South Carolina-born Hannah Wicklund has music in her bones. Influenced by the classic rock that played in her family home, the powerhouse vocalist and multi-instrumentalist started her first band at just eight years old, playing at bars and beach clubs around Hilton Head Island. And, when she wasn’t learning songs by the likes of Janice Joplin and Tom Petty, she would spend time making art with her mother, a painter.
Her latest album The Prize sees both her showstopping musical prowess and deft touch for the visual arts come to the forefront. Each song on the record, which Hannah describes as “a deep dive into the mind of a 21-year-old,” is accompanied by a large-scale oil painting depicting a unique scene for the song and bringing the world of The Prize to life. The album’s second single “Witness” also sees her return to her piano roots — she abandoned the classical training of her early childhood in favour of the liberation of playing the guitar.
But, the journey to this point hasn’t been easy. Despite her previous album Hannah Wicklund & The Steppin Stones getting rave reviews, the music industry isn’t always too kind to women and she’d become overwhelmed by other people’s opinions on who she should be as an artist. So, Hannah cut ties with her management team and decided to self-manage, setting up her own record label, Strawberry Moon Records, so she’d always have control over her music. She was later introduced to Greta Van Fleet’s Sam Kiszka, who ended up producing the album; their creative pairing resulting in an ethereal blues rock record, dripping in light and shade.
Following the album’s long-awaited release, 1883 Magazine’s Bec Oakes chats with Hannah Wicklund about The Prize, musical influences and sticking to your guns in an industry that’s scared of taking risks.
Music has always been a massive part of your life, but to what extent was that influenced by your home life and family growing up? Did you grow up in a particularly musical home?
Yeah, I was fortunate to be born into an extremely creative household. My dad played music. My older brother played music. My sisters sang and danced. My mom is a painter and her grandfather was a barbershop quartet member and played banjo. So I had art of some sort or the other from pretty much all directions.
Do you think the music you grew up listening to influenced your love of classic rock and the blues today?
Oh definitely! I was raised on classic rock. My dad was playing The Beatles, Tom Petty, Neil Young, Stevie Nicks, Janice Joplin, all of that from very early on. And I don’t think I’ve strayed very far from that influence, nor has my listening taste evolved too much since then.
What is it about these artists that influence you the most as a musician?
I always call myself a horrible music fan because I pick little pieces of inspiration from a lot of different places. I love Jimi Hendrix. But have I listened to every single recorded piece of music he’s done? No. I’ve never intentionally done that deep of a dive on anyone. I started my band so young and I was learning the songs. I spent my time learning tiny pieces, like one Janice Joplin song, three Heart songs, a couple of Tom Petty… I never got too hung up on one place. So, I love Stevie Nicks’ stage presence and the fact that she used her low register — she has such a rich, deep, unique voice. From her, I gathered a lot of inspiration in the visual department. But with playing guitar, I mentioned Hendrix and his aim to convey emotion as opposed to playing every note perfectly, which I definitely appreciate. I’m more about what I’m trying to get across than being the most impressive guitar player in the world.
I read that you started playing classical piano which is very much all about being technically perfect. Was the transition to playing rock something you struggled with at all?
I’d say it was quite liberating when I learnt to play guitar. I was still playing rock and roll on piano because I’d started playing Beatles songs for fun. And then I did competitions, so I also had a stricter, classical time with the piano. I’d already developed both sides but I was very eager to get away from the rules of music. I regret it, but I traded in the piano for a guitar. Once I started playing guitar, I abandoned all the classical training I had. I’ve been tempted to lean back into it and try to learn some pieces again just to see if I could, but it feels like a different life.
I’ve got to say, it’s so hard to go back. I played classical piano growing up but stopped when I went to college. Then, when we were in lockdown, I tried teaching myself again and I wasn’t half the player I was before.
Yeah, what’s stopping me is I know I’d beat myself up because I was starting to be able to sightread pretty complicated pieces. I was on the cusp of really solidifying a lot of the stuff I’d spent years learning. Hearing you say that, I know it would be hard.
Your latest album, The Prize was released on the 12th. For those who haven’t taken a listen yet, what can they expect and what would you love for them to take away from it?
What they can expect is a journey of sorts. It’s a deep dive into the mind of a 21-year-old with lots of heartaches in the romantic realm, the business realm and just the realm of my relationship with myself. The record kind of touches on all three of those types of relationships and the lessons that I’ve learned along the way. And the thing I would hope that people take from it is a message to love yourself and to keep going.
You’ve previously said that the album reflects your transition from girlhood to womanhood in a way. What does growing up look like when you’ve been a working musician since you were a child?
I think it looks a lot different from most, and I think that I had an extra unique experience as a working child performer because we never pursued Hollywood. We never tried to take it to that next level. I was basically in my little cocoon in the southeast just playing at bars and beach clubs, that kind of thing. But I sacrificed almost as much as I would have if I were a child actor in Hollywood, which is a lifestyle that is being talked about more and more now.
Alyson Stoner has such a great podcast and I can relate to a lot of the things that they talk about being a child actor, except I didn’t get to any kind of fame level. But I still couldn’t relate to anybody around me. I was heavily bullied at school. I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life and I can understand how that would be annoying if you were 10 years old and had no idea what you wanted to do. So I think I was an easy target for jealousy. My band — the guys I played with — had one foot in one foot out the whole time. I was the only one that had that complete passion and dedication. So it was lonely, I’d say. My dad would say “Hannah, one day people are going to want to play music with you.” But, I don’t know if I would want my children to have the same childhood that I did.
A lot of people in the public eye say that they would never push their child into the same industry as them.
