‘Fame? If you have any personal demons, you’re quite not prepared for it’

Hannah Reid has poured all her anger, courage and determination into London Grammar’s astonishing new album, Californian Soil

A few years ago Hannah Reid, the London Grammar singer, spent an afternoon sitting at a piano, crying her eyes out. “I wrote a song called America. It was saying goodbye to all the songs I thought I wouldn’t write any more. Because I felt I didn’t have a thick enough skin. Which I don’t, quite frankly.”

London Grammar’s gorgeously haunting electropop – think Enya fronting a perkier Portishead – had brought chart-topping success and won the UK trio a global fanbase. Yet the introverted Reid was increasingly disillusioned with the business – put off, in particular, by its toxic misogyny. And she was ready to walk away.

I really struggled in my early 20s with not feeling comfortable in my own skin. I’ve kind of come out the other side of that. And this record is the healing process

America spoke to that, using the United States – so shiny yet so frayed at the edges – as a metaphor for emotional and spiritual decline. When it came to it, though, she refused to give in. Instead, Reid dried her eyes and stayed and fought. And she poured all her anger, courage and determination into London Grammar’s astonishing new album.

Californian Soil, which is released on Friday, is the group’s third LP, and once again the magic ingredient is Reid’s Beth Orton-meets-Annie Lennox vocal performance. But rather than a continuation of what went before it feels more like a reset, a new beginning.

“I really struggled in my early 20s with not feeling comfortable in my own skin,” the 31-year-old says over Zoom from London. “I’ve kind of come out the other side of that. And this record is the healing process of, ‘I’m actually just going to say whatever I want to say and I don’t care what anybody thinks.’”

Hannah Reid. Photograph: Will Reid
Hannah Reid. Photograph: Will Reid

Just how close London Grammar came to breaking up becomes clear speaking to Reid’s bandmate Dan Rothman. The new dad, who is also 31, Zooms in early in the morning, looking appropriately shattered.

“It’s an emotional thing, being in a band,” he says “When things aren’t right, it really feels like a big deal. It was, like, ‘Oh my God – what’s happening... Is this going to be the end?’ Inevitably it works itself out, because we love each other and have so much history together. At times I was worried for the future.”

The problem, continues Reid, was that she had never set out to be the public face of a chart-topping pop group. London Grammar started when she met Rothman, a fellow Londoner, and the third member of the group, Dot Major, at the University of Nottingham in 2009. Four years later, with their Florence Welch-goes-trip hop single Wasting My Young Years, they were staking their claim for pop glory.

Wasting My Young Years was heralded as an anthem for the generation bearing the brunt of austerity. When they played it at Electric Picnic in 2014, the tent was rammed and half the audience knew the words by heart

Wasting My Young Years was heralded as an anthem for the generation bearing the brunt of austerity. When they played it at Electric Picnic in 2014, the tent was rammed and half the audience knew the words by heart. The acclaim will have by then felt familiar to the unprepossessing trio. Their debut album, If You Wait, had already peaked at No 2 in the UK charts. The 2017 follow-up, Truth Is a Beautiful Thing, would go in at No 1.

But the pressures that came with success – the hectic touring, the adoring fans – troubled Reid. She hadn’t actively courted fame. Now that she had it, she wasn’t sure it was to her liking.

“I love watching music documentaries. There is a theme that happens where a lot of artists become alcoholics. Some of the most cherished artists – Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse – ended up six feet under. If you have any personal demons, which I think a lot of artists do, you’re not quite prepared for it.”
She brings up the misogyny within the industry as one of the causes of her disillusionment. This manifested as micro-aggressions whereby her male bandmates would be taken seriously where she was dismissed as “difficult” or “emotional”.

“The music industry is very male-dominated,” she says. “There aren’t any rules. There’s no HR you can go to if you think someone is being sexist. You have to have a very thick skin. My personality type – I’m not very thick-skinned. If you listen to our first album, you can hear I’m not that personality type.”

London Grammar. Photograph: Alex Waespi
London Grammar. Photograph: Alex Waespi

Sometimes the aggressions were pretty major. In 2013, the BBC Radio One breakfast show tweeted: “We all think that the girl from londongrammar is fit... Let us know if you agree ... #ladz.”

