Even when a gig’s going really well, there’s sometimes a very special moment when all the stars align to produce a musical epiphany (as the NME described Thin Lizzy’s seamless shift into “The Boys are Back in Town” on “Live and Dangerous”). These perfect moments can have many forms and they aren’t always strictly about the music. Let me explain.
Wade Bowen and Willy Braun @The Borderline
Towards the end of a great set where Wade and Willy took turns to perform their own songs and a few covers, Wade started to play the audience a little by asking who had travelled furthest to see the gig. The audience managed to cover a fair chunk of England, but then Wade stopped in his tracks and repeated the question to someone right at the front of the stage who confirmed that, yes, he did say Spain. Luis, and his son (also Luis) had flown from Spain that day and were flying back straight after the gig. Wade made sure that they got a huge ovation and, judging by the beaming grins, topped off a perfect night for father and son. Next time I think that I can’t be bothered to go all the way to Camden or Shepherds Bush for a gig, I’ll remember Luis and what dedication to live music really means.
Hannah Aldridge @The AMA UK Showcase, Hackney
The acoustic room at this showcase was truly acoustic; no amplification at all for vocals or instruments. All the artists, including Dean Owens and Danni Nicholls rose to the occasion, and Hannah Aldridge played a flawless set to a spellbound and appreciative audience. The night peaked when Hannah introduced a new song from her upcoming second album. The song was “Gold Rush”, a haunting tale of growing up and growing old in small-town America that transfixed the audience from start to finish; not a whisper and barely a breath until the song was over. Hannah’s the real deal: singer, player and superb songwriter.
Sound of the Sirens@ Bush Hall
This was a big deal for Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood, headlining their own show at the prestigious Bush Hall in Shepherds Bush. Following great performances from Sadie Horler and Wildflowers, Abbe and Hannah soon hit their stride and demonstrated their dynamic range and exquisite harmonies. They featured a cover that I’ve heard them play before, the Simon and Garfunkel song “Sound of Silence”. Something about the ambience of the room, the pure and perfect harmonies and the way song highlights Abbe and Hannah’s vocal and instrumental power created a moment of magic in west London on an October night.
The Mighty Wah! @Water Rats
Start to finish, all killer no filler. Pete Wylie still has it and his fans still adore him. The band didn’t need to win over the crowd but they still gave it the beans. Pete joked about hoping that musicians would stop dying soon, because Wah! were constantly adding songs to the set as tributes. All of the anthems appeared in all the right places, but just as “Sinful” was simmering away nicely something almost mystical happened; fans looked at each other in disbelief as the song morphed seamlessly into “Heroes” as a tribute to the Thin White Duke. No big fanfare, just an effortless transition from one anthem to another.
Underhill Rose @Green Note
This was already a memorable occasion. A local power cut in Camden, the room lit by candles and tea lights and a completely unplugged set by Eleanor Underhill, Molly Rose Reed and Salley Williamson meant that no-one would forget this gig in a hurry, but the most surreal part was still to come, with a cover of “These Boots Were Made for Walking” featuring a lead vocal from bass player Salley Williamson and a spontaneous eruption of clapping, singing and whooping all through the room. This was a band and a crowd that were determined to have a good time whatever it took.
We reviewed Rod Picott as part of a great bill at Green Note this year and he was superb. We were mightily chuffed when he agreed to chip in to the 2016 High Fives with his five favourite novels from 2016.
“Barkskins” – Annie Proulx
“Barkskins” is a roaring firestorm of a novel that tears through decades over its 700-plus pages. There are so many characters the book contains two family trees in order for the reader to stay on course. Proulx’s writing is poetic, expansive and intimate simultaneously. Essentially the story of the North American lumber trade from pre-colonial America through to the industrial revolution, “Barkskins” stands as an allegory to the destructive nature of man. The characters enter the novel, wildly tear across the pages and give way to the next generation in this amazing piece of work.
“Ella Minnow Pea” – Mark Dunn
“Ella Minnow Pea” is a curiously odd political satire written in the form of letters between characters in the fictional island town of Nollop. This strange novel is short, punchy and darkly funny as the letters trace the totalitarian nature of the local government and its banned use of particular letters as they fall from a revered local memorial statue. This short novel is a marvel of invention and imagination.
