If you’ve paid attention to popular music in 2017, you MIGHT recognize “Late Nights & Heartbreak”… because they were the soulful, stirring, Grammy nominated track that provides the backdrop for the centerpiece of Jay-Z’s most recent album.
“4:44” — perhaps the most direct and confessional in the rapper’s catalog — is a late-night, searching testimonial. But as great as the emcee is, it wouldn’t cut anywhere near as deep as it does without the searing music that supports the verse. You’d be forgiven if you mistook it for a lost gem from the late-sixties heyday of soul. But it isn’t an old record at all. “Late Nights & Heartbreak” was recorded recently by Hannah Williams & the Affirmations, a powerhouse R&B outfit from Bristol in the U.K., released a small independent label Record Kicks, discovered by hit-making producer No I.D., and sent to Jay-Z to prompt an artistically fruitful sleepless night of heartfelt introspection and passionate confessional writing. No I.D. recognized: only a stone could hear Williams’s performance on “Late Nights” and not be moved. The song not only inspired Jay-Z to do some of his best work, but to also circumvent the traditional channels of managers, labels, etc. and pick up the phone and call Hannah himself to relay his desire to bring their worlds together. What will it inspire you to do?
“Late Nights” is indeed a remarkable recording. Yet it’s only part of the Hannah Williams & The Affirmations story. The other twelve songs on the Late Nights & Heartbreak album share the intensity and authenticity of the one that’s become world-famous.
The band has retained one of the most visionary producers in the U.K. to help capture its sound – Malcolm Catto, a man who gets the most out of idiosyncratic and uncompromising acts. He did it with the jazz renegades in Yussef Kamaal and he didi as well with Ethiopian Jazz Legend Mulatu Astatke, Floating Points, Quantic, Dj Shadow and Madlib. He’s done it again here with a classic, horn-spiked funk and soul act. The nine members of the Affirmations are totally committed to soul at its purest; from their arrangements to Hannah Williams’s fiery lead vocals to that crisp James Brown-style crack of the snare drum, everything here is perfectly realized, smart, tough, timeless. Blessed by the late lamented Sharon Jones the story of Hannah Williams seems to be written in lore from day one. Her father was a musically gifted minister and her mother let her join the church choir at the age of 6. Hannah could read music before she could properly read words.
Girl Gang got the chance to do an exclusive Q&A with Hannah Williams:
GGM: Did you always know you’d be a musician?
HW: “Yes. Always. I was brought up in am extremely musical household. My late father was a priest and an incredible musician. He taught me so much and i joined the choir at age 7 where i first realised singing was gonna be the future. I wanted to be an opera singer initially from around age 10 then started experimenting with other genres and, in my late 20’s, discovered i had the knack for soul. It was a pretty awesome epiphany.”
GGM: What has been your proudest moment so far in life? Music or otherwise?
HW: “Becoming a mother to my beautiful son Leo in 2013 is my number one reason for living. I have so many proud moments from my musical history. Many are obvious but there are some very subtle and intimate moments which have been the most profound. We played a show last September in Madrid. It was open air and there were lots of families there with kids who were playing in the nearby playground. 4 songs into our set, we were performing “In Your Arms”. My eyes were closed as I enjoyed the moment of 3 part harmony with my beautiful soul sisters Hannah Nicholson and Victoria Klewin. I opened my eyes and, right in front of me stood a you g boy (9/10), eyes closed, palms facing the sky, covered in dirt from the olayground, tears streaming down his face. For the next 3 minutes all i wanted to do was jump off the stage and hold him in my arms. I did just that at the end of the song. He hugged me really tight and said he was OK. He remained there for the next few songs, weeping and smiling, then went off to play. I went to find him after the show. I Gave him a cd and a tshirt and had a fantastic conversation with him. His name is Hugo. He plays bass and he said our 3 voices together were like angels and he couldn’t stop crying. That day, i was REALLY missing my son and husband. Hugo lifted my spirits and gave me so much hope. His profound response to our music was so deep and so moving. I carry that feeling with me everywhere i go and i think of him every time we play that song. I hope i meet Hugo again. Love you little man. xx”
GGM: Do you have any tips for any women in the industry?
HW: “The same tips i would give to a man. Don’t try to be anyone other than the best version of yourself. Embrace and celebrate your differences. They are what define you and make you interesting and fresh. Your gender is irrelevant.”
GGM: I feel like we (and many others) discovered you through Jay-Z’s most recent album. How did that come together and what is your piece of advice for someone waiting for a big moment like that?
HW: “Nobody could have predicted that bit of incredible fortune. It’s been a very powerful catalyst for change and progression for us all. We played our first shows in Asia last week at Blue Note Tokyo. Im pretty sure that opportunity and a whole host of others we have lined up are, at least in part, thanks to this incredible sample story. My advice is….DON’T WAIT FOR ANYTHING. There is no such thjng as a ‘big break’. Life is a combination of small wins and you have to enjoy and learn from each one. Don’t be complacent. Enjoy what you’re doing, don’t rely on what you’ve already done. The ‘break’ we got has just given us another gigantic push. Since the release of 4:44, we have written about 15 songs and played more shows than ever before. This jay-z wave will inevitably crash and, when it does, we are gonna be ready with a whole new tidal wave (no pun intended) of new music.”
GGM: What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
HW: “On tour, I drive the bus and also cut the bands hair.”
GGM: Do you think being a woman in music has affected your career? If so, how?
HW: “Not really. I mean, i pretty much just won’t tolerate any gender inequality because it’s bullshit. Male/Female? Who cares? LGBTQI+ for the win!!!”
Hannah Williams’ Girl Gang Music Picks
“All awesome and all giving difference dignity…”
Anthony and the Johnsons
Emerald Sapphire Gold