London Grammar chat trip-hop, artistic evolution and the making of Californian Soil

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London Grammar chat trip-hop, artistic evolution and the making of Californian Soil

Words by David James Young

Lead vocalist Hannah Reid reveals how the UK indie-pop made their best album yet.

Hannah Reid is staring down the barrel of her webcam, in the midst of yet another Zoom interview for her band’s third studio album.

She’s thought a lot about the alternate timeline, as many musicians have – in which said band, London Grammar, already released said album, Californian Soil. She’s on the other side of the world, bandmates in tow, as they wrap up another leg of their supporting tour.

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She’s meeting fans after the shows, doing press during the day – run-of-the-mill stuff by your usual standards, but in the current climate it feels borderline utopian.

“It’s been disappointing, of course,” says Reid – back in reality, back on Zoom from her Nottingham home.

“It’s not been an easy process to release this music at all – even something as simple as shooting a music video has been difficult. If anything, though, it’s made me more grateful that I still get to do this.

“I have a friend who works for the NHS, and it’s actually made me feel so lucky. Even though we can’t do gigs, there’s nothing stopping me from continuing the creative process. Just seeing what she’s had to deal with and go through… I’ve got nothing to complain about.”

After what has felt like endless delays – even pushing the album back to April after its initial February release date – the trio are at long last on the cusp of releasing Californian Soil, nearly four years removed from its predecessor Truth is a Beautiful Thing.

Reid has allowed herself to breathe with the knowledge that the trio’s hard work will soon be a matter of public record.

“We have faith in the album,” she says. “We have faith in our fans. Hopefully, the music will speak for itself.”

Reid also notes that going through this experience with her bandmates – guitarist Daniel Rothman and drummer/keyboardist Dot Major – has strengthened their immediate dynamic, and made them all the more resilient in the process.

“I think on the second album, there was too much external influence over what we were doing, says Reid.

“We started to let other people’s opinions affect us a little bit too much. On this album, we found a strength between the three of us again. The attitude was that we’re just gonna do whatever we want. If people don’t care, there’s nothing we can do about that. I think we understand each other as individuals better, having made this record together.”

Reid points to the album’s title track and its closer, ‘America,’ as key breakthroughs for the group in terms of developing its overall sound. Though the two don’t share a tonne of musical similarities, they are both united by the unique prospect of using foreign land as central imagery.

This is not a new concept, of course – the amount of songs titled either ‘New York’ or ‘California’ are inversely proportionate to the artists that are actually from those places. When queried on what compelled the songwriting to focus in on the supposed land of the free, Reid ties it to both consumption and personal experience.

“I think the reason so many people that aren’t from America write about it is that we all grew up surrounded by so much of its pop culture,” she says.

“For me, when I actually went there, I was especially drawn to the landscape. I was so compelled by the land, and how beautiful it is. It always evoked a lot of feelings in me, and I guess these songs were my way of processing them.”

Californian Soil maintains much of the ambience and atmosphere that came with London Grammar’s best-known work. It does, however, deviate in certain sonic aspects that allow the record to stand apart from its two predecessors.

Lead single ‘Baby It’s You,’ for instance, marks one of the more upbeat and electronic efforts within the band’s canon. Elsewhere, ‘How Does It Feel’ embraces the warmth of pristine pop, contrasted with Reid’s emotive vocal delivery.

The frontwoman pins down several key influences that drove the creative process, among them trip-hop figureheads like Massive Attack and Portishead.

“We’re all ’90s babies, obviously, so it’s what we all grew up on,” says Reid. “Dan, in particular, is a massive Portishead fan. I would say a lot of my vocals are very directly influenced by a lot of 90s singers as well.”

Surprisingly, however, Reid also points to country music as being a key touchstone for her songwriting and performances on the album.

“Country has this tragic sadness to it,” she says. “I really love that – there’s this real beauty to it. There are songs on the album, like ‘America,’ that have that vibe. ‘All My Love’ has it too, especially in Dan’s guitar part.” 

Reid goes on to discuss her own framework in terms of writing the songs for Californian Soil. To her, this record was an attempt to better express her innermost thoughts and emotions, articulating them in a way she’d never quite been able to before.

“I think I found more strength in just being a bit braver with my lyrics,” she says. 

“I laid my soul bare on this album in a way that I don’t think that I’ve really done before. I felt like that was my job, to make myself really vulnerable. There were moments on the second record where I was able to go to that place, but there were others where I just couldn’t.

“Dan and Dot made sure the entire thing was comfortable, creating this environment where I was able to say what I wanted without thinking too much.”

Besides everything else, however, Reid is quite certain as to what the most important factor was in the album-making process.

“Dan got a dog!” she says. “Every night we were in the studio, she’d just curl up in my lap and fall asleep. It was almost meditative – she’s such an amazing dog.”

The inspiration behind ‘Baby It’s You’, no doubt?

“Exactly,” Reid laughs.

Californian Soil is out now via Dew Process.