London Grammar’s Hannah Reid Finally Takes The Throne

Photo by Alex Waespi

Hannah Reid actually doesn’t remember a lot of her early 20s. “It’s a little concerning,” she admits with a laugh, “and it’s not like I was taking anything I shouldn’t have.” London Grammar, a three-piece formed in Nottingham, reached stunning success in the early 2010s, sparked by their 2013 debut record─leading to their American television debut on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, blockbuster album sales, and world-trotting tours.

“Those early tours were five or six weeks long, and I’d come home for like five days and then go off again and do something else. I actually don’t really remember any of it,” Reid tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call. “It was such a whirlwind.”

Reid, now 31, stops in her tracks for a moment. With the world entering its second year of COVID-19, time, as many can attest, doesn’t really mean much these days. Or it means everything─it shape-shifts from one perspective to the next. “Time for me has really slowed down,” she says, “and I feel like I’m actually able to enjoy what I do for a living and my life at home. There’s much more balance to it now.”

But it hasn’t always been that way. “My god, I’ve had my ups and downs this year. I’ve not sailed through lockdown with a lot of grace to be honest. I do feel like I’ve laid down some really strong roots at home that I didn’t really have before and a sense of what it means to have an ordinary, happy life. And I’m really grateful for that. It’s funny. I love domestic life. So, I think I’ve appreciated it more than I ever have before, and I’ve realized that it is that ordinary life where I get all of my inspiration from. In terms of taking things for granted, one thing I realized I took for granted my whole life is eating out in a restaurant. I can’t wait to go out and eat with my friends and have my food brought to me on a plate.”

With the band’s third studio record, Californian Soil, out this Friday (April 16), Reid untangles deeper and richer roots, knotted ones from years of toiling the earth in a man’s, man’s, man’s world. Everybody’s got their own idea of right and wrong, the ones that get broken / I worry that one day you’ll go missing, she sings on the sorrow-tinged “Missing,” a soaring hymn mourning the many who’ve suffered at the hands of the music industry.

Having watched a ton of documentaries through the years, including those on Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, and Avicii, Reid siphons pervasive misery and unchecked power into one of the set’s most visceral performances. “I do find it close to home, even though I’ve never personally struggled with any kind of addiction,” she says. “There is a relationship between the music industry and people becoming really unwell in different ways, and it ends in disaster.”

With new documentaries in 2021, from Framing Britney Spears (presented by The New York Times) to Demi Lovato’s Dancing with the Devil, depicting the entire lead-up to her 2018 overdose, as well as an op-ed written by former child actor Moira Wilson, there seems to be a reckoning boiling over. At the very least, we are living in a time of reassessment about the treatment of women, particularly in the late 1990s and early aughts. “That’s one of the positive things that’s come out of social media. Everyone is having their moment really to be heard. It’s a bit of a can of worms, obviously. The music industry does have a lot to answer for, and there are a lot of big music execs who’ve gotten away with real negligence, at the very least.”

Reid found herself profoundly moved by the Spears’ documentary in particular. “I felt really guilty. I remember being one of those people when I saw she saved her head─ just being like ‘oh my god, how shocking!’ I remember she came out and she said afterward that people shave their heads all the time. It’s not a big deal. And it really isn’t. I’m not surprised she shaved her hair off. That hair was so symbolic of this image she had to uphold and the way she’d been treated for so long─this relentless misogyny.”

Californian Soil could not have arrived during a more opportune time. It’s like pouring more gasoline on a house already consumed by flames. Completed roughly 18 months ago, mostly written and recorded inside bandmate Dan Rothman’s “Narnia” studio, a secret cubby literally hidden behind a wardrobe in his north London home, 12 tracks seem prescient─twisted emotional beats many in the world were forced into and through in 2020. “I know it’s first world problems, but it was painful pushing it back,” says Reid, noting her worry it would be “totally irrelevant” by the time it saw the light of day.

“I hadn’t listened to it in a long time, and the other day, I listened to parts of the album again,” she continues, “and actually, there are parts I’m connecting to in a different way. It still feels relevant to me.”

When Reid began actively writing again, back in 2017, she found herself naturally creating songs which “sounded a bit different. It’s a side of me that needed to come out. When that happened, I had a conversation with the boys,” she says. Reid had a story to tell, one which required fully owning the spotlight, and bandmates Rothman and Dot Major were more than happy to support her creative and personal impulses. “We can’t always be a democracy. We can in some areas, but this is something I really need to say.”

