There is always an amount of anxiety when I get ready to interview someone. What if the person is not a talker? what if they find my questions silly? or what if there is just no chemistry? I had these same worries right before calling Hannah Aldridge to discuss her upcoming album, “Razor Wire,” and her upcoming show at The Southgate House on April 19th. Well, in just a few short moments, my mind was put at ease as we began our chat. I believe that Hannah is one of those people that you could probably sit down with and talk music with for hours. Enjoy the interview!
I just discovered your music and now I am really excited about “Razor Wire” being released. Usually what I do is listen to a record and try to figure out what the artist was trying to say, or what the record meant. But now I want to ask you, what are you saying with the record and what does it mean to you?
That record for me is really interesting because I had written the record once before and it wasn’t called Razor Wire at the time. I wrote the record and it was something completely different. I went back and re-wrote quite a bit of it and it sort of morphed into this snapshot of my life in the past year. So it’s almost like….I hate to use the word diary cause that sounds a little bit childish, it’s almost like a snapshot of what I’ve gone through in the past year. All of those things are true stories about my life. Razor Wire, that song in general…it was one that I wrote about two separate situations that really were influential in the writing of this record. It was two separate relationship situations and I somehow managed to put them together in one song. So, I think that was kind of the skeleton for the record. I think it’s about me kind of figuring out how to be an adult and live on my own and grow up.
I read that you just got into music and writing songs not too long ago, right?
Yeah, I did. I’m 26 now. I was classically trained on piano when I was a child. I took a song writing course in college and I was 21 at the time. I had never played a guitar, I had never written a song and I thought, “This will be an easy elective.” The first day of class they asked me to play my favorite song that I had ever written and I just turned white. And I thought, “I thought you all were going to teach me how to write songs.” From that point forward I went home and I borrowed one of my dad’s guitars and learned to play that thing until my fingers bled. I kind of learned to play well enough to be able to figure out how to express myself. From there I realized that I actually had a whole lot of things to say but I just had to learn how…what the craft of songwriting really means. Since then I have been on a journey on trying to learn how do you not only write a good song, and one that people want to listen to, but how can I say what I want to say without pushing people away or it being too angsty or too dark. You know, putting it in a format where people can relate and it touches them, but it’s not like turn this off I’m done with it.
You describe your side as “Dark Americana.” Can you explain what that means?
The term “Americana” is so vague. It’s really just kind of a sound. I don’t like to say country because I think that means a lot of things that it’s not. I don’t like to say vocal because that means a lot of things that it’s not. It is kind of a hodgepodge really…Americana is a hodgepodge of different things. I like to use that word. I don’t like to use the term Folk Music because of think of a girl skipping through a field of daisies and that’s totally the antithesis of what my music is. I also through the word dark in there because I want people to know that it’s not Mumford and Sons and it’s not something along those lines. It definitely addresses dark topics. It’s not for the faint of heart for sure. I figure that there are enough people out there that are really great at writing happy songs and I’m not one of those people. I just go with the darker side of it.
I read an interview where you said there is a difference between the real Hannah and the girl on the album cover.
Yeah, there is a slight difference. I think that the girl on the album cover is somebody who plays the devil’s advocate a little more. She lives a little harder than I have. All of the songs on the record are things that I have experienced, but they are people that I have been or people that I have known. For me, that person is somebody who is a little ballsier that who I am in person. I also enjoy playing with the darker side of myself in terms of things that I am scared to think about or make me sad to think about. It’s a little easier for me to think in my mind that I am writing from somebody else’s standpoint. It makes it a little easier for me to say things that I would be afraid to say if it was just me saying it.
I haven’t gotten to hear the whole record, but I know the song “Black and White” was inspired by a picture of your son, right?
My little boy has been a pretty big inspiration for me. He kind of turned my life around in a lot of ways. I definitely had done some hard living and Jackson has just totally given me a different perspective on life in general. He has been a source of all kinds of inspiration for me in writing and in my life. That song is one of those that just poured out of me. I didn’t have to think about it. I just sat there and was looking at this picture of Jackson that is black and white and just had this thought, one day Jackson is going to want to go back to those days in that picture. In the same way I think of that whenever I look through old pictures of myself. I think about how I would love to go back to those days when the only things that mattered were my princess dress and wand. I wanted to write that song for Jackson… for him to listen to when he is older and to know how I felt about him growing up.
How did you cope with going through rehab, getting married and divorced and being a single mother, while working on making a living out of being a musician? How do you find balance?
For me, the rehab part of it was a significant part of me as I was going through my teenage years and trying to sort it all out. I think that I can look back and say that I was a pretty dark person and didn’t really understand how to express that in any kind of way. Looking back on it I am so glad that I went through all of that because it has given me so much of a standpoint to write about. To write about a life I could have had if I had gone down that path.
