British soul hurricane, Hannah Williams will play a headline Belfast show at The Limelight 2 on Saturday, December 14th 2019. Hannah sensationally became part of Jay-Z's chart-topping 4:44 album when the hip-hop superstar sampled her heart-stopping vocals on 'Late Nights & Heartbreak' for the title track, ‘4.44’ on his 2017 album. Hannah Williams recently released her own national and international breakthrough album, ’50 Foot Woman’ on October 18th 2019. Mark Millar caught up with Hannah and James Graham to talk about her upcoming Belfast show, the new album and that phone call with Jay-Z.
When did you discover your love for music?
Music is in my blood. My beloved late father was a priest (C of E) and an incredible musician and composer. I joined the church choir at the age of 6 and could genuinely read music before words. My mum bribed me with joining the choir so I would bother to learn to read. Needless to say.....it worked.
What music did you listen to growing up?
Our house was always full of music, whether it was records or making it ourselves. Given Dads calling, we listened to a lot of sacred classical music but also loads of other stuff. Jazz, opera, soul, folk etc. Dad was a huge fan of Irish music actually and I was fluent in the back catalogue of The Chieftans at an early age.
When did you discover you had an amazing soulful voice?
Well, until I was 12/13, I thought I wanted to be an Opera singer but when I started writing I realised that wasn’t the path for me. I experimented with folk, rock, jazz, musical theatre and various other dabblings before soul found me in my late 20’s.
You recently released your new album '50 Foot Woman.' Did you go into the recording with any preconceived ideas how it should sound and the kind of songs you wanted to write about?
James Graham - We played it quite safe really. We wanted the authenticity you get with our live performance to be represented in the recording. We recorded everything onto tape so the production would suit the band, but there we’re minimal overdubs - most of the sound you hear on the record is the bands 1st or 2nd take performance in the studio.
Can you describe your songwriting process?
James Graham - I prefer to write in an observatory way, imagining characters and situations in my head then stringing lyrics together whilst fantasising about being these imaginary people. Ironically these fictitious characters end up being people I actually know, or representations of myself. Or the lyrics are distorted emotions, things that might seem trivial or every day at the time, but when you put it to music it always has this weight to it. I like how music can change or enhance the meaning of lyrics.
How did you feel when the hip-hop superstar Jay - Z sampled your vocals on 'Late Nights & Heartbreak' for the title track, ‘4.44’ on his 2017 album?
Well, I thought it was an elaborate prank for some time. My drummer Jai (who was managing us at the time) called me when I was taking 45 students to Leeds on a coach for a Choir Festival. He said that Jay z might be calling and that I wasn’t allowed to say anything (seriously!!!!). The phone didn’t ring all weekend so I thought it was Jai being a wind-up merchant. Or that Jay Z had gone off the idea so I just tried to forget about it.
On the coach home 2 days later, I got my phone out to call my husband and let him know we were nearly at Winchester and I had a missed call and a text message something along the lines of “Hi Hannah, I know you’re busy but could you give me a call when you get the chance. Thanks. Jay”
I lost my mind at this point! I ran home like Charlie Bucket with a golden ticket and called the number from our tiny little bedroom. It was, indeed, Shawn Carter. He said he had written the most personal song around my voice and would like to sample Late Nights and Heartbreak. He asked me to record some different permutations of the lyrics for him as he wasn’t sure what shape the story might take. He didn’t use them in the end which was a shame for me as it would have given me a feature credit (DAMN!) But he used the original track which goes to show how powerful it was in the first place. We had no idea it was such an enormous sample until 30th July when he released the album. Neither did we know it was the title track or an apology to Beyonce. In fact, we didn’t believe it would actually happen until it was there in front of us! It was a life-changing phone call. What an amazing chance happening! It has led to so many amazing things for us all.
You will play a headline Belfast show at The Limelight 2 on Saturday, December 14th 2019. Are you looking forward to playing to the Belfast crowd?
Yes of course. It’s our first time playing in this fine city and we are bringing a fiery, passionate and charged performance for the last night of or Winter tour. You’d better be ready to party and get us drunk after the show!!!
How have audiences been reacting to the new material?
There have been some really special moments during this tour which have provided real hope for the future of our music. We are really grateful to have such genuine and strong support from our live audiences throughout the tour.
It’s great to be meeting the people who have been championing our music since the beginning.
What goes through your head when you step on stage to perform?
It feels like home. Performing live is what makes me (and all of us for that matter) tick. The connection between us and the audience dictates the mood and intensity of the show. My predominant ambition every night is to get the audience on board emotionally. If everyone can go home having felt something from at least one song then...my job is done.
Which song from the new album do you enjoy singing most live?
What Can We Do is my favourite track. My joy of singing came from my very early years when I would harmonise with anything and everything (to my brother’s continuous annoyance) and led to my addiction to harmony and singing with others. Hannah and Victoria are the best singers I have EVER worked with and our relationship both musically and emotionally is very very important. This song showcases that perfectly. Victoria wrote this song and it’s such a powerful and loaded masterpiece which reflects the times we live ineloquently and heart-achingly accurately.
What tricks have you developed to stay sane whilst on the road for such a long period of time?
Eating healthily, exercising and sleeping when we can and offering help before criticism in times of frustration. Being on the road and in the same, small space for many hours can bring about irritation and low mood. It’s hard not to lash out and bitch at times but we genuinely try to not let that happen. We’re all pretty good at saying sorry too. As for tricks 1 - if breakfast is provided, smuggle yourself out a “sandwich” to save paying extortionate prices for terrible service station plastic food. 2- bring antibacterial wipes to clean up spillages in the van. 3-download as much music and video entertainment as you can when you have WiFi to preserve data.
What was your favourite album of 2019?
No question - “Jaime” by Brittany Howard. She is a goddess. I love her.
Out of all the music in your collection who do you have the most albums by?
Charles Bradley. What an angel that man was. I had the great fortune to meet him and have a very powerful, emotional and life-affirming conversation with him after we supported him at the Colston Hall in Bristol. It was an incredible moment in my life which I will cherish forever. Rest in peace Charles.
What’s next for Hannah Williams and the Affirmations in 2020?
Another European tour starts at the end of January and we are very excited to be playing at SXSW in Texas in March. We are busy developing new material and finding as many opportunities to be creative as possible whilst we are on the road.