"I'm not talking about doing this on some b-level budget, I'm talking about doing this right" In conversation with Hannah Aldridge
We were big fans of Hannah Aldridge's first record, Razor Wire, and were stoked when her follow-up, Gold Rush, was as good if not better. We had the chance to chat to Hannah on her solo acoustic tour earlier this year, in a flat above the venue in Cirencester. Not a place you'd usually meet a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter. Over the course of our chat it became obvious Hannah's not your usual artist, and she certainly doesn't take the easy road.
So you're independent, right? How hard is it to be an independent artist these days?
You know, it's interesting because we were actually talking about that over breakfast this morning. (Hannah is staying with The Black Feathers) Sometimes that can actually be a lot better, you know, because you read the horror stories about people who get into bad record contracts and things like that. In Scandinavia, I'm signed with a label there. In England, I just have a distribution deal basically. And then in the US it's the same.
Then I kind of pick and choose the people that I work with, which is nice, because you get to work with people that you want to work with, and I really get to make every decision about everything. At the same time it's also really hard to juggle when you're actually on the road and having to do absolutely everything, you know. Because you're tour managing, and you're playing and you're selling merch, and you're answering e-mails for booking and you're telling people "hey, I need this to be done".
And that becomes really overwhelming. And also, I think if you want to be an independent artist it requires a certain tenacity and also work ethic that is not always there with artists. I think they get kind of sidetracked about that, because they don’t realise that it's a job and it's a business that you have to really have to work at it like a job. Beyond writing music, you know.
So you can't be a diva or anything...
Absolutely, my God, no. I have certain things that I say, okay, in order to be out on the road, "I have to have this and this and this and make me comfortable". And sometimes you do have to stand up for yourself, or be a negotiator. But it does require this thing where you kind of switch hats all the time. "Okay, I'm going to be an artist and I'm going to go and do this and I'm going to answer this e-mail about how much I want to get paid for something, and then I'm going to tell somebody hey, I need to get this poster done and this don't look right so I'm going to get you to re-do it" or whatever. So it's not being a diva at all, but also being aggressive enough about things that you get it done correctly, you know.
You don't have a tour manager?
Sometimes...see this is the nice thing again about being independent is I can look at it and go "I don’t need a tour manager". Like this tour for example, I don't have a tour manager. And it's been really hard. Because it's been a month long tour and because there have been times where I have been dragging my guitar around with my merch, and I'm at the hotel and I'm going "what the hell am I doing right now? I need a tour manager".
But the good thing about it, about learning how to tour manage, is that you know what to do in terms of how things should be done and the best way to do things, etc. etc. However...every tour is very unique. The next tour that I do, I'll be with a band and there'll be a tour manager and I'll have a van and that's very hands-off for me. And then this one is just me driving around by myself, so it just depends, completely depends on what I'm doing.
And how do you find that? Are you quite happy doing that? Do you get a bit fed up being on your own?
I don’t ever get fed up being on my own, really. That part I don't get fed up with. I like being on my own.I do get fed up with not having anyone to help. It's like, it's really hard to do five things at the same time. But just the act of being by myself I've just become numb to a little bit because you just spend so much time by yourself, you know.
I've interviewed quite a few people who you would call "independent" I guess, but you're the first one that's not even got a tour manager.
This tour has been really interesting, because I have really relied on friends on this tour. Like I kind of just came over here and just had, like The Black Feathers are helping with some of them, and Morag in Scotland, she does all my booking and things like that. She's picking up some, and then I have a friend in London that's helping, my boyfriend's German so he flies over for parts. So I'm never really alone for any really extended amount of time.
I don’t have just a tour manager on this tour. Because for me, I feel like I can do that pretty efficiently. And part of it's being just completely bull-headed about it. And just saying "I can do that, I don't really need that". But it is nice occasionally to have somebody to help you do stuff, you know. Driving and things like that. So those people have helped me fill in the gaps with it. And like I say, in the tour in the fall there's no way I could do that without a tour manager. We have to have a tour manager.
The new record then...you raised some of the funds or all the funds for that through Pledge Music? Is that hard as well? Because all these crowdfunding things, they're great, they work really well, but it's not always that easy?
No. I didn’t get even half of what I needed for it. And the thing that's complicated about that is that whenever I announced what the budget was going to be for it, there were some people who were like "wow, that's a lot of money". Because I had originally asked for twenty thousand dollars. And I was just like "you just have no idea how much..." And that's not even beginning to cover the things that I need to cover. That's the recording cost if I actually got the luxury of being in the studio, and working on one song a day. As opposed to what we did which was three. That's one song a day, where we can really focus on one song and be done with it.
That's paying people up to scale on what they need to be paid. Getting the studio paid up to scale, blah blah blah and not just having to patch things in. And then, you know, things like photography and artwork and a music video and all of the merch and blah blah blah...it's like you cannot fathom how much it costs. So part of it was paid that way, most of it was paid by me. And other people.
