London Grammar Frontwoman Hannah Reid Tells Us About the Personal Growth That Led to ‘Californian Soil’

To some extent, London Grammar is a band out of time — or at least from a slightly different one than when they’re actually making music. Listening to their new album “Californian Soil,” there are traces of Portishead, Zero 7, of Dido, of Massive Attack, a sound that’s icy and yet emotive, precise but deeply felt. If ‘90s electronica and trip hop begat a roster of successors, London Grammar is at its forefront, with songwriter and frontwoman Hannah Reid providing the human heart at the center of musical landscapes lovingly, and meticulously, crafted by partners Dominic “Dot” Major and Dan Rothman.

Entertainment Voice recently spoke to Reid to discuss the creation of “Californian Soil” and reflect on the growth of a band that’s both inheriting a familiar sound and forging ahead in new and striking directions. In addition to talking about the interpretive process — in adapting her experiences into the songs that have made them a worldwide phenomenon — Reid revealed the spaces and inspirations that allow her to reach the heights of her creativity, and examined the many ways that London Grammar’s success thus far, the media, and the work itself has not only shaped their collective evolution, but their perceptions of what they have achieved, and hope to in the future.

This is a really lovely record. As I was listening to it, I was thinking about this tradition of pioneering English electronic artists — you could go back to Brian Eno, but more recently of acts from the ‘90s, like Massive Attack and Portishead, Zero 7, Dido. How do you, or don’t you, see yourselves fitting into that lineage?

Well, if we do fit into any kind of lineage along those lines, that’s incredible. But it’s funny you use those artists as a reference, because I feel like London Grammar is a slight marriage between the two things, like a Zero 7 band when my role as a vocalist is to top-line music the boys have made, and then there’s another side of us that is a bit more like Dido, [where] I’m the songwriter and it’s about my story. We kind of have both sides to us, really.

This album liberally references America both broadly and specifically. What does that focus or subject matter mean for you? 

In “Californian Soil,” it’s more that those words just came out because of the sound of the music, and I’m not saying anything political about America. And then in the song “America,” obviously there is a slightly more political angle there, but again, I’m using it as a kind of metaphor for a personal experience of finding yourself, and maybe the death of the ego thing. For me, I grew up with so much American culture. I grew up with the big Hollywood movies, Hollywood TV shows, all of those superstars, the pop music that came from America. I was actually obsessed, and I loved country music as well. But I didn’t go there until I was like 24, until we were touring with the band, and then when I was there, I was really struck by, first of all, how lovely all of the people were. Like, what people say about Londoners is true, we’re all really cold and mean to each other, especially when we’re on the tube. And I was like, Americans are so lovely. And it was like the most life-changing experience. It was so amazing. But I remember also being really struck by how bad the poverty was in some places, like when we were in L.A. and there was really bad poverty. I was like, “oh, this isn’t what I thought, this isn’t what I saw on TV.” I was so naive. And I’m interested in that duality — how something could be so beautiful but also still have something on its underbelly that is maybe not so great. I’m just using that as a metaphor, really.

How readily do subjects emerge for your songs, and how literal do you think of your song writing is an adaptation of your feelings, emotions, or experiences?

It just totally comes from my emotional world, and I’m still learning about that. I didn’t realize for many years how sensitive I am, and my inspiration just comes from anywhere. But I have found in this past year of being at home I definitely get so much inspiration from ordinary life, like when I’m relaxed and doing the dishes, spending time with my partner, and walking my dog. Those are the richest moments in life, I think for me. A lot comes from that.

I read the recent NME cover story where you talked about the many experiences that you’ve had that challenged you to be taken seriously, and in that article they were reading into the lyrics of some of the songs aspects of those experiences. Do you feel like your songs are fairly transparent in that way, or do you sometimes read these interpretations and go, “that’s not what I meant the song was about when I came up with it.”

