Prior to becoming a highly sought after artist and producer, Hannah V was known primarily as a session keyboard player for a multitude of pop luminaires. Among the names gracing her touring CV are Jessie J, Rihanna, Anastacia, Girls Aloud, Nicola Roberts, Sugababes, Jason Derulo, Jay Sean, Taio Cruz, Daniel Merriweather, ABC, Will Young, David Jordan, Bugz In The Attic and Charlotte Church.
During whatever scant spare time she was able to lay her hands on, she would be composing and producing music and fine-tuning her skills behind the desk. In 2013, after eight years of traversing the globe, she decided to quit touring and focus full-time on her production efforts. Since then she has signed to Pitched Up Records at Sony Music as a producer-artist and registered a number of hits, working with the likes of JP Cooper and Stormzy, Mumu Fresh, Stylo G, Misha B, Shystie and many others. Daniel Gumble spoke to her in her East London studio to discuss her career progression and the expectations of a producer in 2019…
What first sparked your interested in music production?
I went to the Royal Academy of Music and studied Jazz Piano Performance. As part of the course they had a small production module and that was my first time ever seeing a sequencer. It was a small, basic module, but it was very interesting for me. The rest of the class were recording free jazz and I was there chopping up Janet Jackson samples and I had a singer friend lay down a chorus. I didn’t really know what I was doing but I knew I was going down a different route to everyone else. That was my first time working in a studio seeing how music was recorded, and afterwards I really wanted to explore it more. I got a PC and Logic and (very basically) started recording, having sessions at my house with loads of jazz musicians coming through and cutting stuff. We never usually finished tracks, they were like jam sessions, but as a producer.
After a while I started working with my friend, a house DJ called George Begaya. We started a business together and I started producing and releasing some funky house, white label stuff. It was quite low level but it was good to be releasing music. At that point I was also touring as a session musician; I toured with Bugz In The Attic for two years. For me, that was a turning point in terms of production. I was on the road with these amazing producers who took me under their wing and taught me about analogue synths, and introduced me to all these jazz funk records I’d never really heard, as I’d come from a classic jazz background.
After that my session gigs got bigger and bigger. My main focus was being a session keyboard player, but I was always producing, and it was all just for me. It was important for me to have something on the side of the session work, because as a session player you’re not playing what’s in your head, your playing parts that are given to you, and I felt I needed another outlet. As a jazz musician I wanted to create something fresh and new, to keep being original. So I did a little side project – writing and producing for a singer – and I was about to drop a single when one of my friends, Felix Howard, at the time an A&R person at Sony, said: ‘Let me shop this around for a second’. I then got signed as a producer to Pitched Up Records and was there for two years. It was crazy because I wasn’t even a full-time producer then, and I got signed as a producer-artist. So, I quit being a session musician and became a full-time producer. It took me a year to learn the ropes. Until then, I didn’t know all the rules – stuff like doing radio edits, working with the mix guys, all the deliverables… I just had no idea. My friend Alex Cores Hayes, who was Professor Green’s producer, co-produced everything with me, showing me what it takes to be a professional producer.
How big a learning curve was it when you signed with Sony?
It was crazy. You think you know how it’s going to feel, and at this point I’d been working with stars for a long time as a session player, so I’d been on the inside a lot and thought I knew what I was getting into. But you don’t, until you’re there, sitting at a table with 10 people around you talking about how to present yourself and your project. The first year I didn’t really know what I was doing. They gave me total freedom but I’d been a session musician for eight years, so I wasn’t sure what I wanted to make. It took me about six months to get over touring; I was at the height of my career and when I quit the tour with Jessie J I was immediately offered four other world tours and I turned them down. There was a lot of emotional baggage I had to deal with, aside from the music I was producing.
What were your biggest challenges as a producer at that time?
I wasn’t prepared for how emotionally attached I would be to everything. I was so attached to my music and I found it really hard at the beginning when anyone said anything about it, whether it was constructive or not. That was something I had to learn, that everyone has an opinion and that’s their job and I as the creator can take it or leave it, but I can’t get so upset about it. It’s a business and when you sign that contract you’re entering into a partnership. My first release went really well and my second release didn’t, so that was hard. With the first one it was great and I was loving being an artist, then you see the other side to it and it’s difficult to take. One of the things you learn is that, as artists and producers, we have no control over what the audience is going to dig or not. It’s not in our hands, so all you can do is make the best music you can. What happens when it goes out to the public, you can’t control.
How does the process differ between self-producing and producing for other artists?
When I produce for myself I’m too emotional about it.
When I produce for someone else I see the vision in my head so clearly and I know what needs to be done from the beginning. I love being able to put their words and feelings into music to represent them and the song well, to cut the best vocals I can. I definitely find it harder producing my own work – I start second guessing things; you can overthink it, because it holds a different weight. It’s not that it means more or less, it’s just different.
What have been some of the most memorable projects you’ve worked on?
Working with JP Cooper stands out. He was a friend and we came from the same background, and I initially started playing some little bits on his records. Then, fast forward three or four years, and I ended up producing the title track on his album Raised Under Grey Skies and co-writing and producing the song ‘Momma’s Prayers’ featuring Stormzy. Being able to hire all my friends and musicians meant a lot to me. It was great to get all these killer musicians on the record. The song was also my first Top 10 chart success. It means so much because I think JP Cooper is one of the best artists in the world, and to be able to make great music with a friend I respect so much, and it doing commercially as well, is a dream. That for me is a real highlight.
What did you learn from your years as a session musician that you could take into the studio as a producer?
One of the main skills you learn on the road is how to deal with different characters. You’re living with people on the road and everybody’s different. It really helped on the job, because you never know what you’re going to get. You don’t know if somebody is going to be nervous, if someone is going to be over confident (which actually is nervousness). You just don’t know how you’re going to get the best out of them, or what you need to do to get the best out of them, and that’s my job as a producer.
Who have been some of your key production influences?
I feel like I have two different production styles. Either I’ll work with a classic live production, a full band, etc., or gritty, urban, beats-driven music. When it comes to live stuff, I’m obsessed with Leon Ware, Quincy Jones, Jerry Wexler, and Stevie [Wonder], all amazing people who knew how to assemble and arrange the best teams. But on the more computer-based production, I’ve always been a fan of Kanye, Dr Dre, Timbaland, and Diplo’s Major Lazer project. I love something that is really gritty but also really musical. As for producers I’m really digging right now, I love Swindle’s new record No More Normal; I love CallMeTheKidd, another UK producer whose production is so crazy I don’t even understand how he does what he does. There are so many.