Topher Hall is a master of storytelling, songwriting and reinvention. After a personal wake-up call, he rose from the ashes with a strong voice, powerful message and a new musical identity. Now performing under the name, Idalee, he is set to release his brand new EP, Starting Now (available March 4), on which he shares songs – inspired by his personal journey – that speak to the complexities of life.
One of Starting Now's stand-out tracks is “Heal.” With its inspiring message of second chances, the companion video for “Heal” introduces listeners to Idalee's backing band – a collection of talented prison inmates with whom he worked with in conjunction with the non-profit organization, Prison Fellowship. You can meet the band in the documentary-form video above and download a copy of the track for free at idalee.com/heal.
AXS got a chance to chat with Idalee about how his past, present and future combined to create, Starting Now.
Laurie Fanelli (AXS): I am completely captivated by your music and the story behind your new EP, Starting Now. Can you share a bit of what led you to create this album?
Topher Hall: Thank you. Well, the short version is that I finally have my head on straight (enough) to really share my songs. My first attempt at doing this ended with me in hospital. I had a shot – a shot that many aspiring musicians would kill for – a supportive band, great manager, great A&R guy and a demo deal with Geffen Records. I came to L.A. from Virginia with a vision, and my band played every open mic in the city to make it happen. But once we began to work with some major players, our lifestyle became a growing hurdle. Eventually drugs, booze and bad decisions burned some bridges and singed others.
Now cut to me in the hospital after putting my head through a windshield. This was where it all changed. I was drunk, high and just really lost in the world when I crashed into a parked government vehicle about half a mile from my apartment. When I woke up, I recognized the grace – the second chance. I gave up that lifestyle and started onto something better.
I had narrowly escaped jail. I thank God every day I didn’t kill anyone. I probably should have done some time. Ironically, through a family friend, I heard about an internship at Prison Fellowship, a nonprofit that helps the US incarcerated population become better people and contribute to society. They were about second chances. I took up some odd jobs for them, and began working in video. In video interviews with prisoners, I heard so many stories of people that sincerely wanted to make good on a second chance. That had a great effect on me. I still make videos for them.
During my hiatus, I never stopped writing songs. But none of them have seen the light of day until now. I’ve been preparing to do something like this for a while. And after some kind words from my former bassist and best bro James Mason, I decided it was time for a full-fledged attempt to share my stockpile of tunes. It’s always been my dream to share songs, and now that I can see straight, I want to try again.
“Starting Now,” the title track off the EP, was written in the bathroom of my new place in the Phoenix area. A year ago, I relocated to the Sonoran desert from the DC suburbs. The desert elements have made it into a lot of the artwork and ethos of this EP.
After a past of false starts, Starting Now was my crying out, “I mean it this time. This time is special.”
LF: “Heal” is a wonderful song emphasized by a message of redemption. What made you want to work with prison inmates as the musicians on the track?
TH: The song has two sides to it. It’s about the incarcerated men and women I’ve come to know in the American criminal justice system, and the system in general. But it’s also very much about my battle with addiction and my own desire to heal. Specifically, I met some men in a Michigan prison a while back and it really provided much of the inspiration for the song. I met with men who try day in and day out to be better people, to make amends, to be there for their families and to get ready for a life on the outside. But when it comes to that last part, the life on the outside, I never got the sense they were expecting a real second chance. In the eyes of society, they’re marked now. They’re never healed. They’re not ready to be a contributing member of our communities. That doesn’t sit right.
The song’s about longing to know when relief will come.
While a big part of the song is about the criminal justice system, I think we can all relate, because it’s also about the human need to heal.
A talented band of incarcerated men was best suited to help tell this story. Those guys played well, sang well and gave our film crew a glimpse into their lives in the system. I’ll never forget working with those guys – especially Thomas, C.J., Robert and James.
LF: How does music have the power to “Heal?”
TH: I guess I always assumed music could help heal the damage in people’s lives. Now I know. I have heard straight from the mouth of someone who has been locked up for almost two decades that he would not have made it without the healing power of music.
Music gets to us where we’re soft. It gets to us where we’re not guarded.
I know for me, if there’s pain I’m hiding inside – music will find it. It brings context to it. It allows me to examine it, spend time with it and eventually make peace with it. The soothing and inspiration we get from music can mend wounds. At least it has with me.
LF: As someone who has worked closely with inmates, what are some misconceptions that you believe most people have about the present prison system?
TH: There’s one thing I would highlight here. I hear people talk with the whole “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mentality. Regardless of whether or not you agree with that, in reality, 95% of incarcerated people come back to our communities. Most people in prison don’t stay there. They come back to our streets. I wonder if most people realize that. If we lock ‘em up and turn our backs until they get out, what kind of people do we expect to return?
I’m not a soft on crime person at all. I just believe as a society we are charged to care about prisoners and our criminal justice system. And if someone doesn’t agree with that, I’d urge them to start caring what happens behind the walls, if only because those folks will be our neighbors soon.
LF: Why did you choose Idalee as your stage name?
TH: Ha – It’s my hometown’s park where my buds and I got into trouble, grew up and hatched plans to give our dreams a shot in Los Angeles. I love it. People say it sounds like “ideally”.. which is fine. I say “eye dah lee” but whatever.
LF: What are you most excited about following the release of Starting Now?
TH: I’m excited to work on the live show. Got some possible supporting players popping up lately, and aching to play a proper show. It’s been a while since playing the L.A. clubs. I’m excited to share some acoustic versions of the songs and I’m also pumped to work on a full-length album. I definitely have a backlog of tunes to catch up to, and some new stuff on the burner.
LF: Will you be touring in support of the EP?
TH: I have some dates in the works starting in May this year. It’s looking like regional dates in the Phoenix and SoCal areas. We’ll get a schedule up on the website soon.
LF: Is there anything else you'd like to share with AXS readers?
TH: Well, the song “Heal” is available right now for free as part of my partnership with Prison Fellowship on the “Heal” music video/documentary. Just go to idalee.com/heal to get it for free… do it now!
Starting Now will be released on March 4, with pre-orders becoming available on Feb. 19. Click here to learn more about Idalee's musical journey and keep reading AXS for more music news, reviews and exclusive interviews.