Hannah Wicklund talking music and Bonamassa Cruise

Bluesdoodles interviewed Hannah Wicklund while she was on tour in Europe and ahead of her first visit to play shows in the UK.

How are you? Good, I’m actually in Germany, drinking an Octoberfest beer, so not too shabby!

I notice on your Facebook page that you were taking pictures of wolves in France, so you’re getting around? That was a couple of days ago at a wolf sanctuary, it was my first seeing time seeing wolves so it was cool! This is part of a European tour at the moment? Yeh, we’ve been on the road for nearly a month now; we’ve done shows in Spain and France and we played on a couple of cruises that went all over the Mediterranean.

That was the Joe Bonamassa cruise? Yeh, that was wild, lots of talent on that boat! Yes, an amazing line-up; what’s it like on the boat, are you all hanging out backstage, jamming? What’s the format? Oh yeh, that’s what’s really cool about the cruise set up, you’re literally stuck on a boat with all these musicians for 4-5 days and the artists hang in the artists’ room and the days are full and lively!

While you’re a veteran of live shows, you’re still only 22, a lot of the other guys are pretty heavyweight and have been around for years; how was that? It was definitely a new, a nice feeling to enter into some circles that I’ve respected for a long time; it was really cool to be alongside such a guitar heavy experience; I’ve been lucky enough to play some really cool festivals and to be around some of my favourite artists in the last few years but seeing one badass guitar player after another sandwiched into a few days was definitely a new, very cool experience; Eric Gales was my favourite find on the boat; he’s an incredible guitar player that I hadn’t known of really.  I’d heard his name a couple of times but didn’t know anything, so hearing him was very cool. I had exactly the same experience this year; he’s a phenomenal player.  Is it intimidating being around those sorts of players, or have you been around long enough to be confident in your own abilities? I’ve been shooting the sh*t with old men my whole life! (laughs). I’m definitely humbled and very happy to be part of the hang, but at the end of the day we’re all humans and we have a shared passion for music. I’ve always tried to go into those situations picking up things where I can from everybody and anybody; I’m a firm believer that we’re all humans. Sure, people come off stage and still need to communicate – Exactly.

You mentioned Eric Gales as impressing and I’ve read you’re a big fan of Jeff Beck’s; have you ever consciously tried to copy the style of people you admire? I think that in terms of my influences and inspiration, it’s more about understanding the overarching tone and control, and the energy that comes from the stage. As a guitar player, I learnt a lot of classic rock cover songs earlier in my day; that was the last time I was trying to copy any licks and learn things verbatim and broaden my repertoire. When my music started to go down an original road and I started to perform my own music I started letting my emotions guide the show. It has been more about learning from the overall experience of seeing the people I have drawn my inspiration from rather than copying a few seconds of what I saw.  There are definitely things that imprint on you, like for example with Eric Gale or Jeff Beck, the sensitivity and the delicacy they play with; both of them can go from a growl to a whisper in a heartbeat, so it’s more about that kind of thing that I’m taking with me and applying to my playing, as opposed to the notes or the speed or the pattern.

Sure, with Jeff Beck the way he caresses the whammy bar to create those sweet notes is almost impossible to recreate but I notice from watching a recent video of you that you were hitting the whammy bar yourself quite aggressively, is that something you have taken from him or developed yourself? I think Jeff Beck’s whammyness has definitely rubbed off on me (laughs) – He’s the king of the Wham! – Oh yeh, he’s incredible!  I still feel my guitar playing will be developing with every show.  I’m a firm believer that I don’t ever want to be done exploring.   Last night we had a show in Germany and I was more aggressive with the whammy than on any other night on the European tour.  There are some night when I don’t use the whammy bar at all.  It’s more about me feeling the moment, it’s the emotion not me calling the shots. I guess the energy coming off an audience must also be a factor? Yeh, reading the crowd and reading off of that energy is definitely most of my show. I’m so happy when I’m playing my music live.  I love playing music on my own but it’s a totally different experience playing live and the main difference is the people and the energy that comes from a room full of people, or just having four people in the room, that changes how you play!  When I first started touring it was like, one night we were opening up for a band in front of 800 people and the next night we’re playing a town we’ve never played before and there’s only 8 people in the room (laughs).

