006 Hallie Bulleit
"What I lack in skill I make up for in discipline"
Hallie Bulleit: Yeah. Like, New Wave changed my life when I was a teenager. You know, my identity was what I wanted to just go home and listen to The Cure, and The Smiths, and Depeche Mode for hours and hours. I mean, those were like my formative years as a human being.
Hallie Bulleit: And my first show with that girl band was a sold out show at Brownies. Which you may remember, on Avenue A. A sold out show at Brownies in front of people in which I probably played half of what I was supposed to play correctly.
Trevor Exter: You are listening to Play It Like Its Music. Exploring the lives and craft of the people who play. Today, I am a guest of Hallie Bulleit. Bassist, lead vocalist of Hiccup, The Unlovables; songwriter and keyboardist on the Chris Gethard Show. All around complete badass of music and many, many other things. State your name and instrument:
Hallie Bulleit: I am Hallie Bulleit, I'm a Singer, Bass player, and now, Beginning Keyboardist.
Trevor Exter: And how're you doing today?
Hallie Bulleit: Doing great actually.
Trevor Exter: Nice. Why do you play music?
Hallie Bulleit: Because music is what I do in my free time. I mean, if I have a spare second, I want to listen to music or go hear a band. So, I'm glad. It took me awhile but I'm glad that I finally figured out how to actually also make that the thing that I was doing like, with my life and as an artist. And to make [00:02:00] money. It's, been really gratifying.
Trevor Exter: Give me a little bit of an overview of your first experiences with music, hearing it, and then, playing it for the first time - I'm assuming when you were quite a bit younger?
Hallie Bulleit: Yeah. I mean, I grew up being like, a huge music fan. Music was always my first love. My mom, when I was growing up, worked in musical theatre. And so, I think that just sort of in, uh, taking over the family business seemed like the direction that I would probably head in. And I'm really grateful to that because Theater gave me everything; it gave me my love of dance; it gave me my love of performing; it gave me my love of music or musical theatre, rather. But I didn't actually end up doing a lot of musical theater. It was like, it just introduced me to all the things that I really loved and then, I ended up doing. But like, yeah like, New Wave changed my life, when I was a teenager. It was, you know, my identity. It was what I wanted to just like go home and listen to The Cure, and The Smiths and Depeche Mode for [00:03:00] hours and hours. I mean, those were like, my formative years as a human being.
So, it's interesting to me that I actually sort of still stayed on this course of thinking that I wanted to do musical theatre. Because, I didn't have nearly the passion for musical theatre that I did for pop music and rock music. But I did, I continued to study musical theater. And that's what I studied at school, I studied the Theater and Dance. And it's really wasn't till I moved to the city and was just In the East Village, and seeing a million shows, and seeing a million bands, and finally, seeing a lot of women playing music. That was when I finally picked up the bass.
Trevor Exter: Alright. So, you came to it late. and then, before that, you did have this pretty well fleshed-out acting career. What does the landscape of your career look like in the present day? Is it a mix of these different things now. What are you doing?
Hallie Bulleit: So I worked um, primarily, as, I'd say, just a performer. You know, you and I did some physical theatre together…
Trevor Exter: You make it sound [00:04:00] so mysterious. Some physical theatre we did. We did some crazy shit.
Hallie Bulleit: We did some crazy shit. I moved to New York in the 90s. I was bumming around the East Village. I picked up the bass just as a hobby, but I was still auditioning for theater. And I booked the national tour of RENT. And that was my first gig. I came home from that tour and I did RENT on Broadway for a little while. And then, I auditioned, while I was doing RENT, I auditioned for a show called De La Guarda, which I booked. Which is the show that you and I performed in which was, you know, maybe the, maybe the highlight of my theater career. And I went on then, I think, because I had then gotten a reputation for someone that could do sort of very, very physical work in theater. I went on to do Stomp and Fuerza Bruta which was the second show that the De La Guarda creators brought to New York. And so, my, my career was really mostly dance and movement.
My music background definitely helped me book those gigs. Obviously, I had to sing in RENT. I had to sing a lot in RENT. And you know, De La [00:05:00] Guarda we had to do some drumming. And Stomp, obviously, was percussion. So, it was interesting, I hadn't studied music in any sort of like, really formal way. Aside from just singing in choruses and performing musicals, but all of that, the fact that just music was in me, it helped me book every single gig that I got as a dancer and as an actress.
