Just your average Saturday night in lockdown. I’m interviewing guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Hannah Wicklund via WhatsApp call from my kitchen. She’s miles across the pond in Washington State but should be here in London. We’re laughing about getting a little too used to pyjamas as daywear and she sends her best to my Dad, the newest member of the HW fanbase. Yep, just your average evening in quarantine.
The night before, Hannah was due to share the bill with blues rock band King King at Camden’s Electric Ballroom; sadly one of the many gigs cancelled by COVID-19. So instead, we’re meeting over the phone – and lovely it is too. We chat about Hannah’s new EP, The Inbetween, trading in rock ’n’ roll for a more stripped back sound and a joint admiration of English pub grub.
’This is a musician’s dream!’ she laughs when I ask about her wellbeing during lockdown. Unofficially in quarantine long before it was mandated, South Carolinian-born Hannah had come off the road for a few months to recharge before preparing to go on tour again.
Then, well, the world turned on its head. Notwithstanding the enormity of COVID-19 and a longing to see family in South Carolina, Hannah has been unleashing her creativity through cooking, writing and painting and, fortunately for music lovers everywhere, releasing new music.
The Inbetween is a special EP of intimate solo performances. Hannah has taken four tracks from her self-titled release Hannah Wicklund & The Steppin Stones and stripped them right back. It’s a collection that not only highlights her remarkable voice, but allows the songs to be heard in a new light. It’s emotionally moving, and I wonder if it was intentional to release it in the current climate?
‘I actually recorded this EP at the end of 2018; I’ve kind of been sitting on it for a while!’ Hannah confesses. She was due back in the studio to work on a full-length record but, with plans pushed back, now seemed like the perfect time to release some alternative versions. ‘There really wasn’t any pressure with the project, but with everything going on, getting some new music out there felt right’.
The new interpretations are epic. Did Hannah want to exhibit something different through this project? ‘I really just wanted to show everybody that I’m not just a rock guitar player girl!’ she laughs. ‘I’ve had this side forever; this side of my musicianship is more natural and has been around longer than the electric guitar version of me’.
Another factor behind the EP’s original conceptualisation – something those familiar with Hannah’s searing guitar riffs, tremendous voice and rock sound might be surprised to learn – was her classical piano upbringing. ‘I hadn’t played piano really since I was 8 years old; I basically picked up the guitar and let my piano fall into disarray!’ she laughs. ‘I had to learn how to play again and basically did that with Bomb Through The Breeze. I think it was my way of trying to incorporate a little bit of my classical influences in with my most rock-ish rock song’.
At first, classical music felt more like the enemy and Hannah would play The Beatles as a rebellious escape. It was only once she started listening again a few years ago that she fully appreciated the influence classical had on her overall musicianship. ‘It was a nice a-ha moment!’ she adds.
It’s A Family Affair
The Inbetween was recorded and produced by Luke Mitchell, frontman of The High Divers – and Hannah’s big brother. ‘It was nice, a familiar, kind of homely feeling and being an artist himself, he gets exactly what I’m trying to do’ she explains when I ask about the experience of working with him. ’Luke is seven years older than me so growing up, we never really worked on stuff together; but he was always there to guide me and to bounce my songs off of. Doing the EP was kind of like a return to our youth!’.
It was recorded in the family home on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. I tell Hannah that, after a nosey Google of the idyllic island, it looks rather different to my London hometown. ‘It is!’ she says good-naturedly. ‘I was definitely lucky to grow up and record the EP there. I had some time off the road for the first time; two months that I was planning on being home with my parents and my brother was going to be around for some of that time. It was nice, very non-pressured’.
Hannah hopes I get to visit one day and, as I add Hilton Head to my mental wish-list, we both agree that lockdown has increased our appetite to travel and get back out there. The conversation flows easily and Hannah is very warm and easy going.
Tracks Stripped Back
The EP’s four chosen tracks – Bomb Through the Breeze, Ghost, Meet You Again and Shadowboxes and Porcelain Faces – have been stripped down to their rawest form. How did it feel to reimagine tracks from her self-titled release, and was there a personal favourite?
‘I think Ghost (co-written by producer and guitarist Sadler Vaden) was my favourite and had the biggest impact.’ she muses. ‘Mainly because the words hit me in a different way when I sang it in this manner. At the time of writing, it felt like more like a blues rock song. Then, when I stripped it down and reimagined it, taking it out of that more blues structured kind of place, I think the song landed in a different way’.