Farmer – Jim Harrison
“Farmer” is a quiet marvel of a novel. Its protagonist is a rural Michigan teacher caught between two lovers – one, a far too young nubile beauty and the other his lifelong friend and confidant. This description doesn’t come close to capturing the tortured beauty of the protagonist’s journey. Harrison is a poet of a novelist, both literally and figuratively, and “Farmer” is an eloquent telling of the complications inherent in life itself – no matter how simple it appears at its surface.
“Angela’s Ashes” – Frank McCourt
I’m always suspicious of a read that receives as much praise as McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes”. It’s the iconoclast in me. This novel, however, is stunning. Written in the voice of McCourt’s own poverty-riven childhood, the novel crawls slowly forward across his youth from pain to pain. The mainstays are familiar; the drunken father, driving poverty, the unforgiving judgement of the church and the mother trying against odds to hold the entire mess together as a home. “Angela’s Ashes” is a stunning work worthy of its Pulitzer.
“The Ancient Minstrel”– Jim Harrison
Three compact novellas make “The Ancient Minstrel”. I can’t think of anyone aside from Hemingway who writes about the human condition in contrast to nature as effortlessly and effectively as Jim Harrison. That comparison sounds trite and easy but Jim Harrison has the force of a hurricane in his language. These three novellas are brilliant, ruthless, compassionate and brimming with both melancholy and life. Harrison was a master. The best 45 minutes I spent in 2016 was watching Harrison reading his poetry on a YouTube video from a few years back. What a brilliant, funny, unique writer we lost this year in Jim Harrison.
Well, after spending a morning trying to pick my five favourite photos of female artists this year, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m either very indecisive or a rampant egomaniac (answers on a postcard please). After a lot of soul searching, I managed to narrow it down to ten photos that I really like, so I’m going to split them over two days. I hope that doesn’t make me a bad person.
Gabi Swiatkowska (Tildon Krautz) @Green Note
I’ve spent a fair amount of time at Green Note this year and I’ve now stopped moaning about the lighting. I know what it’s going to be and I’ve actually had some great results there. So why complain. This was a Josh Harty gig and he was supported by Tildon Krautz, a surreal and incredibly entertaining string band. The image of Gabi dwarfed by the upright bass was too good to miss, but it took a few attempts to get the perfect angle and even more attempts to get a shot where the neck of the bass wasn’t in front of Gabi’s face. The lighting at Green Note always gives muted colours on stage, so black and white was always the way to go with this one. You can see the whole gallery here.
Dani Sylvia @The Unsigned Music Awards
I was really pleased to be invited to photograph the UMA’s at The Troxy in Limehouse this year. The discipline was very different from either the first three songs only for major venues, or complete freedom at smaller venues. Each artist did one live song and the photographers had to move away from the front of the stage before the end of the song to avoid being caught by the TV cameras as they moved from the main stage to the awards stage. Dani Sylvia’s performance was so visual and colourful that it would have been difficult to take a bad photo. This one captured the atmosphere and ambience perfectly and I was really chuffed that Dani liked it. Result.
Hannah Aldridge @Green Note
If you’ve read any of my random ramblings about music, you might have worked out that I’m a huge fan of Hannah Aldridge. She’s a singer-songwriter from Muscle Shoals, Alabama and her astonishing first album grabbed my attention immediately. Hannah’s songwriting and live performance are absolutely exceptional, but she also understands the value of the visual image. I’ve photographed her in several settings now and always produced something I was really happy with, but this shot from Green Note (again) in black and white (again) had the look of a promotion photo for a silent movie star from the forties. Once again, I was really pleased that Hannah loved the shot as well.
Mollie Marriott @Time Out Rising Stars
So it’s Mollie again. A bit like Hannah, I find it almost impossible to take a bad, or even ordinary, picture of Mollie. When she sings, she gives it everything, every time, and that passion is clear in every shot. There were two shots of Mollie in my (not so) shortlist for this selection and this made the cut because she’s so obviously singing her heart out and the purple backlighting creates a lovely halo effect on her hair. With Mollie, I’m not sure I can even take any credit for good photos because every time I’ve seen her (and that’s quite a few times now) I’ve managed to grab some exceptional shots. Here’s the original gallery, and you really need to listen out for Mollie’s debut album which will be released in early 2017. And thanks to Ray Jones at Time Out for the invite.