Yeah, that does happen a lot, but I kind of love it when that happens, because if someone’s like,

“this song, I just really feel like it’s about that,” that’s great because then it’s about that to you. And that’s all that matters, is it does mean that then for someone else. But there are some songs where I’m more poetic and I’m hiding behind poetry a bit more, and then there are others where clearly it’s very literal and obvious what I’m speaking about.

Do you ever find yourself learning through the songwriting process? Is there a sense of catharsis for an experience or feeling that you had emotionally that you are able to exorcise by turning it into music?

Yeah. Probably on this album more than ever before, I’ve understood what a cathartic experience means, because sometimes when I’ve listened back to this album and listen to the lyrics, I’m like, “Oh my God, that’s what I was singing about.” And I didn’t even realize necessarily what I was thinking about. But now I look back on it, it’s like looking back at a different person and I kind of feel like writing those songs, that did release something from my subconscious. And I feel very different as a person because of that.

Well, again referencing that NME story where you talk a lot about trying to be taken seriously and people undermining you, is there a place in the creative process where you feel comfortable letting that go where you feel completely free, where you can be emotional or sexy or introspective without a fear of judgment, and what has it taken for you to find that place in the creative process?

I’ve realized that I only can really do it with people I feel safe with, so that’s Dan and Dom, and not really anyone else. I’ve tried many times to do writing sessions with other people, and they can work. It’s just usually a different type of thing. But the more really intimate, emotional songs, they tend to only come out with Dan and Dom, because I guess it is sort of a vulnerability thing.

One of the things that’s so fascinating was that there are so many points of being a performer that are so consistently challenging for you — your illness, stage fright and these other kinds of things. How much is it an ongoing process of coming to terms with the Faustian bargain of becoming a successful artist who people want to see, and also the more unpleasant or challenging aspects of that, and have one not undermine the other?

That’s an interesting question. My battles with stage fright, I spoke about it a lot when I was younger, but I’m starting to realize how ordinary that was, and I’m not sure how much of it was just that I was very inexperienced. But also, we were overworked in our early career. We were looked after by different people, and they had a very different way of doing things. I mean, there were times where we weren’t really aware of what our full schedule even was. We didn’t have enough control, which happens to young artists all of the time. So I also was just really tired. I think I was just so tired that I just couldn’t really cope with doing the amount that they thought. And then I felt really guilty and I kind of did feel a bit manipulated to feel guilty, as though I ought to just be carrying on because I should be so grateful to be where I am. But what I’ve realized is that if you want to protect the songs, where the songs come from, and often that is an artist, I think it is a place of introversion. And doing too many gigs or things like meet and greets and stuff like that, if they’re going to drain your energy, you can’t be the best version of yourself and keep making music, and you’re going to just end up letting people down in the long run that way. So it’s better actually to protect yourself and do what’s right for you, even if that’s not doing as many gigs as somebody else maybe can, can do. So that’s kind of what I’ve learned about. And hopefully now my stage fright won’t be so bad.

As a critic or person who’s listening to your music, we have a tendency, I think, to analyze the mechanics of growth and change and how an artist incorporates all these different elements into their work. How much do you intellectualize your own creative evolution?

Actually, quite a lot and probably more so. I definitely feel like me, Dan and Dom did more reading and research about what it actually means to have a creative process and take care of it. What’s it like to have it as a job? Like, it’s actually a day to day job, and from just learning so much about it, I feel like I have a greater understanding of our career. And when it comes down to the music, I think it’s an evolution — I don’t know exactly what I want but as long as we’re happy as a band with what we’re making. But in terms of the business side of things, we do know what we want and that’s to have longevity. And if you’re going to have longevity, the most important things that you protect that creative process over everything else, whether it’s gigs, TV, how many albums you sell. The most important thing is looking after yourself and that process.

There are a lot of artists who sort of blow up with a debut but struggle as they’ve achieve a degree of success to find things to talk about or to continue creating with the same sort of passion. How difficult or easy has that been for you?

