Big Blues Bender Night au Cahors Blues Festival
After the great critical success of “Late Nights & Heartbreak”, the Jay-Z sampling, the many concerts given all around the globe and your serious rise of fame, have you felt any pressure regarding its follow-up?
Hannah Williams: Yes. Good pressure though. When we first heard about the sample back in March 2017 we were obviously overwhelmed with a combination of shock, excitement and anticipation for what the sample might eventually lead to. We had no idea until 30th June (“4:44” release date) that it was such an ENORMOUS sample and that it was the title track. Nevertheless, we immediately turned the creation station power up to 11 and worked on as much new material as possible. This was no time for complacency or laziness. James Graham – Keys player, MD [Musical Director] and writer extraordinaire is an absolute machine. He wrote a vast quantity of new songs in a very short period of time, many of which feature on “50 Foot Woman”.
It has been more than three years since last album recording sessions (October 2016). You guys have been awfully busy but you must have been also quite hungry to publish new material, haven’t you?
Hannah Williams: Absolutely. I mean… being so busy with touring that you don’t have time to get in the studio is an awesome predicament to be in, but we have been anxious to have a new release for some time. The wonderful thing about the time we have had however is that our songs are super well road tested. Much of the material which features on the album has been extensively toured, manipulated, nourished and nurtured over the past couple of years. We have had the delightful good fortune to gauge audience response, ask questions of our delivery, try new ideas and, in some case, entirely re-arrange songs. For me, that feels like one of the magical ingredients feeding this album. We have taken some risks, made some ostensibly leftfield choices, but we know they work with our beautiful audience. They’ve responded so well to the experimental tracks we’ve presented since their first outing. It is so encouraging. But most crucially, we had complete agency with the material when we got in the studio. I think that confidence is palpable upon listening.
“The wonderful thing about the time we have had is that our songs are super well road tested.”Hannah Williams
Can you please share all information about the new album, and first of all its artistic goal and concept?
James Graham (keyboards, songwriting): There was no specific concept for this record, it seemed to reveal itself to us once the majority of the tracks were written. However, we all knew we wanted to move forward from “Late Nights & Heartbreak”, in a way which both respected our previous work and advanced from it, and most importantly expressed the bands collective identity. During the writing of “Late Nights & Heartbreak”, we didn’t have all of the band members with us yet, but we did when writing this record, and we wanted to express and utilise this collective identity. In the beginning of the writing process some of the songs had odd leanings ; Tablecloth sounded like an early Radiohead track, How long was originally in 6/8 and wouldn’t have been out of place in a rock opera (!). We tried all sorts of experiments, some good, some bad, but it all enabled us to find a distinct sound to strive for, which gave the body of work personality. Once I wrote 50 foot woman, the energy of the record appeared. We noticed that a sense of power or empowerment surrounded many of the tracks, but with a particular sensitivity. It’s this unusual combination that defines this record, I think.
“We noticed that a sense of power or empowerment surrounded many of the [“50 Foot Woman”] tracks, but with a particular sensitivity.”James Graham
Almost all songs are composed by you James (and two by Victoria Klewin), thus confirming last album’s tendency of your positioning as the band’s main composer. Can you comment on this?
James Graham: I have always written the majority of the songs, and have always been the musical director of the Affirmations. However, I have always left the door open for anybody to write songs for the band. In the early days, the door was open for anybody to write songs for us, which is why there are a few external writers on “Late Nights…”. But since we’ve become stronger as a group through the writing process of “50 Foot Woman”, it seems less and less likely that anyone external could write for us. Victoria, the writer of What can we do and The only way out is through has written loads of incredible songs for the band, and I’m sure she will continue to do so for our next record. We’ve become a proper songwriting duo recently, which has been really positive.
Where do you get you inspiration from? Personal experiences?
James Graham: For me I’ve always broken down songwriting inspiration into two categories – internal and external, or personal and observatory. But it’s never as black and white as that. I always find it easier to write about someone else, or something else other than myself. But then I notice within the writing there are links to my own personal experiences. You can’t help including parts of yourself in songs, because they are about how you see and understand the world, not anybody else.