I retired from that kind of performing. When I was in my late 30s, I had an accident that kind of forced me into retirement. But again. I was in my late 30s, it was like, probably about time that I stopped swinging from the ceiling. And I sort of like, you know had played in punk rock bands more as a hobby all through my late 20s, and my 30s. And so when I retired from dance, just was really really lucky. I was able to then transition into a career in music. Because when I retired from dance, I didn't know what in the world I was going to do. But luckily, the music that had been playing - again, more as a hobby - and the people that I'd met, uh, all of that just sort of lead to opportunities for me to be able to [00:06:00] then transition into music.
Trevor Exter: First band I know of yours is the Unlovables. Were there bands before that?
Hallie Bulleit: The Unlovables was my first band. And that was just, me and my bass, in my bedroom, writing songs, just to amuse myself. And, you know, I would play them for friends occasionally. And I had some friends that really encouraged me to actually start a band. So, the Unlovables was something that I was doing, on the side. While I was earning my living as a dancer, and I loved it. I absolutely loved it. I toured the country, I put out records, all things that again, as a as a kid listening to New Wave and Punk in my formative years. And sort of um, thinking that, I was going to be just an actress and a dancer. It never actually occurred to me that I would have my own band one day. And be able to play an instrument and have people sing along to my songs. It was truly like, mind-blowing to me, every single time we played a show. It was this beautiful [00:07:00] thing that kind of happened in my life that I hadn't really been planning on and I didn't really expect it. If that makes sense.
Trevor Exter: Yeah, it makes sense. I have seen you perform for years. Like, the bands are legit, and your writing is legit, and your playing and your performing is totally legit. And by legit, I guess what I'm trying to say, is you find the perfect sweet spot to perform, just beyond the level of your like, cultivated ability. To inject a lot of fire into it, but it never falls apart at all like, there's this, it's almost like, the energy current is perfectly directed to satisfy the people watching. Like, it's a really good time watching you perform. Maybe you can impart some of your secrets.
Hallie Bulleit: Well, so I, you know, I stumbled into… I stumbled into a career as a musician. Because I when I retired from dance. I didn't know what in the world I was going to do with my life. And my friends that I had [00:08:00] known through punk rock for years said. "Hey we're, we're writing music for this live comedy show which is called the Chris Gethard Show and do you want to come, we need someone to help with singing, and we need someone to write the songs." And I had literally, nothing else to do with my life. I had just ended the career that I'd spent my entire life trying to build and I was like, yeah, I'll do that. Because it was just a way to be creative that wasn't dancing, that didn't require my body to be fully healthy, which it was still wasn't yet from my accident.
And so, this tiny little show that I started working on has grown, and grown, and grown and it's now our job; and I now get paid to write songs and sing on the show. There was already two bass players in the band when I joined. One who was trying to level up and play guitar, and then me, and there was like absolutely no need for me to play bass. So, I started playing just Glockenspiel and tambourine, little like, instrument over the years. I tried to [00:09:00] grow that into actually playing keyboard and now, I do not know how to play keyboard but I get paid every week on TV, on live television, to play keyboard! This is the story of my life, I don't know it's…
Trevor Exter: That's the best. What goes into your process of putting something in front of people?
Hallie Bulleit: When it came to theater and to dance, because I had studied those things. I just, I think I had a lot of confidence and I would go to audi… I went to auditions because I felt that I deserve to be there. I felt qualified to be there. When it came to music, I just don't think I would have gone for it, if my friends hadn't pushed me. Because it just felt like something that was for other people.
Trevor Exter: It's not how you're still feel now though, right?
Hallie Bulleit: No. That's not how I feel now. But that's just from, you know, so, I like I said, I'd picked up bass as a hobby. I would play in my bedroom. I ended up joining a, you know, just because friends had heard me play, I ended up getting asked to join this girl band called The Hissyfits. That was actually my first band that I played in. It wasn't, I wasn't doing the writing, so I don't... Sometimes, I [00:10:00] forget about it because I don't consider it my band. But it was it was my first band that ever played in and I barely knew how to play. And that's one of the beautiful things about punk rock because, if you just even if you go back to the Ramones their whole thing was like yeah, you don't really have to play well to play music. Which is, they are plenty of people that would argue with that, and I think there are good reasons argue with that. But there is something really freeing. And thank God, I, thank God Punk is the music that I was interested in. Because I don't think I ever would have actually played music on stage, otherwise. It's just gave me this pass to like," Yeah, you don't have to be that good like, there are other things that are important. What do you have to say? Are you doing something that's new and exciting? Are you doing something that people are interested in?" Um, and my first show with that girl band was a sold-out show at Brownies. Which you may remember, on Avenue A. A sold-out show at Brownies in front of people in which I probably played half of what I was supposed to play correctly.
