Interview: Hannah Wicklund Reminds Us That Rock Isn’t Dead

Take a passing glance at Hannah Wicklund, and you might feel like you’re staring back in time to a different era. The 20 year-old Hilton Head, SC native wears the rockstar persona with pride, donning dark mascara and big, curly hair that hangs down nearly half her body. Her retro sound, inspired by classic rock icons like Stevie Nicks and Pat Benatar, is authentic and raw, yet has clearly been tailored over years of performance experience.

The rising star has been playing live gigs since she turned nine, and at just 16 years old, graduated high school early and immediately hit the road, performing as many as six to nine times a week. Her band’s debut album, “Hannah Wicklund & The Steppin’ Stones”, released on January 26th, and we were able to catch up with Hannah to talk about the release, her supporting tour, and growing up surrounded by music. Read the exclusive interview below.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Congratulations on your debut album. In the lead up to the release, was there a lot of press, or was this more anticipation, sitting and waiting for it to finally get released?

HW: “Thank you! I’m very excited about it. There’s been a little bit of press – I’ve had a couple of pieces in Guitar Player & Guitar World, and Premier Guitar [debuted] a single. Guitar Player premiered my music video, and all of that is the first time I’ve ever gotten national press, which is huge. So, it’s a little bit of both, hopefully more to come and a lot of self-anticipation that’s been built up. But definitely more than average in regards to press, so that’s really cool.”

It’s been three years since you released new music. is that how long it took to produce and write this new album?

HW: “As soon as we got done recording and released the last album , we were just on the road, booking shows as much as possible. I wrote intermittently, but I’m definitely more of a project writer. I like to be working once I know that we’re getting back to record a new album. I didn’t really start writing for this album until January of [2017]. It’s hard – I wasn’t really conceptualizing when our next album was going to be coming out or anything like that because we had just moved to Nashville, and the wheels were starting to roll with getting a team built, [which] takes a ton of energy. I just wasn’t focusing on writing yet. But once I did, I got it cranked out.”

Living in Nashville, you’re around tons of songwriters and amazing artists. Has Nashville been an inspiration for you, being around all these other musicians?

HW: “Nashville’s got so much going on. There’s a lot of really cool people and everyone’s busy. It’s such a productive town – you certainly can’t sleep on the job there. Moving to Nashville, I’ve just now started getting into the co-writing culture, which I kinda enjoy – but I’ve only put one foot in – kind of. I did do a really great co-write, the song “Shadow Boxes and Porcelain Faces”, with a guy [by the name of] Lincoln Parish. It was the first time that I had kind of really vibed with someone, and undeniably, we both loved the song that we came up with. I’m looking forward to doing more things like that with the folks I meet in Nashville.”

What is that process like when you’re sitting down with another person to try to co-write a song?

HW: “I know this is an easy way of saying it, but truly, every song is different. My producer and I co-wrote a couple of the songs on the album, and one of them, I had the base of the idea for a long time. So I kind of knew what the song’s vibe was already, in my head, but there were some holes that I needed filled. The melody here, some lyric recommendations there, little things like that – that was one way that we made one of the songs and co-wrote it.

Another [song] was completely from scratch. We sat down and said “Alright, let’s just jam for a second” and we pulled out the riff for ‘Bomb Through the Breeze’ and went from there – we had [the song] done within 45 minutes. So it really is different every time, but it definitely has to be done with someone that you vibe with. I’ve done co-writes that don’t go that well, where you get maybe one or two lines done on one verse, in an hour and a half. And it’s like “Okay, this isn’t working”. It requires a lot of patience.”

Check out the music video for “Bomb Through the Breeze”, which was just added to Spotify’s “Rock This” playlist:

There’s a lot of musical diversity in the album. how do you decide where an album ebbs and flows?

HW: “Diversity is definitely important. I’m a live musician – I love playing live shows, that’s where my background is, 100 percent. This is my first album under the name Hannah Wicklund and the Steppin’ Stones, but I’ve done two EPs and two full-length albums that I’ve put out myself in the years leading up. To be honest, it’s kind of like a formula to me.

If I were to play this album live – which I always do – each set needs to have its high points and its low points, and you’ve got to have different sounding songs; songs need to be in different keys and all these different factors go into making that live set. I really just translate that over into the album when it comes time to sit down and write, and choose the songs. But [it’s all] derived from my live background.”

In building your setlists over time, have they changed based on what you’ve seen the audience react to?

HW: “I actually don’t use setlists often, [but] I’ve been using it on this tour. My brother is a badass, the frontman for the High Divers, and is playing drums for me. With the band situation, we’ve been doing more of a setlist for the sake of the show. But, in the years leading up I’ve always just kind of [played] off the cuff and completely read the energy of the crowd. Because every crowd is different and I’ve played in so many different circumstances.

I’ve played to people eating chicken wings, I’ve played to people with their backs facing me, I’ve played to literal empty rooms. The amount of time that you’re playing makes a huge difference on what you should be playing, too. I wouldn’t play “Shadow Boxes and Porcelain Faces” during a 25 minute set, you know?”

Over time, do you think you’ve been able to pick up during your shows when you should play a slow song, or a fast song?