Sarah Kayte Foster (Daisy and the Dark) @Ace Hotel, Shoreditch
For various reasons, this year I tried to get along to every gig that I was invited to and this one came about because of an invite from Quite Great PR. I’d never visited the venue before and I hadn’t heard anything from Daisy and the Dark. The lighting wasn’t great in this basement venue, which meant that black and white was favourite, a decision that was helped along by Sarah’s very sixties hairstyle. This was a gig that I could have very easily missed and it’s a great advert for taking every opportunity that comes your way. It was a challenge to navigate around the video camera setup, but it worked out perfectly in the end. Here’s the original gallery.
More to come soon.
I admit it; I’ve been really lucky this year. I’ve been to loads of gigs featuring bands and artists across a range of musical styles and I haven’t seen a bad one; fifty-two weeks of great gigs and now I have to pick out my five favourites. It was never going to be easy and the gigs that made this list were truly special for many different reasons. So, in no particular order, here we go.
Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul – Indig02 October 2016
Little Steven, Steven van Zandt, Miami Steve, Silvio from The Sopranos. This is someone who’s had a huge impact on popular culture as an Asbury Juke, an E-Streeter, an actor and the man who wrote the anti-apartheid anthem “Sun City”. If you grew up loving The Boss and Southside Johnny (and I did) you knew and loved this man. When I heard about this gig, part of the BluesFest at the O2, my only concern was to get a photo pass. Despite pulling every string I could, there was no joy, but I wasn’t giving up, so I borrowed my wife’s camera (a Nikon Coolpix P530 for the record) to try to grab one good shot of the main man. The thirteen-piece band (with horn charts written by fellow E-Streeter and Juke Ed Manion) was stunningly good as Steven ran through a set of his own songs, blues covers and old soul classics. There wasn’t a second’s respite and there was even a guest appearance from Richie Sambora. And I got the photo. What a night.
Underhill Rose @ Green Note
I’d been looking forward to this one for months, ever since I missed them at the same venue in April because of other commitments. After a lovely meal with Plus One, we made our way to the venue a fashionable fifteen minutes after doors open, only to find that the doors were still firmly closed and there were no lights. Power failure? Not a problem; the Green Note team lit up the venue with dozens of candles and Eleanor Underhill, Molly Rose Reed and Salley Williamson decided to play a genuinely unplugged set. The setting was perfect for the band’s beautiful melodies and glorious tight harmonies and created a level of intimacy that even Green Note doesn’t achieve very often. During the interval the power was restored, but Eleanor, Molly and Salley decided to carry on with a second completely acoustic set. A magical night.
Pete Wylie/The Mighty Wah @Water Rats 09/11/16
As memorable as the previous gig but for very different reasons. I was a big fan of Pete Wylie in the eighties, but somehow managed to avoid seeing him live. This was the chance to find out what I’d been missing. Water Rats is a room at the back of a pub in Kings Cross; cosy but with a great atmosphere. The last time I was there, there were three people watching a band; me, the band’s manager and the sound engineer. This was different; ten minutes after the doors opened, it was rammed; not only that, but rammed with fans, people who wanted to see Pete Wylie. In that atmosphere, failure wasn’t an option. Pete has put together another powerful incarnation of The Mighty Wah! and their playing throughout was spot on; subtle when necessary and thunderous for the anthems; and there were plenty of those. It was a night of passion, humour and power with a performer who knows his worth and an audience who know their music. It wasn’t just a nostalgia trip either. He featured a stunning new anthem, “I Still Believe”, from his upcoming album titled, with typical Wylie moxie, “Pete Sounds”. The will to survive’s come back.
Martin Harley & Daniel Kimbro @St Pancras Old Church
Rewind to the beginning of the year as musicians start to emerge after their short hibernation and the lovely St Pancras Old Church (lovely if you aren’t a photographer). It was gloves, woolly hat and brass monkeys looking for welders weather, but inside the church a full house was waiting for Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro. This was one of those intimate gigs where two incredibly accomplished musicians play material they love to play with a passion that the audience taps into, leaving everyone with a warm glow. Playing mainly Weissenborn (Martin) and upright bass (Daniel) the two wove complex textures that sometimes had you wondering where all of the other musicians were hidden. The two voices worked perfectly together and the interplay between songs was sometimes hilarious with Martin’s ‘Englishman Abroad’ persona as the subject of Daniel’s dry observations. Good news is they’ll be back next year. This was the only gig this year where I actually wanted to hear a bass solo (and I wasn’t disappointed).
