Earlier this week, CLASH hosted a live Q&A with sister duo, Chloe x Halle. The below interview is an edited transcript.
Chloe x Halle, hailing from Atlanta, are prolific creators in complete command of their art. They’ve executive produced four projects in the span of five years, culminating in the release of their second full-length, ‘Ungodly Hour’. Citing gospel giants, The Clark Sisters and Mary Mary, as vocal stimuli, Chloe x Halle belong to a tradition of virtuoso performers rousing the world with soul-stirring hymns and baroque harmonies.
Chloe x Halle are attuned to the state of the world they inhabit. Drawing from a treasure trove of black architypes, they interrogate the notion of “activism”, collective empathy and the power that comes with having a platform.
In my review for the ‘Ungodly Hour’, I wrote that “Chloe x Halle are an avowal of sisterhood and sorority. They’re the prototypal embodiment of the “black girl magic” hashtag – never more prescient in a time when we need figures to aspire to.”
How fortunate are we to have these young women as the vanguard of our next chapter?
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CLASH: I should start by saying the CLASH team agree ‘Ungodly Hour’ is one of the strongest coming-of-age releases we’ve had all year. How does it feel to have your labour of love out there?
Chloe: Thank you. It’s so surreal and strange that it’s finally out and people are streaming it on their phones, and they can actually buy it. It’s so wild to us. We’re just happy that people are loving it and relating to it. We can’t wait to further promote it. This era is far from finished.
CLASH: Did you feel a sense of pressure or expectation that comes with releasing a follow-up record? Did you relish that challenge?
Halle: We did feel pressure, but a lot of that came from within. ‘The Kids Are Alright’ was such a special introduction for us – a Grammy-nominated record. When it came down to making this next project, we had a lot of questions. How do we follow-up our debut and do it well? Initially we had this mindset where we thought we had to one-up ourselves, but then we realised this record is a blank slate for us. We need to make something beautiful like we always do: go into our garage, have fun and create music, whatever comes out of that is meant to be. It was important that we drowned out any outside noise.
CLASH: Can you breakdown your album title ‘Ungodly Hour’? A small vocal minority have commented, believing ‘Ungodly Hour’ is your good-girl-gone-bad descent into “darkness”. In your own words, what’s symbolic about the title?
Chloe: We’re so spiritual, and we put God first and foremost. But the title actually came out of a session we had with Disclosure. Usually when Halle and I create, we have a phrase for inspiration, a starting point. So, we all sat down and discussed the phrase “Ungodly Hour”. We came up with lyrics – “Love me at the Ungodly Hour” – and what that means is love me when I’m at my best, but also when I’m at my worst. Love me when I’m sad, love me when I’m happy, love me when I’m feeling sexy, love me for all of me. We felt that phrase best described the entire album because if you listen to each song on it, we are truly baring our souls, we’re not just being one-sided.
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CLASH: The track ‘Ungodly Hour’ is a different direction for you sonically, traversing a more soporific electronic soundscape. What was it like working with another sibling pair, but also these electronic pioneers?
Chloe: They’re siblings like us and in them, we saw the white male versions of us – it was so interesting to see their synergy.
Halle: Disclosure had actually been working on their album at the time, which is amazing! The creative process was so much fun, they’re mirrors of us. Guy is very much like Chloe, very techy and very anal about stuff. Howard is like me in that we have a more chilled demeanour, we go with the flow. It was so much fun watching other siblings that are intrinsically-linked, work.
CLASH: Let's go back to those early conversations you had when you started the journey of recording what would be ‘Ungodly Hour’. Did you have mood boards? What were your references? How was this going to be a different experience from your debut?
Chloe: We’re always creating, but it took us a year to get into album-making mode. We created this mood board: three to four posters that we put together with duct tape and a bunch of editorial magazines. The photos were of naked or nude women symbolising us coming into our own, owning our sexuality-
Halle: -The vulnerable side, the bare side that people don’t get to see.
Chloe: Exactly. There was even a phrase on there, that said “the trouble with angels”. That was inspiring to us when we were creating the project because we knew what we wanted this album to feel like: sexy, grown, vulnerable like us.
CLASH: There’s a religious theme interwoven into the fabric of the record. From the gospel interludes, to the ‘Intro’ which sounds like a hymn, to the allusions to prayer in ‘Baby Girl’. Can you explain, how your faith influenced ‘Ungodly Hour’ in the context of coming of age?
