Hannah Frank Interview
By: Dennis M. Kelly
DK: Hello Hannah! How have you been?
HF: I’ve been great! Battling a little cold like most of Chicago, but keeping a stiff upper lip.
DK: I am very sorry to hear that Hannah, but I really appreciate your still taking time out for this.
HF: No problem!
DK: So, we’re gearing up for a very special benefit show this Sunday, eh?
HF: Yes. We are looking forward to performing as a trio and being part of the Chicago Music Guide event, where fans can help us support local causes.
DK: Exactly, I hope that through this we can all pull together and make a big difference on a local level and I really appreciate you performing for us and to raise money for Anderson Animal Shelter! So, tell me all about your band and what we can expect to see this Sunday?
HF: This is a special event so we are bringing out two musicians that have a strong background in music in Chicago. First is my drummer Meg Thomas, who has performed in groups ranging from Wanton Looks and Tropixplosion to In the Flesh, covering rock to reggae.
Her custom percussion set up with Hannah Frank Group generally includes cajon and Native American gathering drum, but for this show, we are going for a rock edge so we will see Meg on drum set. This is an exciting evolution for my band as we evolve from Folk/Americana to Groove/Rock. Meg is extremely versatile so we are excited to try this.
Next is my guitarist Kevin Rush, who has performed with groups ranging from laPercolateur (Gypsy-Jazz) to his rock band, with the awesome name “The Stray Toasters”. I’ve been impressed with Kevin’s ability to create fitting voices and melodies in the solos he shares with audiences, especially when one of our first gigs together was at House of Blues!
DK: This sounds exciting and I can’t wait to see it and capture it on video for you as well! How long has the Hannah Frank Group been together as a full group?
HF: As a four-piece, since 2012. I immediately brought the group into the studio when I noticed how well it gelled. Our first recording session became our LIVE EP.
DK: How did you come across Meg Thomas, Victor Sanders and Ben E. Miller?
HF: Victor Sanders, my guitarist, knew Meg and Ben. He brought it all together with a few introductions. The three of them had worked together before, so it was kind of like meeting a folk version of the Motown rhythm section.
DK: What are their backgrounds?
HF: Ben has worked with The Peterbilts (Alt-Country), Ruby Harris (Blues) as well as songwriters and acts throughout the Midwest. It wasn’t until I tried to play along to myself while overdubbing in a studio, I realized how talented Ben is.
Meg works in projects and I am amazed at how she customizes her sound to fits each one. She has toured the U.S. and Europe and performs on a wide variety of percussion and drums; in a rock band you may see her on drum set, in a folk/world group on tabla; she is a rhythm chameleon. Victor has performed with national acts, yet his playing is out of this world.
His experience with songwriter acts like Zozo and Frank Tedesso, his own work as a producer, and even adding to movement pieces, allows him to sit in, even if he’s never heard the songs, and sound magnificent. Working with him as well as guitarist Kevin Rush is ying and yang: Kevin is also a stupendous player and adds infrastructure. His background includes rock as well as gypsy-jazz, so this translates to texture, a variety of guitars and incredible tones that paint the songs.
DK: Your songs seem to have a lot of deeper meaning and more depth to them, please tell me about some of your songs and at least some of the meanings and backgrounds behind them?
HF: One of my favorite quotes is by artist Andrew Wyeth, “…people always see my paintings as sad…is it because we’ve lost the art of being alone?”. My songs might ask have we lost the art of deep thoughts? One example is the song “Lie to Me” which is a country song about lyin’ cheatin’ hearts, but with a twist. The person that is doing the cheating, in turn gets cheated on.
In general it’s about how even if we are being deceived, we want to believe what we want to believe. Another song that is curious is “Nutritional Facts”. Inspired by reading the sides of cereal boxes, it is about the facts of our national history, things that are just part of the fabric of America, like the Native American tragedy and how the soldiers in World War II may have received free cigarettes, but then became lifelong addicts of a cancer-causing drugs.