I was going to ask you about that; you’ve played 2500 shows and seemed to have travelled all over the States; you must have played in some dives (laughs) and some small venues; many artists aren’t comfortable making eye contact with the audience; is that something you enjoy? I do!  From my upbringing, I was playing for 3-4 hours in restaurants, playing in the middle of the day to families and little kids, so my introduction to music was not with a bunch of lights shining in my face, or being up on a stage separate from everybody; it was usually in a corner on a patch of concrete or a patch of grass; what comes as part of those restaurant gigs and providing an entertainment factor is the banter with the crowd and the interaction with the people, so that’s something I’m grateful I had in those early days, as opposed to my first live experience being ticketed shows; that would probably have affected my demeanour on stage greatly.  I definitely now play more with my eyes closed than I did when I didn’t have the stage lights and could see people.  I really enjoy eye contact and really try to make it a point to look at every person in the room and make it seem as if the show is for them.   So, we can expect something more engaging from you than the standard “Hello London!”? The banter in my performance has certainly changed from when I was playing Rolling Stones and AC/DC covers when I was thirteen; that’s another thing where I read off the energy of the crowd; there are some nights when I say little and others when I feel compelled to explain why I wrote a song.  A big part of my show is the jamming and the improvisation where I feel I’m creating something new and unique every night.

How old were you when you started writing your own songs? Technically the first time I put a collection together was on a solo EP that my brother recorded for me when I was 8 years old, right before I started the band.  With my band, the “Stepping Stones”,  we did our first EP of original songs when I was 12 years old.  One of those songs “Versus the Villain” is one of my favourite songs, although we haven’t played if for a couple of years. Those songs were the start of a legitimate pursuit of a musical career.

I read that you felt you had come into your own on your latest self-titled album in being able to write about lifestyle experiences; what did you write about when you were 12? I didn’t write songs about love until I had a real love experience, which didn’t come until this latest record. This latest record has been the most personal to date. My next record is going to be even more personal, but I wrote one of the songs on the new album, “Looking Glass”, when I was 15 years old and it’s pretty much a song about alcohol abuse and alcoholism; clearly when I’m 15 I haven’t had those experiences on my own but I come from a family that was very open about their life experiences; I have a brother who’s 7 years older and a sister who’s 10 years older and two parents who have been very open and honest with me about their life experiences and their trials and tribulations.  That’s a song I wrote from an outside perspective; that’s where a lot of my writing stemmed from up until this latest record.

I know you’ve collaborated with a few people on this album; do they bring their own perspective into the songwriting or do they just reflect what you want to say? I’ve been a part of many songwriting experiences and the ones I have enjoyed are the ones that reflect my experiences, so it’s more a case of filling in the blanks and filling in the pieces together.  As an “artist” quote/unquote going into a co-writing session, it’s usually me bringing the initial idea, the riff, the one line or the one word that we want to start with.  For example with “Shadow Boxes and Porcelain Faces”, which is the last one on the record, and which I wrote with Lincoln Parish, who is the former guitar player with “Cage the Elephant”,  I had written a song  with that title which was inspired by the Facebook culture. However, I knew I hadn’t hit the nail on the head with the message, but I loved the phrase Shadow Boxes and Porcelain Faces and I knew what that meant.  That one is my favourite co-write; I knew what the song was going to be but hadn’t been able to hone in on it.  Lincoln was just fiddling around on an acoustic and he played the first chords; it was just easy – he’d be playing and I’d be singing and the lines just popped out at us.  It was a beautiful collaboration.  That’s my favourite way to write when it’s my message.  I love writing alone, that’s where the deepest development as a songwriter happens, but working with a co-write opens up your perspective and teaches you little tricks. Now when I’m writing and get stuck, I remember something Lincoln said.

