Introducing must-hear alt-folk-rock artist Hannah Cameron — Sungenre Interview

Introducing must-hear alt-folk-rock artist Hannah Cameron

A beloved member of her local Melbourne music community with two solo albums already under her belt, Hannah Cameron is poised to take over the world. Her latest single “Backsliding” is out now.

According to Spotify, a large contingent of your listenership comes from Istanbul over in Turkey. Do you have any deep ties over there to explain that?
I think it’s just playlisting, but I don’t really know! I had noticed that but I’m just assuming that one of the playlists I’m on must have Turkish listeners. I have absolutely no idea (laughs).

Can you tell us a bit about how your upbringing in Brisbane resulted in your love for folk music?
I don’t really know exactly how I got into it. I can’t really pinpoint the moment I got into folk music, but I did grow up listening to a lot of Simon and Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, Carole King because that was what my parents had on. But I also sung a lot in choirs in high school. That was my early musical education, more of the classic choral world. Then I became introduced to jazz towards the end of high school and decided I was gonna study it. I think the alt-folk thing is sort of my way of putting all of my influences under the one banner and I guess I see folk as being the central thing because song form, how I write the songs with singing and guitar whilst telling a story, is of the folk tradition.

Was your move to Melbourne a big influence on your music?
Yeah, I moved in 2009 to study jazz at uni. It was an improvisation degree so there was jazz, obviously, but a lot of other different worlds converging there too and people that I was playing with played in country bands and bluegrass bands and avant-garde free-jazz bands, so definitely moving to Melbourne was a massive catalyst for influencing the music I make.

Your first record, Blow My House Down (2015) was deeply introspective and brutally personal. Was it scary for your first release to be so honest?
I don’t think I’ve really ever known any other way in my writing. As well, I was young and I just didn’t really care. I felt as though the people I was writing about had already had a lot of those conversations anyway so that side of things didn’t feel scary. The actual process of putting out a record felt kind of daunting but not from the perspective of telling personal stories.

It wasn’t necessarily that I felt I was writing for an album; I was just writing for the sake of writing.

Did you ever feel any pressure to produce, it being your first big opportunity to make a record?
I don’t know that I was thinking about it that hard. Most of those songs were written in a really intense writing period. I wrote 20 songs in 20 days and 90% of the album came out of that writing period which was an intense personal period. It wasn’t necessarily that I felt I was writing for an album; I was just writing for the sake of writing. When I got to the end of it and had an album’s worth of songs I’m just like, “okay, guess I’m gonna make an album now” (laughs). I don’t think I ever really write with the outcome of how I’m going to be presenting it. I think if you were always writing thinking “ooh, who’s gonna hear this and how’s it gonna be perceived”, I don’t think I’d ever get a song finished.

Do you have any personal limitations to what you will or won’t sing about?
I would never write something and release something that would make someone I knew uncomfortable. If I was writing about something that was an uncomfortable topic I would try and cloak it in anonymity. But I think writing is the way I get to the bottom of a lot of my experiences and also other people’s experiences too because my last album was about other people’s stories and so the process of being that honest with myself is pretty helpful to my brain.

On a track from your first record, “I Never”, there’s a really provoking tale about a single mother’s resolve and isolation. Can you speak about the driver behind that track?
Oh, I haven’t thought about that song in ages. I wrote that one based on a few things. That wasn’t based on anyone I knew. I was reading a book at the time that was set in East Berlin during the Stasi occupation and it was just telling stories of people who had lived through the Second World War and then this occupation and it sorta hit me that they never got a chance to process one thing before they moved onto the next and how that was not necessarily just unique to that situation. I think, on a personal level, that happens to a lot of people and that’s why I wrote it. That’s loosely based on a character from that book.

With a song like “Just Leave Me Here” (“My sorrow is a bore to all but me, I’ll not burden thee, Ill bear it all on my own for none to see”), the second record sounds like it’s trying to offer more of a sense of liberation when speaking about personal struggles?
That song was actually a combination of my experiences and someone close to me and I almost stole some of their words in that. I think that often there is this feeling, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in terms of the current isolation situation, that in normal life it feels really boring to call someone up and say I’ve had a bad day and now we’ve got more of a permission to do that because everyone’s kind of having a bad day, right? I think in normal life though, it can feel really boring and I’ve asked why would I wanna burden someone with the fact that I’m not feeling great. I was trying to get inside another person’s experience and try and fully empathise with what they were going through on that song.

We had lots of time but it also took us a lot of time because we probably went a bit too far with some things.

