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World Music - deep dive into the journey so far of globe-trotting musician Hannah Fairlight

28 February 2024

Can you give us a quick overview of your achievements in the musical and the acting world?

I was classically trained on PIANO from age 8-18.

I was classically trained on SAXOPHONE from age 9-18 (including other genres. – jazz, concert, pep band, All-State (Classical), and later rock and blues sitting in with peeps in N.Y.C. and different cities! Bright Future’s “Don’t Wait Up” and Muscle & Skin’s “Shaking Hands” feature me on sax

Girls Don’t Cry – all-girl power-pop-synth band – N.Y.C. 2006-2008

My first solo “commercial” single and video was released in 2013 – “Don’t Know” – a song I wrote when I was 13.

I was auditioned and cast in A&E’s “Crazy Hearts: Nashville” – and officially moved to Nashville after N.Y.C. / a brief stint in Atlanta. The show aired from January to March. 2014 following Duck Dynasty.

The first “album” (6 songs), Creatures of Habit, was released in January 2014 (there is a story about getting punked by a producer out of $12k from the first attempt at this album, which was originally 13 songs! I had to eat it, said fuck that guy, and re-recorded half the songs with Tom Tapley (Mastodon, among others!) in ATL – one of my very best and most talented friends to date. So blessing in disguise kind of situation!)

The second “Album” (6 songs), Bright Future, released in the summer of 2015, was recorded in Nashville with Michael Wagoner at Wireworld Studios (I found out I was pregnant with my first son Rory on the second day of recording!).

Jan 2017 Auditioned for/met Director Trish Sie of Pitch Perfect 3 and was handed the part the next day! (filmed Spring 2017, Red Carpet Premiere at Dolby Theater LA Dec 2017)

Duo with Raelyn Nelson (Willy’s granddaughter), “mmhmm” released a full-length self-titled debut in 2018 (Raelyn on ukulele and Hannah on Guitar, Stomp Box and Foot Tambourine.) Headlined Whiskey-A-Go-Go.

Third Solo Full-Length Album Muscle & Skin – produced by multi-instrumentalist and cellist Austin Hoke, released June 2020 (while preggo with second kiddo! First kiddo Rory sings on the song “Mother Moon,” a lullaby I wrote for him.)

Fourth release Jan 2023 – The Good Times (6 songs) – recorded by Tom Tapley while we were recording “Creatures of Habit” – just to grab. I released this exclusively on BANDCAMP, and “Erosion” is on SoundCloud.

Bands, Features, and Collaborations: Girls Don’t Cry (N.Y.C.) Guitar and Lead Vocals, Kolker (N.Y.C.) – Saxophone, Rhythm Guitar backing vocals, Beasto Blanco (Chuck Garric of Alice Cooper Band) – B.G.V.s on the album (Nashville), Taco Mouth punk band produced by Michael Wagener – lead singer on the debut album (Nashville), Keyboards and B.G.V.s Them Vibes – live shows 2018-2020 ish, Bebe BuellBaring It All: Greetings From Nashbury Park – Saxophone and B.G.V.s (Nashville), Doug Hoekstra – B.G.V.s and Saxophone on two albums (Nashville).

The character of Veracity, who you played in Pitch Perfect 3, is the perfect casting, given your musical career that followed. Is it a case of you and her already being similar, or more than the character has continued to live through you?

What a great question! I feel it is definitely both! I couldn’t have asked for a better character name, too, out of the Evermoist bunch – the others were Charity, Calamity, and Serenity. Yep – I feel I won the name and character lottery in that film! I DO actually play bass on the recording of the song “How A Heart Unbreaks” produced by Harvey Mason, Jr., I insisted. :) And I requested the Thunderbird for filming. So Veracity. Listen, Joan Jett keeps coming out of me whether I choose it to or not! The Joan Jett energy follows me! So I answer the call, do the right thing, and go WITH it instead of against it.

Your four albums, to date, cover a lot of musical ground. Is this eclecticism planned, or just how does it come out?

It’s just how it all came out. Music has ALWAYS been an emotive, cathartic process for me – kind of a “when words fail, music” kind of thing. Since I was a tiny little girl, I’ve always gotten through every growing pain and every celebration by writing a song or melody about it – pretty much as a means to PROCESS those things. A primary means. I feel like music is easier for me than spoken language. Spoken language has so many limits, but melodies? Poetry and rhythms? Creates a FEELING. It is a way more accurate expression than just speaking or writing words. I walked around all day every day since I was able to form cognitive thoughts, just translating the world around me into poetry and prose and melody. It’s like a constant filter I can’t take off.

