Sunday 8 April 2012

Toy Hearts: Family. Tradition. Attitude. Experimentation. High Heels. Don’t Mess.

Hannah              Stewart                Sophia           
Birmingham has brilliant musical dynasties. Many of today’s brightest are the children of 70s veterans; they grew up absorbing music, tech skills and more from their parents, almost by osmosis. 

Fabulous talent can emerge from this kind of music-intensive family environment, and that’s a great thing. But that doesn’t mean that, even if you’ve got the music nailed, the path is any smoother. 

Promo work: flyers and posters ready for mailing at THHQ
On a hot Spring afternoon, Toy Hearts are hard at it, doing promotion, prepping the latest mail-out, marketing, answering emails and booking gigs. That’s Sophia and Hannah Johnson, who run the band. Their father, Stewart, who also plays in the band, isn’t working quite so hard – but then he’s just engineered their next album. Hard work it certainly is. Four albums, constant touring, developing and self-managing over six years is a lot of work, most of it an uphill slog.

Toy Hearts operate in a very tricky and sometimes unforgiving area. Family bands aren’t uncommon in Folk music in the UK, and even more so in Country and associated genres in the US. But it just so happens that followers of those genres in the UK are not always, shall we say, the most open to new and experimental approaches. Genre-bending works a treat in Rock, Jazz and Urban fields…  but you mess with ‘traditional’ genres at your peril. To negotiate those landmines, Toy Hearts have developed tougher skins. They're now battle-hardened, and perfectly happy to go eye to eye and toe to toe. 

Marketing yourselves as a bluegrass-western swing-country band, in a home territory which doesn’t really get this music, can’t be easy.
Hannah: I don’t think it would be anything any of us would have chosen to go into – such small, niche genres – especially as young people. People have expectations of a down-homey, check-shirt, dungarees type look, and we definitely don’t have that. That’s made it difficult in a way. People see us and then don’t expect us to be able to play our instruments well, or think we’re going to play pop music. 
Fact is, Toy Hearts can really play. Sophia Johnson is an ace guitar player, and Stuart has excelled on dobro, lap steel, banjo and other exotica for well over thirty years. Hannah is a great singer and a seriously good mandolin player with it. 

