hannah reid’s guide to songwriting

The London Grammar singer takes us by the headphone and guides us through the sensual word of her award-winning creativity.

In the basement of a converted church in Glasgow’s West End, London Grammar’s lead singer Hannah Reid is confessing her love for old Disney music to me. “Honestly – if you re-watch some of the original films, the music is incredible!” she says, rising from her pre-show hush in a brief moment of giddiness. “They just put so much into it.”

Her favourite, she says, is Colours of the Wind: the grandiose, environmental love song from Pocahontas. Brimming with metaphors and animistic qualities, you can sift through its lyrics, sit them next to those that Hannah has written, and note the dream-like themes that tie the two together.  

That’s intentional. Hannah cites these rousing, filmic numbers as huge influences when writing her own lyrics; a skill that earned her – as well as her bandmates Dan (who plays guitar) and Dot (who deals with percussion and keys) – an Ivor Novello Award back in 2014 for their cinematic ballad, Strong. But tonight marks the first time a British audience will hear live renditions of songs from the band’s highly anticipated follow-up, Truth is a Beautiful Thing. “I’m nervous, but excited!” she tells me. “It feels like such a weight off of your shoulders to let people [hear] what you've been working on."

From what we’ve heard, Truth is a Beautiful Thing promises to match the sheer beauty of its predecessor, and those themes of unrequited love and heartache, encased in allegories, remain pivotal to London Grammar’s style. Oh Woman, Oh Man, the band’s latest single about the lengths you’ll go to win the heart of someone you love, is the perfect example of that: “There is nothing I can do,” Hannah sings, “but steal the moon”, an impossibility captured in a way only her lyrics could.

How do you become an award-winning songwriter with an adoring audience yearning to deconstruct your every word? I asked Hannah about her knack for writing full and melancholic lyrics, her battles with writer’s block, and what it was like to have her words put to visuals by American History X director Tony Kaye.

I first started to write when I was really young...

I loved Whitney Houston, Fleetwood Mac, Michael Jackson; my mum played a lot of Motown and I liked to listen to film soundtracks too! Back then, I was writing silly songs, but I remember the first song I ever wrote [after] my very first boyfriend dumped me. I was 14 – it was the worst thing I’ve written!

All of my lyrics are personal; Dot and Dan just accept that...

But very quickly, the lyrics take on a whole new meaning for them. The boys will channel those emotions into the music that they write. Sometimes we start with lyrics, and other times they will have a written piece of music and I’ll write the lyrics around it.

Songwriting is quite an insular thing for me…

But the best advice that we’ve taken as a band came from [Coldplay’s] Chris Martin. He told us that “If there’s no tension on a violin string, it won’t make a sound.” I thought that was amazing. We are a band in the traditional sense and every decision is collaborative. [The new album’s] production was still quite isolated; just us three for most of the time. We did have a writing session with (Adele and Beck collaborator) Greg Kurstin, though!

There’s always a pressure to write…

And I think I’ve experienced writer’s block before, but it usually [happens] when I’m trying to force something. I think that’s what makes a second album so difficult; because we were on tour for two and a half years, we had such a short amount of time to work on this album. Really, I think the best work often comes when you’re completely relaxed and not worrying.

My [songwriting] style is very unstructured…

I write all of my lyrics in a notebook, [but] I’m not somebody who writes every single day; only when I feel the need to. That’s so [everything I write is] self expression in the purest form. I probably should try and write everyday – but it just doesn’t work. I’d end up doing 10 crap songs!

The lyrics on this album are very nomadic…

They’re less rooted in one place… a bit more dreamlike. I think that’s because we were touring [as I wrote it]. Your environment always affects your subconscious, and so whatever you write [usually] reflects the situations you’ve been in.

I love that you can say a lot by describing a picture…

So a lot of our lyrics are based on the images in my head. There are some words and ideas that come up repeatedly, like the idea of [imagining] the human body being made out of other elements. [For example], on the new album, sand comes up a lot.

[American History X director] Tony Kaye is an amazing guy…

Dan has a really good friend whose Dad had worked with him. He played Tony a bunch of our songs and he was really up for [working together]. He’s a really creative person. He shot the music video for Oh Woman, Oh Man, and then he made an art installation that was basically the set up the music video. Fans were able to come down and see what we had done – it was really chilled out!

When you’re sad, you’re drawn to sad songs…

But I know when I am in a good mood I tend to listen to Beyoncé, or if I’m out with my friends I listen to positive music! But music is different for everyone. I think that’s the beauty of [it]: that people connect to it in their own way. Once [our music] is out there, it’s got nothing to do with me anymore, and that’s such a nice feeling.

A bad metaphor I use? There is one…

I’ve said it a couple of times when I’m drunk, or when someone else is: “As drunk as a banana”. I don’t know why! Of all of the fruits, I think that it’s the one that seems the most drunk!

The advice I’d give to aspiring songwriters…

Keep doing it, you know? The more you write, the better you get. Try to stay true to what you love and don’t listen to anyone else!

London Grammar’s Truth is a Beautiful Thing is released on 9th June.

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