London Grammar: “I always end up being the only female in the room”

Stop! Hannah time. How the indie-pop trio unlocked new possibilities when frontwoman Hannah Reid became the outspoken voice of the band

It’s almost impossible for Hannah Reid to pinpoint a single moment of music industry misogyny that caused her to snap.

“We were sound checking for a gig, and I thought that the bass was too loud,” the London Grammar frontwoman remembers of one particularly egregious moment. At this particular show, her two male bandmates, instrumentalists Dot Major and Dan Rothman, were taken seriously when they asked the engineer for changes. When Hannah voiced her concern about the sound levels, though, she received an unwanted lecture on how bass actually works.

“Afterwards,” she says with an eye roll over Zoom from her home in London, “everyone complained that the bass was too loud, and I was like, ‘Yeah – I bloody said it!”

This interaction with a huffing, sexist sound engineer was hardly a one-off occurrence for the singer across countless tours. Over the course of NME’s 90-minute interview, she recounts innumerable daily sexist microaggressions she’s faced in the music industry – experiences that served as the catalyst for the band’s upcoming third album, ‘Californian Soil’.

NME Cover 2021 London Grammar
Credit: Zoe McConnell for NME

London Grammar first formed in 2009 after meeting at Nottingham University; a few years later, they emerged as one of the UK’s buzziest rising bands after the release of 2012’s ‘Metal & Dust’ EP, and (now Double Platinum) debut album ‘If You Wait’. Both were filled with the band’s intoxicating blend of art-pop – a fusion of trip-hop production, lush soundscapes and Hannah’s emotive, contralto voice. It was a sound that would earn them a slew of awards nominations (including winning an Ivor Novello for the emotive, ambient ‘Strong’), Glastonbury slots and gigs all over the world.

The band – often described as “polite” and “guarded” in interviews – allowed their music to do the talking, a trend that continued on their second album, 2017’s triumphant ‘Truth Is A Beautiful Thing’, which soared to Number One here in the UK.

Behind the scenes, though, things weren’t quite so peachy. The list of sexist experiences Reid draws on for ‘Californian Soil’ is neverending. There was the mix-up before a gig when Hannah had to argue with a security guard to let her backstage to her own show, as they didn’t believe she was in the band. She later found out the staff member in question had told their tour manager that she was “a formidable young woman”.

“I was just like, ‘For fucks sake’. If I was fucking Chris Martin, he would not be called a formidable young man,” she reflects. “To me that’s just code for ‘bitch’.”

NME Cover 2021 London Grammar
London Grammar on the cover of NME

There were photoshoots where Hannah was pushed to wear certain outfits. She recounts one television appearance when she turned up to discover a rail of pre-approved ‘looks’: “One was like a glittery, very short gold dress, another one was red satin little shorts with like a little satin crop top. I do love fashion and I will dress up every once in a while if I want to, but Dan and Dot were definitely not having to put up with this. I will just wear what the fuck I want to wear, thank you very much.”

There were the industry men Hannah felt like she couldn’t show emotion around, lest she be considered ‘irrational’; the strangers who commented on what she wore online; the rooms she’d walk into with her male bandmates and feel like she had to constantly prove herself. Then there was the time that, after appearing on Radio 1 back in 2013, a tweet was posted on the station’s Twitter account that read: “We all think that the girl from @londongrammar is fit. Let us know if you agree.”

NME Cover 2021 London Grammar
Hannah Reid of London Grammar. Credit: Zoe McConnell for NME. White jacket and trousers: Amlul, Vest: Weekday, Jewellery: Alighieri

Over the course of a decade in London Grammar, the double standards constantly on show proved understandably exhausting for the vocalist. “If I’m strong-minded, I’m being really ‘difficult’ or I’m being a ‘bitch’,” she says, “whereas for the boys they’ve just got ‘integrity’ over what they do. It can be a really, really tiny thing – but if you have it every day, and it becomes a thousand moments, it can actually change who you are… You can’t let it go when it’s happening all the time.”

She adds: “I felt like I started to mould myself around certain men. I just felt like I had a different task to the boys. They could walk into a room and just be taken seriously as musicians straight away.”

When finishing the tour for the band’s second record at the end of 2017, something had to give. While Hannah is adamant that quitting London Grammar wasn’t on the cards, there were moments when she considered if it was all worth it.

“I did think that I wasn’t cut out for the industry,” she reflects today. “And I did say to Dan and Dot, ‘I don’t want this to end, but something does have to change because I just can’t keep doing my best work or going out on the road if I’m going to come back and feel this way.’”

“I wasn’t making myself vulnerable with our second album; I wasn’t taking risks” – Hannah Reid

But instead of quitting, Hannah pushed forward with work on album three, stepping up into a figurehead role in the band, taking on responsibility for most of the record’s visual aesthetic and bringing more of herself to the songwriting. There was no big conversation about this shift in dynamic between the trio, but work on ‘Californian Soil’ came alongside a natural gear change.

