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Interview. Hannah Sanders & Ben Savage

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Two years ago, Hannah Sanders & Ben Savage stirred the folk and acoustic world with a stand-out debut album and there’s been little slumbering since. Now they are set to release an arresting second studio album, Awake. The combination of Hannah’s outstandingly pure, clear voice, their perfect fit harmonies and Ben’s exquisite dobro are the rock-solid foundations of this rising duo, first witnessed in the 2016 album, Before The Sun. This quality pairing unarguably has hypnotic effect, painting aural dreamscapes around them in resonant songs that are given room to breathe.

When Hannah’s folk family travels across Europe and sojourn in America ended and she returned to her native East Anglia, a chance meeting at a Cambridge folk club with The Willows band member Ben was the start of something special. Ben went on to produce Hannah’s solo album Charms Against Sorrow before they ventured into duo territory uncorking a beguiling, intricately woven, ethereal sound all their own. Before the Sun saw them named in many Albums of the Year lists including the 2016 fRoots Critics Poll and hinted at a largely untapped song writing talent amongst the expertly executed traditional arrangements and covers. That song writing skill moves more centre stage in Awake- an album that shows them fulfilling all the promise heaped on them.

Ahead of their new album’s release on May 11th and their Cambridge gig the same day (tickets here) we caught up with the pair to discuss the new album, working together and Cambridge connections…

How is 2018 shaping up for you?
It’s good… We saw the New Year in Toronto recording the second stint of sessions for Awake. We then came back to the UK, leaving David Travers-Smith to mix but we’re pretty hands-on there; albums are a special medium for us and detail is important, so we spent a further month working through the night to sync up with the Ontario afternoon/evening! Now the record is done, we’re prepping for the road as we have 20 odd UK dates before heading back to North America for Summer festivals.

At the time of writing these questions, the album has yet to come out; what is this period of waiting for release day like for a band?
Very strange; quite exciting but nerve-wracking too. We go pretty deep in when we make an album; it’s immersive for us, which hopefully helps us make something special, but the nature of immersion is that you can never really be too sure what everyone on the outside of the bubble (that’s pretty much the whole world) is going to think of it.

Your debut album was great; how quickly after that did work begin on ‘Awake’?

Whilst some of the songs existed in some form or another for some time before the Awake sessions (some of the ideas pre-date Before The Sun in fact), we’re not those “always writing” artists and we don’t make albums of the last 10 good songs we’ve finished. We think of albums as a whole work, rather than a collection of random songs and therefore lots of our “real” work on these songs happened in quite a short space of time, and not all that long ago.

What did you learn whilst making ‘Before The Sun’ that helped shaped the new album?
There were a lot of firsts for us on Before The Sun, particularly in the production process where neither of us had ever travelled overseas to make an album, certainly not with someone we’d never met! We learnt a lot about David’s process and our own one too… A lot about where we thought we might be able to go with albums in the future, so for sure, lots of that experience informed the more recent one. As a result Awake was a really really enjoyable experience, sometimes joyous; we knew when it was safe to smile with this one.

What was the hardest track to finish on the album?
Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key… Definitely! We recorded it as a single for a different project in 2017 and have played it on 100s of shows. Whilst we knew the song fitted in this body of work, it didn’t fit in the same form so we decided to re-arrange it during recording ,which was liberating but it’s very very hard to force the brain away from going back to the default all the time! Also with songs like this one we kind of tread a line between honouring the original and evolving it. We were pretty careful around this song because it special, we love it!

Which new track are you most looking forward to playing live?

Selkie Song… It will be a first for us.

Is a second album as hard to make as they say?
They’re all hard work if you do them properly and give it everything, but our second was certainly really enjoyable.

You recorded the album in Toronto, any specific reason why? Do you find being in certain locations affects your music or writing at all?
David Travers-Smith works out of Toronto and we consider him among the best pairs of ears in the world; simple as that. Toronto is a really inspiring place to make music; there is so much talent there but lots of wonderful community and kindness.

We’re a Cambridge specific zine, and Cambridge plays a big part in your back story, tell us how you met and got onto the subject of working together?
Hannah had just moved here from the US, and I (Ben) had just gotten off tour and both happened to go down the Black Fen Folk Club on the same night… I was blown away and offered to produce Hannah’s solo album Charms Against Sorrow and we’ve been working together ever since!

Ben, you have The Willows, how easy/hard is it to switch between thinking about new music for each project. How can you differentiate between ideas for each project?
It usually feels pretty obvious where something is going as I write it but occasionally I’ve shared a song with Hannah or Cliff & Jade and realised it’s in the wrong band!! Easily fixed though.

Hannah, ditto you have your solo career, same question as above!
I have other projects that allow for the a different side of my creative brain – I work with storyteller Nick Hennessey and with animators and pianists and writers and so its pretty straightforward to know what fits where! What I love about being a singer of traditional song is that the life of these songs is shaped by their context. Working with Ben allows the writer in me to find a singing-writing voice too, and I love that!

Final question, what is the best song you’ve seen performed live in Cambridge?
Ben – Tricky one this, probably the late Eric Roche – Angel, in CB2 basement, sometime in the late 90s.