Chepstow alt-pop musician Hannah Berney has found success as a songwriter to stars including Mabel and Diana Ross – now, after several years and a sequence of EPs as Violet Skies, she’s releasing her debut album this month and launching it in Cardiff. Emma Way caught up with her in advance of that date.
Read, watch or listen to the interview below.
Your debut album If I Saw You Again is out on Fri 17 June. How different is the finished article from how you imagined it when you were younger?
That’s a really good question! I’ve been writing since I was like 14, so I really thought it would be sooner. I definitely put out lots of music, but it never felt like a complete body of work. I thought the first thing I ever put out would be an album – but you have these strange delusions of grandeur when you’re a kid. But honestly, sonically and what it’s talking about is probably what I could have imagined.
It’s quite a bold choice to have such a stripped-back album as your first, I think.
I mean, it doesn’t feel too stripped back to me – like, The Internet is quite produced out, and there’s a couple of other songs in there, like What If One Of Us Died? – but lots of the people I love, Joni Mitchell, Adele, Amy Winehouse, all their first albums were very much like that. A songwriter is what I am more than anything, whether you’ve got a voice or not, my songs are the thing that I do first and foremost – so it makes sense to me! But thank you.
Do you feel like you focus on lyrics a lot more now?
Lyrics, and more about the song as, like, a holistic whole thing. I start a lot with lyrics, but I’m so melody-driven as well. It really is 50/50. I’m less concerned about production, or what instruments are necessarily being used – I produce a lot of it, so I obviously care, but it’s not my first thought.
You were learning guitar in lockdown, right? Did you find that learning a new instrument helped write the album?
Some of the songs are quite old – Jupiter was written in 2017 – but just didn’t have a place on an EP. I had lots of the songs in demo form in 2020 and wrote a couple more that summer. My guitar scales were limited to five or six lessons I took when I was 18, so when I actually sat down to learn some proper chords, I found production was easier – I was able to take songs from demo form into finished version because I could play an instrument suddenly. I couldn’t have done this album in the time I did it, six months probably if I hadn’t learned guitar.
Did you record it all in LA?
No, I recorded some in Chepstow at my parents’ house – in lockdown, I went back to Wales for a bit. But I was in LA when I was, like, stuck at the beginning of the pandemic, and made a lot of it with Micah Jasper, who’s based in LA. The production was done in Sweden, Finland and Germany because I have a lot of international collaborators I’ve met through songwriting. We couldn’t be in the studio together, so we had to send notes back and forth over the internet.
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What’s that like, writing a song online?
Two songs on the album were written on Zoom – that feels weird to me. But they’re with collaborators I’ve worked with for a long time. Never Be Cool was with Charlie McClean, who I’ve known for six or seven years. She and I have written together for Léon and Diana Ross.
The other friend, Nick Kahn, I met on Zoom and have written with a lot online as well. When we wrote Love You Better, I was sitting in the living room with my guitar and it just felt like he was in the room.
Do you feel like writing for other people influences your own music?
It lets me know what I do and don’t want to do for myself. The Mabel song [God Is A Dancer, with Tiësto] – I love that, I was so pleased to watch her in the music video and singing in stadiums, but it’s not something I could sing and perform like she does. The kind of music I do best is my own.
The two things are very separate, even though I’m incredibly proud of the music I’ve made for other people. Writing my own music, for my own artistry, scratches an itch in my brain I can’t scratch when I’m writing for other people.
Are you excited to be touring in the UK again?
Oh my god, I’m so excited! I just played a show in Ireland; the last [UK headline] show I played was November, December 2019.
Is it like you’re starting over again?
Yeah, and it’s the same for a lot of artists actually. I didn’t disappear from the internet but I definitely wasn’t engaging in the same way with new music – and then the last six months, I’ve really had to get back into that world, which has been quite jarring. But I think it’s hard for everybody.
COVID ticket sales are quite difficult – we’ll cancel a lot because people are getting sick, and venues are very nervous about stuff. But honestly, at this point, I just want to be on tour…
Is a hometown or Wales show different?
Yeah, because I’ve got more family coming [to the Clwb Ifor Bach gig]. There’ll be a crew that comes down from Ponty and a crew that come across from Chepstow, and lots of faces in the crowd that I know… it’s 50% more pressure and 50% less. I spent so much of my teenage years playing Cardiff, Newport and Bristol.
Where did you use to play in Chepstow?
I think I played at a couple of different pubs, and festivals… Devauden Bonfire Night was my first ever gig at 16.
I remember going to see you – it was a kind of funk band.
Yeah, my good friend Josh Moon was in that band. He sadly passed away this year. Josh and I wrote a lot of the first songs I’d ever written properly together and wrote a lot outside of [the band] as well. I’ve incredibly fond memories of my early teenage years playing in Chepstow, and Mr Ellam [music teacher] being our music manager. He gave us a key, we would get the school gear and go and play gigs. I don’t even know if that was allowed! But we did it.
Talk, your duet with Billy Lockett, was a hit on Love Island last year – are you watching it?
I’ll be super honest – I’d never watched Love Island! When Talk was on last year, as was another of my songs, I hadn’t watched the episode – I found out at the airport. This year I’ve been writing with an artist called Nia and she was like, “mate you need to watch Love Island!” – they were talking about it in the session. So I went home and watched one episode the other day, and I’m a big fan of Indiyah.
What’s your favourite track on If I Saw You Again?
Currently, Hey God, It’s Me. It really does change because I don’t listen to the music I’ve made. Objectively knowing whether [a song] is good is quite hard.
You don’t listen to your own music?
I read a quote on TikTok the other day – Trixie Mattel saying, “If you’re not embarrassed by what you’ve done, you’re not growing.” And I think as a person, I’m always growing. I spent like a year with those songs – once you’ve done it, you hand it in and go, “Great! That’s a chapter of my life.”
Violet Skies, Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff, Tue 21 June. Tickets: £8. Info: here
If I Saw You Again is out on Fri 17 June.
words EMMA WAY
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