Artist Spotlight: King Hannah

    Craig Whittle first saw Hannah Merrick sing at a university band showcase night; he remembers her playing a song solo, just guitar and vocals, and being blown away by the depth and power of her voice. It wasn’t until years later, when they became co-workers in a bar and she was teaching him how to clean tables and lay out cutlery, that the pair properly met. It took more time still for them to start making music together, but their patience paid off: after self-releasing their debut single ‘Crème Brûlée’ in 2019, the Liverpool-based duo got endorsed by Sharon Van Etten, and City Slang reached out with a proposal to sign the band. The label put out King Hannah’s debut EP, the six-track Tell Me Your Mind and I’ll Tell You Mine, last year, and will be releasing their debut full-length, I’m Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me, this Friday.

    It’s a striking album that more than builds on the promise of the band’s earlier material: a dark, murky air with echoes of ‘90s acts like Portishead and Mazzy Star permeates the songs, but they’re imbued with a mix of sweetness, humour, and vulnerability that makes them feel unique to King Hannah’s personality. And so, despite their penchant for ethereal soundscapes and simmering tension, it’s no surprise that they end things with a simple, heartfelt refrain: “And I thank God, the day we met in the gross bar/ We’re doing it, so that we can live our whole lives just doing this/ It’s you and me, kid/ You and me, kid.”

    We caught up with King Hannah’s Craig Whittle and Hannah Merrick for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about how they first met, their musical journeys, their debut album, and more.

    The first time you crossed paths was when Hannah was performing an open mic set during university. How do you each remember that night?

    Craig Whittle: I think I remember it differently to Hannah.

    Hannah Merrick: Probably.

    CW: I went to this university band night to see my friend playing bass in some terrible band. It was a very bad night, I still don’t remember most of it. And then Hannah got up and played a few songs. I think some songs you played with a drummer, but I remember one song you played with an acoustic. And she absolutely blew me away, I thought she was so good. Her voice was sensational. And the song was so good. I can still remember the song now – I only heard it ten years ago, that’s the only time I’ve ever heard it. But then that was it, and it was a few years later that I finally started working in the bar that Hannah was working at too. And you were quite embarrassed, weren’t you, when I mentioned that night?

    HM: Yeah, I remember the night because I thought it went really badly, the performance. And then when I met Craig, he said about it, and I just remember being, “Oh, I hated that night.” [laughs] So yeah, two very different angles of the night.

    At what stage in your musical journeys were you both in at the time?

    CW: I’d just finished university, I did Creative Writing. And that’s when I was sort of deciding what I want to do, whether to try and be a writer or – I’d played music since I was like 13, I played in bands but in very small places and mostly just writing songs in my bedroom. I’ve always wanted to do music, but I never really met the right people I could do it with as like a career. How about you?

    HM: I was at uni and I was actually looking for a guitarist. There was one at the uni I was at who I joined forces with, but then he left the uni, so I was looking for a new one. That was it, just writing songs, ready to show whoever this new guitarist was going to be. Turns out to be… [gestures at Craig] This guy.

    CW: Spoiler.

    How do you look back on the songs that you were writing at the time individually?

    CW: Maybe a little bit soppy. [Hannah laughs] A little bit on the nose. I feel like when I was younger, I always felt I had something to say and I was quite, like, emotional.

    HM: Aww.

    CW: Whereas the older I’ve got, I’m not like that really, I’m just very… okay. [all laugh] Stopped caring about things. But when I was younger I was like, “This is so deep and meaningful, I need to say something.”

    HM: That’s cute.

    CW: I’m not like that anymore.

    HM: In a different way. Like caring and loving, just in a less cheesy way.

    CW: Yeah. What about you?

    HM: I was a bit more folky, maybe. I always liked doing the repetitive thing, probably ‘cause that’s all I can do, so that’s always been there. I think that’s got a lot to do with the way we sound today.

    After meeting properly, how long did it take for you to become comfortable in writing or even just sharing music with each other?

    HM: Long time, wasn’t it?

    CW: Yeah, it was a long time.

    HM: We had a little routine. I’d always come around to his flat with my little acoustic guitar, sit down, and build up the courage to play whatever song it was, and then just not be able to do it. I’d be like, “Okay, I’m gonna do it now.” And nothing would come out because I was too nervous to sing. And that went on for a really, really long time.

    CW: It was very different for me because I wasn’t coming to you with a song I’d written. But we were very patient with each other at the start. Now, you kind of see that it was very needed, it was a natural thing that we had to go through.

    Hannah, what was it that gave you the confidence to do it?

    HW: I remember that moment. I was working in the bar – and because it was a thing, they’d be like, “Oh, how did you get on?” And I was always like, “I couldn’t do it.” And they’d be like, “Oh, come on, you just got to do it.” And there was one girl in particular who just couldn’t believe it. She was just like, “Why can’t you do it?” I was like, “I don’t know, I just can’t do it.” And she was like, “Hannah, just do it. Just go there and sing.” And I was like, “Okay.” It sounds really silly, but it was one person in particular that just forced me to do it.

    Craig, do you remember the time when that happened?

    CW: I remember that you slowly started singing and showing me little parts. I remember a few, but I won’t sing them now. [laughs] But no, I don’t remember that time. Obviously, I wasn’t there, I don’t know who that was.

    HW: It was Alex.

    CW: Oh, was it? Thank you, Alex.

    HW: Thank you, Alex.

    Thank you, Alex. [all laugh] When you think back to that time, or even when you first saw Hannah performing, is there an element to the sound that you have now that you would never have imagined coming from the two of you collaborating?