It was definitely not easy for us and for me in particular, if I’m out touring and I’m living not an ordinary life, then it’s not conducive to a creative process. I can’t write on the road. I think that is quite common. If you have a lot of success and you’re a brand new artist, your job completely changes. You go from making music to then performing and doing interviews, and that is a completely different job. So I found that I have to then find my way back into the creative process again after doing that, and it takes a while sometimes.

Even just a few generations ago, it required a lot of logistics to create the kind of atmosphere that your music generates very effortlessly. How technically minded is your songwriting and producing? And in an era where producers can literally inherit a sound pack from Hans Zimmer or Diplo or whoever it is and bang out songs, how labor intensive is your creative process as a group?

It is very labor intensive, I would say. It becomes less labor intensive if we’re doing it every single day, because then we tend to find a rhythm and then things start throwing themselves together without you really trying. There are songs that require more technical experimentation than others. There are songs like “America” on this album, or a song like “All My Love” is so bare, they just kind of come out and they are what they are, and it’s very obvious what they need and they don’t need a lot of hard work. And then there are other songs like “Missing” or “Lord It’s A Feeling” on the album that took like a year to get right. I mean, there’s like a million different versions of those songs and that can be a bit of a crap shoot, to be honest, because you have like a million different versions and you have to pick one at the end of it.

Is there a technical precision that’s very important to you collectively? Do you have the million dollar microphone that Daft Punk did on “Random Access Memories,” or are you guys less concerned about the tools at that sort of granular level? I’m kind of astonished at how beautiful and ethereal this record is. Is that extremely difficult for you guys to achieve, or comparatively easy?

I actually feel like if we go into the really expensive studios with the expensive microphones, it’s not as good. And a lot of this album, I use a fairly cheap microphone, it’s not an expensive microphone, and it doesn’t really matter. And it’s very raw, some of it, and rough around the edges. If something’s too raw, there might be a few things that we maybe need to fix in the mix kind of thing, but actually I think it’s all about intimacy, so it’s definitely not about the fancy gear and being overly technical all the time. But it does kind of depend on the song. There are definitely some songs where we’re like, this song really needs a producer. This one needs something more technical, maybe. But usually I find the opposite works.

Is there a musical standard that you individually or as a group find yourself trying to meet — a record that, if not that you wish that you had made, you’re going, I wish we could make our own version of that or equal it?

I feel like every band is probably going to say this, but Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours.” I just feel like it’s probably the best album of all time. So I think that record — but it’s never going to happen (laughs).

You probably don’t want the volatility that may be that accompanied it, but it’s interesting how the longevity of a record like that transcends those elements. What level of volatility do you seek, to drive your creativity through the process?

I have tended to find that it doesn’t work for me. It’s really interesting the thing about “Rumours,” because I hear that story a lot obviously about how awful things were in the band and how tension can create amazing things, but it can also kind of destroy it because I feel like they never reached that same level again. I feel like it just kind of destroyed them eventually a bit. For me, I feel like when we were younger, things were probably more volatile. I mean, we do have arguments sometimes, but what is great about us now is we can have an argument and then five minutes later, it’s like, oh, sorry, and then we joke about it. We joke about our egos and it’s kind of funny. And for us, that actually does seem to make better music, I think, if we’re friends.

It is a really lovely album, and what I like about it is that it feels out of time a little bit. In an increasingly segmented musical landscape, where do you see yourselves fitting as a group — or do you hope to fit in at all?

I just hope we fit in somewhere. I will say the last couple of years, it’s been quite scary for a band like us because we’re not fitting in, we don’t fit on social media, and the music industry has never changed so much. It’s kind of extraordinary. What is really nice is that we’ve sold out our tour in the UK at the end of the year. And I think all we can hope for is just longevity and to still have a career, basically with this world that seems to be changing so much.

Californian Soil” Releases April 16 on Apple Music.