That portion of it is incredibly difficult. If you don't have a fund, somewhere to pay for those things. Or a band that everyone's contributing. That's the other thing, is in a lot of scenarios, everyone's contributing to it. But when it's a one-man production, and you're releasing a record and releasing it officially in I guess twelve countries, something like that. You're having to figure out logistics and pay for merch in all these different territories. And it is just really overwhelming. I can say that I wouldn't do it like that again. It was the most painstaking process I've ever been through.
Are there points where you feel like you just can't be bothered anymore, and actually it's too hard?
Certainly. There are many times that I didn’t ever think I would get this record out. And people ask all the time "why did it take so long?" And I'm like "because I couldn’t, I just couldn’t..." I'm still trying to get some of the stuff done for the US release. It's such an astounding amount of money. I guess at the end of the day the whole thing has cost forty thousand. And what independent artist has forty thousand dollars to spend? So it's just really...you talk about plane tickets for the tour release, and you talk about merch for here and merch for there and vinyl pressing for here and a batch of T-shirts for there.
And when you do those pledge campaigns, those people are pledging on merch that you have to buy. So they're not giving you the money on it, you've got to buy the merch and pay for shipping for all of that, you know. And it's just...it's more than you can even imagine it's going to be. And there are many, many times that I thought "I'm not even going to be able to release this record". And there's parts of it that just weren't done the way I wanted it done, because I just couldn’t get anybody to do what I needed, you know.
And in the US, I never got a label behind it. I played footsie with a bunch of them, to the point where I said "forget it! I'm releasing it by myself. I'm not going to sit here for another year and play another showcase for you. I'm not going to do it". So you just have to at some point say "okay, I did the best I could". The next record I'm going to try to re-approach with them again.
I think people sort of misunderstand the money you need to do these things properly, and the amount of money that some of the big artists spend on records, which is just crazy when all you're trying to raise is just twenty or thirty grand.
It really is not. It really, really is not. And yeah, people, at some point there was a person that commented back and gave me all these things that you could get done on these different prices. I'm like "who are you and have you ever released a record? And secondly I'm talking about doing this right. I'm not talking about doing this on some b-level budget, I'm talking about doing this right". Because people are going to complain, no matter what you do. No matter how you do it, it's not going to be good enough for everybody.
And people are going to say "why don't you have this?" And "why are you not playing better shows? Why are you not doing this?" And I'm thinking "I'm doing the best I can!" I'm one person, you know. I certainly would like to be playing better shows, I certainly would like to be doing this or like to be...I don't know why I'm not playing Glastonbury, you know. Hopefully one day I will. But people...you meet all these people and as you meet them you understand that most people have no concept of what the music industry's like.
You mentioned there that you've talked to labels and that's something you'll revisit. Do you think that will change how you make music, or do you think that's part of the reason you haven't just got had an agreement with one?
In Scandinavia Rootsy, who I signed with there, have been supportive since day one of what I'm doing, and they have stood behind me with the concept that I wanna do rock. A rock thing, you know. Not just an Americana singer-songwriter thing, but also having a band behind me and I really want that. And they've been very good about that.
The thing that's been interesting, is that initially when I released my record Razor Wire, people kind of saw it as the Americana darling kind of thing. "This is a great Americana artist." And for me, I had no idea what the word Americana meant. So that was a little confusing for me. And I deliberately went into the studio with the new record and made something that was much more rock-oriented. And what ended up happening, is that the labels that said they were Americana said "I don’t know about this" and the labels that were rock said "it's not rock enough".
And so it left me in the position where, well...now I've made something that's marketable. But it's not rock 'n' roll enough for the rock labels, and it's not Americana enough for...well, and furthermore, every market is totally different. In England, it's pretty limited on the actual labels. There was one particular label that I thought "they're going to pick this up". And they didn’t. And I was really shocked by it. And in the US there were labels I'd talked to quite a bit. And it was that conversation, it was like "well, we already have Americana female artists" or "we're releasing a bunch of albums this year of Americana artists so we really have to push it to 2018" which I was really unwilling to do.
I find it really interesting because I really like both your records and it's fascinating how somebody who writes bloody good songs that have got great melodies and lyrics and top musicianship, just can't get a record deal.
I know what you mean. It's interesting because I've spent many, many days of my life and nights of my life pining over the fact of "what is it that I have to do I have to do to make these people think that I'm marketable, or that I'm good enough, or..." And you really sit there and you think to yourself "I'm not good enough". Is that the problem, I'm not actually good enough. And there's no way to not think that, because you see these people that are around you getting places and you think "I really feel that I'm better than them, but maybe I'm not". It's hard to be objective about it because you see a lot of people out there who truly believe that they are amazing and you're listening to them going "oh, I don’t know about that"...
I try and be very realistic with myself and say "perhaps this is is that I'm not actually good enough and I need to be better", you know. Or "maybe it's this or maybe it's that". But the consistent thing that I hear from people over and over and over again, whether it be venue owners or fans or whatever, is "I can't understand why you can't get any further than where you are at right now". And I don’t know how to respond to it because I don’t know what to say.
