The Bay Area, while not known for being a country music hot spot per se, undoubtedly is home to a handful of hidden gems among the bridges and skyscrapers.
Opening with the catchy, Western-themed “Small Money,” listeners are quickly acquainted with Hannah’s 1970s-era, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt influence as well as her soothing voice. The six-song collection is comfortingly cohesive and as easing as a lullaby, making it feel like one big aural hug. Hannah’s country side shines through in her honest lyricism, but the way she implements the variety of acoustic instruments leaves a strong folk impression on her music as well.
Title track, “Premonitions,” is as suspenseful and reflective as the name might suggest. The whole song appears to be on edge, goosebumps raised, just as the listener feels when taking in the tender melody backed by ambient whines of a pedal steel. “Tacos and Goodwill Clothes” is another track where the name doesn’t fail to live up to expectations. Goofy and sweet, it is one of the more upbeat-sounding songs, though a closer listen reveals more underlying somber messages.
Though she is unable to guarantee any live shows yet, Hannah filmed a live set with the Sad Bastard Club, who will be posting the footage on their YouTube. She also recently made an appearance on The Barn Dance KXSF 102.5FM radio, where she was given a two hour set to DJ some of her favorite female country artists in celebration of Womens’ History Month, as well as perform some of her originals live.
Hailing from Knoxville, TN, but having spent time coast to coast from New York to Los Angeles, and now her current residence in the Bay Area, Hannah is now considering moving back to Tennessee, to pursue songwriting full-time in Nashville.
She sat down to discuss this potential move, her EP, and much more with us.
So who or what first got you into writing and performing music?
I started writing and performing music when I lived in New York City, but it was a culmination of my upbringing and previous life experiences that caused me to focus on folk and country music. I drew from my Southern roots growing up in Knoxville, TN, where I played and sang in church and family gatherings. My parents bought me a fiddle for my seventh birthday, but didn’t have the money for lessons, so I sounded out old gospel tunes by ear until they could afford them. But songwriting was on my mind from an early age, because my late cousin, AJ Masters, a Nashville songwriter at the time who scored hits with Randy Travis and Faith Hill, was an inspiration, frequenting these family musical gatherings.
We’d listen to AJ’s tapes in the car sometimes on trips to Dollywood, talking about his accolades and achievements. And of course Dolly Parton was a huge influence, because we visited her amazing theme park most summers. I even saw her perform there once when I was a youngster, and I was hooked. When you walk through her park all the senses hit you: her melodic voice and songs coming through the faux rocks, the smell of funnel cake, and glitz and glamour everywhere mixed in with a down-home country vibe. My obsession for 80’s country music grew with my tape collection featuring artists like Rosanne Cash, Tanya Tucker, Bonnie Raitt, The Judds, etc. I truly fell in love with all the above artists, and started writing songs of my own while learning to play guitar.
Give us your best elevator pitch for those wondering who Tony Hannah is and what her music is all about.
I’d say my image is that of a strong female singer with a bit of an 80’s and 90’s country glam look, but my music and especially some of the songs from my latest EP are soft and lilting. I’ve always written more folk sounding songs, trying to achieve the Emmylou Harris and Kate Wolf sound. Although I do write and perform some more upbeat country tunes with a little Tanya Tucker attitude. I find it’s very important to be as transparent as possible with lyrics, and for the melodies to be catchy so they’re understood and memorable. So whether the song is about heartbreak, working at a dead end job, or just a fun dance song, I want them to be relatable so the audience feels whatever emotion I’m getting at. All in all, I like to project a strong image, combining both upbeat country and somewhat sad folk tunes.
The Bay Area undoubtedly has a unique culture around music. How have you found yourself being a part of it and embracing that?
The Bay Area music scene is historically associated with the 1960’s counterculture and out-of-the-box thinking, which to some degree still exists. I feel like I fit right in because the music scene favors new ideas, and I’ve been free to experiment musically in addition to meeting fellow accepting artists. There’s a strong appreciation of art for art’s sake that doesn’t exist to the same extent in more commercially driven cities like New York and LA, where I spent most of my 20’s. I had some trouble finding a country music scene in the Bay Area when I moved back, but after digging deeper I discovered some great old honky tonk venues, country bands, and two-stepping nights around town, which I attended and performed at regularly.
You’ve spoken about maybe leaving California eventually. What would be the factors making that decision, and where might life and your music take you?
The factors and decisions causing me to leave California for Nashville have to do with wanting to be more inspired and surrounded by a very rich country music community. I’m excited to bring my fresh unique take and voice that I’ve honed in the Bay Area’s experimental scene to the historically country music mecca that is Nashville. I’m looking forward to meeting new artists and co-writing with the greats, following in the footsteps of so many who came before me. I imagine I’ll be playing at some historical honky-tonks and jamming with like minded musicians on their front porches. This year I ultimately imagine myself teaming up with a producer and making a full length record in Nashville with new players I’ll meet. I’d like to eventually sign with a label that feels like a good fit, and tour if things open up again. Nashville will likely provide some more opportunities for me to do all of this.
