This year followers of the funk have discovered a major new talent – HANNAH WILLIAMS and the TASTEMAKERS. The London-based nine piece deliver an authentic soul and blues drenched organic funk that has wowed audiences all over Europe. Record-wise they’ve had just two releases –a collectors’ vinyl 45 and a monumentally tough long player – the enigmatically titled ‘A Hill Of Feathers’ – released to acclaim from people like SHARON JONES and CRAIG CHARLES on Italy’s Record Kicks label. But who exactly is HANNAH WILLIAMS, where did a young Londoner get that world-weary, soul-infused voice from and what do the TASTEMAKERS stand for? We caught up with HANNAH to get the answers but first we wanted to know about her background…..
I’ve been singing since I was a very young child and I could read music before I could read words. I was brought up in my late father’s Church where I learnt all I know about harmony from singing in the Church choir. I was never ‘formally’ trained per se, but I have been learning about the voice, emotional representation and the construction of music all my life and I’m still learning. I didn’t find my ‘soul’ voice until I met my song writing partner, Nic ( Hillman Mondegreen) 4 years ago. Before then I felt that the rough qualities of my voice were ugly and unpleasant. With some encouragement, I began to explore and…..it all took off from there!!! I am very fortunate in that my day job is also musical. I am Director of Foundation Music at the University of Winchester which is a huge extracurricular Music Department with 7 choirs and 11 instrumental ensembles. I lead three choirs, one of which is a Gospel choir – The S.O.N.G – Sounds of New Gospel, where I found an outlet for my addiction to harmony. I direct and write/arrange music for this choir and it fills me with joy. It was through this choir that Nic originally heard me sing and tracked me down to ask me to work with him. It’s a seriously big part of my life. I have to confess that…the busier and bigger the band gets, the more likely it is that I’ll have to quit my job and….I think The S.O.N.G is the thing I will miss the most. There’s obviously a huge correlation between Gospel and Soul and I love it!!
Gospel clearly has influenced your sound and style – but what are the other influences that have shaped you?
There are too many to give you a full picture of ALL the influences which have led me to right now so….I will just give you a brief rundown of the soul specific artists I admire and am inspired by….Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Etta James, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Jill Scott, Minnie Riperton, Aretha Franklin.
Your band, The Tastemakers, deliver a real, tough soul sound … where did you find them?
Nic (Hillman Mondegreen), Jimi Needles and I have been working together since 2008 when I joined their ska funk band – Jackson and the Spangles. We all met at the University of Winchester where the lads were studying and where I run the Music Department. The band came to an end when a number of the members left the area after finishing their studies. As soon as the Spangles finished, Nic asked me if I would consider fronting his new soul project. Obviously…I said yes and Hannah Williams and the One Takes (which was our original name) was born. The current Tastemakers have joined us at various stages along the way. A few of our ‘family’ have had to leave due to exciting projects elsewhere which has been really sad but every time someone new has come through the door there’s been a little re-invention which is always refreshing. The most recent additions to the Tastemakers are all people we’ve met out on the road at live shows and through our musical friends and colleagues. It’s a super tight team right now with some world class musicians and…it’s such a joy to play with them all. We’ll always miss our original kids but…hey…everything is cyclical.
Your breakthrough was with a 7″ single –tell us about that and how it led to bigger things – i.e. the deal with Record Kicks
Well…we were interested in getting our sound out there through the authentic means we were so devoted to. A 7″ single seemed an extremely appropriate means through which to get ourselves heard. We sent it to Record Kicks as soon as it was pressed and….they said “welcome on board” straight away. Simple eh?!!
Record Kicks are an Italian label – was there no interest in you from the UK?
It was irrelevant that they’re Italian. RK were genuinely enthusiastic about our sound and were already working with some of our Soul/Funk friends at the time like Baby Charles, The Baker Brothers and Gizelle Smith. We liked what we were hearing and…there was never a doubt that Record Kicks was a good home for the Tastemakers.
Now tell us about the album…. how did you put it together?
The first album has been an interesting project. We record to tape in the interests of authenticity and, quite frankly, creating the best possible sound. We are very much a LIVE act. We record almost everything live (i.e. all together) and over dub as few instruments as we possibly can. We function as a unit, NOT as individuals. We are a true team which is one of the factors I believe sets us apart from a whole host of commercial artists these days. For me, live shows are what it’s all about. I am predominantly a live artist. I like being up on stage with the band and having a whole crowd of hungry listeners around us. I personally practice, change and reinvent my vocals every time I’m behind the microphone. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy the studio process but I always have to close my eyes and imagine an audience in front of me. Weird aren’t I????