So whatever I’m processing at the time, listening to, growing through – comes out in my music. Plus, as an avid music appreciator and consumer, I like bands and artists that keep me surprised, that show me their own different growth and phases – like The Beatles but not unlike so many other groups and artists, like Bob Dylan or Neil Young or Kate Bush, or The Who, or David Bowie. Pushing the limits…pushing yourself, the artist, into uncomfortable spaces is – in my opinion – the ONLY way to grow and stay interesting to fans.

Tori Amos was a HUGE turn-on for me when I discovered her around 12-13 years old. I was like, W.O.W. – she is WEIRD, WILD, ravenous, and she turned everything we expected from a young woman sitting at a piano on its HEAD. She was like FUCK the norms, fuck the rules! And I was listening to her first couple of albums while I was experiencing exactly what she went through – the strict conservatory world while she just wanted to go out and play rock clubs. I related to how “out” she was and how much she changed it up between albums. She was an important beacon for me in the “do I follow the rules? W.T.F. are the rules even?” questions I was having as a young performer. I used to worry a little about “genre” or fitting into an easily digestible box, but I cleanly and concisely give NO FUCKS today.

A wise musician (Aaron Lee Tasjan) once told me that after Neil Young put out Harvest, he put out an album called On The Beach and an interviewer asked him if he was unhappy with how the album was being received after all the rave reviews for Harvest. And Neil Young said, “No! I think the new album was a raving success! It sounds totally different from Harvest!”

What a perfect answer. And another answer is…I guess I’m still “figuring out my sound.” My sound might very well just be – Hannah Fairlight, in whatever genre or style any particular releases are in! My voice and writing style are the thread that draws it all together. I mean, Neil Young had the Shocking Pinks and Crazy Horse, CSN&Y! But there is NEVER any mistaking his voice or style. I want to be Neil Young when I grow up.

And given the musical ground they cover, you must have diverse influences and heroes. Can you talk us through some of them?

Another long answer to another loaded question. But I will happily divulge. I’ll start at the beginning; my music listening was largely populated by what my parents – particularly my father – were putting on. We didn’t have a T.V. for a while, and when we did, it was only a tiny black and white one with a bunny ear antenna and three channels. And we were only allowed one 30-minute show per week. But we did have a record player and my dad’s awesome vinyl collection. We eventually rented an upright Kawai piano, which I instantly gravitated to, and started working out melodies by ear.

My dad played records during bedtime, work, and playtime. Music was a constant – and no housework task could be done without a proper soundtrack. My earliest memories are being rocked to sleep by John Fogelberg – “The Innocent Age”, or James Taylor, or Paul Simon. I remember sneak-listening to Paul Simon’s Graceland as a youngster because my mom had taken up some prohibition with him because of…him being a womanizer. I don’t know. But I fiercely LOVED and still love that album.

My 5-8-year-old visual memory of staring at the album art is imprinted permanently. My dad dug (and still digs) songwriters, so even though there were bands sprinkled in, there was Carly Simon, Carole King, Billy Joel, and Elton John. There was Paul McCartney (I LOVED McCartney II – “Front Parlour” is still one of my very favorite little ditties). My dad dug Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Crosby Stills Nash, and Young, and the lighter but deeper/more progressive rock n roll fare. Deep Purple was always there. (It’s crazy because I now call Roger Glover and Don Airey close friends.) Then – as the 80s finished out and the early ’90s began – I found new, exciting music.

Around 7-8 years old, I discovered Ace of Base, which I avidly created dance routines for, and so began the new era of me finding my own music. Around 9-10, it was T.L.C., then Prince, and Aerosmith. I got my first cassette tapes – The Go Gos, MC Hammer, and a mixtape called “Hot Tracks 2,” which had Roxette’s “Joyride” on side two, which I played, rewound, and played again until the tape eventually busted. I was GAGA for Roxette (and still am). Bands and artists started to emerge, like Soundgarden (my friend and I started lusting over Chris Cornell), Spacehog, Stone Temple Pilots, and Beck.

Simultaneous was the explosion of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, alongside – lest we forget – Shania Twain’s The Woman In Me – both of which were my two first CD albums at the ripe age of 11 or so. By then, my brother’s own listening fare had started to deepen and spill over to me. Def Leppard was there. There was They Might Be Giants (yeah, we’re a nerdy, weird family, so perfect for us) and R.E.M.. – which I fastened myself to like scuba gear to a deep sea diver. I swam in it. I loved Monster and Green.