Michael McDermott @Twickfolk, The Cabbage Patch, Twickenham 04/12/16
I waited until seeing this gig before selecting my five favourites of the year. After hearing Michael’s two superb albums released this year (the “Willow Springs” solo and “Six on the Out” by his band The Westies), I wasn’t going to miss this performance. It was a solo show, using guitar and keyboard (and the inevitable harmonica) to create different textures and settings for the songs. Stripping away the full-band arrangements allowed the audience to focus on the quality of the writing and the raw emotional roar of Michael’s voice. The first half of the show, featuring songs taken mainly from the 2016 albums was an intense experience, emotional, sometimes harrowing and primal, songs punctuated by monologues which were surreal, often hilarious and sometimes tinged with sorrow. The second half was less of a roller-coaster but still packed with great songs. Michael McDermott provokes the same sensation I had when I listened to early Springsteen for the first time; there’s poetry, passion and a grim and gritty reality in his work that grabs you by the lapels and stares you straight in the eyes; you know that he’s lived the life. This is for real.
Molly Rose Reed is one third of Underhill Rose, who featured in an album review on MusicRiot this year, and also played one of the most amazing gigs we saw this year when they ignored a power cut in Camden and played a completely acoustic set in a candlelit Green Note; if you saw it, you’ll never forget it. Molly’s sharing her favourite gigs with us (plus a few near misses).
Malcolm Holcombe at the Sunflower Public House, Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Belfast, Ireland
It was a rainy and unseasonably cold day in May, and nearing the end of Underhill Rose’s first tour to the UK. The band had the afternoon off, so we put on our coats and drove to Belfast. While holding a cup of warm coffee, sitting on a small stool to the right of the stage, I was bathed in the richness of Malcolm’s songwriting. Jared Tyler perfectly accompanied Malcolm’s dynamic guitar playing on lap steel and backing vocals. Hearing Malcolm play on the small stage to a crowded bar of intent listeners brought me home to the Swannanoa Valley of North Carolina, where Malcolm is from and also where I went to college with my bandmate Eleanor. There is nothing like being reminded of home when you are on the road.
Lori McKenna at 12th and Porter, Americana Music Festival, Nashville, TN
Her album, The Bird and the Rifle, was my introduction to this wonderful songwriter. Mostly writing hits for pop country greats like Tim McGraw, Lori McKenna’s album touched me with it’s feeling of authenticity. I could tell from the record that she feels her songs, sings from her heart and ain’t got nothin’ to prove. Seeing her live was 10 times better than the record!
Jonas & Jane, opening for Underhill Rose at the Stables, Milton Keynes, England
I admit to my bias on this Top 5 pick, but Katherine Marsh (aka Jane) and Charlie Jonas are the real deal. They sing into one microphone, and Charlie’s picking on mandolin/guitar and singing beautifully compliments Katherine’s pure voice. Their harmonies are tenderly worked and perfectly executed, and their songs will take you on a journey back in time.
Brian Wilson performing Pet Sounds at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, Asheville, NC
This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and worth every penny (and it was a lot of them)! I can’t even remember how many harmony parts I heard in one song. It was truly a magical night to hear the full orchestration of a work of genius.
Chantae Cann at my wedding, Black Mountain, NC
I had to put this one on the list, because this is one of the most memorable days of my life! Chantae is an amazing jazz singer from my hometown of Atlanta, GA. She performs her original tunes but learned “At Last” for our first dance. My family and friends danced and danced to her amazing quartet. You can see her singing with grammy-award-winning Snarky Puppy here .