I am not preaching to anyone about how to feel about Native Americans or smoking, but saying that these are part of the “nutritional facts” of what makes up our nation and past. There’s also some imagery in there about a monk and flowers which is a reference to Fra Bartolomeo, an Italian painter who drew some of the first landscapes with architectural elements.
DK: So, not only do you have a lot of great, deep music, but I guess you have quite a number of songs too, how many of them have been recorded?
HF: About 40 have been recorded, with another ten on the way.
DK: You mentioned your LIVE EP before, but, how many albums do you have out at this time?
HF: One solo album, one group EP of four songs, and one solo EP of three songs. We have two group albums on the way.
DK: Do you prefer digital releases or good, old fashioned physical releases and to take that further, do you prefer vinyl or CDs?
HF: It would be great if that was an artistic choice but as an independent musician it comes down to finances. Out of my own pocket we made 100 copies of our LIVE EP which was rewarding to see in the flesh. We would like to produce more physical albums, so fans can take them home with them, so if people like the music, please purchase digital tracks on hannahfrank.bandcamp.com so we can finance more physical releases. Vinyl may be in our future.
DK: What is it about your music that makes it so creatively satisfying for you?
HF: I like the surprise of my own voice. I always wanted to sing and was convinced I could not. I didn’t sing as a kid, or as a teenager. Then one day I sang into a tape recorder. When I played it back, I was like, this doesn’t sound half bad! So I continued writing songs to explore singing. It’s fun for me to try different vocal styles and tell stories.
DK: … and that is how it should be, continually stretching yourself as a vocalist, writer, artist and push the envelope of your own boundaries. How have the responses been to some of your songs and how have those responses affected you as a performer and future songs you’ve written since?
HF: Songs I have written as a joke for my own amusement, turned out to be songs people genuinely enjoy. An example is Jones. The first line is “I was down into the swamps of Louisiana, I ran into a guy, said hi, my name is Hannah”– it was goofy. Then it turned into this epic story. The lesson there is don’t edit yourself, just go for it.
DK: Agreed, striving for perfection is great, but can also be detrimental to creating anything at all if allowed to be taken too far. Sometimes music can be best “as it feels” and not necessarily always a perfected and polished product. What would you say best defines Chicago as a music city?
HF: Blues and jazz. It was the first stop for many musicians from the South.
DK: Do you feel Chicago is enough of a musical city to meet the needs of the artists gigging around today?
HF: It meets needs if musicians are willing to practice and work really, really hard. I don’t think you can waltz into Chicago and start gigging; you need to lay low, practice, see music and learn. If you want to start playing just to gain experience, there’s many places to perform. If you want to gig and be paid, a business side of the approach needs to be built.
DK: For sure! You have also been involved with Chicago Acoustic Underground, can you tell me more about your involvement with them and how performers can get involved with them as well?
HF: CAU promotes original artists like no other organization in the city or perhaps the nation. They create podcasts, videos and live performance opportunities. I’ve worked with them for five years and have seen the organization grow.
My role is Publicity and I’ve enjoyed planning events with lots of songwriters from around the city. Musicians can go to www.ChicagoAcoustic.net to learn more and apply to be on the show.
DK: How often do you perform in the city vs. the suburbs?
HF: I perform in the city almost exclusively, as CTA public transportation is my chariot.
DK: Chariot… lol!
HF: It is easy to get around on the Metra train, so perhaps more suburban gigs lie ahead. It’s easy to keep playing at places that know you, so playing in the suburbs requires building a network with the venues there.
DK: Aside from getting there, what are the biggest challenges in performing in either the city or suburbs?
HF: In the suburbs, sometimes venues have built in crowd and people are ready to hear music, so the challenge is travel.. In the city, bands often have to bring their entire draw, and that can be a challenge to bring people to your event when there’s many events going on.
DK: Tell me about “Singing for Your Supper”, please?
HF: Singing for Your supper was a showcase at Act One Pub in Rogers Park that ran for two years and featured 7-10 songwriters once per month. Songwriters really enjoyed it. The club is restructuring, so we now are putting on a monthly showcase with CAUDog Records on Second Wednesdays at Uncommon Ground Devon, 1401 W. Devon, from 8-10pm, all ages. Fans can see my group or great songwriter acts for only a $5 cover.