How do you collaborate with the others? How do you present the new songs them? How are they being appropriated by the band?
James Graham: Most of the songs were drafted out initially with a small group of us. Some with only drums, keys and Vic singing the main vocal, or just the rhythm section with me singing the main vocal. Once we’d laid down something solid we’d show it to Hannah, and she’d do her thing with it and we’d know whether it had become a Hannah Williams song then or not. Sinner, for instance, was an early song, that happened very quickly. We knew the first time Hannah sang that one that it was gonna work. I don’t think we actually played it together before she sang it, it happened all at once. So then naturally we wanted to take it out on the road with us, and it’s been our opener ever since!
The arrangements and instrumentation show a lot of ambition. Did you specifically want to push traditional soul & funk a step ahead?
James Graham: Our main concern was expressing ourselves truthfully through our music. Obviously we’re influenced by Soul music in a big way. But we wanted to express our identity, through writing about current issues which have affected us or that we feel passionate about, or writing about important people or events in our lives, because we knew this would reflect the truth in what we’re doing. We listened to a whole load of current and classic artists we loved, and discussed how the music affects us, and some of these artists you can definitely hear hints of in our music – Rotary Connection, Dr. John, Alabama Shakes, Khruangbin, The Roots, Broadcast, Budos Band, The Heavy, Cinematic Orchestra, David Axelrod, Nina, Donnie, Little Beaver… The list is endless. But ultimately we used this great music to understand what we wanted to portray about ourselves.
How did the sessions go? Why the Ata Studios in Leeds?
James Graham: The sessions were awesome. Shawn [Lee] was very chilled, Neil our engineer was a true professional and really down to earth. It felt like a second home by the end of it, and we managed to lay down a mammoth 21 tracks in the end. It was straight to tape so we couldn’t afford to spend time fussing over small details. If the take felt right we kept it, no messing. We’re hoping some of these extra tracks can be used for our next record… some that didn’t make the record we still play live. They’re not bad tracks, we just couldn’t fit all of them on one vinyl!
Why did you decide to hire a producer? Why not work again with Malcolm Catto? Why go with Shawn Lee?
James Graham: Shawn has always said he 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.
Hannah Williams: He has become a really good friend and guide to us all since we first met and, as James says, 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 hothead at times and Shawn brought the temperature down in the coolest way every time. We love you man!
“Shawn [Lee]’s chilled attitude towards the process was exactly what we needed.”Hannah Williams
There are many great songs on the CD. More specifically, I’d like to ask a few questions about the vocal introduction of What can we do. We know you are very keen on voices and background vocals. How did you work the melodies and arrangements?
Victoria Klewin (singer, songwriter): I have sung and studied a lot of choral music and a cappella vocal music over the years. The intro was originally written many years ago with an a cappella group/choir in mind. I never did anything with it though so it was just sitting on my computer for years. I wrote it by singing the parts, recording them and then kept reworking it until I was happy. I brought it to Hannah when we had a writing session and together we put it all together into what you hear on the record.
Hannah Williams: This is a really special song for me. The way it all came together with three amazing ideas, all written by Victoria, gathering dust was really awesome. Not only did it flow well conceptually and lyrically, but the melodies slotted together like the last three pieces of a jigsaw. We really enjoyed the process of building this track and its evolved over the years to be even more gut wrenching and satisfying. The relationship Hannah, Victoria and I have with each other is very special and different. They are THE BEST two singers I have ever worked with. We all have very distinct and diverse voices but somehow, when we sing together, it’s difficult to tell us apart. We often don’t even talk about what we are doing. We just sing and genuinely “feel” the harmony. It’s like some king of freaky musical osmosis. This song in particular really showcases the relationship we have.
I can’t let slip away reminds me of the mellow, “elastic” groove Jai Widdowson-Jones and Adam Newton manage to set up (a bit like Ain’t enough on previous CD). How do they both interact and work together their rhythmic parts?
