The idea that there’s some kind of relationship between the lunar cycle and human behaviour is a popular theory, with origins that can be traced back as far as ancient Babylonian writing…
It’s certainly a concept that appeals to Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage; “We’re very interested in cosmic patterns” Hannah explains, “the idea of rhythms…that there are bigger rhythms in the world and making sure that our work is in harmony with them. The new moon is a time associated with new beginnings and the inception of projects.”
Hence the conception of the ‘New Moon Videos’; visual snippets of Hannah and Ben’s music released to coincide with each ‘new moon’…which if you don’t know (I certainly didn’t), is the point when the moon and the sun have the same ecliptical longitude occurring on average every 29 days.
Scheduling video releases so that they coincide with phases of the moon could seem, to some at least, like an unusual and perhaps unnecessary level of detail. But then to Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage, details are important.
Self-declared perfectionists, Hannah and Ben put significant thought into virtually every aspect of their work, from arranging to recording, from production to performance. The latest product of their shared obsession is the album ‘Before The Sun’, Hannah and Ben’s debut recording as a duo. The record is the culmination of a journey that started in the folk rooms of Cambridge and took the duo across the North Atlantic in search of their dream producer. As we chat over lunch in a Cambridge pub, I start to get a sense of the level of passion that’s led to the production of what really is a wonderful album…read Folk Radio UK’s album review here (also a Featured Album of the Month).
Ben and Hannah met in 2013 shortly after Hannah returned from a number of years living in America. “I couldn’t find a job in my previous occupation” Hannah recounts, “I met Ben at a folk club and he helped me make my first solo record. So our musical journey started there.” Ben recalls the same evening; “Hannah had just come in and was starting to play. The day before I think I’d finished a tour with the Willows and went for a night off…we both did a floor spot in there…so it was total freak meeting really.”
Following the release of Hannah’s acclaimed 2015 debut record ‘Charm Against Sorrow’, Ben…already an established performer as a member of The Willows…started joining Hannah on gigs, partly to keep Hannah company. “Going out solo is very isolating for me” Hannah admits, “as I’d only just come back to music…it was really terrifying! In lots of weird ways as well…just lonely.”
With Ben’s support, Hannah regained her confidence as a performer and in the space between gigs they started to work on new material that would eventually become the foundation for ‘Before The Sun’. “We just started singing a lot of duets” Ben explains, “arranging folk songs, duets…then we started writing things that dropped out. I was hearing duet harmonies, hearing those two guitars dancing together like that. The material kind of fell in our lap in I guess”
Having a common musical heritage (they both describe themselves as ‘children of folk clubs’) provided the core around which the duo could build the new material. “Ben would start to play something like ‘False True Love’ or ‘Deep Blue Sea’” Hannah recalls, “and I would go ‘Oh I love this one!’ We had a shared pool of material that we knew. We liked very similar artists and so we were thinking about other duos that we liked and what we could draw on.”
As the impetus grew towards making an album, the duo began to consider who could capture their emerging sound. Again, it was a decision that warranted careful thought; whilst Ben had previously engineered and produced Hannah’s solo record, they both felt that having to perform and then objectively assess his own performance for this album would lead to Ben wearing too many hats.
“We’d been listening to a lot of North American music…old time music and stuff” Hannah explains, “and we’d fallen in love with a series of duos, one of which was Pharis and Jason Romero who’d made this beautiful record where the image of them as a duo was so clear, so warm and inclusive. They’d written pretty much all of their songs but they still had the feel of traditional songs. We found out that their producer was a Canadian guy called David Travers-Smith. One really drunken night we were like ‘If you could pick anyone in the whole world to make this record who would it be?’ and we were ‘Yes, we’d definitely pick him, he’s brilliant!’”
Riding high on the idea of working with Travers-Smith, the duo emailed him…and then heard nothing. “We were crushed!” Hannah laughs. “Then suddenly he got back in touch with us and said ‘Hey guys, I’m sorry I’ve been head down in another project…I’ve loved what you’ve said, let’s talk about this some more’”
Not quite believing what was happening…and determined not to appear too ‘star struck’…the duo found themselves flying to Canada for a ten-day recording process. “David’s very immersive” Ben explains, “one of the most immersive people I’ve met. His engagement and focus on an artist’s music is superhuman. Nothing is left unconsidered.”
A key objective for Travers-Smith was to capture the single-mic sound that Hannah and Ben had developed as a result of their early live performances together. “We wanted to try and impart that feeling of two voices, two instruments really working together closely” Ben explains.
As well as capturing the ambience of their live performance, it was also important to the duo that the recording reflected their joint strive for perfection. “We’re both tiny detail junkies” Hannah shares, “there will be a moment where the guitars will hit one note in a particular place together…these are the things we obsess over.”
