The transformation of Autumn Sky Hall
Dumped, broke and broken, Sacramento’s singing sweetheart quit cute and went dark
It was 4 o’clock in the morning on February 13 of last year, and Autumn Sky Hall woke up with a song in her head. She’d been thinking of the concept for a while and suddenly had a fully formed idea. The track, which she would eventually title “Virginity,” was different than anything she’d done before. Dark and complicated, haunting.
“The songs I wrote in the past were extremely fanciful and otherworldly, because I had a lot of painful stuff going on in my life I had to escape from,” she says now. “I wrote uplifting songs because I needed to be uplifted.”
It’s not that the pain was gone. Hardly. If anything, Hall just felt ready to confront it head-on. Compelled, even. But the song was also perhaps prescient—an indication of everything yet to come.
Soon after writing it, Hall found herself dumped by her boyfriend and without a band. It was a wildly public breakup, Facebook confessions and all. Then came a scam that left her penniless, followed by a subsequent crowd-funding campaign asking for money that brought on ruthless Internet trolls. Then some serious illnesses, a theft and an emptied bank account. And even a job at a sex shop.
Amid all the craziness and blowback, one of Sacramento’s most beloved performers disappeared. The young woman probably best known to her fans as simply Autumn Sky—the auburn-haired singer with a guitar and fairy-tale pretty dresses—was out of the public eye. This after 12 years of doing everything from requisite coffee-shop gigs to captivating huge crowds at Concerts in the Park.
Today, Hall goes by her full birth name. A lot more has changed, too. Gone are the auburn locks, replaced with a cut that’s shorter and tougher. She left Midtown for the suburbs, writing songs in her bedroom, trying to start over, alone.
“If I was going to continue doing music, I needed to do something that I actually cared about,” she explained of the transformation. It was the worst of times. But, maybe, the best of times, too.
Because when you hit bottom there’s no where else to go but up.Less than zero
It’s just past noon on a Monday in September and Hall is in the studio to record “Virginity” with producer Patrick Hills. Dressed in a cropped denim jumpsuit, she looks tired—maybe that’s because they’ve been working since 7 a.m. with Hills and her new bandmates Chris Karriker and Jarrod Affonso. The band, named Write or Die, came together last summer. Word got out that Hall was looking for a guitarist and Karriker contacted her. Affonso joined soon after. Now Hall is trying to nail the vocals on a crucial part.
Hills hits rewind repeatedly and snippets of voice—sometimes a growl, sometimes an ethereal siren call—fill the cramped room at Earth Tone Studios.
“I’m not sorry. I’m not sorry. I’m not sorry at all.”
The music beneath—thumping beats and pretty bell chimes—recalls the likes of early club-scene Madonna, Bjork and Sister Crayon.
The song, along with the rest of Scream of Consciousness, Hall’s EP with Write or Die, documents her journey this past year, a time of loss and gain, of exploring feminism, sexuality and new endeavors. It will be released February 13. Full circle and all that.
Those expecting Hall’s usual garden-variety, flower-crown, twee folk—pretty, if not particularly distinct—will likely be in for a big surprise. Folk was her fallback genre.
“I found myself playing folk because guitar was the first thing I learned to play,” the 27-year-old singer-songwriter said. “I wanted to write music that I myself would buy.”
That music, as it turns out, is rich with moody electronic beats and trippy rock vibes, the bones of which sound as though they were crafted deep in a forest, alone.
Maybe, in a way, they were. Metaphorically, of course.
The path there was long and winding. Hall was raised in a big, religiously conservative family—she’s the oldest of seven, with three brothers and three sisters. The kids, who were home-schooled, shared a tight bond as the family moved around; it was a nomadic existence that included a stint in Mendocino, where her parents ran a Christian prayer retreat. By the time she was 15, the family had settled in Sacramento and Hall started attending public high school.
It was during this time period, Hall says, that she was raped. Just a few years later, when she was 19, Hall married. The church expected it, she says. The divorce happened when she was just 21.
Today, Hall looks at those experiences as the seed for everything that came after.
Growing up, there were double-standards and judgments. She blamed herself for the assault; she must have been doing something wrong for such a thing to happen. Marriage was an even more troubling time, and Hall’s decision to divorce stemmed, at least in part, from feeling at odds with everything she thought she knew to be true. The pressure to be a good wife, she says, was oppressive and divorce felt like a “return to purity in my mind.”
After the divorce, Hall stayed busy, playing shows, releasing self-made albums, hanging out with friends, deciding what to watch on Netflix. It was just the usual 20-something musician lifestyle.
Then came that day when Hall wrote “Virginity,” which addresses the church doctrine she grew up with: the “deeply fucked up” idea that a woman’s so-called purity is something to be prized. A culture that celebrates a boy’s entry into manhood for taking it.
The next day—Valentine’s Day—her boyfriend broke up with her. Insult to injury, the following day her band’s bassist announced he was moving to Portland. The band, which her boyfriend had played in as well, was essentially done.
