Existing as a musician in today’s overcrowded market requires a lot more than simply talent. The real dynamic is getting exposure, which for the majority of emerging artists is the first and most difficult obstacle. ‘Can I afford a publicist, a tour manager, a plugger?’‘Should I tour solo or with a band?’‘Can I even afford to tour?’These are ongoing dilemmas that particularly challenge American and Canadian acts that tour Europe, given that many of them recognise a greater opportunity to establish a core following in Europe than in their homelands. Without the financial support of a record company, a luxury that few enjoy, the cost of touring can be crippling and offer little reward for the hours of travelling in cramped vans, sleeping in less than salubrious accommodation and clocking in exhaustingly long days and weeks.
With all this in mind it was interesting to chat with the Muscle Shoals native Hannah Aldridge a few short weeks after she returned home to draw breath after a gruelling European tour - a tour which also included recording her third album. Given the loyalty and support given to Aldridge by her U.K. followers, she decided to record a live album in The Lexington in London and rather than perform with a full band she undertook quite a novel method for the recording. The show comprised of a mix of solo songs by Aldridge, duets with a number of U.K. artists and the guest artists also got to perform a few of their own songs. She closed the show by getting the full entourage on stage to perform her signature tune Burning Down Birmingham. Altogether it promises to have the makings of a fine album!
But let’s go back a few years. The daughter of country music songwriter Walt Aldridge, it can’t have been easy to have a Music Hall of Fame inductee as a father and to garner so much industry attention at an early stage in her career. I wondered how much pressure that placed on her as a young performing artist.
“I think initially I really struggled to find myself as an artist and to feel very confident when performing, but a couple hundred shows later I started to notice that people stopped addressing me as ‘Hannah,Walt Aldridge’s daughter’ and started using my name as a stand-alone statement. That was when I really started to feel like I wasn’t living in that shadow.”
Aldridge recorded her debut album Razor Wire at an analogue studio called‘1979’, four years after a traumatic period in her life which found the then 27 year old divorced, with a young child. The album was raw, bursting with emotion and possibly therapeutic by way of tackling the demons that haunted her at that time. Hard hitting songs like Howlin’ Bones and Parchment displayed an ability to write extremely personal and honest material.
“I think I just try to write the dialogue that goes on in my head more than anything. I write in a very conversational way because a lot of my writing is me trying to make sense of my own experiences and thoughts. Sometimes I write a song and sit back and listen and I have no idea how I strung those thoughts together. It’s like pulling the curtains back on my inner dialogue.”
Her second album Gold Rush followed three years later, with less expression of anger but lots of regret and reflection on songs like No Heart Left Behind, Shouldn’t Hurt So Bad and Living On Lonely. It also includes the dynamic Burning Down Birmingham, a crowd pleaser written after a particular frustrating gig in that location. Reflecting on the material on the second album, which appears every bit as autobiographical as Razor Wire, even appearing to re-examine a number of the same issues, I enquire if the sores were healing but not completely gone at that time? “I think those are reoccurring themes in my life,’’ she explained, adding with admirable honesty,“self-destruction, self-doubt, depression, fighting for something, standing my ground, etc. I am usually only compelled to write when I’m trying to write myself out of a dark place.’’
Touring these albums drew her to Europe where she has regularly performed solo. I asked Hannah just how difficult is it for an artist travelling solo or does the aloneness create the space and environment to gather thoughts for songs?
“It is almost impossible for me to write on the road’’ she replied. “I have to make an effort to carve out time to write when I’m home. It is really difficult to explain to people what it’s like to book all your own tours, then tour manage your own tours, and spend 250 days a year alone dragging 150 pounds of merch and gear in and out of airports and trains and cars. Some days by the time I get the venue, I have plotted out a whole new career for myself. Then I play the show and decide that I want to keep going. Ha!” But you have built up a growing and loyal fan base in Europe - how important is that market to you in terms of continuing to develop your career? “It’s vitally important. Europe has been the market that has opened its arms to me without any bandwagons, or a label, or agents, or huge magazines. They allowed me to grow and organically build a fan base there and I’m so grateful for that. I am currently working on expanding my touring in Central Europe as well.’’
What about comparisons between playing solo compared with performing with a band, for an artist like her who performs in both formats? No doubt it would not be affordable to tour Europe with a full band but I wondered which was her preference. “I love playing with a band because it’s a different energy on stage. I also love having companions on the road. But I love having total control of the shows and tours when I am alone as well. I feel like I connect with the audience on a more personal level during solo shows.’’
