In today’s indie band culture, especially the one in the Big Apple, I too often feel that something is missing. Then it hits me – “Where are the solo guitar chicks?” I was happy to finally find one on a warm and rainy February evening, at Seth Glier’s set in Rockwood Music Hall. Here, I stumbled upon the voice and guitar playing of singer-songwriter, Hannah Winkler.
One of the songs I heard from her that night, “Dear Love” – which is on her self-titled EP – left me in awe. It starts with an unsettling progression of minor 7 chords, followed by progressions of major 7 chords, and then finishes soundly on the tonic, the 1 chord. On top of these harmonies, she sings about how she simply cannot wait for love to arrive, even though it is warm and comforting.
I wanted to find out more about the girl with the intricate chord progressions and the disillusioned views about love. So, I invited Hannah to be my April music feature for the full-length interview right here on Music Historian’s Hear; Don’t Listen.
“The Paper Plate Song”
Hannah and I met at the café on East Houston, Sugar. In our conversation, I learned that Hannah’s relationships with friends both from her home in Bethesda, Maryland and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor influenced her songwriting. She says:
“During my freshman year, I was writing “Dear Love,” and one of my friends wrote lyrics which I later set to this song. Coincidentally, the lyrics he wrote happened to describe something I was experiencing at that time – a long distance relationship. The lyrics just fit with me, and I just finished with what he started. “Dear Love” became one of my favorite songs to play.
“My relationships and my friends’ relationships in college inspired my music; we were learning a lot about ourselves at that time. Also, missing relationships from home, missing relationships from college while I was at home also inspired my songs.
“I wrote a song after I left college called “The Paper Plate Song.” When I wrote it, I was at a concert, and I missed my friends so much that I started crying and had to leave the concert. As I left, I needed to write down what I was feeling, so I searched for whatever I could find to write on, and it happened to be a paper plate.
“Until this day, I don’t have a title for the song; it’s just called “The Paper Plate Song.”
College was also where Hannah had her first performing opportunities for her own music. All her life, Hannah only performed solo classical piano pieces or performed in ensembles. Luckily, Ann Arbor offered her several safe and intimate spaces where she could practice as a solo artist and share music with her friends and the surrounding community.
“Put Yourself Out There”
“I would perform for friends in my apartment and at a local church that welcomed a lot of jazz musicians.
“I also participated in a student songwriting competition which took place at Ann Arbor’s premier folk venue, The Ark. The winner of this competition would get to open for an undetermined better-known artist at the Ark. I ended up winning the competition, and opened for Joshua James a few months later.
“Not only did I open for Joshua James, but I got my foot in the door and was able to play again at the Ark. Afterward, I performed at a large outdoor concert series, Top of the Park Festival. I also met a few dj’s and had the opportunity to perform on a few local radio stations.”
Hannah’s message to all soloists is, “Put yourself out there. You might meet people who can recommend you to a specific venue or a band in need of an instrumentalist.”
This is just one way a singer-songwriter can attract opportunities. I then asked Hannah whether her move to Brooklyn was a result of her hunger for more opportunity.
“Moving to Brooklyn, I was able to collaborate with several artists. I opened for Seth Glier and Theo Katzman at Rockwood. Then last Thursday night, I played at Googie’s with several other friends. I also sang back-up vocals on a record by the band called Guggenheim Grotto.
“Open mic night is also great way to meet people with whom you can collaborate. I also like taking breaks from doing my music, and helping other people with theirs. This is how I met Kat Quinn, another artist. I will be singing back-ups for her on her set at Rockwood.”
Aside from singing with fellow artists, Hannah also scored a short film by her friend from college, Perry Janes titled, Zug. Her most recent single, “Hide it Away,” which she produced with Theo Katzman, is included in the film. Another one of Hannah’s friends, Brian Trahan, also from University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, helped her produce her EP.
“I want to see who will help me bring out the best in my songs”
“While I was in college, Brian and I sang together in an a cappella group. I started recording the EP with him and I enjoyed seeing what he had to bring to the table. He is very influenced by rock and classical music, and for some of the tracks, we invited string quartets to help us complete the songs.”
Hannah adds, “Recording the EP was a wonderful journey. I like painting with music, and you get do that in the recording process.
