London Grammar’s Hannah Reid Stands Firm on Californian SoilPhoto by Alex Waespi Music Features London Grammar
Hannah Reid had yet to view Carey Mulligan’s Oscar-nominated performance in the recent film hit Promising Young Woman, but it hadn’t opened in her native Britain yet and she was looking forward to catching it online. And the London Grammar vocalist swears that there was no subliminal connection when—on March 8 this year, for International Women’s Day—she designed a stark black-on-white T-shirt that read “Formidable Young Woman,” which tuned into the same post-#metoo-movement mindset of the movie. Like Mulligan’s vengeful protagonist, however, she too had experienced the knuckleheaded patriarchy firsthand, and she had thoroughly had enough.
The shirt sells for 25 pounds, with all proceeds going directly to Care International U.K., a women’s charity personally chosen by Reid. And the soundalike phrase had its origins in one of her worst music-biz experiences, when she ended up arguing with a male security guard at a London Grammar concert, who denied her backstage access, not believing that she was that evening’s star attraction. When she finally proved her identity and was waved in, the employee derisively summarized her feisty determination as her being a “formidable young woman”—essentially longhand for the derogatory men’s catchall of “bitch.” Not the way an artist should be treated, especially at her own headlining performance. But it was by no means the first time, so she resolved to do something about it, a decision that led to London Grammar’s lush new third set, Californian Soil, over which she took firm, confident control.
Sonically, the album has the reverent, hushed feel of an intimate, rose-windowed cathedral, with Reid’s gossamer, radiant voice illuminating the interior like a beam of Sunday morning light. It even opens on “Intro” with the solemn tolling of a chapel bell, before settling into the exotic rhythms of the title track, then a finger-snapping “Missing,” a shimmering stroll called “Lord It’s a Feeling,” the bright, galloping “Baby It’s You,” and the nearly monastic “All My Love,” Reid’s tour-de-force showcase in this collection. And she can go from Top 40-casual (“Lose Your Head”) to Wagnerian oomph (“I Need the Night”) in a seemingly offhanded heartbeat. No stifling patriarchy restraining her this time, no producer telling her she has no right to correct him on wonky studio tones (yes, that’s happened quite often, she sighs). A formidable new force, indeed.
When Reid entered the music industry in 2009 with her Nottingham bandmates—guitarist Dan Rothman and keyboardist/percussionist Dominic ‘Dot’ Major—she admits that she was naive and trusting. “I was young and I was quite green, and I think I thought that the music industry would be the most liberated, woke place on the planet,” she recalls. “Because I was like, ‘Well, of course it would be because it’s art, and art is always, by nature very forward-thinking.’ And it was just such a shock that it was absolutely the opposite of that in so many, many ways.” She believes the film industry runs the same archaic way, as well. “The structures-that-be hold a lot of power, so I definitely felt like I had to go along with certain … just crap, basically, that I was putting up with in my early career. Then it got to a point where I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to speak about this! I am going to make an album about it, and I am going to speak about it, because it really is my truth,’” she adds.
Mulligan, in an added irony, spoke those same speak-my-truth words when hosting Saturday Night Live last week, in a biting anti-entitled-millennials Star Trek sketch, wherein she takes histrionic offense at the slightest criticism, having never experienced any harsh societal judgment before. But Reid truly has a list of serious grievances—she’s not imagining anything. And the problems started early on, almost as soon as the band had released its chart-topping 2013 debut disc, If You Wait. “I remember our first management company booking an entire tour without even telling us, without us having any approval of our own schedule,” she growls, still bristling at the thought. “That went on for quite some time, and I really tried everything to get them to stop doing it. I tried being nice about it, I tried getting angry, and then I tried somewhere in the middle, and they would just not stop doing it.” Some future dates weren’t even physically possible, like playing Australia, arriving back in London for a show 24 hours later, only to hop on the next flight back to Australia. “And for me just being a woman and being very vulnerable, that was the first time I’d experienced anything like that—they didn’t care or have any sense. It was just all about the money,” she says.
