With a healthy career that stands every chance of going stratospheric, the Bristolian nine-piece band Hannah Williams and The Affirmations stand on the verge of releasing their new album 50 Foot Woman. Slated for release on October 18th through Record Kicks, it sees a progression in their soul sound aided and abetted by producer Shawn Lee. Demonstrating an assured and authentic soulful touch informed by legendary soul artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s, it revisits the same touchstones as the leaders of the classic soul renaissance, The Daptone label, managing even to reach the same dizzying musical heights as that label’s greatest artists.
I was lucky enough to have the chance to catch up with the band’s platinum-piped leader, Hannah Williams, in the run-up to the album’s release to discuss all aspects of the band’s musical life. Among other topics, our chat encompassed taking in the life-changing moment Jay-Z called for permission to sample the group’s “Late Nights & Heartbreak” for the title track of his most recent LP 4:44 (2017), the band’s respect and admiration for Shawn Lee, and how the daughter of a Church of England priest ended up singing such gut-wrenching, heart-shaking soul music. Our conversation reveals a band cocksure and confident in their ability to not only satisfy existing fans, but also strike out for new territory and a wider audience.
Well, here we are on the cusp of the release of 50 Foot Woman! How are you feeling? Excited? Nervous? All of the above?! What are your hopes for it?
One hundred percent all of the above. Put it this way, I have never felt so proud of anything I’ve recorded in my whole life. This album is the culmination of years of intense hard work, touring, creative input from all nine of us and a whole lot of microscopic self-scrutiny.
Is the title of the new album an accurate representation of how you feel right now? Is confidence high?
Damn right it is. We have had the extreme good fortune to have been able to take almost everything on the album on an extensive tour. Gauging the response of our audience is at the very heart of our developmental process. Long story short, if they love it, we give it our full attention. This album is a big step from Late Nights And Heartbreak which became a very important record for us. We knew we had to be bold and deliver something unquestionably desired by our listenership. I really hope we have nailed it! [Crosses fingers]
Can you talk about how your collaboration with Shawn Lee came to fruition? What was recording with him like?
Unbeknownst to us until a little over a year ago, Shawn has always wanted to work with us, so we knew we were in safe hands from the start. His music is incredible and it was a real honour to work with him. I invited him to a show in London after listening to some of his Ping Pong stuff, thinking he wouldn’t come, but in walked the wizard himself. This will sound so gushy but, genuinely, just knowing he was there made me feel really different on stage that night. He had a subtle and uber cool way of showing his excitement about our music throughout the show and we had a fantastic chat in the interval. From that moment , I just knew he was “the one.”
Following that show and having bagged him for the job, Shawn’s main goal—which echoed our desires—was to capture our live show sound in the studio. So, the process we chose to record was in aid of just that. We recorded live to tape and only overdubbed backing vocals. The vocal, horns and rhythm section for pretty much every track is the first take. We are super proud of that! Shawn is a wizard and he worked his secret magic to take our live sounding tracks to the next level. We couldn’t be happier with the outcome.
He has become a really good friend and guide to us all since we first met. He is so very talented and a prolific writer/producer/performer. His chilled attitude towards the process was exactly what we needed. I can be a real worrying hot-head at times and Shawn brought the temperature down in the coolest way every time. We love you, man!
I’d like to talk about one song in particular from the album and, in fact, one moment from that song. About 3 minutes into “Tablecloth,” there is an almighty, banshee wail of deeply felt anger that just shatters the listener. Where did that come from? What inspired it? Was it designed to be the only swear word on the album or did it come from the intensity of the moment?
I shall defer this question to the very brilliant keys player, MD and songwriter extraordinaire James Graham…
[James Graham] The lyrics that precede that moment are written in couplets of contrast, from one perspective to another. So the idea was to show that contrast from the most intimate and vulnerable parts of the voice to the most powerful and aggressive. The most intimate parts of the relationship (escapism, heavy breath, beating heart) to the most angry parts (the destructiveness, the cycles of pain). As a nine-piece band it’s amazing to experiment with these huge dynamic moments. Because of the size of the band it can be really impactful.
So how does a girl from Winchester end up singing soul music as brilliantly as you do? I’ve read in previous interviews that other genres called to you at various points—what made soul music stick?
It’s difficult to explain why it stuck so hard really. I guess it’s because that’s what everyone wanted to listen to me singing more than anything else. But it’s also because I have had brilliant songs to sing, written by brilliant people. I have always been an “all-in” kind of performer, in every type of music I’ve tackled along the way. I think that attitude suits soul because it is so wrapt with emotion. I can channel deep shit with soul in a way I find tricky or is inappropriate with other styles of singing. Good question! Wafty answer. [Laughs]
Music was clearly second nature to you growing up. What music surrounded you and how did it help you develop as an artist?
My beloved late father was a Church of England priest, so I was raised in church singing predominantly classical sacred music. That’s where I learnt my chops, really. It’s certainly where my addiction to harmony came to fruition. But at home, it was a more complex story. My father was a phenomenal musician. He could play pretty much anything and had an amazing voice. My brother also played piano like an angel and was a great trombonist (I played piano and trumpet). Mum has a great voice (but doesn’t believe me) and a deep love of all kinds of music.