Trevor Exter: It's a big deal. [00:11:00] That's really awesome. Do you think I could get you to play a little bit? Is that, are you willing to do that?
Hallie Bulleit: Um, yeah. Sure.
Trevor Exter: Yeah?
Hallie Bulleit: Yeah I don't even have a [Inaudible]
Trevor Exter: That's alright. Is that uh, a fender or do you play the, the Dano?
Hallie Bulleit: The Dano is in a pretty bad shape. That's my practice. That's my rehearsal bass.
Trevor Exter: Oh my God. You got a sick little jazz bass.
Hallie Bulleit: Finally, I've been playing since like,
Trevor Exter: I love the color.
Hallie Bulleit: I've been playing since like, I've been playing since like,'96. I had shitty basses until last year. Finally
Trevor Exter: This is [Crosstalk:God] highly unshitty bass yeah.
Hallie Bulleit: Um, I don't know, should you be on my…
Trevor Exter: Yeah, wherever works.
Trevor Exter: Do you want to do a song?
Hallie Bulleit: Um, sure. I can. Yeah, what would be fun to play? [Strings] Yeah, I'll do a song. I mean, this, it's sound a little crazy, not plugged in. Sorry.
[00:12:00] [00:13:00] [music]
Trevor Exter: Yeah! I love the color of this bass. I've never seen a bass that color.
Hallie Bulleit: Yeah, I'm pretty happy with the bass. I am, I played really, truly, crappy quality basses for a long time. And just last year, gave myself permission to actually invest in a nice instrument, and I love it. I absolutely love it
Trevor Exter: Everyone should do that. I can't stand seeing someone playing on an instrument that's better than them.
Hallie Bulleit: Yeah, I am. Yes. So, this is, this is um, like, a Fender Jazz Bass. It is like a gorgeous like blue, grey, I can't even, gray?. I [00:15:00] can't even describe this color. It's so pretty, but yes. It makes me feel like I have to level up a little bit. Because um, soon as I get on stage with this nice bass, people are like, "Oh, you better be able to play" haha.
Trevor Exter: I don't think they're expecting like, Marcus Miller or anything like that. For the record, do you know who Marcus Miller is?
Hallie Bulleit: I don't.
Trevor Exter: That's a perfect answer. Alright. So, oh man. Do you want to play some more? or Is that…
Hallie Bulleit: Oh yeah. I can play more.
Trevor Exter: Yeah, give me another.
Hallie Bulleit: What will I play? What else would be fun to play? Hmm… 'cause a lot of the stuff that I'm writing on the show now. I don't know on bass. I only know like, my little "rrEErrEErrEErr" keyboard parts the I write. Um…
Trevor Exter: Could be something old. I remember the first time I saw you in, uh, when you came to France. And you played in that cold, horrible space. I was, that was like, one of the lone bright spots of that whole trip. Just watching you sing that night. And like, witnessing, [00:16:00] you know... You've got - and this is a really deep compliment - you have a very simple product. It works perfectly. Like, I've never had any doubt about any music I heard coming out of you. You know, usually you'll see someone for the first time or you'll see someone you don't know or you'll see someone you do know trying something new. And there's always this like,"is this going to work?" You know? And I've never even thought that around you. Like, it always works. Whatever. It is. And it's always something that like, you believe in it and everyone who's witnessing it believes it too. Like, either you write really good stuff and you choose really good stuff to play, which is true. But then you do that thing to polish it.
Hallie Bulleit: Yeah, I really believe in the power of pop music. I just don't think... I love music that's complicated, and I admire musicians that can do that. And um, like you were saying about punk earlier, punk is a huge wide genre with lots of different kinds of music in [00:17:00] it and different kinds of musicians. And some punks are like, genius musicians. I am by NO means trying to make it sound like everyone that plays some Punk rock can't actually play. But just for me, where I was coming at, I just I love Pop music. I believe in the power of a really beautiful melody and some really simple chords under it. I just don't think it has to be rocket science for me. Just not for this stuff coming out of me. I, I'm happy to listen to that stuff. Um, but it's just, it's not um, it's not where my heart's at, in terms of my writing. And thank goodness because I don't know big super fancy um, chords, I know the simple ones. So, luckily, they do the trick with what I want to get done.
Trevor Exter: But is not like that takes any less work to make that work. I feel like it takes more work to make that stuff.