It is a lovely song and stands out on the album; can you only work with people you know?   I know you moved to Nashville where it’s common to pair writers together regardless and you just have get on with it, like a job. That’s very true. I moved away from Nashville a year and a half ago after living there for a year and a half.  It was a cool environment but it was very similar to what you said, it was definitely like a cookie-cutter putting the puzzle pieces together; I was part of many co-writes that were put together by label A&R people.  It wasn’t my connections, it was just a case of “you and you should write.”  You go into a room and you try and get to know each other and it either vibes or it doesn’t.  Songwriting is deeply personal so it’s not easy to find that magic person. The thing about that Nashville writing culture is that so many of those songs that are being written in those rooms are being given to an artist who isn’t in the room. But everyone is different and every co-write is different.  I’m definitely taking a step back from doing as many co-writes with my next record.

When you write do you start with a lyric about something you want to say or with a riff, an idea that you want to develop to see where it goes? All of them; each song is born out of a different place or a different formula.  I’ve definitely had songs where the riff has come first and other like “Shadow Boxes” where I had the title first.  Other times it all comes together at once, where I’m sitting down with a guitar and the first time I’m playing a chord progression I’m singing words at the same time; that’s how the song “Strawberry Moon” was born. That was a total congealment of melody, lyrics and notes, the vibe was just there; it flowed out. For Bomb Through the Breeze” it was riff first; with “Ghost” I had a collection of singular lines; I had the lines “I believe in Voodoo, do you?”  and “the charm you placed upon me is still around my neck”.  That was more of a puzzle piece of a song; I had lines of a similar sentiment and it was, how could I package them together.  Every song is different.

It’s very common for many artists to get stuck in a familiar rut; do you feel your music is developing? I think there’s always going be some continuity in my music in terms of note choices and phrasing. Being able to change the rhythms of what you’re writing is very, very important.  I’ve already got a lot of songs for the next record and it’s definitely developed. Not that it’s become more complicated for the sake of it but I have manged to get some more of my “chordally” (laughs) complex ideas out there now.  I see that my music has already has evolved and gone to its next stage. I’m very excited and proud of this latest record and all the things it’s already afforded me to do with my career.  I want to keep extending, I don’t want every record to sound the same.

You mentioned in one of the very honest and open blogs on your site that you had found it hard to find committed band members; have the Stepping Stones changed much over the years?  Have you found that working with good musicians can kick you off in a different direction?Oh yeh, certainly, I’m so thrilled with the band I have now, especially my new drummer, who’s called Graham Stillman, he has made me relax on stage and be able to evolve as a guitar player because he’s the first person I’ve been able to lean on, on stage.  I’m very excited about getting back into the studio.  My last record was made with session musicians, who absolutely killed it, they were incredible dudes! We recorded the record live in a room; we didn’t record it track by track.  The first time I played with them was when we had three days to get down all the tracks on the record.  It’s definitely been difficult having the band from such a young age and going through the transformation from a teenager to a woman – I’ll be 23 next year.  It’s nice to feel settled and have a musical relationship I can count on.

Talking about being in the studio I wonder what your approach is to recording a solo, do you carefully construct one over several takes or just knock it out? I’ve never ever crafted a solo in my life; I’ve never sat down and practised a solo section; I used to do it when I played covers so I could play them verbatim and do them justice but as far as original stuff goes in the studio, I’ve never done it that way, although I have had solos that have been born from playing live, so I’ve naturally edited it, but it’s never been done consciously. I have a couple of songs where the solos have stayed the same almost note for note over the years, but, 9 times out of 10, I just want to play what I feel in that take.  On “Strawberry Moon”, which we recorded live, our first take is what’s on the record and that was my first time playing the  solo; after we were done, Julian Dorio, who’s an incredible drummer and has played with some incredible people said “that was the one, that’s the solo!” We played it back and I was like, we don’t need to play that again! That’s how I think music in my world feels the best; it should just flow; if it’s good it’s good; if it’s not, do something totally different.   It’s more about spontaneity and feeling the moment… Spontaneity is a very important ingredient, I think.