The second record is half the length of your debut and built with more textured arrangements. Can you speak about the differences between making the two records and what prompted changes such as those?
I don’t know if there’s a short answer to that. The length, for whatever reason, I was just writing shorter songs and I had eight tracks all finished and it just felt like they all made sense together and I just wanted that to be the album. Also, my first album didn’t fit on vinyl, so I was like, “dammit, I need a shorter record for that” (laughs). In terms of the string arrangement, James Gilligan who produced and co-produced both albums had just got into playing violin. He’s one of those annoying people who can pick up any instrument and master it, so we were able to lay down heaps of strings from that. I don’t think they were necessarily conscious decisions. It was a different writing process between those albums because we had limitless time in terms of working in his little studio, so we weren’t paying studio hire which is good and bad. It just ends up being, like, how long’s a piece of string, so we had lots of time but it also took us a lot of time because we probably went a bit too far with some things. But we were able to document the ideas and arrangements as they happened rather than needing to demo and re-record, which is what happened in that first album.

From prior interviews it sounds like you were fairly exhausted after that second record. Do you feel the need to unwind and separate yourself from the artistic process after diving so deep?
I think that album was a bit of a lesson in what not to do in terms of not setting clear enough deadlines and clear enough boundaries for when the song is finished. We probably recorded it over a year and a half and some of those songs are pretty heavy and it probably does take some sort of an emotional toll, so now my approach is quite different. The latest single (“Backsliding”) I recorded a couple of weeks after I wrote it and Matt Redlich, who produced this track, was really good at just being like, “Cool. Vocal takes. We’ve got it”, whereas I would usually be insisting, “no, I can do it better, I can do it better”. It’s nice to have someone say “nice, it’s good, it’s fine, let’s keep it”.

Review: On Diamond – On Diamond

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I know you never played electric guitar before playing with On Diamond. Did this influence the more “rock” territory you’re treading with “Backsliding”?
Yeah, I think it’s all the bands I’ve been playing with have been rubbing off in some way but definitely through playing in On Diamond I’ve enjoyed playing an electric guitar with a bit of volume. I think also, playing electric, I started doing gigs with just electric guitar because I couldn’t be bothered taking both an acoustic and electric so I was like, “how can I make these acoustic songs feel good on an electric guitar” and it’s nice when you’ve had these songs with big band arrangements, playing some of those songs on the electric, you can get more of that dynamic range that you can’t get on an acoustic. On Diamond has definitely rubbed off in many ways.

Releasing music as an independent, self-managed artist, it doesn’t give you a lot of time and space to be creative…

When writing “Backsliding” (writing one song a week for a month) it sounds like you’ve returned to the intensive writing method you used on your first album. What prompted that?
After my last album, speaking about burnout, I felt pretty exhausted. Largely from the process of releasing music. Releasing music as an independent, self-managed artist, it doesn’t give you a lot of time and space to be creative and so I felt like I got out of practice with writing. I felt like I needed a kick up the ass. So during school holidays, in June, I just picked a week and did it over that week. It always pays off. I should do it more often (laughs).

What are your thoughts on the state of folk music within today’s overarching musical scene and do you feel any sense of responsibility to draw people into that sphere?
To be honest, I just don’t know that I identify that strongly with the genre. I identify with being a folk singer and I like telling stories, but I don’t really have super strong feelings being a member of one genre, if that makes sense. I think that there’s amazing folk music going on in Melbourne and all over the world but all the folk music I’ve been into in recent times, it draws from so many different influences and is more loosely folk. I feel like I get asked the question about folk music and stuff a lot because, I understand people need to be able to categorise things, but I think my influences are such a smorgasbord. Even now, there’s no acoustic guitar on this new track so I feel almost fraudulent calling myself a folk singer. So, am I an alt-folk-rock singer now? I dunno. But yeah, I think I don’t really identify strongly with any particular genre.

If you’re not playing your instrument or doing the creative thing I think you just question what you’re doing with your life.

What’s been a form of creative inspiration for yourself whilst in lockdown?
There’s been a few things. Listening to music is always pretty inspiring. Laura Marling’s album just came out and she’s always pretty inspiring. I’ve also been trying to practice guitar and learn songs that I’ve been avoiding because I thought they would be too hard and I don’t often get times to shred my fingers to pieces. And I think I haven’t been so aware before of how important that is to my headspace, on a day-to-day basis. Because I did that for the first couple of weeks, lots of guitar practice, then the single release happened and I needed to do a lot of admin stuff and didn’t get a chance to pick up the guitar and when I got to the end of that I felt like a crazy person. If you’re not playing your instrument or doing the creative thing I think you just question what you’re doing with your life. Like, of course it sounds really obvious, but often you can get so caught up in everything else that you don’t pick up the guitar for days or weeks at a time. Also, I think the amount of conversations I’ve had has been inspiring. Everyone feels really connected and is giving more of a shit about each other than what we’ve had time for during regular life in the past.

If you could collaborate with any artist in any medium, who would it be and what would you create?
Oh, that’s the hardest question! That is so hard! Who would it be? All the musicians I would want to collaborate with, I would just be too intimidated to do anything. I mean, I would love to just sit and write a song with Joni Mitchell to just see how she did it, because I seriously just listen to her songs and still have no idea how her brain works.