Wednesday saw the release of To The Boats, a collaboration with singer-songwriter Sophie Kilburn, the second track to be taken from Asthmatic Harp's Things We Learned To Live With, due later this year. We caught up with Hannah for a chat about the new single, how she fell in love with the harp, the history of her project and the differences between working solo and collaborating.
Asthmatic Harp is an intriguing name for your project. Could you tell us how it came to have that name?
Well for a start there is a lot of asthma in my family and as a child I suffered from asthmatic bronchitis myself but that does not explain the ‘Harp’ part. A few years ago, I was doing a two-week teaching residency at an art school in Denmark. It was at that time that I first came across the instrument that I now love so much, the autoharp.
It was not love at first sight because as far as I remember it was out of tune and had several rusty strings. However, there was something about the sound that just spoke to me. It sounded both angelic and raw at the same time, perhaps like a harp with asthma and that is how the name Asthmatic Harp came into being.
Could you give us a potted history of the project and bring us into where Asthmatic Harp is in 2020?
I moved from Denmark to the UK in 2015 and began performing on the London music scene with my debut EP Lost Astronaut.
In 2018 Asthmatic Harp was handpicked to the Roundhouse Resident Artist Program where I got to do some pretty amazing things like playing the 1,700 seated capacity Roundhouse main stage as the opening act for Sam Palladio.
I have recently been made a 'Do It Differently' Awardee by Help Musicians UK and will be releasing my new EP 'Things We Learned To Live With' later this year.
Last summer I moved to Glasgow which has been really exciting for my music because there is such a creative vibe and a strong scene for folk music. One of my last live gigs before lockdown was a Sofar concert in the fairy-tale like city of St Andrews. It was such a beautiful night and my first ever concert with the sea as the backdrop.
The harp is obviously very central to your music. Have you found that using an instrument that is seen as unusual compared to say a guitar in songwriting has opened doors for you or created barriers to people listening to your music?
I think that it can be a bit of both. The autoharp is very much an instrument that people either hate or love. Personally, I like to mix it up a with several instruments which is why I also play both the guitar and the piano.
The new single To The Boats has a series of collaborations - with Sophie Kilburn on the track and Linda Schultheis on the lyric video. How did these collaborations come about?
Sophie is a really interesting up-and-coming singer-songwriter. She is based in London where we met through the Roundhouse. Linda Schultheis is a super talented graphic designer based in Munich. We actually started collaborating together while she was a student Central Saint Martins and I was doing a degree at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. The first projects we did together was very experimental and based around audio visual art installations.
And how is different working with other artists to working on your own?
Collaboration can spark such interesting work that could not possibly have been created by a single mind alone. I love working on my own and do it a lot of the time, but collaboration is a crucial part of my creative life too. It can inspire me and challenge me and admittedly sometimes frustrate me too, but it always sparks my curiosity and fuels my imagination.
Lyrically, the song feels very personal and the music heightens the emotional intensity of it. Do you see music as a means of expressing yourself through a medium where words alone might not be enough?
Very much so. That is what is so special about music and that is an aspect of being a songwriter that I will never get bored of exploring.
Do you have a set process for your songwriting - or does it come naturally without having to book and set aside specific times and places for songwriting?
Sometimes my process is super structured and planned with time set aside for it. I even give myself small composition tasks to practice my writing and develop my technique. Just like practicing an instrument!
At other times inspiration can suddenly hit. This can be on my way home on the bus or on my bike, or while I am in the shower. In those moments it is all about and capturing and scribbling down as much as possible before it slips away again. I have had entire songs coming out of the blue like that! Other songs you really have to fight for and wrestle with for a long time before they turn into finished songs.
You have an EP Things We Learned To Live With coming out later this year. Are the two singles that you've released this year representative of the sound of the EP or are there surprises in store?
It has been really exciting to release new music again after a couple of years where I have been focusing on my live sound.
Things We Learned To Live With feels like a true reflection of where I have taken my new sound as an artist. My last single Bird of Paradise features an instrument that I have really enjoyed implementing in my arrangements for the EP – the clarinet! So much that I have actually taken up the instrument myself as a complete beginner.
The gentle autoharp strum and the melancholic calm qualities of my newest song To The Boats is certainly also representative of what is to come. However, there are definitely some surprises in store. I can’t reveal much more than that although perhaps you could just prepare yourself by considering just how amazing an instrument the bass clarinet is…
Recently you were granted a "Do It Differently" award by Help Musicians UK after being part of the Roundhouse Resident Artist program in London - how has this support for emerging artists helped you in your own musical journey?
The Roundhouse Resident Artist Program provided me with a creative safe haven in the middle of London where I could go and create, record and experiment. I made good friends with several of the other artists in the cohort of talented up-and-coming musicians, some of whom will be featuring on my upcoming EP.
Being awarded the ‘Do It Differently Award’ was a wonderful thing that came at just the right time. I had been working long and hard preparing for my next release and it was a huge encouragement to be given the chance to follow through with my plans. This kind of support for emerging artists is so valuable as an independent artist trying to find your own way of doing everything.
You're now based in Glasgow and have founded The Blue Tongue Collective. Could you tell us a little about what that is, what its aims are and how people can get involved with it?
Writing and releasing music can be a really lonely process, particularly if you are an independent solo artist trying to build up your career. Solitude can be necessary in the creative process but in my opinion, there is no reason that the experience of life as a singer-songwriter should be. There is so much competition going on in the music industry and so many sharp elbows.
For years I had wanted to be part of something that could be an antidote to that, like some sort of creative community of artists. When I moved to Glasgow, I decided that it was time to stop waiting and just get on with it myself. That is when I founded Blue Tongue Collective.
Blue Tongue Collective aims to support and sustain a thriving scene of musicians and songwriters in and around Glasgow who are passionately going about things their own way. We are still in the early stages with it, but we are planning a range of exciting events and projects in the future like showcases, workshops and residencies. Some of which will be open to the public and a chance for others outside the collective to get involved.
If you had to describe Asthmatic Harp to someone who'd never heard your music before, where would you start?
I would say imagine a cross between Julia Holter, Laura Marling and Regina Spector. Then add in an autoharp and some strong Nordic folk vibes with the odd murder ballad thrown in.