Interview with Hannah Johnson of The Toy Hearts
Hannah Johnson is the lead vocalist and mandolin player with Birmingham's The Toy Hearts, one of the UK's premier Americana bands. This year the group released 'Whiskey', a collection of covers and originals dominated by a swing sound. Here Hannah discusses their creativity, the band's motivations, the soundtrack to their touring, and reveals which queen of country she'd love to tour with.
Was it always your intention to record a more swing orientated album?
When we decided to make album number four, yes, we intended to make a swing album. Some people have accused us of 'selling out' as far as bluegrass music is concerned, but that's just not the case. Anyone who thinks like that, doesn't know us very well. Dad has always played a lot of swing music in our family home and after making three bluegrass albums we felt that it was a natural progression and the right thing for us to do. It also reflects the second half of our live show now where we 'go electric'.
Has it been very different writing and recording in that style?
Not really. We have always written swing songs and featured original compositions in that style on our previous albums. Although you can describe the album as swing it has strong elements of jazz, blues and country.
The album's mixed by Grammy nominated engineer/producer Ben Surratt in Nashville. Did you know him already?
Yes. Ben engineered Femme Fatale and his wife Missy Raines played bass on the same record. Ben is a great guy, super talented and very enthusiastic about what we do. I don't know that we could have made the record the way we did without knowing Ben, it was very important to us all that he knew us as individuals, as well as a band. The fact that we had worked together before meant that we able to trust him implicitly with the production, which is obviously a big and important job.
How did the recent support gig for Robert Plant go? How did that come about?
We got that gig via Darrell Higham who is Imelda May's husband. Robert rang him up to ask if he knew any female singers and he suggested us.... I believe he watched our youtube videos in Texas and then we got the call. It's quite weird to think of Robert watching us on youtube! The show went really well and we got asked to extend our set by the man himself and obviously, his fans are a new audience for us. We sold lots of CDs and met some lovely people.
When you are on the road, who is in charge of the music, and what are the current favourites?
Good Question! Well, we all bring CDs to the van... Wayne Hancock gets played a LOT! We all just love his records. But there is a real range, we play anything from The Hot Club of Cowtown to Sam Cooke. I am a big fan of The SteelDrivers so I try to get them on at any opportunity and also we like to play 'Them Blues' by The Lonesome River Band really loud....I LOVE Sammy Shelor's banjo playing!
If you were able to tour with any artists, past or present, who would they be?
Another excellent question! Past artists would have to be Elvis Presley or Hank Williams...Present, I would love to tour with Dolly Parton of course! My sister and I went to see her play at the NEC in Birmingham and I hate big gigs, but it was one of the best shows I have ever seen...she is an amazing lady and I have the utmost respect for her.
What's next for the band?
Touring, touring, touring this summer, with Whiskey now out officially, we will be doing everything we can to promote it. Then we are off to the States in October to play in Texas and we are all really looking forward to that!