Trevor Hall: Love of God is the Highest Thing
By Tom Crenshaw and Trevor Harden
Acoustic-reggae rocker Trevor Hall's new self-titled album (Trevor Hall, Vanguard Records) features guest performances by Colbie Caillat, Krishna Das and Matisyahu. Over its 12 fantastic tracks, he explores themes of spiritual lightheartedness ("Internal Heights"), death and surrender ("Who You Gonna Turn To?"), unity between faiths ("Unity"), the story of Krishna ("Volume"), his accepting of all spiritual paths as one truth ("Many Roads") and more.
RockOm met up with Trevor at his CD release party in his hometown of Hilton Head Island, SC to discuss his spiritual practice, a chance encounter in India and themes from the new album.
RockOm: How does it feel to be in the Vanguard Records family now?
Trevor Hall: Vanguard is great. They’ve really been amazing. They’re much smaller than my previous label but it makes it more of a family vibe. They’ve been very helpful with promotion and hooking me up with some nice people and have been wonderful to work with. I’m really looking forward to seeing the rest of what they do with the record.
RO: One of your classic songs, “Lime Tree”, made it’s way back onto your new album. What was the decision to include that again?
TH: That’s such a popular song and it’s only on one EP from a long time ago so we wanted to formally release it and redo it – I’ve grown a lot since then. We had my friend Colbie Callait come in and sing on it which was great and it just fits the record I think. We only redid that one and “31 Flavors” but the rest of the album is all new material.
RockOm: Let’s get into some of those songs. In “Who You Gonna Turn To” you repeat “Surrender to the Most High; surrender, I say surrender.” For people who are not sure how to do that, what would you say to them? What does surrender look like or mean to you?
TH: Well, I’m trying to do that myself! [laughs] But before we jump into the songs it’s important to understand that a lot of the songs aren’t where I’m at presently. They’re all speaking to me too, you know? I’m singing what I’m hearing so they’re all lessons for me too – speaking to me, teaching me. I’m trying to surrender, too, so I don’t know what I could say to other people. But from what I’ve heard from people above me is that surrender is a very powerful thing. Especially in music - music automatically demands a state of surrender when you listen to it. Or if you’re in a live setting, you can’t dance or let yourself go unless you surrender to the sounds. Music is a very powerful instrument in helping with the process of surrendering, I think.
“Who You Gonna Turn To” is a song that is obviously about dying but it’s maybe not bodily death. Maybe it’s more of an ego death or something. Who you gonna turn to at the end of your life when all this is gone? Are you going to turn to your money or your friends? You come alone, you go alone. It’s a song about death but I think it’s a very positive song because it’s saying “I know who I’m going to turn to.” “My mama’s on her lion and papa's home in Zion” – the eternal Mother and Father, that’s who I’m going to turn to.
RO: On your previous albums, images of the divine seemed to be mostly (though not entirely) feminine - such as Durga and Shakti - but it seems like in this album there are some references to a father/masculine divine who often is referenced alongside Zion. I was curious if that's been a new development in your spiritual journey and/or if your friendship with Matisyahu had some influence in that.
TH: I don’t know, I just think that’s what was coming through. Where the Mother is, the Father is too. Where the Father is, the Mother is too. I don’t know if it was another aspect of my inner life but that was just my meditation at the time. I think I had been meditating on the “divine Family” rather than one parent. I don’t know if there’s anything “secret” there or not – I hope so! [laughs]
RO: In the song “House” you sing “far beyond what you call God.” Do you think we limit ourselves sometimes by holding an image in our head of a personification of God when in reality there could be so much broader of an understanding?
TH: I think it can. But there’s so many different ways to love God. They’re all the same goal to me. I don’t know what other people think, but to me it’s one goal. Some people worship God with form, some people worship God without form. Some people say that worshiping God with form is limiting God, but in my experience I think that all ways eventually lead there. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing as long as you love God. That’s what I think. It doesn’t matter if you’re married or not married, it only matters how much you love God. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the city or town or temple, it just matters how much you love God.
I was watching this movie the other day about one of my favorite singers and they interviewed this fruit vendor in India. She sang this devotional song and it just blew my mind. And she’s a fruit vendor – do you know what I mean? She doesn’t have a garb on; she isn’t a nun. Wherever you are, that’s it. I just think that love of God is the highest thing, so whatever helps with that and keeps you open minded is all right in my book.
RO: On “My Baba” - your tribute to Neem Karoli Baba – you have chant master Krishna Das singing on the chorus. I'm sure that was a joy and pleasure to have him agree to back you up on that song. Tell us what having him on the record means to you as well as how that came to be.
TH: That was big time! [laughs] I was very happy. I had only met Krishna Das one time and the way I had met him was kind of funny. I had talked to him on the internet and we have a mutual friend. He was going to India the same time I was and he sent me an email that said, let me know where you’re going and your dates because maybe while we’re there we can link up. I said I would let him know but I never did just because I was so busy and couldn’t remember. It was my first trip to India so I was a little antsy and so I never got around to emailing him. So one night we’re in Rishikesh, which is a little town in the Himalayas right by the Ganga, that is absolutely gorgeous. We went into this little café to eat dinner and my friend said, “Hey, there’s Krishna Das.” [laughs] I turn and over at the next table was Krishna Das and all these people were around him asking to get pictures. He looked kind of bummed out, like he wanted to get away. So I waited until everyone left and I went up to him and said, “Excuse me, Krishna Das?” and he groaned, “Yes?” I said, “I don’t mean to bother you, but my name is Trevor.” And he was like, “Trevor! Why didn’t you email me?!” [laughs] We talked for a little and found out we were going different directions but we saw each other and it was kind of like Baba’s play. It’s just so funny. It’s the only time I’ve seen him physically.
