Ambient and celestial, the music of London Grammar has always found its anchor in the blissfully grounded voice of vocalist Hannah Reid. For third album Californian Soil, Hannah allowed that voice to reach its full stunning power, in more ways than one.
When Hannah Reid told her London Grammar bandmates that she felt it was time she took the conch – stepped into the trio’s lead both visually and conceptually – multi-instrumentalist Dan Rothman remarked that it was “one of the least terrifying things [she’d] ever said.” Which begs the question: Is the delivery of terrifying statements to her musical brethren a common event?
“I have definitely said loads of terrifying things,” the musician laughs freely. “There were a couple of times where I told Dan that I wasn’t coming to a gig that we were playing; I probably really traumatised him.”
It’s incredibly telling then, and speaks to who Dan and third London Grammar member Dominic ‘Dot’ Major are as people, that this conviction of their frontwoman’s was not in the least terrifying.
Hannah Reid’s new perspective – solidified by 10 years in an industry where she’d felt the reins, and her voice, had been taken from her either surreptitiously or else brazenly out in the open, by people not part of the band’s DNA – was something the two men had witnessed. “I think [they] could just see that there were moments in our career where people haven’t respected me enough,” Hannah says. “So they were happy to support me.”
While Dan and Dot clearly take this supporting position seriously, another beautiful comment from Dot illuminates just how much conviction the two have in Reid’s abilities: “Nothing is going to protect Hannah more than the legitimacy of her art.” It’s a little like the maxim that ‘the truth will set you free’ – which can be paradoxical to what we learn from our negative experiences of making ourselves vulnerable. “It’s so true!” Hannah says warmly, adding: “I’m glad that Dot said that. I think I had slightly struggled with making myself vulnerable for this record. That is the thing about London Grammar: it’s very emotional. At the start of our career, if you listen to that first record [2013’s If You Wait], it’s pretty obvious what kind of person I am; you will not find me leading a successful political campaign. So I think what was kind of strange was, I felt like people really expected me to just be able to keep going no matter what – being a totally different person to what I was, just in order to do as many gigs as possible, basically, to make as much money as possible. I think on the second album maybe I closed off a little bit, but on this third one, I feel like I’ve opened up a bit more.”
In one of many insightful lyrics addressing the tensions of womanhood and negotiations within the gender power dynamic, Call Your Friends contains the line: “Every time I tried to make myself seem small in the arms of others, they never loved me better.” It’s true that many women avoid drawing themselves up to their ‘full height’ (metaphorically speaking) within a relationship, for fear of appearing too dominant or in order to leave room for their partner to feel in control. It is, of course, an anaemic way of living and loving.
“I never want to sound like I [don’t love men] – I love my bandmates, I love my partner, and they are amazing – but every one of my girlfriends has been in a relationship like that, every single one,” Hannah says simply. “I myself have felt very much in that position in my life, more than once. And I was just like, well, I am going to sing about this stuff because it’s something that really, really matters.”
Of course it’s always mattered, but uncovering the personal resources to actually vocalise can take time and experience. “I think it’s something about turning 30,” Hannah smiles. “I turned 30 and I was like, ‘I don’t care anymore about what everyone thinks of me! I’m going to say and do whatever I want!’ That lyric means a lot to me.
“I think women over-compromise, all the time. Not every woman does that, but again, it’s been a theme that me and my girlfriends have spoken about, at our little dinners.”
In addition to sifting new thematic territory, London Grammar have lengthened and strengthened their songs’ tendons on this record. The outstanding Lord It’s A Feeling exemplifies and elevates a particular LG trait; the actual tempo of the song is slow, but it’s strong, like an enormous, muscular horse. But it’s also very propulsive, because of the details; the shaker is going for its life, the hi-hat is hitting double time. It is energetic motion folded into a lingering, languid main theme. Reid says this track didn’t slither out fully formed at all. “That song actually took the longest to get right,” she says. “It took us about 18 months, and there are a million different versions. We spent hours and days just building up the track around what is essentially a spoken-word poem. It is quite slow, but we wanted there to be a bit of a groove, and we love D’Angelo so it has a techno moment that makes, hopefully, the emotion in the lyrics pay off.”
The fabulous Talking has a Tori Amos feel to the delicacy of its piano and moodiness of its strings, as well as the way the chords are a little dissonant with the bass. Hannah’s voice is warped as she repeats the refrain “Talk to you, talk to me, talk to you”, as the strings swell around her. The electronic vocal effect was Dot’s idea, as was the construction of the gorgeous piano part. “He wrote it years ago when we were doing the second album, and I remember saying, ‘I love this! I want to do this song!’ and everyone said ‘Yeah, but it doesn’t have a chorus.'” Hannah recalls. “This time I was like, ‘No! I want that song. This is a new me!’” she laughs.
The new Hannah – the new London Grammar – is announced in a track that was the very first written deliberately for the album: the enormously atmospheric Intro. It features an ethereal vocal motif which is repeated almost like a theme song; if Californian Soil was a film, this little phrase would be Hannah’s Theme. As the piece progresses, deep male voices come in to support the melody and weave through it – but Hannah’s melody is always in the lead. “I wanted it to be quite intense, and I did want it to be kind of self-indulgent,” she admits. Like her wish to confront the issues personally important to her, it was time to let it out: “That melody had been knocking around in my head for a long, long, long time.”
Californian Soil by London Grammar is out April 16 via Universal.
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