You’ve toured a lot in the States, do the audiences differ much from state to state? I think so; I’ve been touring around the south-east especially for much longer than anywhere else. I’m from South Carolina, so South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina are my staple areas.  It’s funny that the further I get away from home the better the reaction is usually (laughs).  When people know about you I guess you lose the charm, whereas, when I come over here and play, like last night for instance in Germany playing for the first time in this small town (although I’d toured Germany before, two years ago) the reaction I got was totally different from any I’ve got in South Carolina, because people have never seen me before. There’s definitely a difference in reaction; none are better or worse as I love playing every single show.

Did I read that you’ve never played England before? No, I’m very, very thrilled to be coming over as I’ve wanted to play there for a long time.  A lot of the bands I love come from over there.

It’s a bit of a cliché question but in addition to guitarists that I’ve read you have been influenced by, like Jeff Beck, Lindsay Buckingham and Jimi Hendrix, are there others that have made an impact on you?  In addition, anyone with anything other than a pure sweet voice gets compared to Janis Joplin (laughs – right!), but are there female vocalist that have influenced you? Etta James’s voice is unapparelled, she was an important influence on me vocally; I love Stevie Nicks but most of my vocal influences come from people who sing with character; I love Neil Young and Tom Petty; they’re not singing the craziest things, it’s more about emoting.  As far as guitar players go, and not to beat the Tom Petty drum too much, you can’t beat Mike Campbell…

He’s very under-rated, a brilliant guitar player … Highly under-rated!  One of the really important things I learnt early on from being in a three piece on was that I’m not really going to the guitar player that’s playing singular note solos. I’m not picking on one string.  I like to play in E, A and D so I can hit a lot of open notes – you’re not alone there! (laughs) – no, they’re pretty popular keys!  Mike Campbell varies it, he can do the single note thing but he’s also the king of double bends, you know, where you hold your pinkie down and use your ring finger to – makes impressive bending note noise!– to bend the note up.   It’s a subtle kind of thing that I picked up from him.  One of the funny things from my upbringing is that I didn’t ever focus on one person. I drew an influence from every song that I learnt and covered, like “Radar Love” influenced me as a guitar player. The first three songs I learnt were “T.N.T”, “Satisfaction” and “Rockin’ in the Free World”.  It wasn’t like I zoned in on Neil Young,  the Rolling Stones or AC/DC, it was like I was getting a little taste from everyone; that had a lot to do with my melting pot of influences.

Knowing all these songs it must be tempting to stick one in as an encore? I’ve been pretty faithful to good ol’ Neil (laughs) for my covers for the last few years; pretty much every night “Ohio” is a staple of our set.  It’s one of my favourites and it’s such a powerful song.  The first song I played with the band was “Rockin’ in the Free World” and we close our set with that most nights as an encore.

Anything that’s rocky and not heavy metal tends to get labelled as blues-rock – “right!” – which is how you are described, but none of your influences are particularly blues, so would you call yourself more of a rocker? It’s funny that you say that – one of the things I’ve learned in the last few years, as my career has progressed, is that you really don’t have control over how people categorise you, the only thing you can control is what you put out in this world and it’s not up to me to decide what it is; but I agree, I don’t necessarily see myself as a blue-rock guitar player.  Obviously, I draw influences from the blues and one of my favourite shows that I ever saw was an intimate show where Buddy Guy opened up for BB King; it doesn’t get much better than that.  That influence is definitely there, especially when it comes to phrasing and the spacing I’m using, I’m definitely thinking more towards the traditional blues side of guitar playing.  I’ve always considered myself rock ‘n’ roll, which comes from the blues, but I don’t know If I will write or even play a blues song.  So, I would agree: I just say we’re rock n’ roll when people ask.   So, you’re in Germany now and coming to England shortly… Yes, I am so excited!

We are looking forward to seeing you. At this point Bluesdoodles thanked Hannah for her time and signed off.  Look out for a review of her show at the O2 Academy Islington (on 11th October) or catch her there in person.

Hannah Wicklund talking music and Bonamassa Cruise

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