    CW: That’s a very good question. Yeah, I think that it’s definitely noisier and more raw-sounding and grungy. When I first saw Hannah play, the song was very folky. I think at the start, if I ever had to have chosen an artist that I thought we would have ended up sounding like, it would have been someone like Laura Marling. We both loved Laura Marling – I still love Laura Marling, but we’ve gotten a lot more into ‘90s bands. Once we started playing together, our music tastes changed. Now it’s a lot bigger and dirtier – it still has that folkiness in parts, because we still love that kind of thing, but it’s grown from that.

    I wanted to ask a question related to your album titles: Tell Me Your Mind and I’ll Tell You Mine and I’m Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me. I was wondering if being honest – or an honest version of yourself – means the same to you now as it did a few years ago.

    CW:I think we’re more conscious of being honest now. I think it’s more of, we need to make sure that we’re coming across as honest, authentic people. I don’t think that we really had that with the EP. I think with the EP we wanted to make sure that –

    HW: We got signed.

    CW: Yeah. [laughs] And that things sounded as professional as we could. Early on, we treated the EP as almost like a showreel of what we can do. Obviously we always wanted to be honest people, but I think now it’s definitely more of a conscious thing. And also, the artists we listen to now are very honest.

    HW: Yeah, and so different to the music we were listening to then.

    CW: I think that’s what we respond to most, people like Bill Callahan and Phil Elverum and Silver Jews. It’s brutally honest music, it’s as personal as you can get. You can write about anything and everything – as long as it’s personal to you, there’s no sort of filter there.

    HW: And there’s also no filter with the arrangement or the instrumentation around it. You just do what you want to do.

    That’s what I had in mind in terms of, there’s different shades to being honest – it doesn’t necessarily mean the music has to be sad or melancholy. On one hand, there are moments on your album that are self-aware and playful, and there are others that are earnest in a darker sort of way. How do you go about balancing those different moods? Is it more of an instinctual thing?

    CW: It’s more instinctive, isn’t it? I think some moments are darker, but the overriding thing that we want people to come away with is kind of a warmth. A lot of it is writing about childhood and memories and nostalgia – we both had very warm childhoods. And humour is a big part of our day-to-day life, so it made sense for that to be on the album. It all happened very naturally. One song that was definitely a more conscious one was ‘Berenson’, because listening to the tracks we had at the time, I was thinking it was maybe a bit too downbeat, a bit too dark. So that was an attempt to inject a bit more warmth into it. I think it comes from making stuff, listening back to it, and then you get a grasp of how people will hear the album. And then you want to make sure that it covers all the bases that you wanted to cover.

    As you mentioned, you both allude to childhood memories in your songwriting. There’s that warmth in the way that you both approach it, but I also noticed some differences: the tone on ‘Ants Crawling on an Apple Stork’, which Craig had written in part some years ago, is more regretful compared to a song like ‘Go Kart Kid’, which looks back with more of a sense of gratitude. Do you think you have a different perspective on your youth or songwriting in general, or is it that you wrote these particular songs differently?

    CW: I think that we both look back on our childhood in very similar ways. We had different childhoods, we didn’t know each other at all, obviously, lived quite far away. That song came from missing being a child, how every experience you have is a new one. And the older you get, that disappears. The way I wrote that was snapshots of little memories, vivid images that I can remember from being a kid. Maybe the warmth comes from the instrumentation of that song. And regret – you can never get your childhood back. You can never have those kinds of moments back. And maybe when you’re a kid, you don’t really appreciate them as much as you wish you could if you could go back and live all that again. But I mostly just missed that feeling of things being new and learning things.

    HW: The first time I heard it, it made me quite sad, actually. Because I know Craig personally, you’ve told me before I heard that song that you miss childhood. You miss not having no responsibilities, being a lot freer. But I get that straight away from the song.

    CW: My favourite film as a kid was Peter Pan, so that was ingrained in me since I was three or something.

    What about you, Hannah? What was your favourite film?

    HW: I loved My Girl. I thought I was Vada. I still do.

    CW: That’s a sad film.

    HW: It’s a really sad film.

    CW: Maybe that’s why our music’s so depressing. [all laugh]

    HW: But I always thought she was really cool. She was that cool kid and she was a bit tomboy and I was bit tomboy. And I just loved that her best friend’s a boy and she used to climb trees and ride bikes.

    When you realized that childhood is kind of a running theme on the album, did you talk about childhood more?

    CW: We’re very open with each other. We speak about that all the time anyway.

    HW: We’re both very close to our families, so it’s a daily conversation, isn’t it?

    CW: And we’re always talking about memories that crop up from when we were our kids.

    If you’re comfortable sharing, can you tell me one thing that inspires you about the other person?

    HW: Aww, I love that.

    CW: There’s gotta be one. [Hannah laughs] I love how determined Hannah is. Obviously we all have doubts and vulnerabilities, but she’s always believed that this is possible. I maybe didn’t at the start. She believes in herself completely, and she gets up every single day and writes in the morning. And she doesn’t stop. I’m not like that, I’m a little bit lazy. But Hannah knows and has worked every single day since I’ve known her to get it. So I’d say that was very inspiring. If we were both like me, we’d both be working at the bar. [all laugh]

    HW: That’s very kind. What I love and admire about Craig is how he is obsessed with – it sounds silly, but he’s obsessed with music. He’s so good at listening to new music. His ears are impeccable. He hears stuff that me and the average Joe just can’t hear. He takes control in all band practices. He knows everybody’s parts. He can hear everyone’s parts. He’s just a sensational musician, not just guitarist. And he’s got the best taste in music of anyone I’ve ever met. And probably will ever.

    CW: Probably?

    HW: Will meet, then.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    King Hannah’s I’m Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me is out February 25 via City Slang.

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