John Paul White at the Grey Eagle, Asheville, NC
Dylan LeBlanc at the Mothlight, Asheville, NC
The Broadcast at Rockwood Music Hall, New York, NY
Well, it was certainly an interesting night out in Camden. I’ve been looking forward to seeing Underhill Rose since I had to miss a show earlier this year and what could be better than watching them play at Green Note. Just one little problem; the queue outside and the absence of any kind of lighting didn’t look too good, but it takes more than a power cut to close Green Note. After a slight delay to position dozens of tea lights around the room, the venue opened and things went ahead pretty much as normal, Underhill Rose had decided to play a completely unplugged set rather than disappoint the sellout crowd. Not having power isn’t necessarily a problem for players brought up in acoustic tradition, and a candle-lit gig does have a certain romance to it. In a typical twist of fate, almost immediately after the stage had been cleared of mic stands and DI boxes at the interval, the power was restored but by that stage, neither the audience nor the band wanted to move away from the acoustic format.
Underhill Rose is Eleanor Underhill (banjo and harmonica), Molly Rose Reed (guitar) and Salley Williamson (upright bass) and they all sing, creating some of the most gorgeous harmonies you’re likely to hear. The songs are all beautifully crafted and the live performances make good use of all the vocal and instrumental textures available to them. After the drama of creating a scene that took us back almost a century, it was appropriate that Underhill Rose opened their first set with “Not Gonna Worry”. It’s difficult to pick favourites from a set packed with lovely songs and performances, but a song dedicated to friends, “They Got my Back”, the swing-tinged “Whispering Pines Motel” and “Montana” did it for me and a cover of “These Boots Were Made for Walking” was a huge crowd-pleaser.
Watching Underhill Rose at any time is a pleasure and a privilege; an intimate performance by candlelight is a once in a lifetime experience. I’ve never been so happy about a power cut (or should that be outage). A wonderful night.
They also played their current single “One Time a Year” which is out now. It’s a great single and a portion of the proceeds from each sale will go to Women for Women International.
You can see some photos from the night here.
You certainly can’t accuse Time Out of ignoring up and coming talent; they’ve been running the Rising Stars event in various venues across London, including Jazz Café (newly refurbished and looking very nice indeed), 229 The Venue and Green Note featuring half a dozen unsigned acts performing showcase sets. They’ve covered a wide spectrum of styles and featured all sorts of line-ups from solo artists to full bands. The one thing they all have in common is quality; the September selection was no exception.
Mark Sullivan opened the evening with a set of soulful acoustic songs backed only with his acoustic guitar and a loop pedal (oh, and a stunningly powerful voice). He threw everything into the performance and finished with a cover of the unplugged version of “Layla”; job done. If you were expecting Malory Torr to turn up wielding a ukelele, you would have been disappointed, but not for long. Backed by bass, drums and keyboards (and some lovely harmonies), she delivered an atmospheric set including a cover of “She Drives Me Crazy”. Joe Slater (from Liverpool) played a short set in singer-songwriter/Jake Bugg style, finishing off with the by now, obligatory cover, “Live Forever” this time. And then it all got a bit loud.
Nick Howe played a barnstormer with a full band and a beatboxer. Powerful songs, a band who were on top of their game, and a cover of “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” were the highlights. Wang Dang Doodle hark back to the golden age of blues harp players with Laurent Mouflier’s gritty voice and superb harmonica playing topping off the glorious noise created by Mylon Kosmas, Francesco Cuturi and Ben Heartland. Stellify completed the line-up on the night with their classic rock sound of big riffs and thunderous bass and drums.
Another great night, with only one reservation and it’s about the audience rather than the performers. Why is it that audiences at showcase events (not just Rising Stars) drift away after seeing whichever act has brought them there? Wang Dang Doodle and Stellify played storming sets to a half-empty hall. It wasn’t even 10:30. The artists and Ray Jones and his Time Out team put a lot of work into making these events successful; why would you leave halfway through?
You can see some photos from the night here.
I had the opportunity to meet up with MusicRiot favourite Hannah Aldridge just before her sold-out show at Green Note in Camden which is part of her current tour with Lilly Hiatt, taking in Northern Europe, England and Scotland. We talked about her new album, her previous album “Razor Wire” and a lot of other things along the way:
Allan – Good to see you again, Hannah.
Hannah – Good to see you too.
Allan – Back in the UK and you’ve been doing a European tour as well.
Hannah – I have, yes.
Allan – How did that go?
Hannah – It’s been really good actually. We did the Netherlands; I went back to Hamburg and played and I’ll be doing Norway at the end of it. It’s always fun to do Europe in general but it was fun this time because I explored a new market, which was the Netherlands. I haven’t played there before; it’s definitely different and it’s good to keep moving forward and forge new territories, so that was the goal this time.
