For Hannah Grace, the firebrand Welsh vocalist and songwriter, it's all about the voice. Grace has used her distinctive tone, colored by influences ranging from Billie Holiday to Eva Cassidy to Amy Winehouse, to position herself as one of the next-gen talents worthy of inclusion among an already seminal list of women in British music who have paved the way for her.
Fueled by the warm reception to her impressive pair of EPs Meant to Be Kind (2014) and Mustang (2016), Grace took to the live touring circuit― as a support act and headliner―where she quickly cemented her reputation as a solid performer with crowds and critics alike.
Currently, Grace is close to putting the final touches on her debut album, and she was kind enough to take time out of her active schedule to chat with me about her upcoming first full-length, what touring has meant to her, and what the future holds.
Quentin Harrison: Your influences (Eva Cassidy, Billie Holiday, Stevie Nicks) are strong women who have a very specific vocal character. How do you incorporate their influence within your sound while maintaining your own uniqueness?
Hannah Grace: I’ve been listening to these women sing my entire life, they influenced how I learnt to sing from the very beginning. Listening to albums over and over again, each with a unique voice and unique stories in their songs. The sound of all of the different music I was listening to definitely impacted how I wrote and used my voice. But also learning about their experiences as female artists and listening to the lyrics they sang—this really encouraged me to find my own voice too, and inspired me to pursue my own career as an artist.
QH: Who are some of the more contemporary artists that inspire you and your songwriting?
HG: More recently I have been inspired by people like Amy Winehouse, Lianne La Havas, Florence & The Machine, Emily King, Paolo Nutini and Hozier. They all have such unique voices, as well as writing amazing songs. Their music continues to influence everything new that I write, but I am also inspired by their individuality as artists and the importance of being yourself and writing and singing something real.
QH: You've released two extended plays, Meant to Be Kind (2014) and Mustang (2016). Can you talk about how writing and recording EPs has differed from the recording of your debut album due later this year?
HG: I worked with the brilliant songwriter and producer Luke Potashnick on both of my EPs. We co-wrote all the songs together and he produced both records. I absolutely loved working on these over the past few years. I really felt like I was able to explore what I wanted to sound like with each song, and I was so happy with the end result. After the release of Mustang, I had more of an idea of what I wanted my full record to sound like. I felt like I had really improved as a songwriter and wanted to start collaborating with new people as well as writing songs on my own. So writing my album has been a very different experience so far, I feel like I have more direction after my much needed “experimental” years. I have been working with lots of different songwriters and producers, and I’m so excited to put it all together!
QH: What do you want to communicate with your first proper album that you weren't able to do with the EPs?
HG: I want it to be me. I want my album to really sum up who I am, both as a person and as a singer. I want every lyric to be something I’d say in real life, something I believe, and something that means something to me, whether it’s happy or sad! It sounds simple when I say it like that, but it hasn’t always been an easy process. It’s only recently that I feel that I’ve been able to articulate myself within a song honestly. I also just want to record it with amazing musicians so that every track is brought to life by real people who love the music. Playing live is my favorite thing, so I’d love to capture this on my album and make the performance a real collaborative effort.
QH: Your cover of Fatboy Slim's “Praise You” is sensational, almost gospel-like in its execution. Was this an intentional move on your part or did it just happen once you got your hands on the song? And has your interpretation been acknowledged by Mr. Cook himself?
HG: I’ve always had a natural leaning towards gospel, jazz and blues sounds, so I think it just kind of happened once I started singing the song. And the producer (Jonathan Quarmby) and I just went with it. It was actually such a wonderful experience to really get my head around an older song and try and make it my own. Mr. Cook had to approve of my version before it was released, so he’s definitely heard it! And I've been told he liked it!
QH: Writing and singing your own music is definitely different than interpreting the material of others. How do you balance both approaches?
HG: I recently studied Jazz (at The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama), and Jazz is all about interpreting music and improvising around melodies or harmony that’s already set in place. Singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday do this incredibly well, and I never get tired of listening to them sing songs other people have written. It somehow doesn’t seem like they’re just covering a song—they have an amazing way of making a song their own. I love to try and do this because I enjoy singing so much, and I’d never not sing a great song because I hadn’t written it! I just find that singing your own songs is just a different way to express yourself musically. I’m really enjoying songwriting at the moment , and there’s definitely no feeling that really matches up to singing your own words, but I’ll always have old classic songs that I keep going back to that feel like home.
QH: You've done some extensive touring so far in your career. How has live performance influenced you as a recording artist?
HG: Playing live is my favorite thing to do and it has always been one of the key influences on everything I’ve written and recorded. I’m always thinking of how I’d perform a song live when I’m writing it. For me performing is the most important part of what I do.
QH: You've had an amazing six months and the next half of the year promises to be equally—if not even more—exciting with the arrival of your forthcoming LP. Where do you see yourself at this time in 2018?
HG: It would be great to have released an album that I’m proud of that hopefully people can get some joy from. I’d also love to play the new material live and play lots of shows! I just can’t wait to share it all!
QH: Okay, last question. What, if push comes to shove, are your five favorite albums of all time?
HG: Oh, this would probably change daily but here goes: Eva Cassidy’s Songbird, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Paolo Nutini’s Caustic Love, and Amy Winehouse’s Frank.