“I have a lot of ideas of how the tunes should feel, and I appreciate hearing others’ ideas as well. I am currently trying to assemble a team of recording engineers for a full-length album – one with 10 to 12 songs. I want to see who will enjoy working on the album, understand my music, and help me to bring out the best in my songs.”
The Puzzle: Rehearsing with Hannah
The experience of producing an album differs for each artist. For Hannah, her recording days started in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she created her first album with Brian. Recording the single, “Hide it Away” in her Brooklyn apartment however, presented a different challenge. Hannah explains:
“We only had a chunk of time each day to record songs. We had to wait for cars and ambulances to pass,” because every passing noise could be picked up by the recording devices.
Prior to recording a song, Hannah and her guest-musicians rehearse a piece of new music for the best process. An on-going puzzle during these rehearsals, is figuring out what Hannah is playing on her guitar. She says:
“I’ve been playing piano since the first grade. Then I picked up guitar in the 9th grade, and taught myself. I still have never taken a lesson. From the moment I picked up guitar, I started writing my own songs. I occasionally looked up the chords in songs from my favorite artists, but I never really learned them well. So I wrote my own.
“Playing the piano for so long really helped my ear, but I could never translate my theory knowledge onto guitar. I just press my fingers down wherever and just play things that sound good. When I rehearse with bands, I can’t explain to them what I’m playing so I show them, and they get it. For some, it’s like a puzzle and they really enjoy learning. In turn, these rehearsals help me figure out who I’d like to work with in the future.”
I was surprised to hear that Hannah composes songs purely by ear. I have played guitar for years, and actually picked it up around the same time as Hannah, but I only learned formally.
When I wrote my own songs, I always used tablature and mastered simple major and minor chords. If I don’t have something written in front of me, I don’t know what to do. For Hannah, the power of experimenting and her gift for hearing is an outstanding musical asset.
As I continued my conversation with Hannah, I learned more about her song writing process. She has a few recipes for creating songs that are ready for “the-road-to-recording.”
Setting a piece of music to words
Hannah says, “I experiment with chords for a while until I find a structure I like. Then, I usually start humming a melody over it, and the words come last. That’s the hardest part for me.
“Occasionally, I’ve written music to poetry by my mother, E.E. Cummings and myself, then composed music to it; and this instance, I found it easier to already have the words. To already have a piece of music with a melody and then have to add lyrics to it is really tough.”
Since they are the only musicians creating their songs, the solo singer-songwriter is often challenged by their own compositional methods. Collaboration is definitely one solution that can ease this pressure. However, even the most eloquent songwriter has to push themselves to create a song that will successfully express their emotions or thoughts.
“Sometimes, when I am really upset, I find it difficult to express myself eloquently or poetically; I just want to scream about it and say whatever it is I am feeling.” Hannah adds, “It is hard to make that sound beautiful. Usually though, my best songs come out of these moments.”
Like every promising musician, Hannah has set goals for herself and has identified areas for improvement. One of these areas includes becoming more comfortable with performing.
“It’s a very vulnerable thing,” Hannah explains. “Singing with a group of people is comforting as opposed to singing a personal song by yourself. I still get nervous at large gigs just as I’m about to perform, but I want to continue to do so. Once I’m on stage, I feel great.
“The whole thing, like hiring, paying for a band, and covering expenses, can be intimidating, but it’s exciting. I hope to continue to perform more and more. It’s important for me to show people that I really love this and that I believe in myself.”
Hannah’s passion for recording and performing is unfaltering and infectious. Although she does occasionally worry about the challenges within the music industry now; it did not cross her mind when she decided to pursue this path. She says, “It definitely intimidates me, but I love it, so I’m going to continue with it.”
No Idea is Too Small
Hannah might have moved to Brooklyn for more opportunities, but her music career really started in Ann Arbor, Michigan. During this time, she learned to make connections with individuals, make herself known in a music community, and work with others on producing music.
That warm Friday afternoon at a café called Sugar, Hannah taught me that no performance or musical idea is too small. What can start as an open mic night at a little club in Brooklyn, can lead to a performance in a large line-up in Manhattan. What can start as a few words on a paper plate can turn into a beautiful song on either an EP or a full-length album. With her a beautiful voice, a passion for playing guitar, and a talent for songwriting, I feel Hannah Winkler will definitely receive a warm reception from both fans and fellow musicians in New York City.