Allan – I think Northern Europe really gets Americana doesn’t it?
Hannah – Well, I think from my perspective, the people who really appreciate what I do are people who can speak English well enough to understand the lyrics because, as much as I don’t want to admit this, my music is not quite as interesting without the lyrics. I wouldn’t call myself a really interesting guitar player or anything and I wouldn’t want to listen to me if I couldn’t understand what I was saying. That’s such a big part of it, and what I’ve noticed is that people who speak English fluently are the ones that gravitate towards what I’m doing.
Allan – And you’re doing a mini tour of Scotland this time.
Hannah – I am doing Scotland. I was trying to think if I’ve ever done a show in Scotland. I’ve been there, but I don’t think I’ve ever played there.
Allan – I think, like Northern Europe, Scotland really gets Americana as well and I don’t think country ever really went away in Scotland.
Hannah – It’s really interesting the UK how every country has subtle differences in the music they like. Ireland is very different than England in terms of musical taste and Scotland I assume would be the same, but I’m not really sure what to expect because I haven’t played there.
Allan – Well I grew up in Scotland, and Scots like good songs. They like a good melody but they like a message as well.
Hannah – Well that’s good to know; hopefully they’ll like what we’re doing.
Allan – And I think the rooms that you’re playing tend to attract appreciative crowds.
Hannah – I’ll look forward to it; that makes me feel good about it.
Allan – Just to go back in time a bit, which artists would you say influenced you when you were growing up.
Hannah – That’s interesting, because I didn’t really start writing music until my early twenties, so nobody really influenced me growing up because I didn’t want to be a musician until my twenties. That being said, there were a lot of artists that I listened to growing up that now influence me, Bonnie Raitt being one of them and Tom Petty being another. I was thinking earlier, someone asked me in an interview what three artists have shaped me as a musician and I looked at him and said Gillian Welch, Bonnie Raitt and Tom Petty.
It’s interesting because sometimes I actually feel like I’m writing something that sounds like a mix of those things, so I do think those people do heavily influence me but, at the same time, there’s so much I’ve listened to since that really shaped me too. I think Gillian Welch gave me permission as a female to write like a man and I didn’t discover her until later; she was very influential. And Bonnie Raitt gave me permission to play with the boys too and to stand up and be respected the same way that a man is and if there are any female musicians I can think of that men are shamelessly devoted to in terms of musicality, it would be Bonnie Raitt and Gillian Welch, and that’s pretty cool because a lot of the time you’ll hear ‘I don’t know, it’s a girl, I don’t like girls with a guitar’, but Gillian Welch and Bonnie Raitt seemed to break out of that, so that was cool for me too.
Allan – And what about your Dad (Walt Aldridge, Muscle Shoals songwriter and performer), did he influence you either way?
Hannah – In my decision to be a musician or in my musical pedigree…
Allan – In your decision to be a musician…
Hannah – He strongly tried to influence me not to be a musician and, because of the personality I am, that actually pushed me in the other direction very hard and I thought ‘OK, we’ll see’. He’s really tough about that kind of stuff – he’s not easy to impress and it’s a different level when it’s your kid. It’s really hard to be objective about what they’re doing so he really, to this day, he calls and says ‘Why are you doing this? You can do things that pay a lot more’ and I say ‘The same reason you did it’.
It’s really interesting that what I’ve learned with him is that we function better when we don’t talk about music because we have such different opinions on it and we’re in such different markets. He was making music at a time that it was just totally different.
Allan – So, if you had to put a label on your music, what would you call it?
Hannah – I wouldn’t call it Americana, because I don’t really know what Americana is and it’s really hard for me to justify putting myself in a genre where I go ‘I don’t know what this is’, but in the same way, whatever genre you would put Ryan Adams and Bonnie Raitt and Gillian Welch in, whatever box you put them in, I guess I would fit in the same box. I think my description of my music is probably very different than other people’s, which is strange too. My description of it would be Southern rock, something like that. Singer/songwriter, Southern Rock; I’m a confused person. I’m confused when I walk out of the house every day about what to wear because I don’t know who I am half the time, so maybe some days I look like this and some days I look like that and it’s the same with writing. I think I’m constantly on a journey to figure out who I am in general but also as a musician so that makes it really hard for me to say ’This is what kind of music I do’.