And her talent of winning over audiences early in the sets by essentially including them in the show by using both stage banter and encouraging them to sing a chorus here and there - does that work better in Europe than the States?
“It actually works great both places but I think initially everyone is completely intimidated by it and by the end they feel like we are friends. Some shows I can read an audience and tell that they aren’t going to participate or listen as well as others, but for the most part, people really enjoy it.’’
Despite Aldridge’s amiable and gentle stage manner I suspect that she is also a very assertive person. So,what about the talkers, the ones that insist getting near the front and spend half the show talking as loudly as possible - do you react or ignore them? “I have stopped songs many times and told people talking that I would wait until they were done to finish, because I didn’t want to interrupt them. I know the whole goal of music is to entertain people so I do take it on as my responsibility to try to captivate an audience in a way that they don’t want to talk and not take myself too seriously. But, also, I’m not going to let people talking ruin the show for everyone else.’’
Aldridge’s performances in recent years, even when performing the darker material, depict a relaxed, confident and reconciled individual. Is it a case of having vented all the anger and infuriation and now being in a better place?
“I think I thoroughly enjoy that time I have on stage to be allowed to be myself and say what I feel and what I want without feeling strange. I’m allowed to be strange on stage. I feel very relaxed on stage, but only because I play so much. I don’t get to talk about my love for vampires and ghosts on a daily basis; or say out loud that I, like so many others have thought about suicide; or say that I struggle with different topics or that I relate to the fear of getting older and so on. It is a safe place for me to talk about those things and joke about those things through music. I know in a room full of people there is at least one person that needs to know that they can relate to someone.’’
And having written so many deep, personal and dark songs is it more difficult to write fictionally?“Absolutely. Even my fictional songs I write from my point of view. I have a hard time writing if I don’t feel connected to the topic.’’
Having also had experience in co-writing I wondered how it compared for someone that writes so personally? “Solo writing for me has to almost be like a song is just laid in my lap. Those usually just fall right out. Co-writing takes a different finesse and I love it so much on the days where I have no inspiration.’’
Aldridge is difficult to slot into one definitive music genre and not surprisingly is often lazily classified as a country singer, which could not be further from the truth. I wondered how she would describe her music (without using the termAmericana!). “That topic is one that I could write a whole article ranting about, but in short, I would rather be called anything other than lazily being called Americana. If people like my music because it’s county or rock or pop or Americana to their ears, that’s absolutely ok for me, but I do not want to be on any bandwagons. I was strongly opposed to cliques in High School and I’m strongly opposed to cliques in the music industry. I’m just here to play music and anyone who likes it, likes it and anyone who hates it, hates it.’’
The standard of female artists residing in Nashville presently, outside the commercial country genre, is staggering. Lera Lynn, Erin Rae, Ashley Mc Bryde and Kristina Murray, to name a few, have all recorded super albums this year. Despite this, Margo Price is the only female artist in Nashville to deservedly reach the audience she warrants. How frustrating is this for an artist like Aldridge and what does it takes to break that mould? “Promotion is a powerful thing. The further I go, the more I come to understand that almost none of the music business has to do with music. Luck, money behind you, and/or the right group of friends is what it amounts to most of the time. So, for me, I have to just keep my nose to the grindstone and try not to feel too jaded about these topics and be grateful for the things I have accomplished and the opportunities I have had.”
At the Static Roots Festival in Germany earlier this year I was most impressed that Aldridge hung around after her early showcase, watching all the other acts perform. “It’s extremely important to make sure you are current on what is going on and who is who. Also, when the situation occurs that I see an artist that just blows me away, I always feel like a student trying to learn something. Additionally, I think it’s extremely important to support each other. There are times I don’t watch other people if I am busy or not feeling in the mood, but recently I was reminded about that because there was a specific girl that a friend met in Europe and the first thing that came out of her mouth when they said my name was that she didn’t like me because she opened for me 5 years ago and that I didn’t pay attention to her. I didn’t even remember meeting this girl, but to her she had been mad about that situation for 5 years. I think it’s important to be aware that not everyone understands if you’re tired or having an off day and try your best to always be standing in the front cheering each other on. And the one day that you don’t … you will have someone mad at you for years - ha!”
Having just completed her live album in London, what’s next on the on the writing and recording front? “I just finished that live record and beyond that I am giving myself the patience and room to not have the pressure of a third studio record. It will come when it comes. I don’t have any desire to forcing out songs just for the sake of putting out a record. I would much rather write until I have songs I like and then think about recording when that’s done so that I put out a great record, not just the first 12 songs I write!”
Interview by Declan Culliton