Interview with Hannah Sheehan (No Really)

by Robert Nagle on 1/12/2010

in Audio,best of,best of jamendo,creativecommons,interview

Recently writer and critic Robert Nagle made a list of 11 Incredible Musicians You Can Download for Free. Many of the musicians on this top list make their music freely available on Jamendo, a free and legal music sharing site. Several musicians  appearing on this  list also gave interviews to this blog  (Read the other interviews).  You can also download a free sampler containing full songs from artists profiled here. No, Really - Acoustic Demo

Hannah Sheehan  is an acoustic singer-songwriter from Tennessee who recorded 10 tracks from her album Rust all on a single day in a San Diego recording studio. The resulting is astonishing.  Clemens has a voice that when you first hear it is both angelic and striking, reminiscent of the folk singer Jewel, Ann McCue or  a  feistier Joan Baez.  During a sustained note, she has that ability to change moods almost instantly and effortlessly. Rust is the song that captured me first; it leaves me drained and speechless every time I hear it.  Beginning of the End is a slow and  philosophical lullaby that says farewell to all kinds of things  (she sings “Sit back and watch the city self-destruct” with a sense both of foreboding and acceptance).  Have I mentioned that Clemens writes her own songs?  Floodplains  is a heart-rending song about a collapsing city (“Yesterday was a party/today it ends; this is a city that breaks /but never bends”).   Other songs are more upbeat. You go is a heartfelt song about missing someone and not being able to enjoy pleasures in the same way during his absence. (Compare to John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane).  Clemens also performs as a member of the  singing female duo Minor Vine and released a brighter and livelier EP album Undo Undid. In 2011 she was in a band called Smokemonster and released an EP called Frisky Whiskey.

 

About Rust, Andrew Varvek of Tryad wrote:

Hannah clemens has just become my own personal bob dylan. It’s extremely rare to come across such a wonderful blend of melody, lyrical power, and vocal talent. Filled with songs that hit the perfect ‘sweet spot’ of sarcastic gripping social relevance, blended with devastatingly haunting heartfelt reflections, this young artist has kindled my faith in the intense magic of music….  Hannah demonstrates mastery at assuming multiple roles to sharply examine a wide range of modern ills.  This poignant social commentary is gently sweetened by delicate songs of staggering beauty that completely and entirely melt the heart. ‘Go’ brings me to tears. Hannah’s  songs pour out as if from a brilliant bird caught in a cage…. these songs are a direct expression of vast courage, heart, and genius.

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1. Can you talk a little about your creative process? What parts about making music are the easiest for you? What parts are the most difficult?

I never know what to say when people ask about my creative process, because I don’t really have one. Depending on the song, it could take me twenty minutes of minimal effort to get a finished product. That happened with “Citizen, Go Back to Sleep”. In other cases I’ll sit on a melody and chord progression for over a year and go through several revisions of the lyrics before it’s done, as with “Rust”. And I have huge dry spells–I’ve gone almost a year at a time before something (a news story, a really good concert, or an event like Southern Girls Rock & Roll Camp here in Tennessee) kicks my creative butt into gear.

Usually lyrics are the easiest part, but I have to have at least a melody before I can make any progress with lyrics. The hardest part of writing songs is finding something I feel strongly enough about to warrant a song. Despite all the bitterness and anger in my music, I’m a fairly laid-back person, so the stuff that goes into my songs really affects me. I can’t stand to write a song about nothing, because I know listeners can tell and it feels like cheating.

2. How has your biography or geography affected the kind of music you make? What do you think is unique or different about the music you make?

If I hadn’t been raised by very creative, independent people, I doubt I’d be making music at all right now. I was brought up to be a little distrustful of authority, which has led to a lot of my subject matter. And by the same token, I was shown that there isn’t really anything I can’t do myself, so I decided from the start that I would make my music without the industry’s “help”.