“’Oh, cool, go on,’” Hall remembered thinking. “’I’ll just be sitting here in the ditch. You guys have a nice life.’”
After her boyfriend dumped her, Hall got a nanny gig through an online caregiver site. When she received her first check, she bought work clothes—khakis and T-shirts the toddler could spit up on—and stocked her fridge with food. Two weeks later, the check bounced.
She went to her bank and showed them emails from her employer. She tearfully asked them to restore her balance to what it had been before she’d deposited the bogus check. But this wasn’t exactly fraud, and Hall had been the one to spend the money, even if it wasn’t legit.
Hall remembers the despair. “It was really bizarre to wake up and have minus $200 in my account,” she says. “This was me bottoming out—this was less than bottoming out.
“This was me at less than zero.”
Hall filed a case with the police but nothing happened.
Then came not one, but two kidney infections that left her hospitalized. As a result, Hall couldn’t work and lost out on another job. Oh, and then her wallet was stolen. Because, of course.
Desperate, Hall moved in with a friend’s family in Roseville. They suggested she also turn to the Internet for help so in June she launched a GoFundMe campaign. “Please Help Me Recover From Scams/Setbacks,” as it was titled, outlined her troubles with a plea.
“Sometimes it’s best to know when to ask for help, and so I’m asking,” she wrote. “If there’s anything you can do, I would be so grateful.”
Maybe it was the next natural step. Hall is prolific online, and her Facebook posts are often frank, emotionally bare. Some might say they veer toward oversharing. It mostly works in her favor; she’s built an online community of thousands. As such, reaction was swift. Nearly 50 people donated in excess of Hall’s $2,000 goal.
Meanwhile, on Facebook, where the campaign was circulating among some of Hall’s friends and local musicians, word went viral with intense, perhaps unexpected ferocity when someone shared the post and the disparaging comments piled on. Another user created a parody campaign, ushering in another slew of nasty remarks.
Hall, according to the commentators, was a fraud. A trust-fund baby trying to scam others out of money.
Many of the comments were steeped in misogyny. The musician was nothing but an attention whore getting by on her looks. The only people donating were guys who wanted a date. She was probably offering sexual favors in exchange for the money.
A friend sent Hall a screen shot of one of the posts. There were nearly 400 comments. By the end of the week the number would balloon to nearly 1,000. Hall refused to read them. She couldn’t.
“It’s the most bizarre thing that’s ever happened to me,” Hall said. “All of this being shared with the music community at large—it got to the point where I was getting hate mail from people. I still get hate mail from people I’ve never met before.”
Some so-called friends chimed in, too, telling her because she appeared “rich” they wouldn’t support her. Others declared they’d never work with her again. The backlash stung.
“I [felt] let down—because I feel like everything I had done to this point was done with a heavy dose of realism,” Hall says. “I treat people with respect … because that’s how I want to be treated.”
It wasn’t the first time she’d dealt with haters. All those Sacramento Area Music Awards really ticked some people off, too.
“A lot of people [said] I had coerced people into voting for me,” she says. “There are just a lot of people who got really offended when a little girl in a dress with a ukulele and a fucking flower in her hair had a coffee-shop-revival type scene going on and took the focus away from people they thought were more deserving.”
Audrey Kitchell, whose family took Hall in after the boyfriend fiasco, remembers watching her friend face the trauma head-on.
“At first she was shocked, kind of in a state of shock and in a state of sadness and grief,” Kitchell says.
Instead of wallowing, however, Hall channeled it into creativity, often texting lyrics to Kitchell during night writing sessions spent in the room next door.
“She jumped into her writing, which I think really saved her,” Kitchell says. “She just opened her eyes to everything … and she realized she needed to get it out there and look at everything that happened in her life.”The secret feminist
It’s been at least a year-and-a-half since Hall played live at TBD Fest in 2014. It may be be a while before she sets foot onstage again. The kind of show she envisions for Write or Die is elaborate. Affonso recently quit the band for personal reasons; Hall says it’s really more of a hiatus. He’s welcome back anytime. In the meantime, she and Karriker must rethink certain elements. Maybe they’ll do smaller-scale shows first. Hall really wants to play Sacramento LadyFest. There’s talk of a tour. No hurry, though.
The last year has been, in a way, something of an education. While she lived in Roseville, she worked at an adult boutique in the area. The job initially terrified her, but the people there were nice.
“You can’t be mean to people while you’re hanging up lingerie,” she says.
The work also proved enlightening.
“The people that worked there were so sex-positive and so educated and so comfortable I eventually got to the point where I could talk about this with a customer or somebody who came in for something specific,” she says. “It just made me feel so much more empowered.”
That’s a big part of the journey.
Scream of Consciousness centers on themes of sexuality and feminism, and to that end Hall’s been taking in anything and everything on the subjects, she explains one rainy January morning at home. It’s a sprawling 100-year-old house located in rural Florin. She lives there with her boyfriend and there’s talk of hosting Daytrotter-styled recording sessions in the living room someday.
