One of the best aspects of running Belles and Gals for me is in discovering new artists. A few months ago I came across Hannah White for the first time and since then I’ve been blown away by both her music and live performances. Therefore I was absolutely delighted when she agreed to have a chat with us and talk openly about her music and her career.
Hi Hannah, You first came to our attention at Belles and Gals when I saw your brilliant video to “I’ll Make You Strong”. How exciting was it to shoot your first official video? And tell us all about the song!
I loved shooting the video. This song was so important to me because, despite its uptempo beat and jolly melody, i wrote it to express the deep sadness and sense of failure I felt following the break up of a long-term relationship. The tune and the ‘i’ll make you strong’ mantra in the chorus represent my absolute determination to embody everything I’ve always wanted in a relationship: the ‘happy ever after’, the ‘loving each other come what may’. But the only honesty in all of it is the delusion. The song for me is about being submissive in my partnership and feeling invisible. And it’s about how popular culture tells us that both of those things are OK and quite normal. For the video, I had a really clear vision of what I wanted. I wanted two characters – a person in a council estate, with little opportunity and little hope but who has latched on to this fairy-tale fantasy, and then the fairy-tale reality: a messed up, slightly ridiculous, grown woman who, despite being in pieces, refuses to let go of the romantic, princess-dream. I had huge fun filming the video, and I’m pleased with how it came out. It’s simple but says what I wanted it to.
I saw you live at the Green Note in Camden recently and you started by relating a story about your song ‘Whoops’ which had a big influence on your “Whose Side Are You On’ album. Could you share that story?
I tell this story as much as I can because it was where my album started. I was travelling home from a holiday in France with my two children and was stopped at the border by the customs officer. The man checked our passports and asked why we each had different surnames. He asked, what was in my view, inappropriately personal questions about the break up of the two relationships from within which I’d had my children. I answered obligingly with my children looking on, but the customs officer seemed unsatisfied and went off to consult with a colleague. When he returned he told me that I fit the profile of a drug-trafficker and that the car would need to be searched. Which it was. The situation made me feel completely helpless because I knew I couldn’t fight my corner. I couldn’t say “these questions you’re asking are inappropriate” and I couldn’t ask “how does the breakdown of two relationships from within which I had two children, align me in any way to drug trafficking?” because I knew that speaking up would have led me to being perceived as confrontational; defensive; uncooperative; a person with something to hide. I knew that these circumstances, out of so many other important, determining circumstances in my life, completely defined me. The only choice I had was to wear the stigma and accept it, answering ‘yes, Sir, no, Sir’ to whatever questions were fired at me.
That feeling of being unable to respond to a negative stereotype that’s been imposed on you, is for me its most crushing and damaging feature. I identified my situation as a female problem, and from then on identified myself as a feminist. I decided that the very least I could do for myself, for my children and for other women, was to speak up.
The ‘Whose Side Are You On’ album is just brilliant from start to finish and if I could use one word to describe it I’d say ‘real’. Looking back at the album a few months after the release, how would you describe it – you must have a feeling of great pride?
Thank you so much! I am deeply proud of this album. It has been criticised for not being consistent enough to a specific genre, but I never wrote that album to achieve any single goal, other than to share my story. I didn’t think strategically about who my potential fan-base could be, who I might be alienating, what ‘sound’ would create the most sellable product. And my producer, Nigel Stonier, was with me 100% of the way. He completely understood my agenda and delivered something that was honest and because of that something that means so much to me, I can’t even put it into words.
One thing that really stood out for me when I saw you live was the sheer enjoyment in your performance. It must be incredible to have an idea for a song, write it, record it and then see it all the way through to finally performing it in front of an audience?
I’m so pleased that comes across (I didn’t know). I absolutely love performing to an audience more than anything else in this world. I love the relationship. I love being able to share my most intimate secrets through my songs (as scary as it is) and when people tell me that I’ve had some kind of impact on them, I could just collapse through pure happiness. I find it so overwhelming, it makes me feel that my music is worth something; and I live for my music. I love being part of a group of musicians, making a sound that makes me lose myself. To connect with the people in the room means more to me than anything. I remember the first time I performed in a small-ish theatre style setting to the most attentive crowd (I was the support act), and afterwards I had a queue of about 50 people who wanted to buy my CD and speak to me and I was so overwhelmed, I was shaking and tears were just streaming down my face! I was an emotional wreck haha. That moment stays with me.
And which of your songs do you particularly like performing live?
That changes really. I have to mean what I’m singing which is why I find it difficult to cover other people’s songs and why I find it so difficult to write set-lists. I have to be in the moment to know what I’m going to be sharing. I usually make that decision then and there on stage (much to the frustration of the rest of the band). If i feel like I’m not connected with a song in that particular moment, I won’t even try because I will be delivering something that’s disingenuous and contrived. It has no substance. I work off an audience and the vibe in the room. So it really does change a lot.
At Belles and Gals we’re predominantly a country music site, although we’re more than willing to blur those lines at time. Your music seems to cover a range of genres and has many different influences, including of course, country. Does this just happen naturally?
Nothing is terribly pre-meditated when I write. I sit down at a piano or guitar and it just comes out. I have listened to a lot of different genres and I think you can probably hear that in my previous albums. But the country has always been there! Most of what I listen to now is American. I love the great American singer songwriters: Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Leonard Cohen. And I love Americana music, I love the story-telling, the angst, I love the harmonies, I love the bluegrass instruments. So the American influence on me is quite profound. There is a lot of country music I’m not so keen on, but overall it’s a genre I’m incredibly at home with. I love blues, I love folk, I enjoy a good pop song, but my most recent writing has been more country/americana than ever before I’d say.
Tell us about your writing process. Is it a case of setting time aside and dedicating that to ‘writing’ or are you someone who is writing all the time?
I write all the time and have done so since I was about 7 years old. It’s always happened without my ever deciding it should. Sometimes it’s a blessing because I write so much, but sometimes it’s a curse, because I never have a quiet mind. Whenever a room goes silent, my head fills the silence with a song. That’s why I tend to write a lot of songs when I’m driving. Unless my radio is switched on, then a song is coming out of my head. A lot of the time I allow it to happen and keep the car quiet, unless I feel like the song that is coming to me is really rubbish and i want to get it out of my head haha. That happens quite a lot too!
Which musicians have influenced you over the years? And have you always wanted to be a singer?
I’m not sure I can really say that I’ve always wanted to be a singer. My life hasn’t really been like that. I’ve had some tough times and I’ve been trying to survive them. Performing for me is only a recent thing and something I’ve been able to consider because I’ve managed to get the better of my pathologically low-confidence. In my first performances I would be so frightened, my hands and voice would both be shaking and I think people just felt sorry for me!
Tell us something about random about yourself!
I am the co-founder of a charity which reaches out to the most vulnerable, disenfranchised people in sometimes the most difficult environments: refugee camps, homeless shelters, impoverished estates, through music.
What is in store for Hannah White for the rest of this year and moving into 2017?
I am about to disappear into a studio for a couple of weeks with my wonderful producer, Nigel, and record my next album. I’m really excited and anxious in equal measure. Music is a difficult business to be in when you don’t have a big record-label, machine behind you and I’m not sure how sustainable a career-choice this is for me. But I’m committed to this album and I hope it does well….and I’ll make decisions about my future only when I am backed into a corner and have no other choice. I’m hoping it will be more of the good stuff only a little bit bigger and better of course 🙂