She pauses. ’It became more of an emotional song than I had anticipated’. Emotions which echo loudly on the record; Ghost is about a time when Hannah felt lonely and trapped. I ask if it was hard to revisit those memories again for the new EP. ‘I don’t think it was difficult, I think it was really helpful. I think that’s where the whole music is therapy thing really comes into play.’ she says brightly.
Aged 19 and living alone in Nashville, Hannah had been through her first breakup and was always on tour. ‘I was basically under 21, my fake ID had just expired and I couldn’t go out anywhere!’ she laughs. ‘I had just moved to town and knew literally no-one besides my booking agent. It was supposed to be really fun and exciting. I was young, a teenager, living on my own and I had an agent and I was staying busy. I had my first European tour later on that year – but I was super-sad. It was like a juxtaposition of being out in the world and having the most fun and doing the coolest stuff that you’ve done but then also feeling the most lonely that you’ve felt in your life’.
I tell her that although I agree that it can be therapeutic to look back, it’s not nice to know she was so lonely. ‘It’s an important rite of passage, though, loneliness.’ she says.
The EP’s tracks are complementary and sit beautifully beside one another. Shadowboxes and Porcelain Faces is just as impactful as when it’s performed live and Meet you Again is given the unplugged treatment, drop D tuning in an acoustic guitar being one of Hannah’s favourite combinations. We discover a shared love of alternative versions of our favourite tracks and the unforgettable MTV Unplugged series. I say Nirvana is my favourite, Hannah eagerly recommends The Alice in Chains performance and I promise to check it out.
Shadowboxes and Porcelain Faces is the track Hannah considers her most favourite song. ‘I’m most proud of that song as far as lyrically and being able to really convey my thoughts on a subject’. Hannah has been open that this track is about her feelings on social media. I ask how it feels to be a musician in the digital age; is it a necessary evil?
‘Oh it’s definitely a necessity, there’s no having a career in music these days without having it’ There’s definitely a big internal conflict for me’. She admits that having a song about the negatives and woes of social media doesn’t make her resistant to endless scrolling herself. Hannah explains, it’s hard to stay authentic, and balance what you want to say with what you feel you should say. ‘I’ve always been an open book.’ she says with an audible grin. ‘If you meet me on the street and we’re having a conversation I’ll tell you the best and worst things that have happened to me in the first ten minutes’ We both laugh. ‘I’m not afraid of being myself and being open about it, but I am afraid of putting things out into the world before they need to be or regretting things’ she considers.
Staying on the subject of social media, I tell her about an Instagram post I’d seen that had made me smile. Knitting in lockdown had evoked a memory of a six-year old Hannah sitting with her parents in the booth of local bar, Casey’s, watching her older brother’s band play every Friday.
‘My entire childhood was centered, I mean CENTERED around music!’ she says enthusiastically. ‘There was literally zero day crossover where either me or my brother weren’t playing music or had a show’. Talking of bars leads to a animated conversation about England and, specifically, London pubs.
‘Touring around Europe, I’m not going to lie, a lot of people are like, ah man, the food in England .. but I loved it!’ We both laugh again. ‘I loved the pub food; I just really like comfort food and feeling really weighed down by potatoes!’. She suggests the next time she’s over, I can take her to my favourite pub and I happily oblige.
Hannah was due to be on tour with King King in April. ‘I’m super bummed as we were supposed to be coming over to Europe two times this summer as well. It was going to be a lot of really cool festivals, so hopefully we get the chance to make up all of that stuff and come over next year’. Hannah admits that she has been playing music for so long now, touring consistently on the road for over six years, that having an enforced break, with every musician in the same boat, has been eye opening. ‘Having that realisation that this could possibly go away, cause look it just did, it makes me really really really appreciate what I do and what I’ve gotten the opportunity to do already’.
We’ve been chatting for over a hour, and so as the interview sadly draws to a close, I thank Hannah and ask if there is anything else we can look forward to to help ease the pain of lockdown. She talks animatedly about recording a full-band live track of Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at Studio X in Seattle in February, which will be released for the anniversary of the Kent State shooting on 4 May.
The Inbetween may be a diversion from her usual rock sound, but the transformation is no less explosive. Four tracks of richly textured, stirring music that provides a welcome escape right now. It also showcases Hannah Wicklund’s exceptional artistry – and proves that she’s definitely more than just a rock guitar player girl.
Hannah Wicklund’s EP ‘The Inbetween’ is out now. Order it via https://shop.hannahwicklund.com/
Interview with Hannah Wicklund by Nicola Greenbrook via WhatsApp Call in Lockdown April 2020. Live Photography by Phil Honley.