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.