Country Music People May 2019 - Page 20

I asked her to tell me more. “I feel the UK scene is very incestuous,” began another carefully considered answer. “Both Sophia and I thought that the more we tried to express our opinions, the more determined that we became to maintain our musical integrity, the more we were labelled as ‘difficult’ by the men who felt they should be calling all our shots for us. We were told what we should wear on stage, including one suggestion of matching black and red hot-pants with hearts on them. We were dropped from a British festival because we asked that our own sound man should take charge of the P.A. for our performance, and we believe we may have lost out on a lot of money because of complex wheeling and dealing we girls were not supposed to worry our little heads about.” I understand that refusal to toe the line eventually resulted in a suggestion from one major British promoter that he could ensure The Toy Hearts never worked in this country again! A stressful situation when music is your living. “My sister had to get away and leave the UK, which was one of the most difficult and painful things we have ever had to deal with.” Sophia Johnson is now a highly rated guitar teacher and one of the most in-demand session players in Austin TX, as well as being the recipient of the 2018 Best Female Western Swing Ameripolitan Award. Hannah’s own song Your Girlfriend Hates Me topped the Hotdisc British and Irish chart for 2017 and made it to #4 in their International Most Popular Songs of the same year; it is perhaps worth mentioning British “country stars” Ward Thomas snuck into that same International Top Thirty at #28 and didn’t make the British & Irish chart for the year at all. Perhaps The Toy Hearts’ ideas were above other peoples’ stations rather than their own. Hannah wonders whether the UK “system” can still make life difficult for the young and aspiring. “I notice,” she told me, “we seem to be in an era of burgeoning singer-song writers with a notion that you don’t need to play with other people.” She firmly believes that sitting in with bands, and joining in jam sessions provide an artist with invaluable experience and confidence. However she also acknowledges solo artists are probably easier to convince they should play gigs for exposure. “The Toy Hearts refused to play for nothing, it was something else that contributed to our ‘difficult’ label, but playing music is how we earn our living, it’s how we pay our bills.” She continued, clearly warming to the subject, “If you have to drive somewhere to play then it costs you for the fuel and if you don’t even get that money paid to you, you are in reality paying to play your music. You are out of pocket. You also have to ask does that promoter think that your music is so brilliant they have to have it on their stage or are they just looking for people who play for nothing? If it’s the second, how disrespectful to your art is that?” She understands many venues do have financial constraints and wonders whether tip jars might be the answer, but only if they are used properly. For some reason in the UK, people who would cheerfully chuck a few coins into a busker’s guitar case and not even pause to listen to the rest of the song will sit in a pub for an hour 20 cmp - MAY 2019 or more enjoying what they perceive as free music without ever dreaming of putting anything in a tip jar. There is another problem here too, “In the States the money in that tip jar belongs to the band. Nobody comes between the musicians and that money; the management don’t decide how much of it the band get to keep.” Our conversation turned to song writing. “I have yet to write a song under pressure,” she told me, “my discipline is to play music every day and as part of that new ideas inevitably get worked on and when they’re ready they are ready. I will always treasure writing with my sister and I enjoy working with my friend Sarah Sharp (formerly of self-styled “1930’s rock band” The Jitterbug Vipers). However in the future I would like to throw myself out of my comfort zone and write with more people, even if I’ve never met them before.” Pressed to name names, Hannah continued, “Lindi Ortega – I adore her song writing and an opportunity to write with her would be awesome.” There are new songs all ready and waiting to go on a new Toy Hearts album entitled Heart Rehab, currently in post production at the Ameripolitan Studio in Austin, where Hannah’s solo release Shaken was also recorded. “The title track was written by my sister and the amazingly talented Brennen Leigh about Dad’s heart surgery last year. Sophia also wrote A Man Can Almost Break You with Jim Lauderdale and it is one of my favourite songs on the album.” Hannah told me the project has evolved into a collection of blues, jazz and swing influences. “We wanted this, our fifth studio album, to be the most authentic representation of who we are.” That authenticity and particularly her musical integrity is hugely important to Hannah Johnson, “music isn’t a self indulgent solo experience for me, it involves connecting with other musicians and, of course, an audience. You can practice in your bedroom until the cows come home, but something very different happens when you sing it through a microphone, on a stage, to real people. Let’s face it, playing bars and helping hard working people chill out is what authentic country music has always been about.” Since The Toy Hearts stopped touring, Hannah has built a loyal UK fan following for her gigs both as a duo with her father and with her larger band, The Broken Hearts. But is she complacent? “No, my work is never done, the learning is never finished; and I totally get a kick outta that.” cmp The Toy Hearts: Heart Rehab released later in 2019. Hannah’s solo album: Shaken is available now.