Then, around 12-13 – I found my uncle’s cassette tapes of Tori Amos – bootlegs from a concert or something, and as I said before, my whole piano-obsessed world was turned upside down. I immediately got EVERY album of hers I could get my hands on from the public library. I started making music videos with my friends, running around Grundy Center, IA, with my two best friends and my mom’s hi-8 camera. We would record everything in order, edit in real-time on the camera, press play on the video and the song at the same time, and directly transfer the camera footage to a VHS tape with the song recording over it.

I got my first keyboard – a Yamaha I still have sitting right next to me today! – and we would stay up super late recording full songs with all the sounds and instruments. We had our first band – P.Y.E. 95 – a small collective of my friend Steph, me, and our friend Reggie, a college dropout who had a four-track recorder. I started nannying for a local family and would spend my mornings watching VH1 at their place – filling my ears and eyes with Weezer (the green album was coming out) and “Shiny Happy People” by the B-52s and R.E.M., and so so much more. Coldplay was a new band. Bands like Nickelback were new. Napster was happening. I got my first Hotmail address and didn’t know what to do with it.

College friends fed me Ben Folds Five and eventually Ani Difranco – both of which I absorbed DEEPLY. I was into Red Hot Chili Peppers, which I started in the middle (Californication) and went backward (Blood Sugar Sex Magic). I loved them. I also loved Bjork – I remember rushing out to buy Vespertine when it dropped. I went to my first rock concert – Weezer – in the quad cities. Brian Bell flirted with me on the loading dock afterward; we exchanged emails, and he lent me his coat. I was 16. He was, like, 40. Ha. He wanted me to come to their Chicago show the next night, and I told him, um, no, I have to go to school. I still have the email exchange. I printed it and put it with photos from the night.

I saw the Chili Peppers at the same spot within a year, and Queens of the Stone Age opened, and I was like, WHO. I.S. THIS? I was and still am mildly obsessed. Foo Fighters – I played them on a regular basis. I’m Dave Grohl-obsessed – in a healthy way. Of course, shortly thereafter, I went to college myself and had another music renaissance in N.Y.C. – The Killers debuted, and I was enthralled. The White Stripes happened, and I was slowly but surely mesmerized. I became obsessed with music videos – particularly Michel Gondry (I went to film school after all). I liked and still like some heavier creepy dark shit – like TOOL and Maynard Keenan, and followed him into A Perfect Circle and Pucifer.

I love NIN and that was happening a lot in college. I listened to a lot of Faith No More. Band of Horses emerged, and when Funeral came out, I was obsessed. I loved discovering Kings of Leon – and that rode along with me living in England, so I have a lot of memories riding around with friends to K.O.L. Bon Iver debuted when I was across the pond too – and M.A.N. did that hit hard. Then I discovered MGMT, followed by Yeasayer, and then Bagraiders and LCD Soundsystem, while in London and then in Sydney. I let the electronic music pour through me.

“Brothers” came out by The Black Keys, and I was an INSTANT fan. Huge fan. This eased me into a space where I became fully absorbed by Black Keys and Jack White and started to gravitate in that direction in my own music for the first time. I had a roots/blues explosion. A revelation. I had and have always LOVED blues and blues rock music, rhythm and blues… I can’t really understand anyone who doesn’t. Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTellSon House… It’s like the realest of the real music to me. Blues music. And Jimi Hendrix – whose style and legacy always spoke to me… Janis Joplin.

There were ghosts here for me to uncover. I also started to genuinely deep-dive into artists who I discovered changed it up and were quite revolutionary. I engrossed myself in Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, and even Bob Dylan – who I finally started to deeply understand in a whole new, monumental way. I started reading rock biographies and watching documentaries around the clock.

Once I moved to Nashville – I was right on time for this musical hero journey. It also happens that a mere two-ish weeks into moving here, I met my now husband, who happens to be a rock music encyclopedia. So, the stars aligned, and my path was set. I had done a little country music research when I moved to Nashville if for anything, not to sound like a fool in conversation or reference. But I have been happy to have been steeped in almost pure rock and roll since moving to Nashville.