HW: “I like a lot more fun and vibe off the crowd, and call out each song as I see it – see what they’re feeling. You can easily tell if people are really into it, and grooving and you want to keep it high energy. But if you’re playing a high energy song and about halfway through, their faces kind of looking like they need some water or need a break, or they’re just not really into it, then you know they really want a breather and you can give that to them. It’s good to have all of those types of songs – whatever type of songs you need – in your back pocket.”

do you have a favorite song on the new album that really sticks out to you as THE piece of work that you’re going to remember, looking back?

HW: “I think “Shadow Boxes and Porcelain Faces” is probably my favorite. Its message is very clear to me. [As the last song on the album] I thought a lot about the track listing, and thought about putting it in the middle, but it never seemed like the right fit. This had to be last.”

You’ve played thousands of live shows and you’ve been touring since you graduated high school early at the age of 16. Does performing ever get old?

HW: “There’s literally nothing else I’d want to do. Everyone says this too – we were talking about this the other day – there’s actual post-tour depression as soon as you get off the road. It’s nice maybe for a day, because you just get to kind of relax, but then you just feel like you’re not doing anything. When I’m not going somewhere, I feel like I’m going stir-crazy, like I’m just sitting at home twiddling my thumbs.”

“I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH MYSELF WHEN I HAVE TOO MUCH TIME OFF THE ROAD.”

HW: “Every day is different, I think that’s what touring really is. This entire “thing” is packed into one day, and then you just keep doing it every day. But there’s always new problems arising, things breaking, things being left behind. It seems very glamorous, it’s kind of like my song Shadow Boxes – that’s kind of what it’s referencing. Touring looks really pretty, and it is awesome but it’s also a lot of hard work.”

You just started this tour, supporting the new album. You must be excited to play all the new music NOW that it’s finally out.

HW: “It’s been three years pretty much since I released new music and it’s always really, really nice changing the set up after a while. You can get a little bored of your own stuff, and I was definitely feeling the itch. I was ready to play some new music, so it’s been great. It seems like people enjoy it and that always helps morale when the crowd’s into it.”

When you’re playing at a famous festival or venue, do you get a vibe going into the show that things are different? Does it change the way you perform when the stakes are higher?

HW: “Totally. I try to get excited, and try to put on the same show for everyone, whether there’s a hundred people, a thousand people, or four people. But you can’t help but be really pumped whenever you’re playing something [big] like that. We played the Georgia Theatre and Terminal West – which are two really prominent venues in Georgia. Terminal West is in Atlanta, Georgia Theatre is in Athens.”

We’re born and raised in South Carolina, so we know the Southeastern hub pretty well. We played those two shows [last week] and we were all especially pumped because those venues are like dream venues, ones we’ve been wanting to play for years. The build up to those shows is definitely bigger than others.”

Do you prefer larger, festival stage-size venues, or smaller, intimate venues?

HW: “I don’t know – they’re completely different sets. We’ve played some really cool, big, outdoor festival-style stuff where, obviously, it’s great playing to huge crowds of people. When we’ve done that, those crowds haven’t been there to see us, though. That’s the difference at this point, while we’re still trying to build our own crowd base that will come fill up a festival stage. It is great to play in front of new people, though, and it’s far more exciting, and usually a little bit more youthful.

But, whenever we’re playing smaller venues, everybody in the room is there to see us usually, if we’re headlining. You know that those people care about your music, they’ve made a special effort to come see you, and they know the words to your songs. So it’s really just like two completely polar opposite vibes. I love playing all my shows.”

Speaking of venues, Do you have any favorite locations that you’ve played at? Maybe even a favorite performance?

HW: “It’s the same one I keep telling everybody, but it really is the best one because the crowd, even if it had only been our set:

It was my favorite festival set we’ve ever played. We were in front of a packed-up-to-the stage festival crowd, and it was later in the day at KAABOO Del Mar, in San Diego in September. It was on the same day as Alannis Morissette and Tom Petty, and The Wallflowers. It was just an incredible lineup that we were a part of, and it was our first time playing out West.

It was a lot of firsts and it actually lived up to what I thought it was going to be. There’s nothing cooler — I saw Dennis Rodman backstage. I come out of my trailer/dressing room thing and Dennis Rodman is right there. Then I walk over and I’m watching Alannis [Morissette], next thing I know Tom [Petty]’s on the stage. It’s just, you know, completely crazy, the coolest thing I’ve ever done. That was probably the number one show so far.”

You’re a songwriter, frontman, lead guitarIST, and lead singer for your band, The Steppin’ Stones. do you prefer doing one thing over the others, Or is this a holistic love of all aspects of musicianship?

HW: “It’s a holistic love. I can’t imagine doing one without the others, it doesn’t seem [right]. I couldn’t sing someone else songs, I couldn’t sing and not play guitar, and I couldn’t play guitar and not sing. They all have to be going. It’s just been like that forever. My brother was writing songs really early on. I grew up with him being an avid songwriter, so that portion came really naturally [for me]. Then I started a band and have been singing and playing. We were a three-piece from day one so I’ve never questioned that, either. It’s just been working in unison the whole time, pretty much.”