Released in 2017, ‘Truth Is A Beautiful Thing’ saw the band embrace the dreamier side of their sound, with a focus on melancholy melodies and symphonic moments. Yet there were moments where Hannah felt like she was hiding behind these lugubrious instrumentals. It’s a stark comparison to ‘Californian Soil’, where Hannah’s deeply personal lyrics are the record’s beating heart. “I love our second record, I really do – there are parts of it that are really beautiful,” Hannah says, “[but] I wasn’t making myself very vulnerable and I didn’t feel like I was taking any risks,” she explains.

On album three, Hannah’s mindset changed: “I felt like, ‘You know what, that really didn’t work for me and I kind of have nothing else to lose now’. I want to just be completely vulnerable, say everything that I want to say and people will like it or they won’t.”

NME Cover 2021 London Grammar
Dot Major of London Grammar. Credit: Zoe McConnell for NME. Trousers: Levis, Jacket: Ami, Top: Rag and Bone, Shoes Dot’s own

At the core of the switch was ensuring her experiences in the past aren’t replicated in the future. “I did say to [Dot and Dan], if I’m the leader, other people will have to respect me and respect us.”

Her bandmates were happy to let her take the reins. “Lyrically, [‘Californian Soil’] is very much about Hannah’s experience as a woman, and we wanted that message to come through as loud as possible,” Dot tells NME on a separate Zoom call alongside Dan a few days later.

This shift in dynamic is strikingly evident on album three, a record in which Hannah refuses to hide, her songwriting and stories bursting out front and centre. “I was hiding my vulnerability away and hiding the message of songs away,” she says of the band’s past material. This time around, the increased focus on the meanings behind the songs makes for the band’s most honest and personal work yet.

Take the trip-hop-infused album centrepiece ‘I Need The Night’, on which Hannah dissects the emotional effect the weight of the music industry’s misogyny had on her: “There’s a lyric, ‘Take all your limbs and wrap them round your neck / So they all laugh at your predicament’, which is about that feeling of those thousand moments that I’ve experienced over the course of my career, and how then I internalised it and tied myself up in knots because I didn’t feel like I could always be my true self in the industry I was in.”

“‘Californian Soil’” is very much about Hannah’s experience as a woman” – Dot Major

The restless tune later relaxes into a sonorous chorus that sees her sing: “I need the night / And I need this drink / Will you sit with me / And bring all your friends / Chase the morning light until all of this ends,” a cathartic moment that feels like a visceral release of all the industry bullshit she’s had to put up with.

Elsewhere, the cinematic ‘Lord It’s A Feeling’ sees the trio mesh rich strings with brooding synths, as Hannah’s distinctive powerhouse vocals and lyrics depict the heartbreak she felt at seeing friends stuck in suffocating toxic relationships. “I saw it too many times and do get very affected,” she says. “I think I am a bit of an empath and I obviously have had experiences like that myself as well.”

Hannah’s newfound freedom in writing also bursts out in the album’s instrumentation: ‘Californian Soil’ is by far the band’s most upbeat, jubilant record yet. The trio’s soaring art-pop is this time imbued with a blast of Balearic sun and contains floor-filling beats that would feel at home after-hours at Glastonbury. Euphoric lead single ‘Baby It’s You’, a song about “being at a festival and being in love,” as she puts it, is a slice of pure joy, filled with vibrant hooks and sleek production from electronic producer George FitzGerald.

NME Cover 2021 London Grammar
Credit: Zoe McConnell for NME

The process of creating ‘Californian Soil’ began in 2017, just after the band had finished touring album two. Decamping to Dan’s ‘Narnia’ studio (a hidden room in his old house in north London, accessed by pulling back a wardrobe to reveal a ladder up into the attic), the band worked on demos, later fleshing them out at a bigger studio.

“This was the first time that we fundamentally did the process together ourselves,” Dot explains of the record’s production on previous releases they worked with executive producer figures such as Paul Epworth and Tim Bran, but this time around they largely took on the knob-twiddling responsibility themselves, something Dot says was both daunting and magical.

Outside input was still at hand at points, though. Alongside the aforementioned FitzGerald, hitmaker Steve Mac (who’s worked with Ed Sheeran and Little Mix) and indie favourite Charlie Andrew (best known for his work with alt-J) also assisted with production on a handful of songs. The list of credits stand out, though – for a record with such a feminist angle, all the guest producers are male.

“That was a big conflict within me,” Hannah admits. “It’s changing now but there aren’t many female producers out there. That’s something that I really hope can change and it’s something that I do want to think about for a fourth album.

She calls the lack of female producers in the industry “the strangest part of the music business”, adding: It’s like that’s a man’s world, and I’ve struggled with that massively. I always end up being the only female in the room.”

NME Cover 2021 London Grammar
Credit: Zoe McConnell for NME. Suit: Paul Smith, Boots: Dorateymur, Jewellery: Alighieri

‘Californian Soil’ is an album that’s begging to be enjoyed in sweaty clubs and as the sun sets over a festival stage. “It’s the most upbeat London Grammar have ever been,” says Hannah. Having sat on the finished album for 12 months, the band naturally intend to tour once it’s COVID-safe, but after the brutal nature of the band’s early tours, it’ll have to be done right.