I kind of fall into this super unique category where my parents didn’t push me into the industry. We never reached out to any labels or anything like that. Instead, I did all of the hard work and developed myself as an artist until this point now when I truly feel like I’m ready to take on the burden of having more and more people listen to my music and maybe look up to me. I think it’s really cool that I was working and getting all that experience, but that I kind of got to save certain pieces of myself.
And you’ve previously said that the song “Witness” in particular has helped you heal. I think when we think about music, we often think of it as a healing tool for the listener. But how does writing music help you process the emotions and experiences that you’re going through?
I think one of the most beneficial things about songwriting is yes, there’s the actual act of writing the song, but there’s also the power that you get by playing it. You get to experience your relationship with the song and what it meant, and you get to feel that change. When I wrote “Witness,” it was about my first breakup and I would sing it with a certain angst. But over time, that story of what it was initially about kind of fades. And then I can take the general message of the song and find a new relationship with it where it’s like, how does this apply to me now? And I think that’s the most cathartic part; the evolving emotions tied to the song.
And what was the process of creating the record like? I know it was quite a long process from start to finish.
So the writing process was quite compact. The heart and soul of the record was written in about six months. The last song I wrote was “The Prize,” which was in January 2019. All of the songs are kind of a time capsule of that phase of my life. Then I was touring for a while and Covid hit. Like everybody, I was incubating on my own for a little while and the songs got to kind of live and breathe. But I’d say they didn’t transform much from when they were written to when we got into the studio. I’d say how the songs were written is very accurately portrayed on the record.
The actual recording process was its own adventure because I’d originally started recording it on my own and I was going to self-produce but hit a bit of a wall. It’s not fun solving your own problems all the time. I knew that I wanted to get a producer into the studio with me. Through mutual management, I met Sam [Kizska of Greta Van Fleet]. He wasn’t technically a producer. He’s in a band. That’s what he knows. And that’s what I was wanting — to have this band foundation that I’d missed from my early years. I think “Hell in the Hallway” was the first song that we tried. We just tested out all these wacky ideas, and that’s how we got that intro. It was very jovial, creative and easy in terms of the actual making and being in the studio together. Once we were in the studio, it was awesome, but it did take a long time to capture the whole record. Little hiccups along the way in the business side of things kind of slowed things down. So it was a long, chaotic process, but it was so fun.
With it being such a long time in the making, does that almost make it feel more rewarding now that it’s finally been released?
Oh yeah! It built up a level of appreciation for this record. I mean, the process taking so long and all the hiccups along the way are part of the reason why I did all of the art for the record and why I’ve built my own label so that I have a permanent home for my music. The music business isn’t too kind to women, especially women in rock. They don’t know what to do with people who don’t fit the mould. I don’t fall on the hard rock spectrum, and I don’t fall on the indie rock spectrum. I’m very much what I call rock and roll. So I had a hard time finding labels that respected that and didn’t want to change it.
How do you maintain that sense of self and authenticity in an industry that seems to be so obsessed with fitting people into these specific little boxes and styles?
I honestly didn’t even know how ‘sticking to my guns’ I was being along the way. I just didn’t want to do anything that I didn’t want to do. I didn’t know how radical that was. Through every single one of those meetings where people were telling me what they thought I should sound like, I didn’t lose myself. But I did find myself extremely confused and just overwhelmed by other people’s opinions. I grew up with a dad who really taught me to stick to my guns. And, even though I’d say there were times that I could have stuck up for myself a little bit better, at least I didn’t conform, and I think I was sticking up for myself even by just standing still for a moment.
It must be frustrating when somebody says “listen to this artist, be like that artist” because while they may be wonderful musicians, you don’t need two of them. They’re already doing that and doing it well. Why are we trying to create a carbon copy of them, if you know what I mean?
Exactly. Back in the day, people really bet on artists. But I think that in the business side of things, that became too scary. There are way more artists now than there were in the seventies, so no one’s going to get it right a hundred percent of the time, but I think that the risk-taking in the music business isn’t there anymore. They want you to have proven the concept before they get involved. And the funny thing is, I’d been touring since I was a kid. I had that proof. But there wasn’t another woman out there playing rock and roll the same kind of way that I was so they had no idea how to move forward. That’s why I took over and self-released. It’s a lot of work, but things are falling into place now. I know that I’m the one that did that, and that feels really good. Even though people have really frustrated me, I’m in a really good spot and I’m grateful for all of the lessons I’ve learnt.
So you spent a lot of 2023 touring, both with Greta Van Fleet and also your own headline shows. What are your favourite things about playing larger venues versus smaller ones and vice versa, and which do you feel like you prefer overall?
I don’t think I can I can choose a favourite or a preference. I mean, performing in an arena for the first time was huge for me. That’s like an artist’s bucket list item. It’s exhilarating because it’s so big and it’s something that you’ve dreamed of. But there’s also something really special about being able to see everybody’s faces in the first few feet of the crowd, having everybody sing along and being able to hear certain people’s whispers. It’s so much more intimate. I’ve always gone out after the show and talked to the fans at the merch table. That would be impossible in an arena. So the small shows are probably my preference, but I’m not the one selling out the arenas though, so maybe ask me again in a few years.
I normally end an interview by asking what’s next for people, but I know the first half of your year will be taken up by the “Hell in the Hallway” tour. So instead, what are your dreams for the future? Do you have any dream projects or collaborations you’d love to work on, either musically or otherwise?
Well, one of my dream projects and something that I feel coming in the next handful of years is I would really like to write my story down. I think my life has gone in especially interesting ways and I think that young women would be able to relate to my story. Hopefully, I would be able to help some people out with some of the hard lessons that I’ve learned, of which there have been a lot. So yeah, I think writing a book would be very cathartic for me.
The Prize is out now.
Interview Bec Oakes