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Screaming into the Microphone: An Instachat With Singer/Songwriter Hannah Lee Thompson

Giulia Di Stravola discusses lyrical confession,
Hanukkah harmonicas, and the therapy of recording
new music with Hannah Lee Thompson.

6:52
August 4, 2020

Hi Hannah! Thanks so much for being a part of the Artist’s Bubble, we’re so excited to have you!

Happy to be here!

So just to get us started, tell us about yourself!

I’m a musician and a live sound engineer based in Baltimore, MD. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY (there’s a Brooklyn in Bmore too) and I am a big Yankee fan.

That’s awesome! Your new single, “Handsome Ugly”, explores these feelings of love limited and sabotaged by our ability to love ourselves. What was going on inside your head while you were writing this song?

I think when we get something good going in our lives it can highlight a lot of underlying insecurities, because we want to be the best version of ourselves which isn't always possible. I was thinking about how when I'm on my own I don't hold myself accountable in the same way then I do when I think about myself in relation to the people I care about. It comes across as a romantic in the song and that's definitely a big part of it, but for me the sentiment applies to family and friends as well.

That is very true, I feel like many people turn inwards when positives are happening around them. It becomes almost an introspective process while also trying to be strong and present for the people we love and care for.

Absolutely.

Your lyrics have this confessional aspect to them, where you articulate complicated and emotions in almost a conversational manner. How would you describe your songwriting process?

It's way too long! It usually takes me a year or two from the first idea to having a full song. I've never kept a journal or anything, so for me writing songs is sort of a coping mechanism. I try to confront and then articulate things that often would make me uncomfortable to deal with in the real world haha. By the time I'm performing the songs live it feels sort of like a triumph over what I've written about.

Also when I was in third grade our teacher said "I love you" and then "I really really love you" and asked us to pick which one felt more powerful and we all went with the simple one. Which I think about a lot when I'm writing lyrics

That’s beautiful, I think that’s what having an artistic process is all about: confronting whatever may be at hand, no matter the discomforts & reaching our triumphs.

Screaming into a microphone is pretty much the most cathartic experience out there.

I love that about your third grade teacher, our words become more powerful when we say less. And that’s something I really see in your lyrics and music.

Thank you!

Omg yes, I imagine! Tell us more about your live performance of “Handsome Ugly”. Where were you? Was there a specific reason for choosing that locale?

I was in my backyard, we wanted to shoot outside to keep it socially distanced as much as possible.

It's been a real blessing to have outdoor space right now, and I live with all my bandmates so we have a nice built in community to wait this whole thing out with.

Oh wow, that’s awesome. I’m sure it’s also a great and supportive space to jam and play with new sounds. Are there any genres or musical styles you have been itching to explore?

I've been making a lot of 4-track cassette demos which has been really fun. I've never recorded myself because I have a tendency to go down a rabbit hole, which makes being limited to four tracks really great.

I haven't been shifting genres too much but the process allows me to get into a totally different headspace for making music which is refreshing.

I love the cassette demos! It’s the same idea when it comes down to writing flash fiction or 1000-word pieces. The less room we give ourselves the more we mitigate the probabilities of falling into a rabbit hole / the more we focus on putting the great stuff out there.

Yeah that makes sense! A constructive creative limit can help shake out some new ideas.

Yes exactly! So, when did you know that music would be a major part of your life?

I got a harmonica out of a Hanukkah gift bag when I was 6 or 7 and I played it so much that my parents hid it and ended up losing it actually.

And in their guilt they got me harmonica lessons.

I really love american folk and blues music and that's most of what I played until I was in highschool

My band has an alter ego old time band that we perform as. We all met at this venue in Brooklyn called Jalopy, which was a huge influence on us to this day.

So I don't know if I ever had an AHA moment but it just was something I loved and kept on being inspired to get better at throughout my childhood.

I love the harmonica backstory. While listening to your music, you can definitely hear the influences of blues, folk, and indie all throughout. Who or what has had a significant influence on how you create music?

Folk music has been such a huge part of it! My banjo teacher, Eli Smith, brought me data discs (remember those!) almost every lesson full of old recordings that were hugely influential on me, in addition to just our lessons which really inspired me to take music more seriously. I worked with him for about 9 years while he built up a career for himself and so I got to see that it's possible to pursue music as a career. He is an incredible teacher.