Reid soon became familiar with the term “mansplaining,” when male studio techs would address Major and Rothman on one elevated level, and her on a dramatically lower one. “I first noticed that in sound checks,” she says. “Because Dan and Dot would sound check for as long as they wanted, or get into the nitty gritty about the EQ’s not being right, but if I said anything, it was like, ‘I don’t think you are actually hearing that,’ or ‘I don’t think that’s actually happening, so I don’t think it’s an issue.’ And it had me looking like I was completely irrational the whole time. There were loads of things like that, and I can laugh about it now. But at the time, it was shocking. Absolutely shocking.”
By the time of the trio’s sophomore outing, 2017’s Truth is a Beautiful Thing, the artist had dealt with so much misogyny, she wasn’t sure what the truth was anymore. She’d lost confidence in herself, her own vocal ability, and she had grown so guarded and withdrawn, she didn’t dare speak up for fear of derailing the speeding London Grammar express. Then things got darker. She was diagnosed with debilitating fibromyalgia, sapping even more of her remaining self-belief, until she actually started planning to quit the group—and attendant showbiz—forever. “And I remember I wrote a song called ‘America’ that’s on this album, and it’s kind of about that, about that lowest point, when I was not very well,” she reveals. “With everything that I’d put up with and the fact that I now had fibromyalgia? That was very, very low. But then what came after that was … I do think this is our best album, and it means so much more to me because of all that. So I’m really, really grateful.”
While dealing with the chronic pain of her condition, the singer delved deeper into her songwriting and wound up taking the wheel on Californian Soil, and she’s even depicted on its climate-change-referencing cover photo, alone on a tiny island with her long blonde hair swept back, but somehow looking defiant, more determined than ever. And in “America” alone, her voice has grown rich and operatically resonant, as she mourns—over Rothman’s supple guitar notes—“All of our time chasing a dream / The dream that meant nothing to me.” The lyrics, she says, occurred to her rather quickly, tumbling out of her subconscious like much of her work usually does. Some even come to her in dreams.
Why the focus on America? Just the title track alone—which started as a looped rhythm that Rothman constructed for her to experiment—conjured up a classic Western-movie panorama, Reid says. And she began seeing the States as a metaphor for what she was experiencing, personally. “When we were on our tour bus and I couldn’t sleep, I’d be looking out at the stars as we were driving through the middle of America, and it really, really is probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever been,” she says. “So I was just blown away by all that, but then I was also blown away by how bad the poverty was in America, side by side. So fundamentally, everything about this album comes down to that — it’s about light and shade, and how something so beautiful can have something so terrible underneath. And the U.K. has the same thing, you know? But that’s kind of what I’m singing about—my experiencing the situation where, on the surface, it looked like I should have been having the time of my life. But there was something really toxic that I was experiencing underneath that.”
The importance of finally standing up for herself was hammered home on Reid when she went to a screening of the recent Amy Winehouse documentary, Amy. The film really gives you a sense of the late star’s truly inventive talent, irrepressible wit, and rare self-deprecating charisma, all of which were succinctly snuffed out by, in essence, the cold, clinical music business itself. Another potential superstar, snuffed out at 27. “She had this incredible voice, but everybody around her just wanted to take from her, until she started self-harming with drugs and alcohol,” Reid notes. “I’ve never met her, but I had to be taken out of the cinema when I watched that—it was just terrible, and I felt so sad, thinking of what kind of art she’d be making right now.”
Reid is currently in a comfortable relationship, she reports, and the rest of her private life revolves around her beloved French bulldog, Phoebe. “She’s my child, really—she’s with me all the time and she’s my best friend,” she purrs, contentedly. And she doesn’t want it to sound like she’s grousing about her current situation as the spotlighted—but beleaguered—star of London Grammar. “It’s such a female thing to do, and I don’t want to come across as being ungrateful,” she concludes. “So I try to focus on the positive, because I am really grateful for all the art and stuff. But the industry itself?” She shivers. “There is a reason why there are all these documentaries on Netflix about these amazing young musicians who end up, like, dead.”