Here’s the second in ‘The Wednesday Interview’ series! Today sees the 1st anniversary of the release of Hannah Rose Platt’s acclaimed ‘Portraits’ album, so last week we decided to catch up with Hannah and ask her about the album and her career in general.
Hi Hannah. It would be fair to say that your debut album ‘Portraits’ has had quite an effect on us at Belles and Gals – certainly the most listened to album of ours since we started the site. You headed over to the home of country music, Nashville, Tennessee to record it. Tell us about that experience?
Thank you! I’m so happy you are enjoying the album. My very first trip to Nashville was November 2012, my friend and I wanted to explore, do some co-writing and recordings and see as much live music as possible. A contact of hers put me in touch with Michael Bonagura to record a demo. We had such a great time that I decided I absolutely had to come back to record a full album with him. We managed to get so much done that one afternoon, it was the sound I’d always wanted and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. We recorded the album in 10 days overall, 5 days in January 2014 and 5 days in April 2014. The whole experience was wonderful from start to finish. I had sent Michael work tapes of myself singing and playing the songs I wanted on the record prior to travelling and we had chatted about the kind of sound we wanted to achieve, a raw stripped back sound with different accompanying instruments as features here and there. I wanted to keep things simple, and didn’t want the album to be too far removed from what people would hear live, which at the time was just myself and my guitar. I recorded all my guitars and vocals first, and then Michael and I decided on how to subtly embellish each track. Michael is good friends with Mark Fain (bass for Sheryl Crow, Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton) and Stuart Duncan (fiddle for Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton) who kindly agreed to help out on the album; they came towards the end of the first trip to lay down their parts. There was no rehearsal or jamming….they literally came and did a couple of takes each which was all that was needed! I was so nervous meeting such esteemed musicians at first! But we had such a nice time chatting and getting to know each other. They were so down to earth and enthusiastic about the songs which was really encouraging. It was the nicest way to make a record. Very relaxed and natural, Michael treated my songs with such care and consideration, he and I really clicked and seemed to have the same ideas about what sounded good at every point. Michael has a home studio, so we could record into the early hours if we wanted to, no deadlines or rushing around to wrap up for the day. The fact that I had to go back to London after the 5 days each time was a blessing in a way, as we didn’t have the luxury of over-listening / adding instrumentation that wasn’t absolutely necessary!
Each of the songs in Portraits focuses on individual stories. One particular song that stands out is the beautiful ‘Dancer’. Where did the inspiration for this song come from?
This song actually came from a brief I was given once at a song-writing workshop which was “Write a song for the end credits of a movie called ‘The Dancer’”. I struggled with it at first. Then one afternoon I was sitting in my favourite café in Crystal Palace called ‘Domali’ and the waitress serving me was so lovely. I was watching her move around doing her job looking so happy and graceful, and in the moment, completely unaware of how lovely she was or that anybody was even observing and I thought that would be a really good base to build a story from.
That is genuinely fascinating! So where else do you gain inspiration for your music?!
Oh everywhere! From books, movies, documentaries, historical events to overheard conversations on the train, my experiences and the experiences of those close to me. I think the key is to always have the net out for ideas, they are all around all the time, and it’s just a case of training yourself to spot them and not letting them slip away.
The highlight of the album for us is the very emotional ‘1954’. Tell us the story behind that song?
When I was living up in Liverpool my house mate was working as in a nursing home at the time. She came home from work and was deeply upset about a lady she was caring for, who every day would get dressed up for the same date with her husband before they were married. In her mind she was 17 years old and waiting for him to pick her up and take her out dancing. When her husband would come and visit her she would not recognise him and talk about the date she was waiting for. I actually wrote a different song around this idea in the 3rd person at first, as more of an observation and it just didn’t work, but I couldn’t let the story go. I came back the song after some time and, once I changed the lyrics to the 1st person it took on a whole new dimension. I’m so happy that I came back to the idea as people really connect with this song.