It's weird for me just on a really financial level, because if we take aside the fact that whether I'm good or whether or not or someone has artists that's doing what I'm doing or prettier or younger or whatever, if you take all that aside from it and you just say from a financial standpoint, the amount of income that I've made as an independent artist, it's puzzling to me that nobody wants to be involved with that. And that's really the weirdest part to me. It's hard for me to imagine some of these people who I absolutely know are not making more money than me. And they've got them and they're putting all this money into it.
And I'm thinking "how does that work, that these people that are opening for me have labels, but they don't want to pick up the headliner?" That happened with a label in the US that I talked to. They just kind of met it with complacency a little bit, and I'm thinking "I can list you five people that are on your roster that have opened for me. Why do you not want the headliner? That doesn’t make sense to me". And it is really strange. And I think a lot of it has to do with friendships and relationships more than it really has to do with how good it is.
Do you think it's about being a woman doing your type of music?
Maybe. You know, it's weird because I think it's actually really different in every market. In the UK it's a certain fight that I fight here, in the US it's a different fight. In the UK I find that I can associate myself much easier with the Americana scene here, because it's not nearly as clique-y and highly, highly marketed. And I have a really, really sour taste in my mouth regarding the Americana industry in the US, and I always say it's like being at a party you weren't invited to. And that's what it is, I was put in this box with the Americana people but yet they don’t want to get behind anything I'm doing.
So it's very complicated in the US and I'm not sure that it's related to being a female because just as you came in the door I was reading something that was about the ten songs that were not being played on the radio by women. One of them is a girl named Ashley McBryde who I absolutely think she is the best songwriter in Nashville right now. She co-wrote a couple of songs with me including 'Gold Rush' on my record. I think she's amazing. And it's amazing to see her, because she doesn't fit into any of those boxes. And she's just so good that it doesn’t matter.
How do you get on with co-writing? Do you work with the person you're writing with, or like you say do you write a bit of it and then hand it over to them?
It depends on the day. And I am really comfortable with it because I actually had a publishing deal early on. I had quotas that I had to meet for that, so I'd have to go in and write songs whoever was in the room that day. Yeah, sometimes it's not easy, it's the same concept as sitting down with a stranger for dinner, you know. Sometimes you just really get along great and you think "wow, this is great". Sometimes you're like "when can I leave? This is not working at all". And there was one person that I wrote a song with on the record that was like pulling teeth, trying to get it done. It was really difficult.
But in the end, the song ended up being really good, and ended up being one that I kind of had to finish myself but that song wouldn't have come about if I hadn't set up that appointment, you know. Every song is completely different. Sometimes they come together really well and really quick and sometimes they're just...like 'Gold Rush', that song I had written the verses to it. And I almost had the whole thing written because I had the original version of that song. And it was pretty much similar to what it is now.
And I took that into Ashley McBryde and Jeremy Drinkwine, they are two people that I just love their stuff. I said "this song has really got me confused right now, because I'm not sure how to fit this concept in with what I'm saying, it's such a complicated topic. I don’t know how to write it". And we really just sat around for about two hours and talked about what it meant, talked about how that feels for life to feel like it's gone by and all the better days have passed by you. And we really talked about that and got to the line "I'll never be this young again", you know, you'll never be as young as you are in this second and this second and this second. And that's when we started being able to kind of finish it. And sometimes it works like that, you know. It just depends.
And so do you choose people that you know personally, or you know their other work, the other songs that they've written, or is it kind of a mix of those?
It's a mix. I mean, Ashley, when I get home, I already have two co-writes set up with her to start on my new record because I know we're going to write a great song because we always do. I've got some people who are good at this, some people who are good at that.
But at the end of the day because the songs are for me, the good thing is most people are respectful of us writing it from my voice. Because I struggle to write songs that are just songs, and cut them. That doesn’t really work as well for me. It really has to be like writing a book for me, it's got to fill out the whole record and towards the end of the thing of the writing process it was very much "I need these kind of songs. I'm missing these". And I wrote a bunch of those.
Is that when you go in to start recording or when you start to write?
When I start writing. When I get home I'm going to start working on my third record. I've no idea what it's going to sound like. Maybe it's a country record, maybe it's acoustic, maybe rock, I don’t know. But for Gold Rush, the very first song I wrote was 'Aftermath'. I was like "ah, I like that. I like that sounds, I like that kind of feel". Then I wrote a couple more and we went in and demo-d them, and I'm like "that's exactly the sound I want". I want something that sounds like it can be played on the radio without people being like "wow, this is really unbearably sad". But also something that isn't a big departure from what I did the last time. So actually, I have no idea what my third one is going to sound like and so actually I don’t think I knew what Gold Rush would at all.
If you want to find out more about Hannah you can visit her website, follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook. Gold Rush is out now in the UK and US, and available on all streaming services.