With what you play – bluegrass, country and western swing - you have to be ironclad; bullet-proof, especially when you take your act to the US…
Sophia: Actually, I disagree! I think where you have to be bullet-proof is here. We go to America, and people are lovely to us. In this country, we’re told we shouldn’t be writing our own songs; or we should only be playing Bill Monroe music from the period when Flatt and Scruggs were in the band… Don’t you go down the Chris Thile  route! Who wants to win a Grammy and sell out concert halls all over the world? 
You’re kidding… 
Stewart: No, that’s a typical set of English attitudes! In America, they’re just fantastic. We’ve never had anyone in America pick us up on what we do, or try to tell us what we should be doing in the genre – unlike in England. 
But England doesn’t own the genre
Stewart: The people who are into bluegrass in Britain are a very closed community.  Those are the people who criticise us. When we put this music in front of people who’ve never heard it before, they just seem to get it. The actual bluegrass/country community in this country… unless they can have some kind of ownership over it, they just want to criticise what we do.
On the other hand… because you can play really well, and Hannah and Sophia have that sisterly harmony thing going on, doesn’t that get you acceptance?
Sophia: We have more success going into rock gigs and converting people who’s never head this stuff before, than in the UK bluegrass scene. The festivals don’t book us. 
We in the UK tend to consume and re-interpret big chunks of American culture, and put these chunks in boxes which have nothing to do with how the music emerged in the first place. People dressing up at country gigs…
Sophia: The Americans would be horrified at what goes on here. Nobody dresses up at US Bluegrass festivals in America! 
Stewart: We did a UK tour with Robert Joe Vandygriff. He’s from Texas. One of the first gigs was full of people, all dressed up... wearing guns. Robbie Joe got really uneasy.  We had to reassure him. If anybody walks in to a bar in Texas with a gun strapped on, everybody hits the deck! We had to explain to him that these are people living a fantasy, which they probably got from cowboy films rather than music.  And of course, this sort of thing puts young people off. Nobody in his right mind would want to go to a gig where he might see his uncle dressed as Wild Bill Hickok…
The band is unusual. A Father and Daughters combo 
Sophia: This was never, in any way, Dad making Hannah and I join his band. Of course he influenced us; we heard all this stuff we really liked; bluegrass was one of those things. When got to be 14-ish or so, we started to see all these Bluegrass gigs over at this Bluegrass club in Kenilworth, ad we fell in love with it.  We wanted to be in a band. And we told Dad.  
So, not Svengali territory…
Stewart: No, not at all. I mean, I would come home, and I’d hear Bob Wills coming out of one bedroom and Hank Williams out of the other, and I’d think: Those are my CDs; will I ever get them back?  The first gig that we did together… I was playing with some people at the Ceol Castle in Moseley, and they all dropped out. So I asked Sophia and Hannah them if they wanted to sit in. An ad-hoc arrangement. That became a regular one night a week residence. 
When did things move forward… seriously? Now you’re slick, tough and road-hardened. I watched you waltz on stage at Moseley Folk last year, without a sound-check, and knock the crowd dead. How did you get to that place?
Hannah:  That’s really hard. I don’t think there is a specific point when we could look and say, yep, we’re there. I don’t think we’re there! We still think we’re not good enough, and there’s work to be done; and we probably always will. All we’ve ever tried to do is to be the best we can be and be on top of our game. That’s helped us.  Constant gigging, constant practising… I’m not saying it’s made us good – but it has made us really tight – and people do notice. A lot of bands don’t do that.
You can always tell a band that works that way. It shines from the stage. 
Sophia: Dad always said to us that from day one, you need to get out and gig. Give yourself permission to not be that great for the first year or two, and to really work at it. There are so many musicians that I know who really great musicians – in their bedrooms. They cannot get on stage and perform. Part of learning to do this is that we were made to get up and perform. Play a song a million times in your bedroom – fine. Perform that song once on stage and you learn far more about it.
The album isn't officially out until late May; the rough mixes that Toy Hearts kindly let me hear me when we did the interview are very promising indeed; bearing in mind last week's post about local bands scoring national airplay, I would not be in the least surprised to hear their new material daytimes at Radio 2. Here's a video from last year, where Hannah went over the top with the kohl... 
So, the new album…
Sophia: ... is called ‘Whiskey’. We recorded most of it right here, in this house, and then we sent all the files to Nashville for mixing by Ben Surratt. We wanted to have a go at doing it our own way, so we weren’t clock watching. Another big factor in the album, bluegrass apart, is our big love for Western Swing. We’ve been to Austin, Texas about four times, and one of our favourite bands over there is the Hot Club of Cowtown, who really inspired us. A couple of years ago, Dad bought his triple-neck steel guitar, and I bought my 1958 Gibson Arch-top. And then we said… right! These have to work their way in. 
It’s the first album which is half covers, half original material. Two Bob Wills songs, a Bessie Smith song, a Ronnie Self rockabilly song, a Wayne Hancock song. And it’s the first album that has drums on it – courtesy of Dean Beresford, Richard Hawley’s drummer. We added fiddle in Nashville. 
Weird feeling doing all your tracks, and sending it all over to someone to mix – someone you trust, but still, they’re your babies, aren’t they?
Hannah : It’s a good thing, but… ooooh – when you’ve spent so long writing and crafting them, and getting so involved with them… it’s actually a relief. We became really ground down by the whole process with previous albums. You live with the tracks and the mixes and the remixes for soooo long. I guess the key to it all is trust.   
In terms of basic kit, how did this work?
Stewart: We wanted a total live rhythm track – no tracking on the core of the band. We put the drums in one bedroom… the double bass in another, I had Sophie playing rhythm guitar in that room over there (up the hall), and Hanna singing live guide vocals in here (the kitchen).  I recorded on to my computer in the front room, with industry-standard software… but I used vintage mics – some vintage Neumann U87s, with valve pre-amps. The only problem was running cabling all over the place, and closing doors and wrapping people up in duvets… and it’s worked! 

Marketing the band is critical…You take that one on head-on.
Hannah: I’ve never understood why, playing the music we do, that we can’t have a commercial image. That doesn’t wash with me. We want to get a certain look – to be true to who we are as young women, and how that relates to our music. 
That’s crystallised over the past couple of years…
Hannah: We’re in an industry dominated by men. I’m five foot two, and I do feel more empowered when I’m on everyone’s level!
Sophia: We’ve always dressed up. The Bluegrass bands that we really loved made an effort. Sometimes they got it horribly wrong – all the band are wearing putrid yellow shirts… but at least they all matched!
You’ve amped this up several notches over the past couple of years. . You’re a lot more made up, the heels are higher…
Sophia: We live in a visual world. Our music is good enough if we get people to the gigs, but you’ve got to pique the interest. And that gets us to newer audiences.
Is there a danger that you’re going to be dismissed as two cute girlies?
Sophia: We are continually dismissed as two cute girlies. But you’ve only got to come to our shows and watch us play. 
In a lot of the photos, you (Sophia and Hanna) are upfront… Stewart, you’re in back.
Stewart: It’s important that they see what the front of the band is. The girls are the front of the band. I don’t see my role as a very visual one for publicity purposes. But I am wearing a cowboy hat on the new shots…  After all, they formed the band; the asked me to be in it. Actually they said I’d better be in the band 'cos I’m the only banjo player we know…. 
And you’re doing all the PR right now
Sophia: Not just the PR. Hannah and I joke that our second instruments are our laptops. You can’t not. It takes too bloody long, but it absolutely has to be done. There is no manager to this band – everything that has to be done, it’s done by us. 
Helluva workload…
Sophia: Eventually we’ll get a manager - but it has to be someone we trust. 

For full gig details, check the gigs page on the Toy Hearts website

1 comment:

C.S. Bouton said...

Certainly an interesting take on bluegrass in Britain! They should bring it on home to where bluegrass started right here in Earl Scruggs' home state of North Carolina. We just lost Mr. Scruggs 2 weeks ago, so there should be plenty of music celebrations this next year in his honor. That means lots of stompin' good fun and Carolina BBQ - send them our way!