Mississippi John Hurt is one of my all time favorites.

Outside of old-time my Dad made us mix tapes for the car that were sort of like a highlight reel of american pop music from 1920-1985.

He exposed us to a lot of great stuff from a young age and the only real through line was he just chose great songs.

And I know it's not a revolutionary take but I've been obsessed with the beatles since I was a little kid.

it doesn't get much better than that from a songwriting perspective.

Wow it seems like you’ve been surrounded by great sources of inspiration your whole life. Your dad’s mixtapes must’ve had all the bangers of the most quintessential decades in music.

I've been really lucky, now it's kinda shifted to my backing band, which is comprised of my favorite musicians and songwriters that I know.

They really did! Everything from Sarah Vaughan to Chuck-E's in love on those things

That’s so great. So the musicians in your backing band are also your good friends and collaborators?

Yeah! They've actually been playing together since they were ten years old, and I hooked up with them 9 years ago when we were 17.

They have an alt-country band called Crisco Dreams and my bassist has his own project called Sipper.

They have an alt-country band called Crisco Dreams and my bassist has his own project called Sipper.

We named it sipper after we signed our first lease while we stress ate McDonalds

Check them out! they are the best.

Between all of us we've played under 12 different band names over the years haha

It's been a branding nightmare.

That’s damn cool, wow. I definitely will!  And that’s definitely a lot of band names, but it’s not uncommon for brand-searching to be a part of the artistic process. What would you say is your brand right now?

Haha that's true. I have no idea still! After a show in NYC a woman came up to me and gave me her therapist’s card. I'm not sure how to summarize that, but she was definitely on brand.

Omg hahaha, that’s iconic. That’s definitely a new way to connect with a musician post-show. Do you have some sort of ritualistic process or routine before getting on stage?

I get really really anxious pre show regardless of the environment then usually I can find my sea legs during the first song. I try to run through stuff the day before to make sure I'm not going to have trouble with lyrics or chords or anything like that. There's no real routine though.

I like to have a beer or two to try to hit the sweet spot of loose but not sloppy.

Then I do some hot yoga

Jk

Hahahaha yesss, it always comes down to hot yoga. Kidding, but yeah, sometimes the only way to loosen up the frights is throwing yourself out there (and making sure that you’re prepared).

What do you think are the overarching themes and subjects in your lyrics?

It's a lotta angst       

Haha

I write a lot about feeling unworthy of the opportunities/people I have in my life

I had a really intense band breakup experience that I got like four years of songwriting material out of.

An embarrassing amount of my material is about my highschool band breaking up haha

I've sorta moved on though into dealing more with personal insecurities and body image, something I've struggled with my entire life.

You know, after listening to “Handsome Ugly” and then “Danny” along with other songs, I definitely noticed a grunge-y appeal to your music. You feel the angst and you deliver it in a total unique way. It’s almost effortless to relate to your lyrics and the energy you radiate while performing.

Wow that's a really awesome thing to say.

I'm so glad you feel that way about it!

I love grunge also, I guess I haven't mentioned that so far but 90's rock has also had a big influence on me.

It's great to see all these bad ass female musicians who are really carrying that torch right now.

When I first heard Bury Me at Makeout Creek I was like yeah I want to sound like this.

Omg Hannah, yes to all of that. I was thinking about Mitski when I first heard your tracks, there is certainly a lot of overlap in terms of sound and style. So as a musician, how do you define success?

Yeah she is the queen of angst and low fi, we have the same alma matter also I'm proud of!

I really want people to relate to the music, and I guess to do that they have to hear it first

Ahhh now it all makes sense! And yeah definitely, you’re already there.

What are some exciting projects you’re working on right now?

Well I'm going to release a four song EP with Newlywed Records in the fall which I'm excited about.

And my old-time band the Homestead Street Band is making some recordings which will be fun to put out into the world.

Right now I'm early in the process of writing the next record which is the most fun for me but will be awhile before that's out into the world.

This all sounds so awesome. We are so looking forward to these upcoming releases. Can’t wait to see what you come out with next!

Thank you!

f

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Giulia Di Stravola is a writer based in Brooklyn. Before pursuing writing and media full-time, she worked with the United Nations. Giulia is fluent in four languages, and is currently working on a screenplay and a short story collection.