Allan – I noticed you’ve created a lot of different visual identities over the years…
Hannah – I have, and think it’s become a part of the whole thing in that I‘m constantly trying to figure out what works for me as a person, and I think, more than any kind of steady identity I could give, that’s actually more reflective of me as a person than anything, that I’m constantly trying to figure out who I am and where I fit in to the world and I think that does change a lot for me. I played a show in Nashville a while ago and a big booking agent came out and they said to me ‘You know, I really, really like your music, but the look just doesn’t go with the music.’ And I laughed and said ‘Really, what is the look supposed to be, because I’ve been trying to figure that out for twenty-eight years.’ (Laughs). I think I’m just always going to be trying to reinvent myself, and I think Ryan Adams gave me permission to do that. He’s made it work, musically, and I hope to do the same.
Allan – Do you see more as a writer or a performer?
Hannah – A writer, absolutely a writer because what I really wanted to be was a staff writer. What I really wanted to do when I started this whole thing was to be a writer for film and TV. I wanted to be the person that sat in my room in my pyjamas and a bowl of cereal and made really dark music for horror movies, you know. It’s really interesting how fate, or whatever you may call it, pushed me down this path of being an artist and I reluctantly was like ‘I don’t wanna do this. I hate being on stage’. I was joking with Lilly (Hiatt) that, literally, before big shows for the first couple of years performing, I would watch Michael McDonald videos before to keep me from having anxiety, because you can’t have anxiety while you’re watching “Ya Mo Be There”, you just can’t. I would really have to push myself to do these things because I felt uncomfortable. Now, I love performing, I think it’s great and I see all the wonderful things about it, but it was definitely not something that just came naturally to me. I felt very intimated buy it and really I‘ve always enjoyed the process of being creative. So, I think in that way, I’m definitely more of a writer than a performer, you know.
Allan – “Razor Wire” (Hannah’s debut album) felt like a really personal album and it felt like there was a lot of autobiography in there as well…
Hannah – “Razor Wire” was an autobiography of where I was in my love life in a lot of ways. At that point in my life I was going through a divorce and I was trying to find out if I was capable of ever loving again and what that meant and if was a complete screw-up and all of these things and meanwhile also writing about my experiences with these other guys I was going out and dating and then at the same time. Songs like “Black and White” were what was going on in my personal life with Jackson (Hannah’s son), being a young mom, those kind of things. “Razor Wire” was definitely very autobiographical.
My new record that I’ve been writing also is, but in a very different way. I kind of went backwards and started writing about my life before that when I was a really heavy drug user and a really bad drunk and everything that led me to that point and trying to sort through all those feelings, growing up super-religious and feeling alienated by that and also fast-forwarding a bit to the age that I am now, approaching my thirties and being fearful of that. So that chunk of time was “Razor Wire” and I think the new record is a bit of a prequel to that. I think it’s what I write best; I’m not good at that third person stuff, so it was definitely a very personal record.
Allan – I played a copy of “Razor Wire” to a friend in radio and he said that there were three hits, if you could actually get them out there.
Hannah – That’s the thing that’s tough about it. It’s all about PR when you get to the point that I’m at now. It’s about somebody recognising that you’re worth putting money into because you’ve got the songs and you’re slowly building up to that point, but I watch it happen with people all around me and you go ‘Well, I’ve got good songs too’. All you can do is just (Lilly and I have talked about this a lot since we’ve been on the road together) stay focused and say ‘I’m gonna keep writing good songs’ and know that it’s not about me, whether or not it’s a hit. It’s about the fact that I don’t have millions of dollars to put into promotion. One day maybe I will, but until then all I can do is continue to write great songs.
Allan – If the catalogue of songs is there and the break comes…
Hannah – Absolutely. You can have the publicity but without the songs it doesn’t work very well. I’ve seen that happen a lot with people around me too where they get that shot and they don’t have the material to back it up. I’m not saying I absolutely have the material, but I think that it’s important to really focus, until you get your shot, on working up to that so that you’re ready for it. If I had the opportunities I wanted when I first released “Razor Wire”, I probably wouldn’t have performed well on Conan O’Brien or performed very well at The Ryman, which are the dreams that I have, but I have to recognise that I have to put in the time to get there so that when I do have those shots, I really kill it and that takes time. All of this takes a lot of patience.