I’ve since gone backward – Big Star, Badfinger, Small Faces, Faces, Yardbirds, The Who, Jethro Tull, Moody Blues, Monkees, The Beatles, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, McCartney, Wings, Queen, Buffalo Springfield, Flying Burrito Brothers, Byrds, Beach Boys, E.L.O., ZZ Top, Heart, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, The Band, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, and godaaaammmnnn so many more.

There are so many “new” heroes it’s painful to try to even attempt to list them. I pull inspiration every day from all the incredible new music spilling out of every corner and orifice of the world, the internet, radio, and stage. I steep myself in it; I don’t “live in” the past, even though there are infinite paths to go down in both directions – backward and forward. I’m insatiable. I love learning about new music, but below are the anchors that have carried me through much of my formative time as a performer and artist.

Big top heroes: Tori Amos. Peter Gabriel. Stevie Wonder. Sam Cooke. Brenton Wood. David Bowie. Queen/Freddie Mercury. Patti Smith (when I read Just Kids, my whole life changed). Elton John. Tom Petty. Bob Dylan. Lucinda Williams. Jack White. Bruce Springsteen.

What does your experience as an actor bring to your musical career, and similarly, what does your musical experiences bring to your on-screen work?

I’ve been a performer as far back as I can remember. I was 4, 5, and 6, wanting to get up and sing and dance for family and friends. That love of performance has carried me through lots of learning phases – I’ve wanted to learn, grow, and mature in front of an audience – whether it is a live one or a camera one. That self-awareness of how you carry yourself if you’re a natural performer – I’ve always had that. And I think it made getting in front of the camera very easy and natural for me.

But there is ALWAYS so much to learn, and I champ at the bit every day to put myself into uncomfortable spaces… because I know well that these are the spaces where the most growth and the most exciting things happen.

As a viewer and consumer of artists and performers, I don’t want to see a squeaky clean, well-rehearsed show. I want to see the artist GOING THROUGH something, trying for something – maybe even falling down or failing to reach it, but it’s that total honesty in the performance that translates to an audience that I crave. That’s how I approach my music, and that’s how I approach on-screen work. Push myself into a space that is uncomfortable, reaching for something that is JUST out of reach, and an honest performance will come across.

I will also say that performing on-screen has helped me REIGN IN my performance in music. It doesn’t have to be HUGE and over-theatrical to be impactful and honest. In fact, I would say that I have moved backward in my music career in that respect – I used to aim for big, over-the-top lyrics, chord progressions, time signatures – real weird, heady stuff.

But I quickly found it was hard for an audience to access… so MAKING it difficult on purpose maybe wasn’t a good goal. Lucinda Williams has given me lots of insight into this – that sometimes the SIMPLEST ideas – lyrically, melodically – are the most impactful. I think I’m finally arriving in a comfortable place with this simplification.

On my new album, I actually made an unofficial pact with myself to KEEP IT SIMPLE. See where I could go with three chords. I mean, look at White Stripes! That shit is TIMELESS. Jack White created anthems that have and will surpass time, genre, and different musical movements. And those ideas are really so simple and built around simple riffs. But Jack White – I’ll never forget in the film It Might Get Loud, talks about changing things up ever so slightly at each show…putting the microphone a LITTLE further from his guitar amp, or whatever, because the audience KNOWS when you are doing the same shit over and over.

But when you add that little challenge for yourself, then your performance is real and honest in that moment, and the audience gets the reward of bearing witness to a singular event. I’ve carried that tidbit in my heart for years, and I swear by it every time I perform. Don’t play it SAFE. Safe is predictable and boring. How can I freak myself out a little each time I play? How can I surprise myself?

In your younger days, you busked and backpacked worldwide. How has this broader view of life affected the way you have lived your life since?

I can’t tell you enough how much busking impacted me and continues to impact me. The lessons I learned from playing in the streets and subways and parks and train platforms of N.Y.C. and London and Germany, and Denmark and The Netherlands and Norway and Italy and France and Australia and New Zealand and Wales and Ireland… the lessons I learned are immense.

It started in 2006. I’d only been playing the guitar for about a year at that time. Self-taught – maybe 6 or 7 chords in my pocket, maybe more. The guitar was more portable, more in your face and direct – and so even though I PINED for the piano always, I picked up a guitar for this reason. I would still visit the Bitter End daily, and Kenny Gorka would let me play the piano there before and after hours.