As for geography, I grew up in the Midwest, and even though I’ve moved a couple times I’ve never been able to nail down what makes an artist from a certain place sound a certain way. That may have been truer a few decades ago, but there’s so much cross-pollination happening with music now, and so few epicenters of cultural concentration like those that led to the blues and jazz. A band from Iowa can sound like a band from Ireland, and some kids in a basement in New Jersey can make tribal rhythms on their djembes just for the hell of it. I don’t think my sound could only come from Springfield, Missouri, or that any other places have that connection to genre and style anymore.

I feel doomed to hyperbole when it comes to what makes me unique, especially when introspective singer-songwriters with brown hair and glasses seem to be multiplying like rabbits, but I guess protest songs aren’t too common. I keep my instrumentation stark and minimalist, mostly because there’s only one of me, but also so the words stand out more. And as for the songs themselves, I keep relationship songs to a minimum. I don’t like to hear girls sing about some guy that screwed them over when there’s so much more to sing about in the world. I try to avoid it myself unless I think I have a really clever concept. “Molten” is about a guy who didn’t call me when I gave him my phone number, and “Breathing On Another Planet” is a generic sad breakup where both parties are better off. They just seemed to work better as a song about the fortifying powers of peppermint tea and a song about space travel.

3. What other musician or musicians have inspired you? Can you name someone who is not a musician who has provided inspiration for your creativity?

This is a long list, but Thom Yorke is at the top. Not only is he an amazing singer and songwriter, but his attitude toward writing, the music industry, and many other issues continually inspires me. I’d like to reach a moderate level of fame just so I have a chance to meet him someday.

I’m inspired by musicians who display passion, both in live and recorded performances. Being able to match the energy of a live show in the studio is the kind of artistic prowess I want to develop. I study musicians like Cat Power, Finn Andrews from the Veils, and Brandi Carlile in the hope of figuring out their secrets.

Politicians, and the stupid things they say, often inspire my creativity and lead to specific songs. Most recently, I’ve been reading a lot of stuff by Keri Smith (Wreck This Journal, How to Be an Explorer of the World, the Guerilla Art Kit), and learning to view everything as inspiration, look at the world with the same giddy wonder my dogs experience, and leave no stone unturned, both figuratively and literally.

4. If a friend or family member listened to your music, what parts of your personality would this person recognize in it?

Sarcasm, irony, and pessimism. Hopefully that’s all recognizable to anyone listening to a song like “Beginning of the End,” but it shows up in small ways even in songs where I’m serious and straightforward.

Actually, I just asked my husband this question, and he disagreed completely. Apparently what goes into my music is the part of me I don’t repress in order to get along with other people. Shows how clean my mirror is, eh?

5. What is the most difficult part about being a musician?

Playing live. That includes the performance itself as well as the process of securing opportunities to do so. I’m incredibly antisocial, so the kind of schmoozing one has to do just to get shows at the local level is very difficult for me. And when I do play out and people want to talk to me afterward, I’m so drained that I run the risk of saying something stupid, insulting, or both.

But performing is also the most rewarding part of being a musician, and when I do it right and I put everything I’ve got into the show, I can feel it come back to me even if there are five people listening. That feeling makes me want to do nothing but tour for the rest of my life.

6. Music seems to be an important part of videos and film now. Have you ever imagined what kind of video or film might be perfect for your music? What is the best situation (i.e., time and place) for people to hear your music?

I like the “mini-movie” kind of narrative music videos that are either completely unrelated to the song’s lyrics, or at least take a different perspective on them. I would want to have something going on in a video besides me sitting in a dilapidated building playing the song.

There are so many indie films out there that seem to exist solely for the purpose of the soundtrack. I don’t really like that, but if it gets exposure for new artists, it’s a good thing. While I can’t envision exactly what kind of movie I’d want my music in, I would at least want to know in advance what people are going to see while the song plays.

