London Grammar's Hannah Reid Stands Her Ground on New Album 'Californian Soil': 'You Can't Censor Yourself'

London Grammar
Alex Waespi

London Grammar

London Grammar fans might sense a shift in the trio’s sound based on the first few singles released from Californian Soil, the U.K. group's third studio album, arriving April 16.

Californian Soil still contains the simmering tension of their first two releases (2013’s If You Wait and 2017’s Truth is a Beautiful Thing), but there is a new sense of urgency and authority in the latest work from Hannah Reid, Dot Major and Dan Rothman.

Reid’s haunting vocals remain a standout throughout the 12 tracks, but the tempo has risen along with the defiance. The lyrics feel like a shedding of frustrations, as Reid calls out those who have made her feel small in “Call Your Friends” and admonishes abusive exes in “Lord It’s a Feeling,” where the group features their first curse word on an album.

“I think when I say that word you can hear that I’m a bit, 'Should I be saying that?' But I did. I did say it. It’s there,” Reid jokes over Zoom from her home in London. “When I’m speaking it probably just sounds like the Queen swearing. It just came out and if it comes out in the writing process, then I’m going to keep it. You can’t censor yourself in art.”

The lack of censorship feels front and center on Californian Soil, which Reid calls her "story." While the band is very much still a group effort, Reid says her bandmates were “100% supportive” in allowing her to put forth herself and her struggles throughout her musical career on this latest album. For the first time, Reid is alone on the cover, isolated on a tiny island and surrounded by menacing clouds.

“The whole message of this album is my story. It felt like a good image,” says Reid. “I think it looks like I am taking coronavirus very seriously. That’s all I think about when I look at it. I’m like, ‘I’m doing good.’ [Taking social distancing] a bit far, but good.”

Californian Soil was completed in late 2019 and scheduled for release in 2020 before the pandemic hit. The group held onto the record, and have since already completed a fourth album’s worth of tracks that Reid said is even more different than their third.

“We went back and forth a lot [on when to release Californian Soil],” says Reid. “We felt this was the most upbeat album we have probably ever made. In the middle of a pandemic, there is a risk that this just won’t connect right now. There was no rush and I’m glad we waited.”

The group will tour in support of the album beginning this fall in the U.K. before heading to Australia and New Zealand in 2022. Billboard caught up with Reid to discuss the new album, finding her voice in an industry that has often tried to stifle it, and how she feels about going back on tour.

Are you excited or hesitant to get back on the road later this year?

I’m kind of both. I’m really really excited, but then at the moment I get a bit overwhelmed going to the supermarket. I think everyone feels that. We’ve got a tour now booked for November in the U.K. and it’s the biggest London headline gigs we’ve done. I can’t imagine standing on stage in front of 12,000 people, 'cause the cereal aisle at Waitrose [supermarket] is kind of crazy if you go at the wrong time. But I am sure it will be fine.

You have 17 dates scheduled between September and March, with a lot of time off. It seems like a lighter tour than usual.

In the early part of our career, we worked really really hard, which was amazing, but it did come at a slight cost to my health. I have a condition called fibromyalgia, which is common in some ways among creative people. It’s partly because I pushed myself through a schedule that my voice and body wasn’t able to handle. I realized, if we’re going to have longevity as a band and if I’m going to be able to do this then I am going to have to be really careful. If you lose your voice and your health, that will be the end of everything.

In recent years, there has been a lot more conversation about the mental health impacts of touring. Has that helped shaped your decision to tour less?

When we first started, we were surrounded by people that had quite an old school mentality. There’s an assumption that you go on stage, sing a few songs and it’s very easy. But the whole point is that you make it look easy. The physicality of it is obviously there and you have to be very fit and healthy. And then it’s a very male-dominated industry. It’s about being tough and making money. Most artists don’t fall into that category. We’re quite vulnerable. Loads of artists have mental health problems. You need to take care of yourself. I’m glad it’s now more of an open conversation and that people are taking care of their artists properly.

I remember seeing London Grammar on your first U.S. tour in 2014. It was at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles and you informed the audience that you had to leave the stage to deal with pain associated with dental surgery you just had. It seemed like a rough night.

Oh, my God. That was really bad. I had an impacted wisdom tooth for a really long time and it kept getting infected. But they wouldn’t let up on the schedule for me to get it removed. So I did the gig. I think I got through the gig from what I remember, but I know that I was on Vicodin. In the U.K., we don’t have Vicodin. I didn’t know what that was. I remember that gig happening, but I don’t remember that gig. If you know what I mean.

That was a turning point. I was like, "This is not good. You should never be put in that situation." There’s a lot of coercion and pressure that goes on. You can sing through an impacted wisdom tooth, but it’s not easy. [Laughs]

You were very upfront about the issue that night, and it always made me think of you as an outspoken person.

It’s funny that you say you always thought I was an outspoken person, because in some ways I always was. I think that was part of my problem. When we had just signed our record deal and had management and we were just starting out, I remember being pretty tough, very sure in my opinion on the music. But it took a lot of energy. I was already struggling then making that first album with being made to feel like I was being difficult.

What’s kind of sad is what happened to me is I ended up being worn down. I was called "feisty" and made out to be difficult. You have to be difficult in the music industry to an extent. No good art is made by having a million people’s opinions involved. But at some point along the way, I lost all my confidence and eventually it did get to me and I ended up feeling a bit brainwashed. I started to do things to try and please people. I tried to force myself through gigs and force myself to do promo. It was around that time that I developed fibromyalgia.

Has it gotten easier for you to speak up lately?

Now I can kind of speak about that experience. I know there are women in the music business who have been through so much worse than I have. I do feel it’s important for me to say that, but it’s interesting how hard I found it, speaking about it. It made me aware of my privilege in a roundabout way because it got me thinking in a different way.

It made me understand that the way I had been treated, it was like death by a thousand cuts and how something very small over a long people of time actually has a profound effect. There are a million examples I could give of being a woman and men saying silly things, but this album is doing the talking for me.