And being married…oh my God, that right there could have written the whole record for me and it pretty much did. The things that go through your head whenever you’re going through a divorce, it’s just a really eye opening experience. I think it’s such a yoyo type of emotion because you all of the sudden have this freedom that you don’t know what to do with. You’re learning how to live alone and you’re learning how to be an adult and how to do things on your own for the first time in your life. Then at the same time you’re looking back and you’re like what did I do wrong? Or maybe I am not able to love. You’re having all of these thoughts that I think everyone has when they go through a divorce. In a way I’m grateful that it happened right in the middle of me writing this record because I was able to kind of capture some things that right now I don’t think I could go back and re-write. I was able to literally wake up in the middle of the night and pour out these songs that I don’t think I could have done if I wasn’t right in the middle of that tidal wave of emotion that was happening. So a lot of the record is about that and learning to kind of get through all of the emotions that comes along with that.
And being on the road is hard regardless. It doesn’t matter if you’re married or not married, have a kid or don’t have a kid. I know so many people that are out on the road that are terminally single because it just alienates you from a normal life whatsoever. I think that right there gives you a lot of things to write about. It’s a decision…it really is a lifestyle choice that you make that this is what I am going to do. It’s hard sometimes for people to see it as a career because they see you over in Europe drinking lattés or whatever. They think your hanging out vacationing. They don’t understand the sacrifices that you make every single day to make that your job. It’s really, really hard. I don’t think there will come a day, or any amount of success, that would make it easy. People that are very successful still struggle with being away from family and being away from missing everything. There are a lot of things that I had to miss that are really heartbreaking to me, but at the same time there are not a lot of choices.
You talked about being trained as a classical pianist and I know that you trained as a ballerina as well. Knowing the success your dad had with what he did down in Muscle Shoals, do you think that you were deterred from the music business?
My dad is a very unique type of songwriter because he really used it as a job. There are so many people that I know in the music industry that just kind of half-ass their way through being a musician. A lot of times they’re successful, but they’re out getting drunk and high and partying and stuff every night. My dad is totally opposite of that. He is so work-oriented and he’s done it so long that he’s seen how difficult the music industry is. In the same way that I don’t think I would want Jackson (Aldridge’s son) to be a musician, he really has not encouraged me to pursue that path. Truth be told, he has been a big inspiration to me, but this is my own endeavor. My dad is not standing behind me, in my ear, telling me what to do. In fact, he really stays very far out of all of this.
He was a big inspiration for me when I sat down to start writing. I started digging through his catalog and listening to…you know, because somebody that has a bunch of old records in their basement it’s worth listening to what they’re doing. They’re clearly doing something right. I just listened to a lot of his stuff and tried to take the things that I needed from his approach and applied it to my personal endeavor in music. But not all of it applies, but the work ethic absolutely does. I think that until I was old enough to make the decision on my own, yeah I think it kind of deterred me a little bit from being a musician. I didn’t feel like that was something that was possible then. Which I know sounds really weird, but I didn’t think I could write a song. That wasn’t something that ever crossed my mind. I knew that I was very musical. I knew that I could sing and that I had a really good ear for piano. When it came to ballet I knew I was able to do ballet so much easier than some people because I really felt the music. But until I sat down and wrote a song, and let me say this, it didn’t just pour out of me when I first wrote my first song. It is like learning to paint. You can’t just sit down and paint a portrait of someone. You need to learn the techniques. You have to learn how to do it. Once I learned how to do that, and I still am. Every day I’m learning new techniques and learning new ways to drag songs out of myself. Once I did that, then I realized that nobody ever sat down and showed me how to do this. It would be like any other profession that your family is very gifted at, but nobody ever sat down and showed you personally how to do it. So I think when somebody took the time, which was my professor in college, who took the time to say, “I think you’re talented and you have what it takes” and really showed me how to do it. Then I was able to start exploring that.
I’ve just started to discover what is going on down there in Muscle Shoals with artists like John Paul White, Alabama Shakes and St. Paul and The Broken Bones. Then I started discovering the history of it. What is it about that place? It just seems like there is something magical about it.
You know, it is very magical. It’s interesting because Muscle Shoals…people are so unaware especially in The United States. I mean, it’s two hours from Nashville but there are so many people who have literally never heard of Muscle Shoals. In the U.K. it’s the total opposite. Everyone knows about Muscle Shoals and thinks it’s so cool and so great. There are so many records that were cut there that people would be shocked if they actually sat down and dug around. The magic of Muscle Shoals for me is a very different experience from what it would be for somebody else. I did not really even realize when I was growing up how unique my life was until I got a little older and realized it is very difficult to have a job in the music industry much less be able to experience the things I did, meet the people I did, see the records cut that I saw cut. For me, I ran around Fame Studio after school every day and thought this is where my dad works. Or Muscle Shoals Sound, I didn’t think anything about that. I was not aware of how cool that was until I got older and really started to realize that these people that are my dad’s friends….Oh, Don Fritz, okay now I know who he is. Or Mac McAnally, okay I understand what he does now. These were just people that hung around. Rick Hall, he was my dad’s boss… I didn’t know what he did. When I got older and was able to really understand, it has really been interesting to me to get to know those people on a personal level as a musician and respect them on that level not only as a family friend. So the magic of Muscle Shoals is so much more magical than to some people. Not only did I grow up there but it is so dear to me. These people are like family. Knowing what they did and accomplished is just astounding to me.