Ben continues the point; “We love the extremes, like when we’re dealing with those big ballads; we think really hard about the one moment where we play all our four instruments (two guitars, two vocals) together on the same note and loudly…that’s a big deal and it should be a big deal. When you’ve only go four instruments you need to be careful. The same where it goes to just one person, one thing…these moments are really important when you’ve got to hold someone’s attention over twelve verses. You don’t want to bore them with that one sound in the first ten seconds. So we think really hard about that.”
Following an intensive ten days of recording until 2am every day, the duo returned from Canada with the foundations of ‘Before The Sun’. From there, they set about recruiting a distinguished array of other artists to add depth and texture to the recording. Securing the services of Jon Thorne on bass was an early priority…Katriona Gilmore and Jim Causley both feature on the record, as do Evan Carson and Jade Rhiannon from The Willows adding percussion and backing vocals respectively. The vocal contribution of Robin Gillan who founded the club where Hannah and Ben met was was a final but important touch…
The album shines with a deceptive simplicity, but at the same time there’s a richness that hints at the work that’s gone into it. “Over in Canada, David tracked Kevin Breit who works on lots of records for David where he wants subtlety of colour” Hannah explains, “in places there are bits of mandocello, mandola, electric guitar…you don’t really hear it so much, but you feel it.”
It’s evident how proud Hannah and Ben are of what they’ve created. “I’m still very conscious of the fact that my musical journey is only relatively new since I returned to music” Hannah reflects, “so it’s been a very sharp learning curve of trying to get something really good in a short space of time…but I trusted Ben, trusted his ears on things…and the person that David was.”
For Ben, part of the joy of his work with Hannah comes in the moments they share on stage;
“We’ve had some lovely shared moments with us and the audience, where everyone ‘gets it’ at the same time without us asking. I know Hannah very well and we play together all the time, we know what each other is thinking…so those moments are special. I love singing with Hannah, she’s fantastic to sing with, so we have that synchronicity all the time anyway. But then when a room full of people grab that as well, it’s very special for us. That’s when I can tell Hannah’s thinking the same as me; ’Don’t cock it up!’ It’s like surfing…those really special moments when you know you’ve got every single person.”
“It’s big for me” Ben continues, “that connection with people when they maybe don’t expect it. I think there increasingly less things that are so simple that people can connect with. Other musicians can be quite cagey about being open on what they enjoy about this job…sometimes people will try and play it down, but I really love listening to other people sing. I like getting to go and watch other bands at festivals. I like having a beer with people I’ve never met who’ve just heard me sing and who’ve got an opinion about it. I like a party after a gig. I like driving to places, I like seeing new places. I like travelling around and doing this…. no shame!”
As they prepare for the release of the album and a subsequent tour that will see them performing twenty-four dates back to back, it’s clear that the duo are filled with positivity about the record and what they’ve created…a sense that they’ve found their musical ‘place’.
“Music is an imperative to me now”, Hannah reflects, “I’ve done other things. This is the thing where I feel woken up as a person…I find myself here. I’m my best self when I’m singing, whether it’s to people or not. The lovely thing about sharing that with someone else is that the burden is lifted, so actually, rather than me having to worry so much about the ‘me-ness’ of the singing, this is more about just creating lovely sounds. We’re also very passionate about acoustic music, about how good it is for us in a world that’s constantly mediated. To still hear people singing and playing instruments…it still has the capacity to move us and resonate somewhere deep in us.”
Before the Sun is released on 16th September 2016 via Sungazing Records
Pre-Order via: Amazon
Before the Sun Tour Dates
Sun 11th Sep – Cambridge, Black Fen Folk Club
Sun 18th Sep – Norwich, Bicycle Shop
Mon 19th Sep – Clare (Suffolk), The Cock
Thu 22nd Sep – York, The Black Swan
Fri 23rd Sep – Durham, Old Cinema Launderette
Sat 24th Sep – Sheffield, Greystones
Thu 29th Sep – Scotland, Clydesdale Folk Club
Fri 30th Sep – Southport, The Atkinson
Mon 3rd Oct – Stafford, Gatehouse Theatre
Fri 7th Oct – Isle of Skye, Red Roof Cafe
Sun 9th Oct – Settle, Victoria Hall
Fri 14th Oct – Bury, The Met
Tue 18th Oct – Far Cotton, Northants, Old White Hart
Sun 23rd Oct – Maidenhead, Norden Farm Arts
Thu 10th Nov – Cambridge, The Junction
Fri 11th Nov – Rhyl, Tynewydd Community Centre
Sun 13th Nov – Torrington, Plough Arts Centre
Fri 18th Nov – Coventry, Big Comfy Bookshop
Fri 2nd Dec – Bury St Edmunds, The Constitutional Club
Find out more here: www.hannahbenmusic.com