James Graham: This track was written after seeing Questlove perform with The Roots at North See Jazz in 2018. He did this thing where he played so tight and in the pocket for the verses and exploded with all these crashes and tom rolls in the choruses. Jai, our drummer, and I met up one day and I threw these lyrics out of my mouth after he laid down a groove – it all happened pretty much straight away. Then when we came to record the album, I had Slip away written down as “something to try at the end of the last day, if we have time”. Luckily we had time, and the arrangement came together in a few minutes. I think the charm of that tune is that it wasn’t deliberated over. It happened in the moment and I think that’s why it works.
The only way out is through may be the most impressive song of the album, everything being just perfect, the guitar riff, the horn arrangements, the lyrics and of course the singing. What does this song mean to you?
Victoria Klewin: Firstly, thank you for saying that! That’s a huge compliment. This song is of huge significance for me because I was in so much pain when I wrote the lyrics. I was going through a really tough breakup and struggling with the idea of being alone. It was actually during a tearful conversation with Hannah that she said to me : « All you need now is you. » It’s about finding peace with yourself and not trying to block out or run from difficult emotions but using them to evolve. I also think it’s common for people to feel like they’re not whole when they’re single, like something is lacking or they need completing… But it can be a very powerful time for personal growth. I hope it might help other people in the same situation. Breaking up sucks!
I feel it has almost a jazzy feel, and then evolves into a waltz. Where do these kinds of ideas come from?
Adam Holgate (guitar): Inspiration was Coffee cold by Galt McDermot, The truth by Handsome Boy Modelling School and a live video of Monophonics backing Ben l’Oncle Soul in Paris. James discovered some old, unused lyrics which fitted perfectly. It explores sympathy and shared emotion between friends when someone has hard times. We wanted to step up the energy to a fast waltz at the end section as I liked playing the chorus at both tempos and felt the baggy hip-hop vibe could use a twist at end.
Hannah, your singing is quite technical but at the same time incredibly touching. While recording, when do you consider your vocal part to be OK? Are you a first take singer or do you need many takes to be fully satisfied?
Hannah Williams: Well that’s actually a very contentious question. I was desperate to serve every song in the best possible way. I wanted everything to be perfect. So, when I woke up on day 2 of the recording process with a cold, my heart sank. Everyone reassured me that it didn’t matter and that I could just go back up to Leeds another time to re-record anything that wasn’t right. So, I sang “guide vocals” without stress or pressure for the next 3 days thinking to myself “it’s fine. I can do this all again anyway”. I did, indeed, go back up for a couple of days to re-record a bunch of songs. James came with me and supported me through the process. We revisited a few things and changed some deliveries, listened to everything with microscopic scrutiny and went home thinking it was “job done!”. A month or so later, James called me from the studio with Shawn to explain that for EVERY track… my first, live take with the band was the best option. I didn’t believe them and said I wanted to hear it all before we pressed send on any final versions. Needless to say… they were right.
I’m hugely shocked and proud that those first takes turned out to be “the one”, but I don’t regret the process of re-recording. It was a creative journey and I now feel like I have fully explored the intricacies of every song inside out. It’s also given me huge confidence that my gut instinct and “live performance” were the most fitting and authentic and, in the end, served the songs best. I guess the main point I’m trying to make here is that, sometimes, singing from the heart and not trying to be perfect or technically accurate or understand every single movement of your larynx is the most emotionally connected method. Too much scrutiny can unravel the threads of the soul.
The musicians are the same as in previous album and we see you on stage, we feel a lot of friendship between you all. How do you think the band has improved since “Late Nights…”? How is it important for you not to be a solo artist but to rely on real band?
Hannah Williams: I am extremely pleased that our friendship is so evident in our performance because it really is at the centre of everything we do. The reason we named these these guys The Affirmations is pretty obvious. We affirm each other’s beliefs and wishes and we respect each other like a family. Don’t get me wrong, we have plenty of family feuds too but it always finishes up in harmony again. They support me in a way no other musicians have done before and we all love the music we make. I have absolutely no desire to be a solo artist. Without the Affirmations I would have nothing to present. No songs, no groove, no harmonies, no counterpoint, no power. My voice is nothing without them. We are a proper unit and we share everything. We are not a bunch of musicians doing a job. This is a passion project for all of us and we all have a selection of creative, administrative and supportive roles to play.