Allan – I guess Maverick (festival in Suffolk) is one of those opportunities isn’t it?
Hannah – Sure. Maverick is really cool. I love playing there because it’s one of those things where I get to connect with a lot of different artists and the other thing that’s really cool about is that everybody that I see around England, I can see them all in the same place and that’s really cool. I see some really devoted fans, the promoters that have helped me so much, the Americana UK people and artists and it’s really neat for me because it’s everyone in one vicinity and I really enjoy Maverick Festival every single year.
Allan – You mentioned the new album briefly. How’s that going at the moment?
Hannah – It’s going awesome. I’ve got everything written and I’ll be recording as soon as I get home and I’ll be done by July 30th and from there it’ll just be setting a release date. I think it’s gonna be great; it’s funny because the producer the producer that’s doing the record this time around, I wrote “Save Yourself” with, he’s someone I’ve played with and he’s someone I’ve written a lot of songs about as well. We grew up together actually and he’s so in tune with my music that it just made sense to get him to produce the record and he’s taken the songs and shaped them in a way that I can’t do. That’s really cool because I’ve never had that before where I wrote a song and gave it to somebody else and let them manicure it a little bit. It’s like adding a whole new level to the songs and that’s really cool. I’m really excited to hear how they all end up.
Allan – Well the one that I’ve heard, that you played here last time, “Goldrush”, hit me instantly and it’s rare that a song does that.
Hannah – I’m glad that you like that. I really like that song. Usually I have a good gut feeling about a song when I like one or, if it makes me a bit teary when I sing it the first couple of times, I know it’s good. Actually I had two killer co-writers on that song and that concept was so complicated for me to sort through in my mind that I called two people that I thought ‘I know they can help me’ because I don’t want to take that song idea to just anybody because I knew it could be a really cool song, so I called up two people I knew could really help me tie up the loose ends on it. I sat and talked to them about the idea and said ‘This is what I’ve got written and I don’t know how to tie this in’ and they helped me put that together so I’m really grateful for them helping me do that. I do love that song. I think it’s a good one, I think it’s meaningful and I think it approaches a topic that people don’t wanna talk about, which is getting older, so I’m glad that you like that one.
Allan – And you’re going electric this time round…
Hannah – I am going electric this time round. I was nervous as could be. I had dreams before this tour that I got out on the road and my electric didn’t work, because I’m so comfortable with my acoustic guitar, but I’m making a point with this record to really push myself and I’m trying to push out of that box that people are putting Americana in because I don’t have to be this certain thing because you’re put in Americana, it’s so broad, you know, and I really wanted to push the boundaries of what people thought of me as an artist and maybe what they think I’m gonna put out musically. I wanna stay within reason and not get too crazy, but try to get myself out of my comfort zone. I felt like a lot of these songs are meant to be played on electric and it doesn’t make sense to go out with an acoustic and try to play them; they just don’t translate so I’m literally learning in front of people on this tour how to deal with this electric guitar because I play it at home and I write on it, but I don’t go on tour with it very often, and if I do, I have a band behind me, it’s not just me standing up there with an electric. At this point in the tour, I feel really comfortable. The first day or two, I was sweatin’ bullets up on stage trying to figure out how to do everything, but it’s fun and it adds something interesting for me because it’s so easy to get bored when you play songs hundreds and thousands of times and you think ‘I don’t wanna play this song anymore’, but it’s been fun to revisit “Razor Wire” on the electric.
Allan – One final question. Have you got a song, yours or someone else’s that makes you cry?
Hannah – I have some of mine that make me cry. Other people’s songs? Pretty much any John Moreland song ever written; those make me cry. “God’s Medicine”, “Cherokee”; pretty much all of his songs are so damned good, I would say every John Moreland song and “Hallelujah” does as well; that song always gets to me too because there’s a couple of lines in there that really speak to me on a lot of levels.
Allan – Thanks very much Hannah.
Hannah and Lilly will be playing the Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh on June 21st, The Blue Lamp in Aberdeen on the 22nd and Music in the Suburbs in Glasgow on the 23rd.