Hannah Williams Speaks On Inspiring JAY-Z To Write “4:44”
“I’m literally every day like, ‘Someone pinch me!’ because this definitely is not my life!”
Hannah Williams’ Facebook bio describes her as “a whirlwind of soul, love, lust, and anger.” And when you hear her sing “Late Nights & Heartbreak,” (above) you’ll understand why. That song is the reason why JAY-Z woke up at 4:44am and wrote the most gut-wrenching song of his entire career, an emotionally naked response to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. As producer No I.D. told Rolling Stone, he dug up the track and sent it to JAY with that very purpose in mind: “That whole piece of music was created with me knowing: I’m going to make you say it on this song, and this song will be the only song you need to say it on.” We spoke with the woman behind the voice that kept JAY awake in the wee small hours.
So how the hell did you find out you were on JAY-Z’s new album?
[laughter] Um, he phoned me!
Yes way! He phoned me back on the 27th of February to ask for the sessions and to ask me to go and record some slightly different permutations of the lyrics from the original. And said, you know, “I’ve written the most personal song I’ve ever written around the song” and la la la… I was pretty excited. And yeah, I’ve basically known since February 27th but not been allowed to say anything. So you can imagine it’s been crippling.
Torture! So hold on… not his engineer or his producer, but Jay himself calls you?
Were you at the pub? Where were you?
No. It’s amazing, the story of it, how it all came together is pretty hilarious. So I run the music department at the University of Winchester and every year we take one of our big choirs to somewhere else in the country and we do a big choir festival with loads of other universities. This year we were going up to Leads to sing the Salisbury Vespers and we were on our way up there and I got a phone call from my drummer and manager Jai saying “You’re not allowed to react. Where are you?”
I said, “I’m on a coach with 50 students…”
He’s like, “Okay. Jay-Z’s gonna call you.” And obviously when somebody says “Don’t react!” what do you do? You react. So I went absolutely mental—what the fuckin’ hell’s happening!??—and everybody looked round and then I was like “Oh it’s fine! Nothing to see here. It’s all fine!” So long story short, nothing happened for the next 24 hours and he didn’t phone me. I’m like “Oh forget about it, I’ll be fine. Whatever. It was a nice pipe dream. ”
Then Sunday when we were driving back on the same coach with the same people my phone rings, I don’t hear it ’cause it’s in my bag. So finally we get back to Winchester and I’ve got a text message from JAY-Z saying “Hi Hannah, it’s Jay here. Can you give me a call when you’ve got a moment so we can chat things over?” So I mean, at that point I just completely lost my shit. [Laughter]
Did you call a friend or your mom or anyone?
Oh my God. I had to just completely button my lip and be completely silent until I got all my students where they needed to be. And then my husband came and picked me up and I just went totally mad and I told him what happened. So yeah, then I phoned him [JAY-Z!] We had this lovely conversation where he said he really wants to use the song and obviously I was like, “Yah-huh. Of course you can. That’s amazing!”
But I didn’t know how big it was gonna be. I didn’t know it was the title track. I didn’t know it was such an enormous sample, i.e. pretty much the whole song. I didn’t know the story about how that song got chosen until the rest of the world did. It all came out in the press from No I.D. last week saying that he was playing that song and him realizing that he needed to write this apology to Beyoncé. Then it just became a much bigger animal than I was expecting.
So you had to literally wait until the song was released to find all that out.
And you didn’t hear anything until the final product?
That’s pretty crazy. Everyone’s heard about the making of “4:44.” Tell us about the making of “Late Nights & Heartbreak”
Okay. So, it’s an amazing album that we are all exceptionally proud of. We went into the studio back in Christmas time of 2015… January, February. Random days here and there and everywhere. We working with Malcom Catto who is absolutely incredible. Founding member of The Heliocentrics. He’s worked with DJ Shadow, he’s worked with a million artists! It’s just an absolute gem. Anyway, we took what we kind of had in our heads with a pretty finished album, what was ready to go to tape and get it all done and it would be fairly straightforward and I mean, he really took us to school. He completely reworked all the grooves and made us question everything and kind of pushed us to kind of go the extra mile I guess. Just rework a lot of things and make it kind of more groove based. That’s his territory, he’s an incredible drummer and percussionist so I think that’s where he came at it from. But then we spent an absolutely gorgeous week just me and him recording the vocals. He professed to knowing nothing about the human voice but what he got out of me… I genuinely did not know was possible. I didn’t realize I could be any more expressive than I already was and he’s very much a “less is more” kind of guy. So it became a very different album than what we’ve gone in with the idea of producing.