Halle: We grew up believing we were given this gift of song for a reason, believing we are being used as vessels to share God’s love and light. For this album, because we were showing a more mature side, it was important to keep that theme consistent and to convey the struggles that come with finding yourself. Not everyone is happy, perfect and satisfied every day of their lives. It was so important to show the prominence of spirituality, especially when we lean on it during the darker times. In our songs ‘Overwhelmed’ and ‘Lonely’ – these are mantras and messages that we’re saying to affirm ourselves with, and to remind us that we’re God’s vessels and that perfection isn’t a reality, the journey is.
CLASH: What are your favourite tracks on the record and why? I can imagine this changes quite often.
Chloe: Yes, it changes every day. Today I’m in a ‘Lonely’ mood. I love this track because it comes from an uplifting perspective. We’ve all had those feelings where we feel isolated, but then you remember you’re not alone because you have the person looking back at you in the mirror. I love being in love, I’m forever clinging to my family. I never really want to be alone, I’m a true Cancer. But I’m learning the beauty of being alone. Before quarantine started, I was taking myself out on dates and enjoying time with myself (laughs).
Halle: I think of all the songs as my children. I gave birth to them; I water birthed them. So, it’s very hard to choose a favourite, but I’d agree with Chloe, it’s a little gloomy today and ‘Lonely’ feels relevant.
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CLASH: What star signs are you averse to?
Halle: Good question! (laughs)
Chloe: According to astrology, Cancer and Aries aren’t always compatible, they don’t get along. Halle: We’re not supposed to be partners.
Chloe: Because we’re good business partners and best friends, if I meet someone that isn’t compatible with my sign, I’m actually more open-minded about it because I relate it to how well my sister and I work together.
Halle: I love Libras.
CLASH: Very peaceful, serene people.
Halle: Yes! Our brother Branson and so many other people in our lives are Libras. Chloe: But do you like Cancers? Halle: I do like Cancers. I guess I’m used to Cancers.
CLASH: Someone just commented saying “Sagittarians are the best star sign” – I agree, because I am one. Chloe: I think Sagittarians are cool, I haven’t met a mean one.
CLASH: You produce, you write, you arrange, even co-engineer. What does having complete creative control mean to you?
Chloe: Having complete creative control means everything. It’s all we’ve ever known. When we were 10 and 8 years old, we’d go around and sing for producers in Atlanta but no one would want to write a song for children.
Halle: What do you write for little girls?
Chloe: When we realised no one wanted to work with us in that way, our Daddy sat us down and wrote down “song structure” on these sheets of paper. He helped incorporate figurative language in our music. We wrote this first song together called ‘What Makes Us Sad’-
Halle: A truly terrible song.
CLASH: I think the world needs to hear it.
Chloe: If we can find it! My Dad is like me-
Halle: -They're nerds. They’re very into science and maths, they’re very techy people.
Chloe: I loved science and maths growing up, and that’s why I love producing. Music is math. We’re building something and putting these sounds together. Even when we collaborate, we’ll take the stems home, add more weird harmonies, experimental sounds and assess how much more of us we can put in the song. We’re two young black women in music who have executive produced all of the records we’ve put out.
CLASH: That’s exactly the point. Both of you are adept composers. Chloe, you’re a producer on pretty much every track on the record. There are so many black female producers but they don’t get the same recognition their male counterparts are afforded. What does it mean to you, to be seen amongst the most promising young producers in the game right now?
Chloe: Thank you. I’m so inspired by Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards, Imogen Heap, and Grimes because they’re so hands on with their music and find innovative ways to create sound and one day I hope to walk in their shoes. It’s why I love creating with my sister. In such a male-dominated industry we’re standing on our own two feet.
CLASH: Is it a challenge co-writing or co-producing, relinquishing a little bit of that control?
Halle: It’s always an eye-opening experience. We go into these rooms with these huge producers, feeling nervous. We’re just two girls that make music in our garage, we hope we’re going to be good enough. But when we start creating, we realise they do exactly what we do. When you collaborate with a soul that is open, kind and forthcoming, it’s very easy. With Scott Storch-
Chloe: We love Scott!
CLASH: I’m so glad you mentioned Scott because when you look at the pantheon of hip-hop and R&B, he’s underrated. He’s currently riding this resurgent wave and getting the acknowledgement he deserves.
Halle: Absolutely. Scott’s very open and collaborative. He’ll let you change up anything, he’s very humble in that way. My favourite part of these sessions is how shy Chloe is, she’ll say “Do you guys want to hear what I came up with?” When she plays it, they’re always mind blown. It’s this constant reminder that we can do this too. When you work with someone who is open, it’s a very loving experience. Sometimes, there’ve been isolated experiences where somebody is closed off, and the chemistry isn’t quite right.
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CLASH: Do you want to name check anyone? Put anyone on blast?
Chloe and Halle: NO! (Laughs)
Chloe: None of those made the album anyway.