How did you come to develop your signature, classic rock sound?

HW: “My biggest influence is my dad. He was the one that introduced me to music in general and got me playing piano and bought my first guitar. He’s the one that showed me the music that I listened to. Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, Jimi Hendrix, those were kind of the highlights of what my dad would show me. The Rolling Stones…. To me its the best kind of rock and roll.

Jeff Beck is a big influence on guitar, too. Whenever I feel like I’m playing the same thing and I need to gain a few tricks, I always listen to him and play a little bit cooler stuff the next night.”

“I’M NOT THE KIND OF ARTIST THAT’S GOING TO SING A SONG ABOUT ROCK AND ROLL. I’M PROBABLY NEVER GOING TO SAY THE WORDS “ROCK AND ROLL” IN ONE OF MY SONGS. IT’S MORE ABOUT JUST BEING THE DELIVERY FOR WHAT IM TRYING TO SAY”

HW: “When I first had my band and we were doing cover songs, we were also doing stuff like AC/DC, The Scorpions, Pat Benatar, Bon Jovi. I’ve done the full spectrum of rock and roll. I think I definitely settled on more of a Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks [vibe], more of the authentic artists to me.”

Funny that you mention it, I described you to someone as “A mix between Pat Benatar and the Rolling Stones”. You can hear those inspirations in the album.

HW: “Yeah, ‘Heartbreaker’ and ‘Satisfaction’ were two of the first seven songs that the band covered. There’s actually – if you feel like digging – there’s a really funny clip of me playing ‘Heartbreaker’ when I was ten years old. My voice is like a mouse. We were playing at a festival on Hilton Head. It’ll give you a good chuckle.”

For fans looking to go to one of your live shows, what would you tell them to expect? How would you summarize a Hannah Wicklund performance?

HW: “On this tour, the Sibling Rivalry Tour, it’s definitely unique – I would recommend that people if they want to see the band, come to this tour because it’s probably not going to happen like this again. There’s a super personal touch to this one – I’m playing with my brother.”

What’s that experience been like touring with your brother and his band, the High Divers?

HW: “Let me tell you this – we are together all the time. There’s not a lot of separation going on with this tour. I just kind of crawled into their van. I’m basically borrowing their band for the next two months. We kind of fashioned it after the Tom Petty/Bob Dylan tour when Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers backed up Bob Dylan – so that’s kind of what we’re going for here. It’s awesome. We wake up, we’re all together, we eat together, we hop in the van, it’s usually a couple of hours worth of driving, and we get to the venue. Luckily we’re doing more of the shows where we get to load in earlier in the afternoon, run a soundcheck and have time to stretch our legs and walk around.”

Did music run in the family, or was your dad just inspirational for yourself and your brother, allowing you to then go off and pursue those careers?

HW: “My family overall is really creative. My mom is an artist – she actually did the album artwork for my new record. Her dad was a barbershop singer who sang in a quartet and played banjo. He was musical. It skipped her. My dad was really the first generation music man of his family. Really, “Damn the Torpedos” by Tom Petty was the record that kicked his butt into gear and got him his first drum set, because he always wanted to play drums. He played French horn in school, and naturally got kicked out of band class for playing Neil Young on it. He’s definitely the biggest reason why our family is so musical, though.”

Who are you listening to right now, or listening to on a regular basis?

HW: “I’ve been listening to a lot of Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye in the last few weeks. I love Etta James, and I’m still very stuck in my old school listening ways. But I love Jack White, and I’ve been checking out some newer music, like Greta Van Fleet, and I do like the Black Keys, too. I downloaded Dan Auerbach’s latest record last week. Honestly I don’t really listen to the same thing all the time. I listen to things again every few months. So it’s ever-changing.”

Speaking of Jack White, on his next tour fans are going to have to surrender their phone in order to go to his show. In a perfect world for you, if you had the choice between fans being able to take videos or put their phone away and just enjoy the show, what do you think you’d prefer?

HW: “I would totally love to get to the point to where I can do that. I know that I’m not even close yet, but I agree with Jack White on this one. It’s becoming an epidemic at shows. People are just on their phones the whole show, watching it through a little screen. You want people to be in the moment like you are – that’s what I love about music the most.”

“PLAYING A SHOW IS THE BEST THING IN THE WORLD, BECAUSE FOR AN HOUR, THERE IS LITERALLY NOTHING ELSE THAT NEEDS MY ATTENTION. I’M FOCUSED, I KNOW EXACTLY WHAT I’M DOING. THAT’S MY TIME TO TAKE A COMPLETE BREAK AND JUST NOT BE LOOKING AT A FREAKING SCREEN.”

HW: “I think that if everybody looked at shows that way, and it came back to more of a break from reality, like people used to treat [concerts] as, I think that would be great. But for now, while I’m trying to gain fans and want people to come out to my shows, people taking videos isn’t hurting anything.”

Video from the 1/31 show at Mercury Lounge in New York:
Early Bird’s Matt Burrill caught up with Hannah for a few quick questions after her show at Asbury Park:
You can Check out the new album in the Spotify playlist below, and find Hannah’s tour dates on her website.


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