Wide open roads and empty spaces, King Hannah’s debut EP is an apt reflection of the times we live in. But where we might be currently faced with empty feelings and separation, theirs is a welcome solemnness of cinematic travel and discovery, as Tara Dalton learns.
When KING HANNAH first spoke to Bido Lito! just over three years ago, there was a sense time was of the essence. “We need to get a wriggle on” was the lasting remark from a conversation undertaken at the beginning of their journey. With no releases under their belt at that point in time – drawing attention through a number of live performances that seemed to levitate in soft haze – the duo’s response left a lot to ponder about what lay ahead. There was quite a lot to dissect.
Speaking today, that sense of urgency has dissipated. Things are far more relaxed than their parting remarks suggested back in 2017. Perhaps in part due to the material they’ve now released into the world. It’s rubbing off on their demeanour, anyway. Currently, the pairing of Hannah Merrick (vocals/guitar) and Craig Whittle (guitar) sit on the other end of the phone line, avidly debating which mixer best describes their sound. “Something crazy! What about whiskey, it’s good and old-fashioned?” “It’s got to be paired with something edgy, like Rola Cola,” they chatter to one another. “What about gin?” “No, we don’t like gin.”
Over the last three years, the Rola Cola pairing have piqued interest albeit with a guarded approach. Until 2020 they’d only shared their material on stage and through the Chinese whispers of gig-goers. The drip feeding, however, certainly whetted the appetite of those in the know. It’s led them on the rise to a revered level of recognition in circles across the city – even catching the attention of staunch songstress Sharon Van Etten.
Talking today, it isn’t just their music that grabs my attention. Behind the dense sheets of atmosphere that line their sound, King Hannah are stripped bare and down to earth, cracking jokes over their lockdown obsession with Mindhunter’s Bill Tench (so much so they’ve named a song after him). “I just love his handshake, I just want a handshake from him,” chuckles Merrick, with Whittle at the ready to say the same. Finishing each other’s sentences is one of the pair’s noticeable character traits.
If they had once given off a sense of urgency, their own story is one that’s organically taken root at a gentle pace. While most artists’ stories begin with a simple encounter; a bump in the street, a friend of a friend, or the luckiest of them all, being related, King Hannah have an origin straight from the big screen. Whittle had actually watched Merrick perform years before their first encounter, but the two didn’t officially meet until Merrick was assigned to train him in a bar he started working at.
“I recognised her straight away, and I knew that she was great, but it dawned on me that she had no idea who I was,” Whittle explains. “She didn’t have a frame of reference for me, so when I said, ‘Let’s start making music’, it definitely took a bit of faith from Hannah to trust me.” His pestering soon worked, and the duo began spending the hours before work playing music together at Whittle’s house.
A silver screen happy ending so far, but their narrative arc wasn’t entirely straight and narrow. At first, Merrick admits, she didn’t have the confidence to open up about her songs. But as the pair blossomed together, her comfort zone became the circle of King Hannah – a shared aura that drips with the suspended, timeless atmosphere of the music.
Theirs is a smoky sound, layering vocals over a pensive guitar. It creates a moody instrumental perfect for these winter days. It’s controlled, woozy and at times, chaotic. The emotive spectrum of their music keeps you on your toes. Injecting the dark mood from the dark world around them, the tracks are littered with lyrics that are as grounded as the artists themselves.
While there is literally an I in King Hannah, metaphorically it’s a different story. The writing process is a joint effort as the lyrics and the sound unfurl together, all at once. Carefully weaved into each beat is a sense of ‘us’, with Merrick’s admiration for Courtney Barnett’s storytelling and Whittle’s country-rock influence from the Silver Jews coming together to form their signature royal sound.
“We always say that you’ve got to tell your story in your own little way,” Merrick mentions, unravelling the heart on her sonic sleeve to me. It isn’t enough to tell a story in her opinion, but to take the listener along for the ride. “I was listening to the new Angel Olsen album and there’s a song where she makes a mistake and I think that’s encouraging because it is its own personal take. It’s got its own character, y’know, and that really struck me,” she says. “As long as you can make someone feel something, that’s all we can ask for.”
While I can’t see their faces over the at times shaky line, you can hear the determination in their voices. This determination carries over to uncompromised approach to releasing their music. In the days of streaming, most upcoming artists attempt to burst onto the scene with something short and snappy – to catch people’s attention. For King Hannah? Well, their first introduction to the world was with the six-minute brooding track Crème Brûlée, a slow-burning ballad wrapped in moody tones and shimmering guitar. “That’s why we’ve been such slow wrigglers,” Whittle chuckles over the phone. “We don’t want to be releasing tracks constantly that aren’t at their best, because then we will have wasted our opportunity. The length of the song never even crossed our mind once, because we made something that we were proud of and that lived up to our expectations.”
