“Sharing is what brings us together…”

Musician and UK Americana award winner Hannah White will be taking to the SupaJam stage at this month’s Black Deer festival. As well as performing over the weekend of June 16-18, she will host a talk about why this music college means so much to her personally. Eileen Leahy discovers more…


Let’s start by you telling us a little bit about yourself Hannah… When and why did you get into music?

I have always written songs since way before I ever understood what I was doing. I still remember some songs I wrote when I was 8 or 9 years old. So I’ve always written but performing in public came a lot later for me because of my personal circumstances. I was born and raised on a council estate in South East London; I grew up around crime and drugs and violence. I got into a difficult relationship and ended up pregnant very young and living in emergency accommodation for homeless families. It never, at any stage, occurred to me to consider performing in public. Writing songs and playing them to myself is what helped me survive my darkest days but it wasn’t until years later, and totally by accident, that I ended up singing at an open mic. That was the start of it all… And if I’m honest it’s been a challenging journey, developing the confidence to call myself an artist and learning to feel natural and ok with people hearing what I do.


Your musical style is described as ‘narrative’ can you enlarge a little bit more on this?

I’m told I’m an honest writer. I don’t make stuff up because I don’t need to; and I think there’s a beauty in sharing a difficult experience, even if that’s uncomfortable (which it almost always is). For me it’s a way of surviving, connecting and making the pain more bearable. It’s the same for the beautiful experiences too. Sharing is what brings us together and unites us all regardless of our backgrounds, or the language we speak or the faith we practice. We all experience love, loss, personal tragedy and moments of joy. For me there are no topics in songs which should be out of bounds. That’s what I love about the Americana genre: the stories, the sharing, it is just so human.


Where does your inspiration come from?

I think of myself as a lyricist. Words matter to me a lot. I like reading literature and poetry because words have a power over me. Once you’ve consumed a piece of poetry, for example, it accompanies you. It turns up again when you’re busy thinking of something else in the most beautiful way. It turns up when I’m writing and becomes something I can play with or feel until I’m going down a path I’d have never explored without it. Which helps me create my own words for my own experiences. My musical inspiration changes constantly. I love Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Townes Van Zandt, Peter Green and Richard Thompson.  I love pretty much any artist who means it.


How does it feel to have the support of the likes of Deacon Blue’s Ricky Ross and BBC Radio 6 & 2 behind you?

I have to pinch myself when I think about things like this. Hearing my music on national radio stations which I have listened to myself, is a really strange feeling. I usually dissociate when good things happen so I have to keep telling myself over and over what’s happened in order for it to sink in and to give myself a sense of recognition. Ricky became a great friend from when we toured together last year. It was an exciting time and to have his respect and support for my music means absolutely everything because of what an incredible artist he is!


Congratulations on your win at the UK Americana Awards – how did that feel?

Totally shocking! I had absolutely convinced myself there was no way I could have won that award and I was determined to soak up and enjoy the sense of occasion and feeling of gratitude for being nominated in the first place (which was also a huge shock). The fact that the award was for ‘Car Crash’, a song which wasn’t easy to release given it was about being arrested and facing the risk of losing my son, was mind-blowing. I can honestly say I felt totally elated that night. It was surreal, wonderful and completely unexpected.


You’re appearing at this year’s Black Deer festival as part of the SupaJam offering. Can you tell us why you got involved with this?

SupaJam means a lot to me personally. I initially learned about this music college, based in Swanley, when I was at the very first Black Deer Festival. I met David Court and Nick Stillwell who run the college, and they told me about the work they do with young people who come from the most difficult personal circumstances. I could relate to some of the stories I was hearing so already I felt moved by their ambitions to help these young people. When I saw the youngsters at work in the field, I thought they were amazing. And I could see how happy they were, it was really special. Later I read more about SupaJam. Eighty-four per cent of their students end up at university. It’s major stuff, especially given the backgrounds and challenges some of these young adults have. To achieve so much, and to do it all through music is just mind-blowing. Music saved me, it saved my husband (also my guitarist) who also had a really difficult background. I couldn’t not get behind SupaJam and everything it stands for. There should be one in every town!


What will the SupaJam Backyard entail and when will you be appearing in conversation?

The SupaJam Backyard is going to be full of performances by wonderful artists as well as the students which will be magical. There will be podcasts and singer-songwriter circles. It’s going to be a real hub and an exciting part of the festival. I will be appearing in conversation on Friday June 16 at 5.15pm and will be performing afterwards. There will be plenty of friends and familiar faces both from the festival and the artistic community I’m in, so I cannot wait!


You have said previously how much the organisation helped your son. Please can you tell us a bit more about the ways in which this happened?

My son is on the autistic spectrum and has ADHD. He was diagnosed when he was just  three years old. His entire school life, however, was traumatic. In total he went to six different educational settings, some of them specialist, others mainstream and I even home-educated him for two years. We’d got him a place prior to finding SupaJam, but after two terms the teachers told me he was ‘uneducatable’. I always knew that James was extremely bright but he was challenging, too. I could write a book about his experiences. One day I sat talking to David and Nick at SupaJam about my son and they both said ‘he should come here’. And that’s what happened. He wasn’t an easy student but unlike every other place he’d been to, SupaJam never gave up on my son. They bent over backwards, created an education plan that was totally bespoke. My son passed all his exams and earned the UCAS points he needed to apply to university. He is now doing a BSc in Music Theory at ACM and is looking into doing a Masters at a Norwegian university. I will never be able to thank SupaJam enough because my son is happy, succeeding and has a successful and creative career ahead of him. And all of it was made possible by the Black Deer Festival.

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