Lichfield’s 150 year old Guildhall is an impressive piece of architecture that’s steeped in history. At various points during it’s life the grade II listed building has served as a fire station, a theatre, a police station and a court. In fact numerous convicts have been sentenced to the gallows in that very place…
Luckily the property is put to more pleasant uses nowadays, including playing host to the Lichfield Festival of Folk, a super three day event put on by the lovely people at Lichfield Arts. It was here that I met up with singer/songwriter and BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award nominee Hattie Briggs to watch her play a wonderful set to the Lichfield audience supported by her cellist Asha McCarthy. Watching Hattie play, it’s difficult to believe she only started performing to audiences last year…she’s a confident artist with a mature and expressive vocal ability.
After Hattie’s performance we met up for a chat…I was keen to learn more about her new video, her approach to songwriting and her forthcoming album (including finding out exactly how Eva Cassidy’s brother ended up playing on Hattie’s cover of ‘Fields Of Gold’!)…
FRUK: You’ve just released the video for ‘Share Your Heart’, tell us about that…was it fun to make?
“Yeah…well I’ve made a couple now. The first single ‘Old Eyes’ was great fun. It was basically just taking my dog for an extended walk around various sites locally with a camera guy! So that was very easy and good fun…and it had a really good response as well so I was really pleased with that.
And then the recent one ‘Share Your Heart’…we went and filmed it at Woodchester Mansions which is a supposedly haunted, spooky, deserted gothic house. It’s one of these places where a guy started rebuilding it…knocked down some stunning thing that was there already and then started building this slightly dodgy gothic thing…and then ran out of money half way through. So it’s sort of half-finished…and a bit creepy! It worked really well for the video…and we’re going to do a fundraiser there in August to help publicise them.
FRUK: The video has a kind of story running through it…does the story relate to the song lyrics?
It sort of does…I didn’t start writing the song with a theme in mind. I thought up the first line and then everything else sort of followed from that. So when we thinking about what to do as a storyline for the video, we weren’t thinking that we were matching it up exactly to the song…we were just trying to put across the mood of the song more than anything and the emotion of it.
So it’s sort of lonely, wandering around a house looking moody…and then the whole idea of the ring and the lake…so you can see that there’s some sort of link to a love affair or something. We wanted it to be dramatic…
FRUK: You also have an album coming, how’s that going?
Well it’s pretty much finished. There’s one song we’re making a few tweaks to, but apart from that it’s all ready to go and we can essentially release it whenever we want…but at the moment we think it’s going to be around March. So we’ve got the two singles and then we’re going to do a video for ‘Fields Of Gold’ in December…and maybe one more single will come out and then we’ll launch the thing in March. That’s the plan.
FRUK: How does the material on your album compare with your EP?
Well three of the songs are on the EP. They were songs that I wanted to record again because obviously I’ve developed as an artist since that was recorded and now I’ve got a producer who I’m working with. So they were songs that I thought I could really take further. ‘Share Your Heart’ especially was something that I thought I could really make a big production effort on which has come out really well. So there’s some from the EP, but then also there’s a lot of new stuff on there as well…and a couple of covers as well. It’s quite a nice mixture I think.
I’m just absolutely thrilled to have ‘Fields Of Gold’ on there. I didn’t even know it was happening…I had this connection with Dan (Cassidy, brother of Eva), I knew him through a friend of a friend, but I hadn’t even thought of putting Fields Of Gold on the album…it’s not something I’d even contemplated asking or anything like that because I would have just felt completely wrong doing it. But my producer Pete knew I was in touch with him. He sneakily behind my back got hold of Dan and said to him “Hattie as you know loves Eva and all her stuff…she’s always been a really big inspiration…she plays Fields Of Gold live and everyone loves it…what do you think about putting Fields Of Gold on the album?”. Dan said “Yeah that’s great”. Pete then asked Dan if he’d play on it (he’s a fantastic violinist in his own right) and he said yes!
So we were at pre-production and Pete just sprung this on me! I so nearly cried…it just made my year…and Dan’s a lovely guy. He’s helped on the production side of that song as well….
FRUK: Did you find the songs developed further during the recording process, or are they pretty much as you originally wrote them?
They’re pretty much as I wrote them. The thing that developed was all of the string arrangements. I’ve got three cellos on the album, so for pre-production we all went to my Granny’s house in Buckinghamshire…she’s got this lovely house and a grand piano…so we all went there for three days. So me, my producer Pete, three cellists, the drummer…unfortunately my guitarist couldn’t be there…but we all just sort of sat there together, went through every song individually…the cellists figured out their own arrangements…we essentially got everything sorted there so when we got in the studio we knew exactly what we were doing.
FRUK: What are you hopes and aspirations for the album (apart from selling a lot!)
Yeah I’d like to sell a few! But the main thing is that I’d like people to really enjoy it…and have a respect for my music I suppose…and I hope that because of the album more people will know who I am and that I can tour it and people will come to the gigs. It’s all just a progression really. If it helps me get towards that next stage then it’s really done its purpose. I’m happy with how it’s all sounding. I’m really proud of the record.
FRUK: Speaking of respect for your music, you were nominated for the BBC R2 young folk awards. There’s such an amazing list of artists that get nominated for those awards…did it feel to you like a step change in credibility when that happened?
Definitely. At that stage, when I first got nominated, I was still at Uni and I knew that I wanted to do music as a career but I was still very much blindly thinking “Where do I go from here?”…I didn’t really have a plan. Then with the nomination and with the appearance of my producer and all of this stuff…that’s when I really had the focus. I knew where I was going and I knew I had momentum with me. So a lot of things have happened a result of the Folk Awards. Just having the Radio 2 reference means that people straightaway sit up and think “Oh, who’s this person?”. There are so many people trying to do what I’m trying to do…you can just get lost in a sea of names…so it makes things a lot easier.