Musically, her approach veered into experimentation in a way she had never before managed, switching to various soundscapes and synths for necessary emphasis. “There were moments on the second album [Truth is a Beautiful Thing in 2017] where we were working in quite big studios or in writing sessions that never came to anything where I felt the production or my opinion on the music wasn’t involved enough.”

A bright Americana erupted from their fingertips, aptly mirroring a playfully new duality: beauty counterbalancing life’s seemingly impenetrable darkness. Fiercely inquisitive by nature, Reid has long been immensely fascinated with the human condition. “When I was a child, apparently, I always asked my dad really deep questions about things. Everyone has that duality and light and shade in them. That’s the story that’s retold in literature ─ the complexity of who we are. It’s played out in my life in the sense that I would like to think that any pain or demons I’ve had I am able to turn into something positive. That was my goal on this album. I took the more negative experiences, and I wanted to make something exciting from it.”

Most of Reid’s negative experiences lie strictly in suppression of self, directly correlating to the music industry and rampant misogyny. “I had the experience of really feeling like I wasn’t very liked by men. It was usually a certain kind of man because I would have a strong opinion about something,” she reflects. “I had that repeated experience so much and took it all to heart. In making myself small and trying to make myself agreeable to people, I don’t think I’m going to make the best work I can.”

Reid soars high and free as a phoenix does, once it’s shaken the ash and soot from its wings. The “Intro” is a melancholic but shiny vocal showcase, refraining from specific lyrics, but rather allowing her to use her breath against an orchestral, cinematic backdrop. “I had that string part in my head for a really long time,” she says. She grappled with what to do with it exactly, but the album’s general experimentation seemed to guide her footsteps. “We really went for it and made the decision to record as an intro. We love film and cinematic music, so having an intro like this gives the album a little bit of balance. It’s also like ‘hey, I’m about to say something on this album.’”

Later, an organically-nurtured centerpiece called “Talking” further embodies this music-to-screen sensibility. With a piano part written years ago, Reid and her bandmates tried to turn it into a song and “nothing really came of it. Then, I remember going back and listening to the old demo and thinking ‘oh my god I love this, let’s finish it.’ Dan writes these very off-the-cuff piano parts without really trying. When the music is that good, and I hear him play that piano part, it’s not hard to then write meaningful lyrics and melody. It’s a perfect marriage.”

A self-described film buff, it’s not too surprising Reid has returned to such a refreshing well, finding great inspiration in such soundtracks as Erin Brockovich and Drive, as well as the work of Hans Zimmer and Thomas Newman. “When I was really young, I loved the ‘Titanic’ soundtrack, and it’s such an epic story. I remember listening to that over and over again. I’m very nerdy” she laughs, adding her adoration for The Lord of the Rings.

With “Call Your Friends,” Reid makes herself the most vulnerable, embracing the inevitable emotional windstorm that comes with that initial plummet into love’s majestic, watery depths. “Whenever you’re falling in love there comes a moment when you have no choice but to make yourself vulnerable. You become dependent on someone, and you ask them to just stay in tonight and be together.” 

Such lovesick tracks, including the follow-up “All My Love,” has allowed Reid to heal ─ an unexpected byproduct of a true psychological voyage. In opening herself up to love, mending her brokenness seemed to unravel naturally. “I was feeling like I’d given away a lot of my energy over so many years,” she says. Seven years ago, she developed fibromyalgia, so not only was she combating a male-driven industry but her own body. It’s both a lamentation and a clear pathway to further healing. The performance carries with it a jagged edge, as well, as it was “recorded on Dan’s worst microphone in his home studio with the window open, and you can hear the birds chirping outside. It’s really rough around the edges, but sometimes, there is magic to that.”

Finally, when Reid arrives on the closer “America,” she lays ego to rest, once and for all. “I’m using the idea of the American dream to describe something I was going through. I had the experience like many people do of getting caught up in a bit of a whirlwind when maybe the band first had a bit of success,” she explains. “There aren’t really many mentors around, so I got lost and I couldn’t cope with the pressure very well.” 

And I see where I found you / Where they all lay, she sings, almost as a funeral march. All of the greats they are here to stay / Here in America.

Beautifully tragic, and potently poetic, especially in the age of online validation, “America” and its flaky guitar arrangement captures the entire record’s stretches of emotional scar tissue. Californian Soil exposes the tragedies of human existence in such a away that only healing could ever really come of it.

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