We’ve also started hosting songwriter showcases at Strobe Recording Studio in Humboldt Park. It’s a great live room and analog/digital studio where artists receive a recording of their performance and perform in front of a live audience. Strobe as well as CAU have been highly supportive of creating places for songwriters to perform.
DK: How often do you perform per month/year usually?
HF: It varies between 2-4 times per month, roughly 25-50 times per year.
DK: That sounds decent, especially for the city only, well done! What have been some of the tougher challenges you’ve faced in your career and how have you overcome them?
HF: I realized I didn’t know how to chart my own music or play in a band setting, so I took jazz guitar lessons at Old Town School of Folk Music, and have absorbed enough info from Fake Books where I know how to chart music by blocking out chords and time signatures. I mulled over big band charts to try to absorb them by osmosis.
DK: What have been some of your observations of the music industry as a whole?
HF: I have seen there’s an emphasis on gear, home recording and online promotion, rather than on learning and knowing your instrument. The music industry used to make money selling records, I believe most of the money now is made on selling gear.
DK: Would you say Folk music is still as strong and vibrant today as years before?
HF: Folk music was strongest in the 1960’s when people saw it as a way to have a voice and make social change, and create bonds between people. Folk music now is leaning toward being a throwback to retro jazz or rockabilly when it is most successful. That is why I try to make my music as interesting as possible with wild words. Plus I like to add amazing musicians to the mix!
DK: Aside from Sunday’s benefit concert, what do you have lined up for the coming months?
HF: We are aiming for an album release show in April, possibly joined by Chicago musician Dann Morr.
DK: Any plans beyond that through the rest of this year?
HF: Yes I am working steadily on a book of lyrics and artwork “The Shaman & Me”. CAUDog Records has been amazingly supportive with helping this project become airborne. It could include seventy songs and dozens of drawings and paintings. We are working on a new album of at least ten songs with acoustic and electric guitar.
DK: What are some of your long term goals?
HF: Developing my visual art practice as well as producing great albums for fans!
DK: What are the best places to find you online and best contact methods?
HF: Social media is a great tool for this: http://Facebook.com/HannahFrankMusic, http://Facebook.com/HannahFrankGroup and @HannahFrankGrp. To contact me quickly, find me on Facebook or email HFrankGroup@gmail.com.
DK: Awesome Hannah! Well, I would like to thank you very much for taking the time today and I look forward to your show with us on Sunday! Thanks so much!
Hannah Frank is a Songwriter with soul shaking lyrics and lots of aplomb. Her original music is intriguing to fans of folk, rock, jazz blues and more. Evolving from a solo troubadour to a bandleader, she is backed up by versatile and capable musicians including Meg Thomas Percussion, Victor Sanders (electric guitar) and Ben E. Miller (bass).
Additionally she has performed with Marlon Washington (violin) and Kevin Rush (guitar). As Hannah continues to write songs, Hannah Frank Group performs live and most recently celebrated their LIVE EP (Released September 2014 at Mayne Stage in Chicago, IL).
Inspired by artists like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, fans also compare her sound to Laura Nyro and Bonnie Raitt. Her band has performed in venues ranging from Hard Rock Cafe Chicago to Subterranean and Beat Kitchen, opening for acts such as Taildragger Blues Band (Delmark Records). Hannah Frank’s music has been featured on WDCB 90.9FM on “American Backroads” programming alongside music by Mavis Staples and Wilco, The Razor and Di Show on WLUW 88.7FM, Chicago Acoustic Underground Podcast, and live at the Glenwood Avenue Arts Festival in Chicago, IL for three years running.
Currently, Hannah Frank Group is working diligently on two full-length albums, showcasing just a handful of the hundreds of songs Hannah has written in her twenty years of playing. Hannah Frank Group is seeking booking, collaboration, production and management opportunities to bring the music to more souls. The goal of the music is to show that music is a universal language and that love conquers all.
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