FRUK: You mentioned University…I’ve read that you chose to pursue music over completing your degree course at Oxford. Did that feel like a significant decision at the time?
Yeah it did. I was a year and a term through a four year course. I don’t think I would have done it had the Folk Award nomination not been there. But because of that nomination and a few other things coming together it definitely meant that I had a lot of momentum going forward. I’d found in that second year of University that I was so distracted by music…I was supposed to be writing an essay but I’d be writing a song and it would take all day…it was just a bit of a nightmare to be honest! So the time was right, definitely. I don’t know that I’d have had the confidence to do it had it not been for the Folk Award nomination. But thank goodness I did it because I haven’t regretted it one bit…
FRUK: What do you feel music gives you that you weren’t getting (or wouldn’t have got) from continuing with your academic goals?
The love and passion for it obviously, but also…it’s something that I can’t switch off. I started writing songs when I was 17 and it’s just got more and more intense. But now I’m at a stage where it’s like an obsession…you can’t actually turn off the writing thing, so I’ll find I’m in bed at night and I’ve got something in my head…I’ve have to turn the light on and write it down otherwise I can’t sleep. If I’m just playing the guitar and I’ve got a riff or whatever…I can’t actually physically stop myself! So as much as it is a love for it, it’s also a need. I can’t actually not do it. I think it would be difficult as I’m like this to follow something else properly.
FRUK: What influences your writing? When you wake up in the middle of the night needing to write something down, where does that idea come from?
It can be anything really. It’s quite often just a line…a lyric will come into my head and then it will start from that. It seems to keep happening when I’m driving now as well actually…I’ll be in the car and something will spring into my head…
FRUK: Is that slightly dangerous!?
Well I hope not, I’m pretty careful about it! I find myself wandering down the street, or I’ll be in some random place and I’ll have an idea and I’ll have to get my phone out and sing it subtly into my voice memo app…and hope that nobody thinks I’m being super weird! It can be anything really that sparks it off…I very rarely sit down and think I’m going to write a song about this today and then it happens. It’s more an accidental, random thing.
FRUK: So in the relatively short space of time that you’ve been doing this, what have you found so far is the hardest thing about being a full-time musician?
Sometimes you’re super busy and then other times it seems like there’s nothing to do. But even when there’s nothing to do there’s always still something to do! You’re never really on time-off. There’s always one more email you can send, you can always be writing or whatever…so it’s quite hard to differentiate between work and ‘not-work’.
But then at the same time, because I love it so much it’s not really like work…there are only some bits of it that seem like work. So that’s the hardest thing I think…I can go a whole day of just sitting at the computer and sending emails…there’s a stage where you just have to say ‘OK, I’m done now’. I’ve just got to go and do something else because it becomes a bit obsessive. But I’m absolutely loving it.
FRUK: And the best thing?
Well there’s probably two: One of them is how far I’ve come…confidence wise especially…but just like performance technique and all that and now I stand on the stage and I really love performing. I started gigging properly last April…I’d got over the nerves a bit but I was still pretty nervous and it probably took me a good six months or something like that to get over the nerves so that when I go out now I really enjoy myself.
There were quite a few gigs where I went out and thought “This is Ok, this is quite good” and by the end of the set I was really quite confident…but now I go out and I’m ‘there’ straightaway, which is really nice. I just love performing and chatting to people afterwards…it’s so nice when you get a good response…
The other best thing I’d say is making a recording that you’re really proud of and that sounds great. And I’ve been so lucky with the musicians I’ve worked with. Not only have they been fantastic musicians…they’ve also just been really lovely people. I think I’ve just been lucky…Asha, my cellist, is local…I met another cellist at an open mic night in Oxford, a guy called Barney Morse-Brown. He does cello for Birdy and he’s absolutely fantastic. And then my producer Pete…he introduced me to another cellist that he knew and she’s great as well. So I’m really lucky in that respect.
FRUK: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned so far about yourself as an artist?
I’ve think I’ve learned that you can sort of create your own luck. I’ve turned now into a sort of ‘Yes Man’ character! If an opportunity arises now I usually just say “yes” unless I’m going to make a huge loss on it or something like that…but if it’s fairly viable, even if I’m not quite sure about it, I usually say “yes” because the number of times when I’ve been at a gig or busking or something…and then you meet someone who is connected with somebody else or knows somebody or runs this night or whatever. So many random but amazing connections have happened that way.
Like Alec Dankworth who’s played on the album, a fantastic jazz musician. My producer Pete happened to be at a gig that Alex was playing at. He didn’t know who he was but he was an amazing double-bassist. He just went up to him after the gig and went “I’m doing this session tomorrow, I need a bit of double-bass, would you come in?” and he said yes! Just completely random…
I was busking in Cheltenham and someone who’s an amazing bass guitarist , he’s just been playing with Kate Bush recently and used to be in John Martin’s band…he saw me and said “My mate owns this studio in Cheltenham, do you want to come and do a session with us there?”. Tons of gigs have come out of busking. So think it’s just being happy to meet new people and put yourself ‘out there’…it really makes all the difference.
FRUK: What’s next?
Promoting the singles and the album. Hopefully I’ll be doing a support tour early next year…I’ve got a manager now so he’s helping me out with gigs and things…and then I guess a headline tour with the album and see what happens from there really…”
Interview by: Rob Bridge
This is the first in a new series of photo / interview features on Folk Radio UK from Rob Bridge, a photographer, writer and film-maker specialising in folk, acoustic and Americana music. You can contact him on twitter @redwoodphotos