Pop Quiz! What do medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, Johnny Cash and the Arizona-based singer-songwriter Topher Hall all have in common?
Top marks if you answered that they all found artistic inspiration following brushes with prison. Chaucer was a prisoner of the French during the Hundred Years War. Johnny Cash was briefly incarcerated. Topher Hall, working under the name of Idalee, however, was, by his own admission, lucky to escape jail.
Chaucer authored the Canterbury Tales. Johnny Cash recorded the classic 1968 Folsom Prison album and Topher, well, he too has turned his experiences into rehabilitative and enriching opportunities. Following a successful plea to avoid jail time after a DUI conviction Topher has begun to work with the non-profit organization Prison Fellowship to capture on video the lives of prisoners and, through interviews, document the various obstacles thwarting second chances.
The trajectory and themes of Topher’s project become clear right from the opening title track of his debut EP: Starting Now – which is released this month on iTunes.
Topher’s songwriting is clear and crisp. His work is unoriginal and lacks surprises. The songs adopt and conform to simple and traditional pop music formats. However, this is not brutal critique. Rather, for what Idalee wishes to achieve with Starting Now there is no need for the daring atonal originality of Arnold Schoenberg. It’s probably fair to say that, for songs to uplift and inspire, what you really need are a solid structure, punchy lyrics and catchy melodies. Something rendering them memorable. For the most part, this is what Topher’s delivers with his seven track EP.
Starting Now commences with the bright title track. The melody echoes the pop tunes of the 1970s. Barbarian follows next and its message is even more apparent: let’s stay optimistic, says one refrain. Barbarian‘s infectious and restless energy continues into the next track, Some Day. Tree Got Rain, a song of redemption and new hopes of better tomorrows, is perhaps the thematic core to the EP which builds swiftly into a powerful and rousing pop anthem.
Fury tries to call out the obvious structural injustices of society. Unfortunately the melody and lyrics somehow lack the crisp bite of the EP’s other songs. Heal is altogether different. It’s a clever song which sparkles. It powerfully invites the Prison Industrial Complex to find constructive ways to liberate people from the cruel cycles of recidivism.
The EP concludes with a quieter, more poignant and reflective track called Home. As if this short, but redemptive, journey is completing too. Like Chaucer’s pilgrims, we reach journey’s end and like those pilgrims, we’re hopefully a little wiser for our travels. Perhaps ready and eager to create new and positive opportunities.
I wish Topher well with his future work. His lyrics are sincere. They are written and sung with clarity. Idalee, working in close partnership with the Prison Fellowship, has already improved and enhanced the lives of hundreds of prison inmates. I look forward to following Topher on his next musical pilgrimage.