition and lower budgets. "I'm constantly trying to keep the budgets down without sacrificing quality. That means I'm playing more and bringing musicians in for more effective sessions. In and out. Balancing the creative and financial vision is the key to dealing with a market this soft.

"I suppose that's because I play so many instruments, I can understand those instruments and I think musicians like that," says Hallman by way of explaining Congress House's recent growth and the demand for his own production services. "It helps me picture the whole thing and put it all together less painfully. My engineering completes the whole pictures. So I play instruments, write songs, and have a 24-track studio. It's appealing. Plus, of course, it doesn't hurt that my rates are low." n

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