What kind of sound were you aiming for with the record?
The one we got! We are interested in presenting a fresh flavour of soul through authentic means and methods.We work really hard to polish and perfect what we deliver both on stage and in the studio. They are very different animals to feed, develop, execute and accomplish but they essentially come from the same process which is playing live to a physical audience and getting better with every note!
The album sounds very organic – was it all recorded “live” – or did you use all the latest gimmicks and gizmos?
Yes you’re right. 100% live. There ain’t any auto-tune in our recording process!!! We record to tape with as many musicians on every take as we can physically fit into thestudio. There are essentially 3 team sessions for each track. 1 -Rhythm section, Me, keys and horns; 2 – Backing vocals ;3 – Strings. Like I’ve already said, we are a live band and it’s the only way we know how to work. In our opinion…it is the best way. If we had the space we would have done EVERYTHING at once but….we’re not quite at Abbey Road yet!
What are your favourite songs on the album?
To be honest, I genuinely love them all. Every track is its own quirky little footprint on the journey so far. But…..I adore ‘Washed up’. The first time Nic (Hillman Mondegreen – writer and guitarist) sang it for me in my old kitchen with a beaten up acoustic guitar….. I wept. The day we recorded it for the album….I wept. The first time I heard our string arrangement played live in the studio….I wept. The first time I heard the full mastered track…..I wept. It is such a moving song. I think it shows off the best of Nic’s inspired lyricism and also the desperate aching qualities in my voice. I hadn’t found these qualities until I started working with Nic so…this really is a flagship song for me in particular.
There’s one cover – the Barbara Lynn song ‘I’m A Good Woman’ – why did you choose that one?
We all loved the original but always felt like it was half a song and there was so much more left. Almost like it was a part 1 of a 2 part song. We wanted some cross-over soul on the album and it seems appropriate to introduce this style to the band through an existing and well respected but not hugely well known song. So…Nic did some clever arrangements, wrote the raspy horn intro and…we got to work. I love our version. It’s respectful of the original in the sense that…we haven’t copied it. We’ve made our own interpretation. We are not a covers band and…this is the only cover we have EVER done. It’s a really special song!
What do you hope to achieve with the album?
World Domination. Ha ha!! …. I guess we just want to reach as many soul loving ears around the world as we possibly can. This is just the first snippet of what HWTM’s have to offer. Album 2 is already well and truly in development and we’re really excited about getting back into the studio once the tour is over in Spring.
The album’s called ‘A HILL OF FEATHERS’ – quite enigmatic for a hard-hitting funk set….
Nic (Hillman Mondegreen) came up with it. It came from Malcolm X’s Autobiography where he describes visiting his mother in hospital. He said it was so hard that it was like trying to climb up a hill of feathers. We just loved that description and you get the feeling that it’s all worth it when you get to the top of the hill and can sit up there all cushioned and comfortable. We all looked a bit confused when he first suggested it as an album title but once he unpacked it and we started working with it…it seemed so right. We just thought there was a lot of interesting imagery and a general suggestion that…it’s been a constant hustle and uphill climb to get to where we’re at right now.
Now, you’re clearly hugely talented and, I’m sure, ambitious – so why haven’t we seen you on stuff like the X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent?
Simple – I am quite passionately opposed to the ethos of the X Factor. It is a money making, commercially driven business that gives very little opportunity to original artists who are trying to do something new and makes huge amounts of cash out of moulding one person into what they want him/her to become. They know what they’re looking for before they even start auditioning and then they publicly humiliate thousands of delusional members of the public who believe they have a talent. I think it’s wrong and irresponsible. My mantra is “you get out what you put in”. Overnight success is the antithesis of my belief!! I believe in grafting, in working hard, and in sweating blood and tears to make it to the top of the mountain, in overcoming challenges and fighting all the way. I’ve worked hard my whole life to get better at what I do and I will NEVER stop trying. I spend my days running an extracurricular, inclusive music department at the University of Winchester where I encourage all of my students to work hard, be creative and manage their expectations. This, for me, is the right way to make music!!! But….on the flip side….tens of thousands of people around the world have auditioned, millions watch the show so….what do I know?????
What about the future and where can we find out more?
Well, we’re heading to Europe in the New Year and are really excited about that. Then…we hope to start recording album 2 which is currently burning a big old hole in our musical pocket. We’re itching to get back in the studio!!!! All our news is available through our facebook page, along with all our tour dates… www.facebook.com/hwtastemakers
HANNAH WILLIAMS AND THE TASTEMAKERS ‘A HILL OF FEATHERS’ is out now on Record Kicks… go to our Review Archive for more details… and check out www.recordkicks.com