Nobody likes the idea of their song being background music when they put so much effort into it, but I know that’s unavoidable. I would prefer that people hear my music at a time and place where they can stop and really listen to it in the event that it catches their interest. But beyond that, I have no preferences about the ideal situation. Wherever people like to listen to music is where they should listen to it.

7. Can you think of one event in your life which caused you to decide to “become serious” about music?

I saw Cat Power play in my hometown in late 2005. This was before she released The Greatest, before she got sober, back when she was still playing solo in darkened galleries and stopping in the middle of a song to play something else. I was rooted to my seat through the whole show. Apart from being a female singer-songwriter with a stage name and an electric guitar, I haven’t made much effort to copy Cat Power, but it was thanks to her that I realized music was what I had to do with my life.

8. In what ways do musical people look at the world differently from nonmusical people?

I’m not entirely sure they do… Musical people just have another way to deal with the things they experience. I hate putting people into two camps like that, though the stereotypes are certainly there. My husband is a “nonmusical” person, but when he sends me a link to a news article and says “This would make a good song,” he’s usually right. I think that way of looking at the world is open to anyone who wants to try it, regardless of whether they’re “musical”.

9. Can you talk about your decision to release your songs under Creative Commons licenses? Have the response from your fans surprised you or disappointed you?

Having decided to eschew the opportunities for commercial promotion that a record label may have afforded me if I’d ever managed to get signed, I knew the easiest way to promote myself would be to give my music away. I’ve downloaded enough music that I didn’t consider this a blow to my artistic integrity or anything like that—file sharing is musical evangelism, and any new artist who doesn’t embrace that will find it difficult to generate any kind of interest. When I discovered Creative Commons and Jamendo, I was overjoyed that there was a way to protect my rights as an artist and still let people download and distribute my work for free. I still sell my music through the usual online stores like iTunes and Rhapsody, but I’ve gotten a much better response from giving it away.

I put my first EP on Jamendo in May 2006, and got my first review a week later–in French. That was a pretty amazing feeling, and I still get a little thrill every time someone reviews my music in a different language. I’m gratified that my music connects with fans in different countries, and without Jamendo I might never have gotten that far.

I’ve received some amazing feedback from my listeners, and doing things this way has led to offers of long-distance collaboration, paying gigs in states I’ve never visited, ideas for videos from independent filmmakers, and donations in various currencies that total much more than I ever made off selling physical CDs or songs on online retailers. And it all took virtually no effort on my part, which never ceases to blow my mind. Thirty years ago I could have toiled for half a lifetime in the regional music scene and never made it as far as I already have. And it’s also completely organic, a very advanced form of word-of-mouth, which is beautiful. There’s nothing forced about it. I feel so good about the future of music right now, because it’s that easy for anyone with decent songs to get noticed.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

vavrek January 13, 2010 at 5:09 pm

i love you hannah !

we are still great fans of yours in our house, playing ‘rust’ regularly.

please keep going !!!

we all need voices like yours.

Tyler January 15, 2010 at 11:09 pm

I hate schmoozing as well.

John the Savage June 22, 2011 at 5:07 pm

Is her name Hannah Clemens or Hannah Sheehan?

Robert Nagle June 24, 2011 at 2:56 pm

I think it is Sheehan (at least, that was her name during the inteview). I had a reference to Hannah Clemens in the interview which I removed today for clarity.

Vartul November 23, 2011 at 12:37 pm

I love your songs breathing on another planet, citizen go back to sleep, Do you know and others. I would love to hear more of your voice, and I have a very high respect for artists who release their music free of charge. You’re amazing.

Dan Tuck December 12, 2012 at 3:27 pm

Amazing in fact i was thinking of doing a cover of rust with my band if i can figure out the guitar stuff.

Kenelm August 17, 2013 at 12:38 am

Will Hannah ever make any more music? Rust was so brilliant. Its a shame that there hasn’t been anything else.

Robert Nagle August 17, 2013 at 5:00 pm

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