No good can come of a tweet ending in the hashtag “ladz”. There was an outcry and the BBC apologised. Eight years later, perhaps we’ve reached a point where the tweet would not have been sent in the first place, I suggest.

“It probably wouldn’t happen now,” says Reid. “It’s funny... that whole narrative, I never asked to be a part of it.”

Britney Spears would get asked questions that men wouldn’t get asked in that situation. She was heavily sexualised but then made to feel guilty about it. It was just terrible, the whole thing. It was so sad

Reid, for the only time in our conversation, seems uncomfortable and would clearly rather not be drawn on the tweet and the controversy that followed. To move on, I say that, as a journalist, I’ve certainly rethought the sort of language I use to describe female artists.

“There’s no shame in that,” she says. “I’ve said things about women that I probably wouldn’t say about men. We all have that.”

She hasn’t watched the recent BBC documentary Music’s Dirty Secrets: Women Fight Back, in which investigative reporter Tamanna Rahman exposes the double standards and also the predatory behaviour to which many women in music are still exposed. (One of the interviewees is the Dublin singer Aimee Monroe.) But Reid makes a note and resolves to check it out later.

One documentary she has seen is Framing Britney Spears, the New York Times chronicling of the vitriol heaped on the ...Baby One More Time singer by media and public alike.

“I found an immediate and maybe not entirely legal way of watching,” she says. “Obviously it is very different [from London Grammar]. She’s a pop star. I’ve never been that way. But me and my friends, we loved Britney growing up. It is really sad now looking back on it, the relentless misogyny and sexism.”

London Grammar. Photograph: Alex Waespi
London Grammar. Photograph: Alex Waespi

She contrasts the vilification directed at Spears with the free pass given to her “male counterpart”, Justin Timberlake. “I’m glad he’s apologised. She would get asked questions that men wouldn’t get asked in that situation. She was heavily sexualised but then made to feel guilty about it. It was just terrible, the whole thing. It was so sad.”

Part of Reid’s journey has been to acknowledge that, for all the challenges she has faced, she is in a position of relative privilege. As a middle-class white woman, she has had it easier than many in music.

“Whenever I would step into the studio, and it was a male producer, that would always put me off. ‘Well, I could never be a producer. I’m just a singer.’ And actually, that’s not true. I am a producer.

“It just made me aware of my privilege. I imagine what would it have been like if I was a person of colour. It just made me realise those subtleties in life. You can be a strong person. But these subtleties subconsciously affect you.”

All of these feelings have seeped into the new LP. However, the biggest difference is that now Reid is in the driving seat in terms of how the music is put together and presented.

I used to be quite an introverted person. I don’t think I knew what the hell I was doing. I was just writing a song and going on stage. It all took me by surprise

“A big part of it was Hannah being able to take more control over how her songs are expressed,” says Rothman. “So that she doesn’t feel like me and Dot were taking them away and working on them, which is sometimes what would happen.”
The tracks Californian Soil and America speak to the overarching theme of the record, which is that even the most glamorous of places have a dark side.

“We toured America a lot at the start of our career, and it’s breathtaking,” says Reid. “The people are great. I had absorbed a lot of American culture growing up. Then you get there and travel around for six weeks at a time. And I saw how terrible the poverty is, which I didn’t expect. I’m using it as a metaphor. Things aren’t always as they seem.”

The record was supposed to come out in 2020 but was postponed for obvious reasons. During the lockdown, Reid has had fun exploring her creativity and has become an enthusiastic painter of portraits. And, like the rest of us, she is of course looking forward to normality returning. She can’t wait, in particular, to share these new songs with London Grammar’s fanbase.

“I used to be quite an introverted person. I don’t think I knew what the hell I was doing,” she says. “I was just writing a song and going on stage. It all took me by surprise. Whereas now I feel different. I have more ambition, and it’s really nice. I feel this is the most grateful I’ve ever been for the career we’ve had.”

Californian Soil is released on Friday, April 16th