But with the album I had this song called “My Baba.” I really wanted to do a song for [Neem Karoli] Baba because he’s my biggest inspiration. As the song was coming the chorus happened to be “Hari, Hari, Mahadev.” As we were going into the studio I thought, man it would be cool to get Krishna Das to sing on that. So my manager contacted him and they talked for a while. When he heard the song he thought it was great and said “Let’s do it.” He didn’t come to LA because he was busy but we sent the track to him and he recorded it and sent it back. He’s so awesome; he didn’t ask for anything, he’s such a great guy. It was a big thing for me because I love Krishna Das and he’s part of the Neem Karoli Baba family. That’s probably one of my favorite songs on the whole record.
RO: In "Many Roads," one of the lines that resonated with me most is "Are you made from magic? Are you made from wishful thinking?" As people of faith, those questions still come up, don't they? As much of our life and lifestyle are dedicated to serving and loving God, there's still those moments that we have to ask whether it's all a figment of our imagination. What do you do when the doubt comes?
TH: It seems to come often, doesn’t it? [laughs] You just have to have faith. Baba said that many things go into one's spiritual practice but the three main ingredients are faith, devotion and patience. For me it’s hard to remember it’s not an overnight process. You have to plant the seed, you have to water the seed, you have to cultivate the land and cultivate your mind. You get impatient but that’s where you’re growing. You know, there are yogis in India who have been doing this for thousands of lives. They’re up in the caves chanting God’s name 24 hours a day and here we are – you do a mala in the morning and you’re like, “Hey, where is it [enlightenment]?” It’s just you have to be patient. Baba also says that we may forget, but God never forgets about his devotees. God never forgets about us even if we’re doubting so you just have to believe. I mean, where can you go [away from God]?
RO: In the song “Volume” you talk about the silence that can be found. How would you best tell someone to begin finding some silence amidst all of life’s noise?
TH: Oh God, you’re asking the wrong person. [laughs] My mind is like a freakin’ jukebox and I don’t even know what CDs are inside it.
RO: But you find it onstage at times?
TH: Yes, well everybody has a way of finding silence - whether you meditate, whether you sit by yourself and listen to your breath or listen to music. But for me music is very powerful and there’s a place where the sound is coming through and you’re just listening to the sound. When you’re singing you’re listening and you don’t feel like you’re doing anything. It doesn’t happen often but when it does, whew, it’s heavy. Sometimes outside it’s so loud but inside it’s just so silent. Like, I feel that in a lot of places in America, outside it’s silent but inside we’re not very relaxed. But in India it was very different for me – outside there was noise and all of this stuff but inside people have a little bit of silence. So it’s kind of a trick - Mother’s trick, an illusion. You have to be careful, she can trick you. [laughs]
But with “Volume” the chorus is “Close your eyes and hold me and no harm will befall you.” Krishna said that to the gopas, his friends in the field. “That’s what is spoken to me when I turn down the volume.” You can’t hear it until you quiet down.
RO: You’re going to have a lot of young people here at the concert tonight. Some of that is going to bleed over. They’re going to look at you and go, “This cat’s got his act together” – little do they know… [laughs]
TH: Little do they know the TV I watch [laughs] and the things I do in my off time.
RO: But if they listen to the words to that song, it gives them lots to relate to.
TH: The whole song really is about Krishna. “Rain comes down but he holds the mountain; Blue like sky, can you tell me why?” Krishna’s skin is blue and then my favorite story about Krishna is where he holds up the mountain. When he was a young cowherd boy in the fields, his village would pray to Indra, god of rain, to give them rain for their crops. One day Krishna said, “Does Indra accept your offering? Does he come down and eat it with his own mouth? There’s no need to do this. Just believe in me and everything will be fine.” So Indra has a little bit of ego and gets very mad that this little boy is taking away his worship. So he holds the rains and then one day he just lets it flood. All the people in the village are very worried. They think they’re going to drown and that Indra is going to kill them. So they go to Krishna and say, “You have to help us. Save us!” So in Vrindavan there’s a place called Govardhana Hill and you can go there today. And Krishna lifted up the mountain with his pinkie and held it above his head. There are many famous pictures of this. All the villagers come under the mountain and they have a big festival for seven days where they eat and drink and be merry. It really humbled Indra.
So that’s the opening line, but all of the references in “Volume” are about Krishna’s life.
RO: The album’s opening song is “Internal Heights.” What does it mean for you to "maintain internal heights"?
TH: That’s just it right there. That is the goal of my life. Where does your strength come from? The eternal Giver. Maintain internal heights. “To see the transcendent Being, got to keep your hands clean.” Maintain internal heights. Internal heights, always, everywhere you go. It’s hard but this song is a remembering. This is the first song and sets the theme for the whole record.
RO: In last year’s RockOm interview you said, “Everything is meditation.” Is everything still meditation for you?
TH: Yes! [laughs] Sometimes you don’t remember it’s meditation but then it gets you and you’re like. Oh! There it is again – that lesson! Too many lessons!