We grew up playing and listening to a whole vast range of music including Gregorian chant, opera, Irish folk, rock, pop, soul, jazz, blues, musical theatre. So, pretty much everything was fair game in my house and we were always listening to something. I think that early introduction to such a vast range of sounds is at the heart of my desire to sing and also my understanding of how the voice can be used as a vehicle for expression.
When you started the journey of your music career, how did you envisage it? How does the reality compare?
For a while, until I was about twelve, I thought I wanted to be an opera singer or MT star. I really loved singing opera and tackled some pretty gnarly arias at a very young age (which was probably a bit weird as they’re mostly about death, sex and other grown up stuff). I also started to perform in Musical Theatre shows during the summer from the age of ten and I LOVED IT! I met all my best mates there and they are still my besties now.
But around the time my Dad passed away when I was fourteen, I had started to write folky tunes and sing some more contemporary pop and rock, and I found it ultimately more natural and enjoyable than opera so that’s when the scales tipped. I experimented with a lot of different genres and did a very avant garde degree in music theatre where I focused mostly on experimental composition. Soul found me really back in 2009 when I started working with the co-writer of A Hill of Feathers.
I mean, I am still envisaging a career really. Even though I’ve been at it my whole life, it still feels like the journey has only just begun.
I would imagine that you didn’t picture a life-changing phone call from one of the most successful rappers of all time! For those readers who don’t know the story, could you tell us how Jay-Z came to use your song for “4:44.” How on earth did you take that phone call and do you still have the text message?
You could say that, yeah! I thought it was an elaborate prank for some time. My drummer Jai (who was managing us at the time) called me when I was taking 45 students to Leeds on a coach for a Choir Festival. He said that Jay-Z might be calling and that I wasn’t allowed to say anything (seriously!). The phone didn’t ring all weekend, so I thought it was Jai being a wind-up merchant. Or that Jay-Z had gone off the idea, so I just tried to forget about it.
On the coach home two days later, I got my phone out to call my husband and let him know we were nearly at Winchester, and I had a missed call and a text message—something along the lines of “Hi Hannah, I know you’re busy, but could you give me a call when you get the chance. Thanks. Jay.”
I lost my mind at this point! I ran home like Charlie Bucket with a golden ticket and called the number from our tiny little bedroom. It was, indeed, Shawn Carter. He said he had written the most personal song around my voice and would like to sample “Late Nights and Heartbreak.” He asked me to record some different permutations of the lyrics for him, as he wasn’t sure what shape the story might take. He didn’t use them in the end, which was a shame for me, as it would have given me a feature credit (DAMN!).
But he used the original track which goes to show how powerful it was in the first place. We had no idea it was such an enormous sample until the 30th of July, when he released the album. Neither did we know it was the title track, or an apology to Beyoncé. In fact, we didn’t believe it would actually happen until it was there in front of us!
It was a life-changing phone call. What an amazing chance happening! And no, my phone has deleted the message. NOOOOOOOO!
Is it still the case that you hold down a job (as music department head at Winchester University), as well as pursue your musical career? What has that been like? What challenges does it present?
I no longer work full time for the University. I took a career break in 2017 following the sample for six months to see how the dust would settle. And I never went back. Long story short, it was impossible to tour, hold down the job, have time with my son and husband and fit in some sleep at the same time. Something had to give and my much beloved job was the only contender.
It was always a balancing act and I was always on the go. I still am now, but I have a little more flexibility being self-employed. I set up my own Vocal Performance Coaching business as soon as I quit my job and the University has massively supported me with it. I teach on campus and the majority of my students are at the Uni, so I still feel very much part of the tapestry of the place. Best of both worlds.
As a singer at the forefront of keeping the soul alive, what did it mean to receive a “co-sign” from Sharon Jones? With her sad passing, do you feel a greater responsibility to keep the flame alive?
The short answer is yes! Pressure is a privilege though, right? I am lucky to have had all the breaks I have had throughout my career. It started with the opportunity to support Sharon back in 2012 with the Tastemakers. She took a shine to me and we chatted several times before her sad and cruel death. She was super encouraging and said some really lovely things about my voice. That meant so much to me. Endorsement from a soul legend really helped to build my confidence. Through this singular show, I have also built a lovely relationship with Saundra Williams, who has become something of a mentor and ally over the years. She has just the generosity of spirit I saw in Sharon and the rest of the Daptone crew.
I’m flattered that you say I am at the forefront. Thank you, but there are plenty of us fighting the soul fight and it’s a shared responsibility we must all be careful to nurture.
Once 50 Foot Woman is released, what happens next? Tours? Any other plans?
Yes, we have a big old European tour which starts in Spain on 13th November. Then 2020 looks set to take us further afield, to new territories and big exciting places we are pretty giddy about! Watch this space.
OK, last question. In the spirit of Albumism, what are your FIVE favorite albums of all time?
Jamie Lidell’s Multiply, Charles Bradley’s No Time for Dreaming, Donny Hathaway’s Live, Thin Lizzy’s Johnny the Fox, and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine.