Halle Kearns is a Columbia native who’s making a name for herself in the pop-country scene. Locals may remember her best as a Rock Bridge Bruin or a waitress at Addison’s, but now the singer-songwriter is steadily gaining recognition for her happy yet heartfelt tunes in Music City.
Most meetings nowadays seem to be conducted over video chat, and my interview with Kearns was no different. Zooming in to her Nashville apartment, she greeted me through a pixelated screen with a bright smile and a “How’re ya doin’?” She was apologetic for her casual outfit—a ball cap and gym clothes—which was only the first of many instances that would prove that, despite her growing popularity, she remains incredibly gracious.
Born and raised in the city of Columbia, Kearns spent her childhood like the rest of us: attending high school, working a part-time job, and enjoying our local parks. But when junior year came around and thoughts of post-high school plans crept onto her radar, she wanted something different than the status quo.
She had always been an avid lover of music. She grew up on ‘90s country and Top 40 pop, counting George Strait, Martina McBride, Carrie Underwood, and Colbie Caillat amongst her favorites. As she got older and found new resources to discover music, she honed in her taste and developed a love for singer-songwriters like Nora Jones, Ray LaMontagne, and Allen Stone. “I call that wine in the bathtub music,” she laughed. These songs opened her up to the world of songwriting and soon she began crafting her own work. In high school, she’d drive out to Eagle Bluffs, pop her trunk, and sit in the back with her guitar, singing and writing in the privacy of nature.
Though she’d never performed a single gig, at age sixteen she sat down with her father and shared her desire to forego college and become a singer. Naturally, he had his reservations about how she was going to make it happen. “What will that look like?” Kearns recalled him asking her. “I have no idea,” she responded. “I’ve never played a show before, but I feel like I’m supposed to be doing this. I feel like this is why I’m here.” Recognizing his daughter’s sincerity, from that moment forward, he was unflinchingly supportive of her career choice.
After graduation, Kearns packed up and moved to Kansas City, where she spent four years taking every opportunity she got to play her music. Her first formal gig was at the now-closed All Star Bar and Grill. Tickets were five dollars a pop. She loved the experience of performing and continued to play in wineries, breweries, bars, and cafes around the city. By early 2019, she’d developed a bit of buzz and relocated one last time to the place for anyone with ambition and a song: Nashville, Tennessee. A city brimming with country music legends of both the past and present, it is the perfect spot for the sound she has developed over the years: a bright, bouncy, twangy style of pop that tells increasingly compelling stories.
Preoccupied by a long-held assumption that no one wanted to hear her talk about anything too specific to her own life and personal experiences, she kept both her sound and her lyrics generally upbeat and rosy-tinted. The result was a series of fun tunes perfect for open-window car rides and girls’ nights out. However, the reaction to her most recent single, “Nothing Left,” changed all of that. The song introduces an emotionally spent Kearns, who vulnerably admits “I’ll give and I’ll give and I’ll give, till I’m running on empty. I’ll give you everything I got, till there’s nothing left of me.” She wasn’t even sure if she wanted to release the song, but after posting a snippet of the demo on TikTok, the reaction was so overwhelmingly positive that it made her reassess the direction of her music.
“The way people connected with it, just off that thirty-second clip of a demo, I realized, this is what I want to be doing. I want to write songs that I feel like speak for people, maybe in a way they didn’t know how to do for themselves. That was the whole purpose of getting into music in the first place and I feel like this is the first song that really did that.” She received countless comments from people telling her that she’d verbalized something they’d been struggling with but couldn’t quite explain. She was so encouraged by this response that it changed her plans for her future releases. She described her upcoming collection of songs as a “sad girl EP.” It will walk listeners through Kearns’ life story and introduce them to “all the different versions of the girl I’ve been.”
“Someone told me, ‘I don’t know if anyone’s wanting to hear sad music right now because it’s been such a heavy year – couples years – that it’s just not useful right now.’” Kearns told me. “I said, ‘No, no, no, I think this is the time to put out these songs because regardless of if we’re addressing it, it’s going on. People are having these emotions, they’re experiencing these things. I want to help voice that.’”
With Kearns’ upcoming EP set to come out later this year, it’s inevitable that our hometown hero will only continue her ascent towards pop-country stardom. However, she’s not one to forget her humble roots. 2021 will be her first time performing at Roots N Blues Festival and despite her success in Nashville, she counts her place on the lineup as a major achievement: “I cried so hard the day I was asked. I grew up going to it. I’ve been to the festivals, I’ve fangirled over and over and over again at all these different events in Columbia. To get to be a part of that is so special but especially Roots N Blues cause it’s, you know, the big—it’s a music festival. People come from all over the country just to attend.”
During one of her visits home from Nashville, she performed a sold-out show at Rose Music Hall. “After that Rose Music Hall event I went out to Eagle Bluffs and I was just able to get my guitar out. […] It was so special to feel that full circle moment.”
Catch Kearns’ set at Roots N Blues on Friday, September 24th, at Stephens Lake Park in Columbia, MO. Purchase your passes here: https://rootsnbluesfestival.com/tickets/.