It’s safe to say Philippa Hanna is a veteran of the live music circuit. As well as having over 1,000 live performances under her belt, she’s opened for artists as varied as Lionel Richie, Leona Lewis, Anastacia and Collabro.
However, her career has recently gone stratospheric with the release of her sixth album, Come Back Fighting, which topped the UK iTunes country chart when it was released in December. Now she’s heading out on the road for a string of intimate headline tour dates.
I caught up with Philippa recently to talk about the tour, her new single Getting On With Life, the experience of crowdfunding her album and more.
What can people who come and see you on tour expect?
Well, I’m hoping we have a great night. I’m going to be playing songs from the new album, Come Back Fighting, and then my general style is that I like to tell stories. So I’ll be sharing the stories behind the songs and some of my journey over the last sort of 18 months. I’m taking out a small band so hopefully there’ll be lots of energy and fun, and I’m gonna be taking out a couple of support acts as well so we’re gonna be choosing local support acts for each show. So hopefully a really good, fun-packed night.
How would you describe your music?
So people have always said to me that I’ve got a country flavour, and I think that’s because I was raised on country music so people sort of recognise that in my voice and the style of songs that I write, because I do try and write stories and I get inspired by real life situations and experiences that I’ve had. But also there’s other flavours in there as well – so a little bit of folk, gospel, soul. I’ve got broad tastes so I’m a big fan of people like Brad Paisley but also a big fan of people like Stevie Wonder, so it’s quite broad.
I read that since you started out you’ve played over 1,000 live performances – what’s the one thing you’ve learnt from that?
Yeah, it’d be well over 1,000 now because it was a little while back that we hit that milestone. I believe that it’s actually not about impressing people so much as serving them. That’s a lesson that I’ve learned from my dad, who’s a really great entertainer. He’s always had the ethos that you’re there to serve the audience and make sure they have a great time, and turn those frowns upside down so to speak. So I think it’s very much like a service industry really, where you’re there to be what they need you to be in that moment.
Do you have any particular favourite places you’ve played – either venues or cities or countries that you’ve visited?
I’ve done a few theatre tours now opening up for other artists, so places like the [London] Palladium, the Birmingham Symphony Hall, St David’s Hall – there’s just some fantastic theatres. But I really enjoyed going up to Scotland. They know how to have a good time and they’re rowdy. And the same in Belfast. I really like going to places where there’s a strong culture of live music because they just love to get involved, to sing along and you automatically don’t feel uncomfortable. You just feel like you’re ready to go.
Are there any songs that you find get a particularly good audience reaction when you play them live?
My single Getting On With Life – there’s always just a complete stillness when we play that song, I think because of the subject. The song is about empathy, it’s about having that realisation that other people are going through things as well as you, and so whilst it’s hard it’s so important to try and remember you’ve no idea what people are dealing with in their lives. When they might appear rude or impatient or obnoxious, actually that’s usually because they’re going through something. I wrote the song when as a family we were watching my dad go through chemo and I know how anxious and touchy that made me. So whenever we play that song and I share the story behind it there’s always a stillness, and I feel like it’s a good revelation to have that we need to be kind and patient with each other.
Do you write a lot when you’re touring, or do you tend to put them in separate boxes?
I always have ideas, and especially when I’ve just come off stage and my head is full of music. I do tend to get good ideas at those times but I don’t have the time to graft and turn them into great songs. So I think it’s a bit of both – I have to take time out to put the work in to finish songs and make sure they’re good. But I do get really inspired on the road, so it’s almost a bit like a collecting thing where I’ll collect ideas for a later time where I can actually sit down. And also where I can involve other artists – I love co-writing so when I’m not on the road I can get in the studio with other musicians and draw on their genius.
Your latest album Come Back Fighting went to number one on the UK country charts – how was that?
Unbelievable. I had no idea that that was gonna happen because it’s our first time really shooting for the country market, actually. Although I’ve always had that flavour we’ve never really pitched it into those charts. So it was just really encouraging and humbling. The country music fans know what they like and they know what’s real, so it was good validation to have that. I think country music is great music – it’s great songwriting, it’s great musicianship. You can’t fake it, and it’s not easy to get away with trying to do it. So I definitely felt super-encouraged. And it was lovely because obviously with my family and my dad being in country music, it was great to say ‘dad, guess what? We’ve had a really good response from the country fans’.
Do you have a favourite song on the album? Were there any that were particularly easy or particularly difficult to write?
Off The Wagon was the first single, and I wrote it in about 20 minutes. It’s one of those songs that when we play it live, it’s just a winner. It’s an instant connector, it’s fun, people find themselves singing and doing actions before we’ve even said anything because it’s just fun – ‘keep on driving, keep on driving, all the way to beautiful horizons’. So I think that was one of those ones that fell out of the sky almost. It was just super-easy.
And then there were songs that were a little bit more difficult to write, like A Million Flowers, which is about trying to find a way to give thanks for someone’s life when they’ve passed away. That one took a big longer because I actually wrote it for a family whose son was tragically killed in a hit-and-run, and they asked me if I could write something for him. That’s probably the hardest thing to do because I sat down and I just thought ‘there aren’t any words, there are no words to give thanks for this young man who’s given them a lifetime of love and who will never be forgotten and who’ll always be missed’. So that ended up being the premise for the song, that you could plant a million flowers and it wouldn’t be enough. You could sit and write a song for ever, it wouldn’t be enough. That was a harder one to dig for.
One thing I found was that the album has quite a lot of different styles and influences on there. Was that something you consciously set out to do or did it just evolve that way during the writing and recording process?