Halle: They’re learning experiences. It’s always hard opening yourself up to someone you don’t know, so we can understand why there might be some reticence. That’s why it’s easier working with one another. We can be honest, we argue but we move one, and we know it’s never a big deal.
CLASH: In the traditional songwriting canon, vocal production isn’t seen as equal to production or lyrical composition. In R&B, vocal production is the enhancing X factor. In the words of Whitney Houston, “I only listen to singers, I very rarely listen to singers who cannot sing”. I think of that line when I hear you both. How much work goes into creating those vocal moments?
Halle: That’s where we really play and flex. We’re the vocalists that will put a thousand harmonies on one small part because it sounds pretty. It’s important for us to show we can sing, that we’re versatile singers. The feeling we want to get across is this cosmic, angelic sound. In order to get that desired effect, we have to push ourselves up through the higher octaves. The crescendo on ‘Wonder What She Thinks Of Me’ was very important in the context of the record. It’s conveying the emotion in the story. That’s heightened when you sing with your sister. Our bond makes us better singers. We love The Clark Sisters and Mary Mary. Whenever we hear them sing together the sky opens up.
CLASH: What we’re seeing now is a generation galvanized by all of these systemic injustices happening. Activism is at the centre of our discourse today. A question we’re all asking ourselves is what can we do to enact change? Activism manifests in different ways, what does it mean to you?
Halle: Activism means so much to us. We feel like it’s our duty as black women: as black women who are musicians and producers, and as black women who take ownership over their artistry. It’s our duty to stand up for what’s right and to use our platform for the greater good. It’s horrible what’s happening to our brothers and sisters, we’re getting killed in the streets by police brutality, completely unprovoked. It’s raw, and we’ve been very emotional, but now we’re hopeful because we’re seeing a lot of people with us and finally standing up for us. These are injustices we’ve been shouting about for so long. Now people are seeing it and they’re wanting to do something about it. We’re hopeful that change is coming and that justice will be served. We try to use our voices for the greater good, we try to bring some healing through our music. The Black community has been hurting for so long, we’re ready to heal together.
CLASH: Is the notion of getting “political” or taking a more radical stance something that unnerves you as young artists, because there’s a pressure to remain neutral?
Chloe: This isn’t a trend for us. We are black women. This is something we’ve experiencing every day of our lives since we were little girls. Whilst the world may be opening their eyes to this, we’ve always known this. This is our reality. Our parents taught us when we were younger, you have to be twenty times better just to get the same opportunities as your counterparts. We will continue to use our platforms for the little black girls and boys, to show them they can do this, and when they see proper representation, they’ll believe in themselves more.
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CLASH: So many prominent black figures are coming to the fore and we’re discovering their work as a result of a demand in representation, as a way to redress the balance in coverage and education. What black activists, authors, entertainer or artists would you like your fans to know more about?
Halle: For me, I’ve been inspired by Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Especially the work of Nina Simone, because she was always standing up for her community and was steadfast in her beliefs. I would say to our fans, gravitate to the artists that speak up. Read more. I’ve been reading a book called ‘The Water Dancer’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates, it has opened up by eyes and perspective on everything. It tells a story about this slave named Hiram, and his struggle to break free, and it really resonated deep with me.
Chloe: I’ve been delving into the lives and works of Chaka Khan and Donna Summer. What they’ve done for music is so incredible. Donna did so much for Disco and Electronic music. As a black woman she didn’t really get her dues.
CLASH: Halle, when it was announced you’d be playing Ariel in the Disney Little Mermaid live action remake, my sister and I looked at each other and we slow clapped. I’m so happy a black actress gets to play a Disney heroine – a very long time coming. After hearing you sing on this record, I can’t wait to hear your ethereal tones all over the film and accompanying soundtrack. When will you resume filming?
Halle: Thank you so much. Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to share when filming will resume. But I’m so eager and excited to start back. It’s such an honour for me to take on this role, and show other black girls they can be Princesses too, and make Ariel my own.
Chloe: She’s amazing guys. You’re not ready. I’ve heard her sing the songs, and I cry every time.
CLASH: Final question. What key piece of advice were you given, that evolved you as artists and as people?
Chloe: We were performing at the opening of the Smithsonian Museum and President Obama was in the audience. We were part of the gospel segment. We always get nervous no matter the occasion. Mary Mary turned to us and said “You don’t ever have to prove anything to anyone, just go out and sing for God”. At that moment, it just clicked that I don’t have to prove myself, I don’t have to become a version of myself that other people want to see. We just have to be ourselves, and everything else will fall into place.
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'Ungodly Hour' is out now.
Words: Shahzaib Hussain
Photo Credit: Robin Harper
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