“I am extremely pleased that our friendship is so evident in our performance because it really is at the centre of everything we do.”Hannah Williams
Do you guys work on side-projects? If yes, what are they?
Hannah Williams: Tom Taylor (sax) works with Cut Capers, Bristol based live Hip-hop Swing band signed to Freshly Squeezed Music. Liam Treasure (trombone) plays with No Go Stop – a mighty 12-piece afrobeat band from Bristol and also with Dakhla – a Balkan brass/Jazz band with a totally fresh and unique sound. Really really special! Check them out. Jai Widdowson-Jones (drums) works with Los Gusanos – an eclectic mix of blues, jazz, latin, and afro-Colombian music. Victoria Klewin is an incredible Jazz vocalist in her own right. In fact, she is the best Jazz vocalist I have ever seen in real. She performs with Bristol’s musical elite at a variety of venues across the south of England and has toured with her own material to the Czech Republic. Hannah Nicholson is a singer-songwriter in her own right and has had several releases and tours over the past few years. She writes beautiful, haunting and relatable songs with a modern folk sound. James Graham is involved with a vast number of creative projects, Three London Planes (TLP), Ephemerals along with Adam Holgate and Toyface. He also performs frequently with his wonderful fiancé Alba (lead singer of Alesund) and writes a multitude of piano music to rival Debussy! He also writes songs and arranges music for other artists. He’s a busy boy! I write lots of toplines for a variety of artists and perform on the odd occasion with other contemporary artists, choirs and classical ensembles.
How do you keep your mind fresh for new music? Do you listen to new stuff that inspire you? If yes, which artists?
Hannah Williams: We listen to a really wide range of music. From Debussy to Iron Maiden, inspiration is everywhere. We are always massively inspired by the acts we see live when we are on tour. We’ve discovered some incredible artists through meeting them before shows, going to watch them play then being absolutely blown away by how badass they are. To name but a few:
-Altin Gün played just before us at North Sea Jazz Festival and have now become a practically daily feature on my personal playlist. I always listen to them as I’m getting ready for a show. Its uplifting, interesting and super cool.
-Theo Lawrence and the Hearts: we met these guys in France and were all stood with our eyes closed and arms open by about three songs in. Honestly, the best act I saw last year.
-Idles. We have been super fan girls and boys of these guys for a long time. They are an English punk rock band (also based in Bristol) with an amazing message of peace, hope and love peppering their music. Really inventive and revolutionary stuff with a serious amount of edge. We saw them at Paaspop festival in Schinjdel (The Netherlands) after hanging out with them in the afternoon and they blew our minds. We love those guys!
-David Byrne. He headlined the night we played Down The Rabbit Hole festival in NL and it was the most intriguing and beautiful show we saw. Incredible musicianship from every performer on stage, choreography to die for and mind-bending melodies which took us to a whole new universe. Awe inspiring stuff.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years as an artist? What can we wish you?
Hannah Williams: More than anything, I hope that we can all feel as much passion for the music as we do now and make a comfortable living from performing. It’s really tough to balance doing what we love and being away from our loved ones with making enough money to pay our rent sometimes but hey! I would always rather be poor, happy and making music with people I love than wealthy and unfulfilled doing something I don’t love with people who aren’t my friends.
When will we have the chance to see you in France?
Hannah Williams: We have a couple of confirmed shows for 2019, but there will be more for 2020 so watch our social media and follow us on Spotify for exciting announcements and even more new music:
-Saturday 16th November – Canet en Roussillon – Théâtre Municipal
-Tuesday 26th November – Paris – New Morning
Interview by Ulrick Parfum
Opening photo © Joseph Branston
“Too much scrutiny can unravel the threads of the soul.”Hannah Williams