Yeah, I just can’t help it. When the song unfolds it sort of tells us what we need to do. So songs like Off The Wagon and Getting On With Life and A Million Flowers just read straight country and there’s no other way to make them. Whereas other songs had a bit more of a soul influence or a gospel influence and we just had to let the song lead.
You crowdfunded the album – what made you choose that route? And what have been the pros and cons of it?
We’ve been in a lifelong conversation with several major labels, and the process is so draining and it can really give you the feeling like you wanna give up. For me music is freedom and escapism, and the music industry is just so much business and it’s all about money. So we wanted to make another album and we didn’t want to wait around for the major labels to kind of pull their bootstraps up and get on with it, so we looked to our fans and told them we had songs and asked them if they would help. And so they did. So against I was just always surprised, amazed, thankful that they were willing to get involved.
So the pros are we got to do the album, and we got to make the songs we wanted to make. The cons are just the stress of watching that little green line move up and thinking ‘are we gonna make it? Are we going to be able to do this?’ It’s always tough because it’s a 90-day campaign, so for 90 days you’re just checking it every half an hour to see if you’re getting there and it’s always the last couple of days where it kind of comes in. So I would say it’s a bit of a workout for your faith and your optimism [laughs]. But it’s worth it in the end because you know that the people who really, really matter – the people you’re making the music for – are the ones who have gotten behind it. So it’s not a bad thing to do overall.
You’ve written two books so far; how does writing a book compare to writing songs?
I feel like it’s easier in some ways because you don’t have to think of any melodies [laughs]. But in other ways it’s harder because it just takes a lot longer, and like anything it’s the sitting down and getting on with it that’s the hardest part. So you tend to find yourself procrastinating and ‘oh, d’you know what? I’ll clean out the drawer upstairs’. You find yourself distracted. But it is a great feeling of accomplishment to get a printed, glossy smells-like-print book in your hand and think, ‘actually, I’m not perfect and I’m not a genius but I did manage to do this’. It’s a good feeling.
What got you into music, and when did you decide you wanted to pursue it as a career?
So I was always on stage with my dad even from being a kid, but it was when I was 13 and he got me a keyboard for Christmas. I just found myself making up songs and realised I could do it, and from the minute I realised I could put a song together that is what I wanted to do because it was just magic. It was just magic to start with nothing and end up with something. Aged 13, 14, 15 I’d rush downstairs and be like, ‘Mum, I’ve done another one! Come and listen, come and listen!’ And then before I knew it I had 50 or 60 [songs] and I just found the whole thing exciting – the process of creating. For me being in music is because I’ve got songs and I just really want people to hear them.
You’re currently doing a series of daily YouTube videos – why did you decide to do that? Have there been any that have stood out to you so far?
Yeah, so the series is called Inspiration 365, and because a lot of my songs cover things like self-esteem, confidence, mental health, rejection – just stuff that I’ve encountered – I found that my social media life has ended up being almost like therapy. I’ve had so many people talk to me about their stuff and we’ve been on this journey together, me and my little core fan base, of honestly talking about things. So I thought it’d be great to turn that into a video series and spend a bit of time with people every day – just a couple of minutes. It’s hard work and it is a big commitment but already I’ve had young girls say to me ‘if I hadn’t seen this video today I don’t know how I would have got through the day’. So it’s really special.
The one video that’s had the most response, the most inboxes, the most messages from people in private has been the video where I talk about how mental health affected my education as a teenager. When I was 13 I struggled with really crippling anxiety, and people make fun of anxiety, like ‘oh come on, just get over it, we all have days where we feel a bit off, we all have days where we feel a bit nervous’. But an anxiety disorder is completely impossible to get on with a normal day when your head is full of anxious thoughts. It’s really hard. It’s something that I really empathise with and when kids tell me that they’re out of school or they’re really struggling to concentrate, I completely relate to that. And the message of the video was simply ‘yeah, I did lose out in my education, but the education that that gave me has given me a career’. In many ways it’s like making lemonade out of lemons. I had a really, really tough time but it’s what my songs are about, and it’s what my writing is about, and it helped me to help others. So I just want people to know that even if they feel they’ve been robbed by mental health issues, that in some ways they can be given a gift by that that will set them up for the future.
If you had a career bucket list, what would be on that?
Oh, amazing! I love these. So, career bucket list – I really would love to have a hit, hit song, a song that people remember. So if you sang it to them in Asda they’d go ‘oh yeah, I’ve heard that song, that’s a great song’. So that’s top of my list is to have a hit song, even if it’s just one hit song. I would also really, really love to tour with someone like Brad Paisley. I’m a huge fan of his work. I still haven’t toured extensively in the US, so I’d really, really like to do that. Yeah, that’s probably my top three.
What’s next for you – more writing, festivals etc?
Yeah, all of the above. I’m doing everything really but one of the priorities is to put Inspiration 365 into a book. So in March we have a little bit of time off performing to make sure I do that and pull it all together. It’s already written but it just needs some editing and things like that. So yeah, Inspiration 365 will be a book by Christmas – I’m super-excited about that. And then we’re heading off to Nashville after the tour to go and do some more music and songwriting. So busy times ahead.
Philippa Hanna’s album Come Back Fighting and her new single Getting On With Life are available now. You can see Philippa on her UK tour on the following dates:
Tuesday 3rd April – O2 Academy 3, Birmingham
Wednesday 4th April – Night & Day, Manchester
Thursday 5th April – Bush Hall, London
Friday 6th April – The Plug, Sheffield