“Exactly,” Merrick responds, “and if anything, we’ve broken our six-minute record with a seven-minute track on our EP, so it’s bound to happen again.”
But waste an opportunity they did not, with Crème Brûlée piquing international interest and falling into the lap of Berlin-based independent record label City Slang, who promptly signed the pair in September. However, when the label expressed their eager interest to hear more, it hit King Hannah that, while they had created melodies and mixes, their desires to create a track to the highest standards meant they had no other concrete tunes to deliver.
Revelling in their polished cutting room of tracks, the pair began knuckling down and focused on showcasing their potential. “We wanted to show we can’t just make a song,” replies Merrick, “we can make a project, and that’s how the EP came about.”
The day that we talk, coincidentally, is the morning of the release of their debut EP, Tell Me Your Mind and I’ll Tell You Mine. Or, as Merrick regards it “a more Christmassy day than Christmas”.
In its 30-minute runtime, it gives you a multi-textured thrill, again taking the story of King Hannah to the big screen through the cinematic scope of directors from the 60s and 70s. “The warm romantic kind of black and white, not that harsh black and white,” Merrick illustrates. “There’s just something about the saturation that gets me.”
“It was a conscious development to make each song play like a chapter,” Whittle says, taking me page by page through the EP.
And Then out of Nowhere, It Rained is the introduction slowly pulling you in. Meal Deal sets the scene, Bill Tench is the dramatic plot twist, Crème Brûlée the lovers’ quarrel, and The Sea Has Stretch Marks is when the heroes conquer. Swiftly, Reprise (Moving Day) closes the book in your face, leaving you to sit and think, ‘Well, what do I do now?’ The only answer seems to be press play again.
It’s not just the drive of the tracks, but the lo-fi essence woven into the EP that makes it stand out. Whittle’s signature guitar work makes for a continuous moody hum that buzzes throughout, building into the cacophony of spirits that spring to life in the final track. “We really wanted to play with the dynamics and pace and create this sort of mess, sort of celebration,” he notes. “Making three or four songs that were really different but came together to exist as a whole was a main goal for us. You can’t affect how people engage with it, but we wanted to make something completely open for the journey.”
King Hannah strive to sonically paint a picture as you listen. Tell Me Your Mind and I’ll Tell You Mine is the EP that plays as Scottie walks through his Technicolor nightmare in Vertigo; as the Lady in the Radiator softly swoons in Eraserhead; as Janet Leigh whips to scream at the camera in Psycho. Encapsulating the surreal in the real, it is an out of body listen like no other.
But, while the whirling instrumentation can take you somewhere old, as Craig points out, it has the power to take you somewhere new and somewhere so empty. “We wanted to take people to wide open spaces or empty roads. I think that’s why the songs are subconsciously longer is because we have more time to sort of get lost and be transported,” he illustrates.
If there’s one thing this lockdown has been beneficial for, it’s been in providing the tone of being alone. The social distancing between artist and studio led to some ‘outside the box’ creativity for King Hannah, taking the reins of the situation and using it to their full advantage.
“A lot of the EP was mixed over Zoom with Ted White, who is also a member of the band, which gives it that sort of separation. I was using this microphone I’ve had since I was 14, because Ted’s got all the good stuff and I’ve got all the cheap stuff,” Whittle explains.
“The Sea Has Stretch Marks was actually recorded in Craig’s bedroom,” Merrick adds. “So, I suppose that’s not ideal, but having lockdown forces you to think differently.”
“It’s funny because you record all these things with high-end expensive stuff and then you spend a lot of time trying to dirty it up to make it sound ‘bad’,” Whittle ponders, with a good sense of humour, joking about maybe sticking with the cheap stuff from here.
Behind it all, their music may be a vehicle to take you wherever you want to go, but Merrick admits it will always lead you back to Liverpool. Coming from a small village in Wales to living on and off in Liverpool, to her, the city played a big part in the influences that mingled in to the EP. “I think because it’s a port town with so many people mixing, you just become open to so many different experiences and people. How can’t that be influential, you know?”
‘Slow but steady wins the race’ is a phrase that I’ve found to be synonymous with King Hannah. Slow wrigglers and slow burning delights, they know exactly what they want in their sound, and will work countlessly to perfect it – even clocking in the hours on Zoom. This first introduction to the world was a meeting worth waiting for. They have an enchanting EP to make up for the time, taking you on a journey until their sequel, their next anticipated return. I guess they were right from the off, they do have a slight whiskey flavour to them, spacious and rich, with each tune a small sip until you’re left cinematically spaced.
Tell Me Your Mind And I’ll Tell You Mine is out now via City Slang