But anyway! Summer of 2006. I had a crummy, low-paying “work-study” college job in a production office in the N.Y.U. Campus. Right by Washington Square Park. When I got my first paycheck, I was FLOORED that I was being paid even less than I had originally thought. I literally went to the bathroom and sobbed over it. But I quickly picked myself up, wiped my cheeks dry, and decided right then and there that over my mandatory hour-long lunch break every day, I would go down to Washington Square Park and play my guitar with my case and my hat out for tips. It was both because I desperately needed the extra money AND because I knew deep inside, I wanted to experience what it was like to literally play on the street, among other street performers.

The first day I did it, I think I brought in $60 in an hour, plus a couple of Polaroids someone had taken of me. The next day, I rallied my courage and did it again. And the next day, again. And again. And each day, when I finished and packed up my guitar case and cap beneath my “stage” – a quiet spot below a statue of Garibaldi I knew I could nab between other regular performers – I would breathe a deep breath of accomplishment. I did it! I did it.

And each next day, I would summon the courage to do it again, even though “I had already done it.” What could tomorrow bring? How will I change doing this over more time? It was both terrifying and extremely compelling to keep getting up and doing it again and again. Beyond that daily practice, I took busking with me like a briefcase wherever I traveled. I could ALWAYS depend on making a few bucks and ALWAYS come away with new, beautiful connections to people who otherwise would have remained strangers.

I felt I was touching people, becoming part of their story, and them becoming part of mine. I felt myself becoming an infinitely better, more intuitive performer and player – learning how to control the dynamism of my voice and playing and capture people’s attention at the drop of a hat. Every time I have ever busked, I have felt thrilled, exhausted, and deeply satisfied, even on crummy days/nights.

I’ll never forget rolling up to Nashville and playing on Broadway (my spot was next to what used to be Ernest Tubb’s record shop – which has sadly now shut; there is a little teensy quiet ally way there, and I set up right at the entrance) many, many times, and the first few times I realized I needed to adjust my playlist a bit – that maybe Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan songs weren’t quite the mood for lower Broad. Haha. I love looking back on those days when I was playing “She’s An Artist,” “Me You and Julio Down By The Schoolyard,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” and “Born To Run.”

I always made sure to dress up and almost ALWAYS put a flower in my hair. Lots of time glitter. And always a big fat smile and the readiness to pull out 4 bars of ANY song that might be thrown at me. Lucky for me, I have a pretty good ear, and I soak up music – even genres I don’t frequent – like a sponge. So I can whip out just a little of almost anything. I aim to please. :)

I’ll add that busking – something I don’t do as much these days mainly because it’s “banned” on Broadway and it’s too damn loud down there now anyhow – is something that has kept me honest and humble as a musician. It’s that universal language of music that connects us all, so no matter where I’ve gone in the world, it’s something I can pull out and humble myself – playing a song for someone for a buck or two or a smile or a polaroid, or a magnet, or just a shared moment. Amanda Palmer writes beautifully about her experiences with street performance in “The Art Of Asking,” which I love and can relate to immensely.

And finally, are there any plans to tour this album? If so, where are you looking forward to playing, and if there were no constraints, where would be on your wish list to tour and play?

No current “tour” plans, though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want some magical force to swoop me up and invite me out on one! I’d love to play these songs off this album AS MUCH AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE. I love these songs. They are great live songs, and they are not as inaccessible as some of my more introspective releases have been…this is rock and roll! And I have the energy to match it right now in my life. I have SO MUCH energy to offer right now.

I wish the list of venues would be midsize; I don’t need any huge rooms, theaters, etc.! Just some sexy midsize venues, perhaps (hopefully!) opening for a more established act that inspires me, some artist or band I can give my ALL to, my honest effort, and do the honest work of getting out there and collecting some new fans.

I loved England, the U.K. in general, and Europe for playing. Man, there was something about the respect for shows and music there that struck me as different…more care, more interest. Less of a rat race? Maybe it’s because I’m a foreigner… but when I played there, the authenticity of the support from fans and friends really struck me and left a lasting impact. You know, so dream-gig-wise, I’d LOVE to get to do a European tour of some kind. Even just get over there and play a few shows and not break the bank.

Of course, I miss Oz – I lived there for two years, and I fell madly in love with it. So getting back there and getting down to Melbourne to play there would be fucking AMAZING. It might sound a bit strange, but I’d love the opportunity to hit smaller regions in the U.S., like the Midwest. I want to GO OUT to the people, bring this thing to them. Light a fire in some small towns.

Of course, taking a band on the road is expensive, but I’m hoping the stars align and I get to ride the wave of this album out live while it’s cresting. I’m putting my energy toward manifesting that.