The new wave of Muscle Shoals that’s happening is fascinating. It’s really interesting how Muscle Shoals has still managed to keep their head above water where as some other markets that were big back in the 60’s and 70’s have ceased to exist. Muscle Shoals has managed to swim their way back to the top. I think it’s because people really cherish the accomplishments that have been made down in Muscle Shoals and now the young people and the children of these people that were in the middle of that really want to be involved with making that continue to happen. Will McFarlane for example, he was Bonnie Raitt’s guitar player, his sons (Jamie and Rob McFarlane) are now in a band down their called “The Local Saints.” They’ve got the same mindset, they want to keep Muscle Shoals music alive. And John Paul (John Paul White of The Civil Wars), Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes), all of those people…it’s amazing that we all, regardless if we all hang out with each other every day or write with each other every day, we all have the same common goal. We want to keep Muscle Shoals music alive. We strive to do that every day in a community type way.
I think it’s working. I definitely do.
Yeah, I think so. Jason Isbell, John Paul White, Ben Tanner and The Alabama Shakes have really helped that they have come out of the gate with some really amazing music. That doesn’t hurt anything. They set the bar really, really high. And it has made for all of us other ones to say that’s what we’re going for. We’re going for a Grammy, or we’re going for an Americana Award, or going to play Lincoln Center or whatever. That’s our goal cause that’s what we’re capable of doing. I think it’s working.
You brought up Jason Isbell. I know one of the tracks on Razor Wire is a Jason Isbell cover and The 400 Unit (Jason Isbell’s band) actually played on the cut. How did that come about?
I have really been into Jason Isbell’s older stuff. Because my dad worked at Fame I had his demos and what not. I heard a song that my dad and Jason wrote a while back. I hadn’t really delved too much into his music at that point, this was a couple of years ago. I thought, man he’s a really talented songwriter so I started digging around into some of his older records and caught myself up to speed. Then he came out with his “Southeastern” record which just completely blew me away lyrically. It is just really seriously one of the best records that I think I have ever heard in my life. I almost started studying what he was doing because it was so profound. So when I went to cut my record I thought,”I want this record to be something that almost shocks people a little bit.” That that girl is saying the things that she’s saying. Then I started thinking about Jason Isbell. Jason does that even as a guy. I love his music and he’s from Muscle Shoals. I want to find a song that I not only love, but that people who are true Jason Isbell fans will really appreciate. I don’t want to get one off of his “Southeastern” record because that makes it seem like I just discovered him. I wanted to make sure that Jason Isbell fans knew that I truly appreciate what he’s doing and his music. So I went back through and listed through a handful of his older songs and I kept coming back to the song “Try” because that is one of my favorite songs that he had done prior to “Southeastern.” So I decided that I wanted to cut that one cause it’s real heavy and I thought it would be really fun to put it on their. It’s very ballsy and I really like that about it. Then I asked the guys from The 400 Unit,”Is there any way that you all would want to come in and cut on this because you all are from Muscle Shoals and we’re doing this song?” And they had actually never recorded this song themselves before. The original recording was some other people who had recorded it. So what I did was ask them, “Would you all want to come in and do your version of this?” And we sent it over to the guy who originally mixed the song “Try” over in Muscle Shoals. His name is Jimmy Nutt. I said, “I want you to run it exactly the same way you did the first time.” And so we tried to capture a little bit of what it sounded like and also let The 400 Unit do their thing and let them really shine. I asked Jason, “Man, would you mind if I steal your band?” and he said, “No, go right ahead.” He’s such a nice guy and we had a blast. It was nerve racking for me to cut because I hope Jason Isbell fans like it okay and I hope Jason likes it okay. I think it came out so much better than I could have ever asked for just because the song is great and The 400 Unit are mind blowing.
We’re looking forward to your show here at The Southgate House on April 19th. For people who have never seen you live before, what can we expect from the show?
This one is going to be a solo show. It’s just going to be me and an acoustic which I think is really fun because I get to tell stories and really communicate with the audience. It’s not quite so loud rock n’ roll. It’s always fun to get to do that because I feel like I really connect with people. I actually played the Southgate House once before doing that. Then later on in June I will have a full band show at the Southgate House. That will be a more loud rock, big production show. This one is really a warm up to that one. It should be really fun. I am really excited about it. I love the Southgate House and I always love being in the Cincinnati area.