Tell us about your debut EP, Premonitions, and some of the inspiration or influence behind it.
The album gets the name from the title track “Premonitions” because it’s really the key. It’s about experiencing heartbreak and getting ripped off emotionally, but in light of that finding hope or a silver-lining, which is something we can all relate to during this time of disaster. I expanded on this theme with the other songs, like the bleakness of being stuck in a dead end job and having an escapist mindset, still imagining a brighter future. Sonically I wanted the entire album to have a summer beachy vibe, a nod to Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou” and Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville”, encompassing what we are all experiencing due to the feelings of confinement that Covid has caused. Wouldn’t we all like to have a vacation on the beach right now? Also, I just love a nice spanish sounding country song, because I personally think it’s very mellow and relaxing. Most of the lyrics reflect the natural beauty I saw on the road while traveling (pre-covid) on tour through America, from the warm pink sunsets in Tucson, AZ to the balmy Tennessee nights. You can just picture some of this in “Santa Ana Winds”, “Premonitions”, “Setting Sun”, and “Paradise”. I’d say all in all the theme of the album is hopeful.
What do you hope listeners will take away from these songs, whether it be feelings, messages, or something else?
I hope that listeners will get comfort, joy, and a sense of belonging from hearing my songs. For instance, “Premonitions” and “Setting Sun” are about loneliness and heartbreak, a sentiment many people deal with. Similarly, “Small Money” and “Santa Ana Winds”, encompass my feelings toward coming from simple means and being stuck in a blue collar job. This past year the planet has collectively experienced the hardship that comes living with limited means and resources, causing most people to re-prioritize what they deem important. Which leads me to talk about the more nostalgic songs on the EP, “Tacos and Goodwill Clothes” and “Paradise”, conjuring up childhood memories of family, friends, and growing up in the South. My songs share the stories that shaped me and it’s the language I use to converse with the world, and hopefully they do just that.
Who are some of the people who helped bring the EP to life?
James Riotto engineered and produced Premonitions at Tiny Telephone in Oakland, CA, founded by the legendary John Vanderslice, a proponent of using analogue equipment and instruments to achieve a richer and more raw sound. James was able to see my vision, and compiled a great crew of local studio session musicians who brought the songs to life. This is the first time I’ve ever recorded in such a professional setting, in addition to meeting and playing with this particular crew of musicians, so I was really taking a leap of faith hoping it would turn out as planned. I was a little reluctant at first, but luckily everything came together like clockwork, and it typically took only two to three takes for each song, which literally felt like magic.
What is one of your favorite memories from writing or recording the EP that you’ll remember most ten years from now?
I don’t know if this is a good memory, but back in August 2020 when we started recording, we were still under Covid restrictions in addition to California being on fire. There were a few days in Northern CA when we couldn’t see the sun or sky because the fires had created a post-apocalyptic Blade Runner effect on the atmosphere. Imagine being stuck inside recording all day and then taking short breaks outside, still not being able to see the sun in the sky at noon due to a strange atmospheric orange haze. It was horrific, and honestly felt like the world was ending. Something about making my dream EP with like minded musicians that week, just felt like the right thing to do in an “end times” scenario. I will never forget being incredibly scared for the future, yet having a newfound sense of empowerment to keep making art. I do hope this bit of sonic beauty we created will bring someone else comfort or joy during difficult times.
What might you have planned for this year that fans can look forward to?
I plan to spend most of the summer in Nashville, and I hope to record a full length album there. Hopefully I’ll start playing outdoor shows and maybe do a small southern tour as the weather gets warmer and people become vaccinated. I’ll be releasing a new single on March 20th and a music video this summer featuring one of the songs from my latest EP. Be sure to look out for all of this on music streaming platforms and social media!
What does a dream gig look like for Tony Hannah? (assuming they do in fact happen in regularity again)
I suppose the dream gig depends on the venue and the vibe of the audience. Intimate shows are nice with just me playing solo or with an accompanist, but I also like to do more lively shows with a full band so the audience can dance and have fun. The last show I played in March 2020 was one for the books, getting to sing some of my favorite songs with my full country cover band. So generally I like to just bring the right amount of energy for the gig and really create a unique experience for the audience. I do enjoy more intimate shows just me and my guitar, but I imagine my next dream gig would be on an outdoor stage in a field somewhere, playing my originals with a full band, pedal steel and all. It sounds like heaven just thinking about it.