Hallie Bulleit: Yeah. I mean, also to not um, yeah. It maybe, takes some more work not to just completely repeat what's already been done. Because you're taking these very simple ingredients and trying to figure out, yeah how to put them together. In a way [00:18:00] that somebody else hasn't already done.
Trevor Exter: Hey, you got another one?
Hallie Bulleit: Uh,Sure. [ think] Oh, yeah. I will play this one I think I remember. I haven't played in a while. This is a chipper little song about not believing in heaven.
Hallie Bulleit: [00:19:00] Then, there is a whole thing with a guitar solo. I can't play that. That's that one. This one has a pretty bassline that is fucking hard for me to play because I'm not that good. But I just, had this bassline in my head, and I just thought, well, I'm the person that has play it. haha
Trevor Exter: That's good a reason as any ()haha don't fuck this [00:20:00] up.
[00:22:00] How many years have you been writing songs?
Hallie Bulleit: Um, like,15 years.
Trevor Exter: Was there any of year, among those 15 where you wrote substantially more than the other years? Or is it been like an average number of songs per year for the whole time?
Hallie Bulleit: No. It's been really, all over the place. Because when I was playing with my old punk band The Unlovables, I was probably writing an album every year and a half. It's like, 12 songs every year and a half. Not like a tremendous amount of uh, output, but enough to keep a band going. Because I was still, still working in theatre professionally. And doing it on the side. And then, there were years where I was dancing professionally that I really wasn't playing music. I probably took a seven-year break from playing bass and writing. And [00:23:00] now, for the TV show that I write for, I write probably three albums worth of material in four months. It's completely insane. I just like, I have to write all the time like, on very very tight deadlines. Which is good for me because I don't get a lot done without deadlines. So, while right now, I find the writing pace that I have to be on a little bit stressful, I would prefer to be stressed and be like, forced to be creative all the time than to be sort of, having no deadlines and sort of, wallowing and not really putting out much. This is definitely a better scenario for me.
Trevor Exter: Yeah yeah. I always have the same experience with your music. It's always happy and energized and the Hallie sound is this like, I don't know, I really enjoy it. And and I always experience it like, it's a consistent experience. It's almost like, we can turn you on and off like a light switch. And it's like, Hallie is playing. I know you don't feel that way, but do you strive for consistency or does it just happen?
Hallie Bulleit: I strive for [00:24:00] consistency in that like, I love Pop, I want it to be simple. I want people to want to either sing or dance to it. I want it to be um, yeah, joyful. Even if it's about something sad, I want it to be something that's um, joyfully sad. Like, if we're going to be sad. Let's just like, dive into that and just live in that for a while and just be psyched about it. And uh, I don't know, I try to... The the show that I'm writing for is really nice in that. Because it's not a band that's putting out albums with fans that have an expectation of what we would sound like. Because we're really just sort of providing more soundtracky kind of stuff during the show. And during commercial breaks, we play for the live studio audience, and I can play whatever I want. It's not, the band does not exist outside of the show. And so well, I don't, I think just because of my my taste, my skills, my background and everything, I don't stray too far. It's not like I'm writing some sort of like, [00:25:00] super artsy Indie rock. But I'm not as um, I'm not as straight jacketed, in terms of genre. As I sometimes felt being in bands when I thought, "Well I'm going to have to play this song in front of these fans." And that's not what they're expecting to hear, when they come to see this band. So, this has been really nice. I will send you some of the stuff that I've been writing for the show. Because I've gotten to kind of for me, for most people, they would probably say, "Say oh yes, all just sound like pop songs." But for me, I feel like, I've really been able to actually diversify and write some kind of songs that I wouldn't normally have gotten to write in my band. And I love that, it's really inspiring to just be like, "Oh, what kind of song do I feel like writing today."
Trevor Exter: I don't buy it when people dismiss any kind of music as "Oh, that's just such-and-such." Because, you know, there's a lot that goes into making anything. And it's not every actor that can pick up an instrument and then, become [00:26:00] a performer on that instrument. In fact, a lot of people try it and fail miserably. Do you know Ann Courtney? Mother feather? OK, she's an actress. Totally legit actress and now, she's a complete glam Rock star. Fully legit in music. And I witnessed her, I'm going to talk to her as well, but just as a transition into music. I think it says something about a person's approach to craft, you know, the depth to which they're going to commit to doing something and then how much work they're going to do to legitimize themselves in that place.