I’m always intrigued as to how a songwriter approaches the actual writing process. Does the story come first and then you build the song around it?
It varies really! I often start with guitar parts, I have a bank of riffs and hooks and ideas recorded on my phone that I keep adding to. I like to listen to them whilst I’m on the move on my headphones and see if they conjure up any images or lyrical ideas, and then other times after an idea for a story has sparked I’ll focus on lyrics and melody first and then see any of the musical ideas I already have work for that lyric. And then there is the odd time that everything happens all at once! There’s a song on the album called ‘Half Way Home’ which I wrote about a friend’s experience trying to get back at an ex-partner and the story, lyrics, music and melody all came together the train home from seeing her. When it comes to lyrics I tend to over-write and then cut back and condense down until the story is as succinct as possible. There’s a song on the album called ‘Birthday Card’ which is about a mother writing letters to her 10 year old child from prison, I had something like 9 possible verses for at the beginning! This can be really difficult in terms of cutting lines out that you really like, however for me, if they don’t move the story forward they have to go!
So, how did you get into music in the first place? What made you first pick up that guitar?
I was very lucky as a child to be exposed to a variety of great music without having to search for it. My parents’ record collection is immense! I’d listen to everything from Velvet Underground to The Replacements, to Sonic Youth and Nirvana, to Neil Young, Dylan and Cash from a very early age. In my early teens, my stepfather (who has a massive musical influence on me!) was heavily into the Americana music scene, bands like Giant Sand, Whiskeytown and Wilco and I just fell in love with that sound and style of guitar playing. What captured my imagination most was the honesty in the lyrics and the storytelling aspect of country music. I’d always loved writing stories and playing guitar, it seemed a very natural progression to put the two together.
Liverpool is obviously a musical hotbed, what it is about the place that produces such great musicians?
Liverpool is such a wonderful city and there is so much encouragement for young musicians and I think this is key. When I was growing up there, there were lots of opportunities to play, youth music projects and dry bars set up so youngsters could play gigs in great venues before the age of 18. There is also a lot of radio support for young musicians and a sense of it actually feeling possible to do well. There is genuine nurture and support of local talent and I think this provides a safe space for artists starting out to express themselves freely and to grow creatively.
Tell us the musical influences that have inspired you, both in country/Americana or elsewhere. And what are you listening to at the moment?
Anything with a story. For me it really is great lyricists that capture and hold my attention and really move me. Writers like Ryan Adams, Gretchen Peters, writers who tell the biggest stories by divulging the smallest of details. One of my favourite examples of amazing lyrics is Gretchen Peters’ The Matador. It is an absolutely beautiful metaphor for being in love with an emotionally greedy partner. And every single word is there for a purpose, there are no filler lines or words and the whole thing would fall if you changed a single thing. It is songs like that I find really inspiring and that make me want to pick up the pen! I am currently listening to lots of my pals’ work actually, Don Gallardo’s ‘Hickory’ and The Rosellys’ ‘Granary Sessions’ fantastic records which I have on repeat at the moment! I’m also loving revisiting 2009’s ‘Written in Chalk’ from Buddy and Julie Miller right now.
Everybody has an embarrassing first album or single they ever bought – tell us yours!
I remember getting pocket money at about 8 years old to buy Hanson’s ‘Middle of Nowhere’. I still love it! Takes me back to holidays by the sea! I remember loving that they were so young and thinking I’d be able to be a professional musician too by the age of 14! Haha!
So where can we see Hannah Rose Platt in the coming weeks and what is in store for the rest of 2016?
My next performance is April 5th at the gorgeous Green Note in Camden alongside the fabulous Kevin Pearce so I can’t wait for that! It’ my favourite place to play in London. I’m actually back there May 20th also to support my very talented friends The Rosellys, so it’s a real treat to play there twice this year. Both are sure to be very special evenings! At the moment I am concentrating on (and having fun with!) writing new stories for my second album which I am hoping to start recording this autumn back in Nashville.