Today, she’s wearing a yellow kimono layered over a fuzzy sweater; her hair wet and face makeup free. Water boils in the kettle for tea, and nearby is a laptop—opened to Facebook—and a copy of Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay’s 2014 collection of essays on gender, politics and pop culture. Hall’s reading it for a feminist book club she launched with some friends.
These days, Hall is a devoted pupil on the subject of gender equality, sexuality and women’s rights. It’s a study that combines the rigor of research and coats it with sheen of girly bubblegum pink sparkles. To that end, she regularly posts images on Facebook and Instagram depicting musical icons such as ’80s-era singers Grace Jones and Siouxsie Sioux or pictures of pink roller skates and unicorns, hashtagging them with things like #writeordie, #feminist and #riotgrrl.
On the surface it all feels a little wide-eyed and overly earnest. First-wave, second-wave or third-wave feminism? This is glitter wave.
Still, Hall’s identification with the subject has deeper, serious roots. “I think I was a secret feminist before,” she says with a laugh. “But I felt uncomfortable sharing it.”
The last year has changed that.
“I want to stand proudly and say I think education about sex is one of the most important things a young woman can have,” she says. “But it feels weird because … it can still be read as sexually explicit or promiscuous based on who you are talking to. And that’s where it gets tricky.”
As a female musician, Hall is sensitive to the trickiness. Over the years, she says there have been plenty of out-of-line comments and behaviors—like the time a stranger grabbed her ass at a Sammies award show. She chased him down and told him to “never fucking” touch her again.
Then there are the people who get inappropriately chummy—or worse—on Facebook. She gets tired of remarks about her appearance—the hair, the dresses, the whatever.
The weariness extends to her creative pursuits, too. When it comes to the EP, Hall is excited about its songs, but maybe a little freaked out, too, about sending it out into the world. To bear the inevitable scrutiny.
“It feels weird to have opinions, it feels weightier,” Hall says, then pauses to clarify. “It feels weird to be opinionated in music, because being opinionated is something I never ever was before.”
With all those bands, all those shows, all those songs, really?
“I’d constantly be demanding people respect me and listen, but I feel like I attracted the kind of people who didn’t because I didn’t either,” she says.
That’s different now.
Hills, the Earth Tone Studios producer, reached out to Hall long ago with an offer to record. By the time she took him up on it he says she’d ditched the earnest indie-folk sound.
“Things changed dramatically after [her life] sort of fell apart,” he says. “That’s a big reason why her sound evolved so quickly.”
Scream of Consciousness makes for a cohesive departure. Songs such as “Babygirl” and “Prom King Crown” pulse with aggressive guitars, downbeat melodies and, always, Hall’s voice—alternating between breathily pretty and guttural.
Throughout the recording process, Hills adds, Hall came in with strong ideas and the push to make them happen.
“If you listen to her songs … you get a clear vision that there’s a strong point of view and that she has something to say,” Hills says. “That’s what really art is all about.”
Karriker agrees. Over the last several months Hall has impressed him with her ideas, ambition and openness.
“She’s got a drive that’s really cool, and she’s got an idea but there’s a real big open door for whatever’s in between,” Karriker says.
Karriker, whose previous bands include Saint Solitaire, says he wasn’t really a fan of Hall’s folk songs—it just wasn’t his thing—but when he heard she was looking to start a band, he reached out.
The pair wanted a similar aesthetic—something dark, heavy, melodic and emotional—and the band’s songwriting sessions were collaborative living room jam sessions that Hall recorded exhaustively.
Now, Karriker says, he expects others will see and hear a brand new Autumn Sky Hall.
“It’s going to be different for fans; it’s going to be really surprising in a good way,” he says.
Maybe the biggest things that have come out of the last year are the changes they’ve brought about for Hall, not musically, but in everyday life. She works full-time for one of those photo booth companies you find at weddings, parties and expos. She pays her bills on time and doesn’t go out much at night. Maybe she’s a little square and boring. That’s cool, though.
There’s more transition coming, too. In March, most of her family will be moving across the country. There, they’ll be able to better support her father who has Huntington’s Chorea. Still, that’s a long haul from Redding, where her parents currently live.
She lets out a sigh as she talks about it.
“It’s sad but from a grownup perspective it’s exactly what they need to survive—they need to be somewhere where [finances] are not always up in the air,” she says.
And, she says, even with her family on the other side of the United States, she doesn’t feel alone.
“Luckily this is the year my friends became family-friends so the dynamics have changed to support me in that way,” she continues.
Mostly, she just wants to keep making music, making art, making a statement. “I didn’t feel like I had much of a voice before, and now I want to be a voice,” Hall says. “I have a lot to add to the conversation and I had just never taken the time to let myself have fun with that.”
Whatever happens next, she says, she’s ready.
In a way, she says—in true optimistic Autumn Sky Hall fashion—everything that happened this last year turned out to be something of a blessing.
“I have stronger sense of self now,” Hall says. “I feel like I’m made of iron and nothing really affects me, nothing.”