Hallie Bulleit: There was something innate about Punk rock that was exactly what you're talking about. It was like it doesn't matter if you know the names of the notes. Which I did not. I used to. I memorized everything on my bass, just by ear and by looking at my fingers and memorizing random patterns. I didn't know what the names of the notes are. But there was something about Punk that was like, that's fine. I could never, I could never have gotten on stage with jazz musicians in the [00:27:00] condition that I was in. But Punk is all about that thing that you were saying. Where you just do it and by doing it you get better, and I think that's exactly what you were getting at. That you are playing just a little bit beyond where you're actually capable of, but it is pushing you to get better. And by playing a sold-out show at Brownies and playing it badly, I went home and I practiced a lot more. And I made sure I played better at the next show and…
Trevor Exter: People talk a lot of shit about punk, and I believe they're wrong. That it's like, "sloppy or it's bullshit." It's like, you know, Jam bands are sloppy, Punk is not sloppy. When I think of Punk music, I'm really intimidated like, as a non-Punk. Like, stylistically I don't have the visual aesthetic. It doesn't take a doctor to recognize that that hair has to be maintained. It's not like that hair happens by accident, you know, you see a really close cut hair and like, you're going to cut it again like, every couple of days. People make a lot of [00:28:00] false conflation between Punks and Hippies. So like, yeah. I believe the story of what you said being true. At the same time, I don't believe that Punks are not trying to make something good. And that Punk rock is not something that... It's a really strong art form. I don't personally know that much about it, but it's really quite intimidating to me. In like, a stylistic sense and in the musical sense as well. Like, I shudder to think if you had been a Jazz fan instead of a Punk fan like, probably none of this would have happened. Because like, that "open door" sense is there. But like, once you walk through the door, then you're playing with with the big kids. And it's really happening. And then that pressure is on. No matter where you're at, no matter where you came from or what... You know how to do it or don't know how to do it. The pressure is on if you're going to go on stage. How you respond to it, that's like, your approach. How do you respond to the performance time like, what, what do you do for that?
Hallie Bulleit: Um, I'm a little bit of a perfectionist. And again, that probably contradicts a little bit what I was saying about Punk. But yeah, Punk gives you [00:29:00] the permission to get onstage and just do it without it being perfect. Which was great for me, I needed that. That being said, I am by nature a perfectionist. So I practice a lot I practice things over and over. And again, I've never really done the work and truly become a trained musician. I just haven't, everything that I do I do by ear, I do by gut. I still barely know any actual musical theory. I really just, I don't. And that's fine. I mean, that's that's why and I'm lucky that I write because I just don't write things that are too hard for me to play. I write things that, I write things from my heart, I write things that are inspired by all the things that I grew up listening to. And I do my best to sort of like, take those things and put them in my own personal blender and spit them back out again.
How I prepare for performance is like a little [00:30:00] nerd. Running things just over and over and over again. Because what I lack in skill, I make up for in discipline, and I just I try to make sure that I sound tight. Even if I'm not the, not the best musician I just drill things until they sound great.
Trevor Exter: See, that's a total contradiction. Because the thing that makes music great is the repetition, that's what legitimizes it. So like, whatever music you choose to make, that's exactly the recipe. Like, whoever, you know, I talked to Jazz people, I'd talked to classical people. I talked to songwriters, you know, I'm planning to talk to a lot more of all of those categories. Repetition is the secret to making it work, and it doesn't matter what you're trying to do. Obviously, if you're doing something more complicated that has more content to it then, there's more stuff to repeat and more time to put in, you know, to get all that stuff to a level of being able to run out on stage. And feel confident about what you're doing. Repetition is the only thing you need to do to prepare. And that that's across the board. That's independent of style. [00:31:00] What would you recommend that a newer player avoid entirely?
Hallie Bulleit: Avoid. Um, yeah. I don't know, just avoid the things that are going to make you not do it. If that's too much self-criticism or or yeah, or hanging out with people that say "No" more than say "Yes." I don't, just avoid things they're going to make you not do it. Just go towards the things that are going to make you just create, and make, and connect with people. And, get out there and make stuff. It's, nothing will happen if you're not just out there making stuff all the time.
Trevor Exter: That's a fantastic answer. Thank you. Hallie Bulleit, I really appreciate that you spoke to us today.
Hallie Bulleit: Thanks, Trevor. I love talking to you.
Trevor Exter: Alright, we should do it more. Um, yeah, I got what I need from that.
Alright, how about that. That was Hallie Bulleit. You can find her band Hiccup at Hiccup.bandcamp.com. And you can find her at HallieBulleit.com. Her Twitter and Instagram handle is @HallieBulleit. And you can also see her perform every single week on the Chris Gethard Show. That thing is crazy.
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