The band’s promotional tour around ‘If You Wait’ was relentless, Hannah remembers: “The longest period of time we had at home in two years was nine days.” As a result of the intense, constant touring, the singer developed fibromyalgia, a long-term condition that causes chronic pain all over the body; fellow sufferers include Lady Gaga and Sinead O’Connor, suggesting it’s a consistent problem in the music industry.

“It came on pretty strong,” she explains. “Then, in between the first and second albums, I really worked on my health and got my health back, but then it relapsed. When we started making the third album, I was also trying to really get to the bottom of where it was coming from.

“This album is the most upbeat London Grammar have ever been” – Hannah Reid

“Having it did impact on the process [of ‘Californian Soil’]. At the start I had no energy, I could only work for a few hours, sat down with a hand held microphone in Dan’s studio. But slowly I regained strength. I like to think that the support I had from the boys and how understanding they were helped me actually get better.

On those early tours, the band were constantly hugely overworked, their schedule filling up with entire tours booked in that the band themselves hadn’t approved. “You’re too young to understand that actually, you should be in control,” Hannah reflects now.

Dan, a new father, says the endless sleepless nights he’s currently experiencing takes him back to the band’s never-ending grind. “My kid is four weeks old,” he says. “The only thing I can compare the tiredness to is how I felt on that first album cycle – that’s literally my comparison.”

NME Cover 2021 London Grammar
Dan Rothman of London Grammar. Credit: Zoe McConnell for NME. Shirt: Paul Smith, Trousers: Acne, Shoes: Converse

Hannah remembers returning from tours “completely depleted,” with friends and family increasingly expressing worry about her wellbeing every time she came home. “It’s kind of difficult to talk about to be honest. It makes me feel incredibly guilty, because,” she says before pausing. “I don’t know… especially in a time right now when people are really suffering, to ever talk about [touring] being difficult is like… it was the most amazing thing that ever could have happened to the band.”

She was particularly moved by 2017’s Avicii: True Stories, a devastating documentary about the Swedish DJ, which showed the pressure and physical exhaustion he was victim to behind the scenes. Avicii later died by suicide in April 2018.

“Whenever I watch documentaries like that I cry uncontrollably – they just have such a big impact on me,” she says, “but the Avicii one I found the closest to home.” She relatedly closely to the late DJ’s personality type and how, as was the case with her, “something physically started to go wrong with his body.” She adds: “In that documentary, you can see that he is being very subtly coerced by the people around him all the time to keep going. You do see it happen again and again and again. Artists keep being burnt out, and at the end of day you are still a human being.”

In the band’s early days, Hannah would drag herself from show to show, forcing herself on stage each night. Sometimes she didn’t turn up to shows altogether. “It’s just unfair on everyone,” she reflects today. “It’s not right for the artist and it’s not right for the people that have bought the tickets to see you. We had different managers at the beginning of our career, who aren’t our managers anymore. And people say that it’s not about the money – that they want what’s best for you – but it’s just not true. It is absolutely about the money.”

“Artists keep being burnt out – you see it happen again and again and again” – Hannah Reid

At the start of their careers the band worked with an “iconic manager” with an “old-school” mentality, who had supported the band from the very beginning. “He was also one of the first people who said, ‘You’ve got an incredible voice – we need to do something with this’”, Hannah recounts of their relationship. But ultimately the workload piled on top of the band meant that they had to part ways with said manager as they felt overworked and exhausted.

“To say it was stressful doesn’t even begin to actually sum up how difficult it was,” adds Dan of the split, which came between the band’s first two albums. “I just remember endless conversations with lawyers, and just the complications of it. It was really, really stressful.”

The band rallied together throughout this difficult process, and are now surrounded by a new team. Hannah, Dan and Dot are now responsible for signing off on their own schedules, too, which means the trio will turn down opportunities if they result in overwhelming levels of work and time away, with a focus on keeping the band healthy.

NME Cover 2021 London Grammar
Credit: Zoe McConnell for NME

But at least the hidden turmoil the band experience wasn’t all for nothing. “I think I’m a better person because of it,” Hannah reflects. “I think we’ll tour a lot less, but in a way I’m glad, because if I’m then looking at a schedule that I know is manageable, I will then be able to make each and every one of those gigs so special. If you end up in a place where you’re so exhausted or unwell, you’re not giving your fans what they deserve.”

With ‘Californian Soil’, the band have plotted a course that will, hopefully, ensure the album is celebrated live as it should be – with the best show the band can give, and Hannah leading the charge, respected as the impressive frontwoman that she is.

In stepping back, London Grammar have examined the demons of the past and identified a clearer path forward – one that lies in Hannah taking her place as the true leader of London Grammar, giving her the space to push back against the sexism she’s faced near-daily in her career. This shift in dynamic may see her giving the fans what they deserve, but more importantly, she’s giving herself what she deserves too.

London Grammar’s ‘Californian Soil’ is out April 9

CREDITS:

Styling by Charlotte Roberts
Makeup by Ninni Nummela
Hair by Kei Terada