London Grammar's Hannah Reid talks overcoming stage fright, the physical toll of touring, and the band's second album Truth is a Beautiful Thing
In the age of SoundCloud, where social media and publishing tools have amalgamated, music has democratised. Never has it felt more realistic for budding musicians to make a breakthrough from the comfort of their own bedrooms. But as accessibility increases, so does competition. The challenge to become an established mainstay is colossal; buzzy breakthrough debuts now come ten-a-penny, but as do cases of the dreaded ‘second album syndrome’ – we are a nation obsessed with the next big thing.
It’s a potential anti-climax which London Grammar lead singer Hannah Reid has been very cautious of during the development of sophomore offering Truth is a Beautiful Thing. How do you build upon a successful Mercury Prize-nominated debut? Stick with the successful blueprints of the triumphant formula or roll the dice of chance towards reinvention? As we discuss the group’s highly anticipated return, Reid clarifies exactly which option she vouched for: “I think, with successful debut albums, stars can align for bands. But then after that, try to let it go because you’re never gonna make that album again."
While abandoning the tried and tested formula can feel like the biggest risk, resting on laurels offers no comfort to artists operating within a continually changing music industry. With this in mind the trio broadened their horizons, inviting “more experimentation”, alongside top-of-their-game electronic producers such as Jon Hopkins. “I think the electronic side of it sounds different; and slightly less sparse in places,” Reid explains. "We wanted it to be a bit more uplifting, there are different sounds on there.”
But the results form neither a clean-cut departure from their debut, or a re-creation of it; it’s an evolution towards something much bigger. Tracks such as Hell to the Liars and Oh Woman Oh Man begin typically delicate, but progress into sprawling trip-hop expeditions. “It takes unexpected turns,” adds Reid, who also stresses the importance of the team effort when asked about the group’s creative process. “Yes, I write all the lyrics and the toplines – but the thing about being in a band that is important is, it’s not really about who necessarily is the leader. The leader can sort of change in different scenarios depending on what we’re working on, but also if you take one of those elements away from the picture it just won’t be the same.”
Reid’s personal favourite Leave the War With Me, the album’s penultimate Thomas Newman-esque moment, “embodies a different London Grammar sound; it’s a bit country. I don’t know why it’s my favourite, I just love it. I go for runs and listen to that song.” Production and hooks are still luxurious and razor-sharp, but the newfound ambition explores deeper, more cinematic realms. “It’s more atmospheric,” Reid adds. Don’t be surprised to see London Grammar soundtrack a future Bond film, if this level of majesty and vastness is anything to go by.
The singer's vocals are showstopping, and continue to beam her evocative and ambiguous lyrics. There are no agendas or opinions being rammed down throats, instead Reid wants her audience to “feel whatever they want to feel – I just hope they feel something basically, and strongly. That is the beauty of music – once, as a lyricist, you’ve written something it then takes on a whole new meaning for other people. That’s really important.
“The idea of truth and perspective comes up a lot, hence the title… loneliness comes up a lot,” Reid reveals, in regards to the lyric ‘Maybe what we are and what we need are different things,’ crooned during mid-album track Non Believer. “I’m quite interested in psychology and what makes human beings tick. What you are and what you need are genuinely two different things. You might find yourself in a scenario repeatedly and wonder why. Learning what you actually need to do to break those cycles can be very, very hard.”
This might be a notion Reid realised while tackling her well-documented stage fright. “I still have been really, really nervous. It has been hard,” she admits. “It sounds really cliché but breathing exercises are really good and also the biggest thing for me is that I just learn to accept it. That’s kind of my routine – I just have to do it and feel really shit…” Their slot at BBC Radio 1's Big Weekend in Hull proved especially daunting: “We were, oh my god, so terrified just because that was the first festival back home, it was the BBC and it does really matter. But it was reassuring; we had a really good reaction I think… I hope! Well it was a good enough reaction for us on stage, I was really happy.
“I do think back to what I was like on the first album and I am slightly better. Everything that we’re doing now, the radio sessions and the TV things, we have done before, which does just take some of the stress out of it all.” But stage fright wasn’t the only hurdle in Reid’s path, during the band’s steep ascendancy. “I ended up with muscular strain, where it kind of goes away and comes back unless you literally just take like 6 months off,” she explains.
“I was just living through muscular pain in my neck and in my throat for the last kind of seven to eight months of our touring show.” However, they've made measures to avoid burnout this time around. “On this one, it kind of looks like we’re doing a lot but actually we’ve planned things really well with adequate breaks in-between tours and shows. During first albums you can tour too much and people get really exhausted; you can get vocal problems or viruses.
“It was quite painful actually, not feeling your best for people who have invested in you, and invested in buying a CD, which is expensive, or buying a ticket to a gig – which is really, really expensive these days.” The modern reality is that bands can no longer rely on album sales for their bread and butter income – they now depend on live shows, hence the urge to cram schedules. “When I was young I was waiting and waiting for my favourite album to be released,” reflects Reid. “You would save up your pocket money and then there would be a queue around corner to go and buy it – I don’t think that happens anymore, and I think that’s a shame.”
But in the heyday of streaming, where playlists dominate records, Reid claims that “the album has started to become less important. ‘The album’ as a piece of artwork has started to lose its value slightly because of streaming and because the way people consume music is different.” Luckily, for the lovers of conceptual records, Truth is a Beautiful Thing stays true to the old way of doing things. Against the grain or not, London Grammar are reaping success on their own terms.