Music interview '“ Hannah Trigwell: '˜Busking has helped teach me how to hold an audience's attention'

Hannah Trigwell might be a softly-spoken, reflective type of singer songwriter but her story is one of quiet determination.

Hannah Trigwell
Hannah Trigwell

Eight years ago she first came to attention busking on the streets in Leeds city centre. Videos that the then 17-year-old posted on YouTube clocked up millions of hits and for a while she was taken under the wing of the American pop group Boyce Avenue, supporting them on UK and European tours. Her single Headrush was a surprise number one in Vietnam and Laos, but by 2016 she’d decided to go it alone, forming her own label, TeaPot Records.

Finally, at the end of last month, she released her debut album, Red, and lined up a corresponding tour, which visits Headrow House on September 9.

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“Gosh, I don’t think so,” she smiles when asked if she’s been conscious of the passage of time between 2010 and now, adding that she even used to jokingly ask her dad “how long can an artist be up-and-coming?”

Hannah Trigwell

“There have been talks with major labels before and stuff like that, and some of it just didn’t really fit what I was doing and some of it didn’t work out in the end. I have enjoyed being independent but it does take a longer time to build the visibility.”

Trigwell was at college when she first began busking, performing some of her own songs alongside cover versions of Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. She says it taught her “how to hold an audience’s attention”, adding: “The bigger tours I’ve done have been support tours and those people watching didn’t sign up [to see me]. Busking has helped me deal with that situation better, and it’s just about being able to move about freely and sing. When I was just playing songs in my bedroom you’re in a very safe space, sat very still and you’re not trying to interact with anyone or dance even. Of course when you’re on stage it needs to be visibly appealing as well, so busking gave me a bit of experience for that as well.”

She studied biology at Leeds University because she “wanted to have a degree in my back pocket”.

“Biology was the thing that I was good at academically so it felt like a good fit. I’d never studied music – part of that was I didn’t want it to become a chore and if I had homework that I had to do for music I think it would have put me off or not made me enjoy it as much. I did consider a career in biology but there are only so many times that you enjoy dissecting something. Around the third or fourth month of doing that degree I knew it wasn’t for me in terms of a long-term thing but I didn’t want to be a dropout so I made sure I got it done.”

Hannah Trigwell

Her career path in music shadows the growth of YouTube itself. She says it’s taught her some important practical skills. “As well as learning to play I’ve also had to learn how to film and edit my own videos, especially at the beginning when I really couldn’t afford to pay someone to make a video; I just had to figure it out myself.

“Now when I edit my videos what I’m looking for is it high enough quality, is it shareable, is it relatable, before I post it.”

Maintaining full artistic control has not always been easy. When she was working with Boyce Avenue, she says she was able to choose which songs she covered “but they would advise if it was the right choice”. She feels happier being independent, she says. “Now with my originals and putting it out on my own label, having complete creative control is something that I’ve enjoyed.”

The overriding themes of the songs on Red are love and relationships. “There are a lot of songs on there that are about addiction,” Trigwell says. “The title track is literally about red wine – we used that metaphor to describe an addiction to someone but having too much of someone being a bad thing.”

The musical mood of Red also gradually shifts from acoustic guitars to electronica, with tracks such as I Blame You and Taboo seeming geared towards contemporary pop stations. “The last track as well [You Never Really Noticed] there’s a lot of experimental sounds in there,” she notes. “Because there’s quite a few stripped-back acoustic emotional songs I think if I’d put that at the beginning people would have said ‘what the hell?’

“Most of my stuff that people have heard before is acoustic so I didn’t want to scare anyone off. I think the album is definitely best when you listen to it in order because it shows that kind of development, but I don’t think I’ll ever be just one or the other, doing acoustic stuff or electronic stuff all the way through.”

There is also a song dedicated to her parents, called simply Mum & Dad. “My dad said to me recently the way he remembers it I’d just been learning on my granddad’s guitar that had been left to my dad. I was really enjoying that but I was in my bedroom a hell of a lot by myself and then one day all of these packages started arriving: a microphone stand and an amp and they were like ‘what the hell’s this?’ I just said ‘I’m going to try busking’. At the time I hadn’t seen any person around the age of 14 or 15 busking, but I definitely hadn’t seen any girls doing it either. I think my parents were a little worried about a 17-year-old girl by herself with some expensive kit on the street, but they have always been supportive of it.”

On her seven-date national tour, Trigwell will be performing solo. She says: “I’ve got quite a big pedal board and a lot of looping so it becomes a big sound through looping different guitar riffs and percussive things on guitar.” At some stage she says she’d like to have a band “but it’s hard to find a band that really works well with your sound”.

“When I had a band a few years ago we had a drummer and he was great but he did belong in a metal band and he used to turn up at rehearsals with double bass kick pedals and I’d play an emotional acoustic song and I was just like ‘no, this doesn’t work’. I’d like to play with a band at some point but I feel like I can create a big sound worthy of a headline show with what I’ve got going on.”

Reflecting on the bands she used to go and watch in Leeds, she says: “It’s hard to maintain a career in music, especially when you’re independent, but I am proud that I’ve got to this point where I’m releasing my debut album. Making an album is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I just think the way the music industry is going there might not be a lot of album-making [in future], it wants singles really, the market at the moment, people just want to listen to their favourite songs, which is fair enough, but I just wanted to make an album while I could.”

Hannah Trigwell plays at Headrow House, Leeds on Sunday September 9. Red is out now.