But “Dazed and Confused” for example, the one cover on there is “Dazed and Confused” by Jake Holmes/Led Zeppelin depending on what articles you read. That was, quite literally, came out of the rhythm section. Just jammin’ some stuff in the control room and him saying “This is awesome. Let’s just record it and see what happens.” Quite literally, it just happened. We didn’t really think about it that much, the boys just really grooved out on it and then I came in and decided which verses from the Jake Holmes version and the Led Zeppelin version we were gonna use. I changed a few things to make them a little more gendered for me to sing and recorded in in I think 2 takes. So there was some really amazing moments of complete spontaneity that were just very delicious. But also an enormous amount of work and an enormous amount of minute scrutiny over what we were trying to produce and how we wanted it to sound and genuinely what’s the message of every single song. It was different.
Listening to the lyrics I guess I could see why Jay was inspired. You say certain things about treating your guy badly, and wondering why does he love you so much… Was that based on personal experience?
So apart from “Still In My Head” which is one of the tracks on the album, everything was either co-written or written by somebody else. “Late Nights & Heartbreaks,” the track that Jay sampled was written by our friend Kanan Keeney, a man, who yes, I think was reflecting on personal stuff. He presented us that song with the working title “Part-Time Lover,” which automatically made me think of Stevie Wonder. [sings] “I want you be your part-time lover.” [laughs] So yeah, we kind of changed the name and I already had it in my head that I wanted to call the album Late Nights & Heartbreak. The first review we ever got in… Oh golly, like 2009, 2010? We did this little gig in Southampton in The Orange Rooms and a review came back from the show that said “Hannah Williams’ voice sounds like the result of too many late nights and too many heartbreaks.” And I just never forgot that. I was like, “Wow, that’s such a strong sentence!” Kind of word painting.
Is it true to say that in real life, do you think?
Yes, for sure. [laughter] I’m now happily married with a child but we’ve all been there haven’t we? There’s still plenty of late nights, I could tell you that. There’s not quite as much heartbreak as there used to be.
That’s a good thing. It’s funny you say that because I read your bio on your Facebook that describes you as a “whirlwind of love, lust, and anger.” Who came up with that?
Um…gosh I can’t even remember actually. I think it was a phrase that was coined by… maybe one of the Spanish journalists. I really can’t remember where it started but they described me as this “soul volcano,” “the soul hurricane.” [laughs] So it became this plethora of weather-related metaphors and titles that people attribute to me. But I think that phrase, obviously it’s dramatic and it’s meant to grab people and get them reading. It’s a really great sentence but it does reflect what our live show is like.
The whole band throws absolutely everything and the kitchen sink at our show. They are extremely emotional, certainly from my perspective from stage, but I think even from the audience’s perspective. We speak very openly about how we feel about all the songs. It’s all quite lovey-dovey and hippie… very connected with politics sometimes, but also with personal experience. I really love to engage the audience in the emotional stimuli that are behind all of the songs in the way that I sing them, in the way that I react with them, they way I look at them. Gestures, all those sort of things. That’s probably where that lovely little phrase was born.
When you spoke with Jay did he say anything else about your song?
Well, I don’t really know anymore than the rest of the world does about that if I’m perfectly honest with you. It was a really short conversation. We got pretty much straight down to business. “This is what I need. Is it cool for you to do this?” And obviously my answer was a resounding “Yes!” But I know now having read all the stuff that came out from No I.D. he said “What sort of artists do you listen to?” to JAY-Z “What can I pick that will kind of inspire you to write this song? What can I pick that you can project such a deeply personal and emotional lyric over?” And [JAY-Z] chose people like Nina Simone, Eta James, Otis Redding and various other artists who for me are like absolutely the heroes and gods of soul music. And No I.D. 100% did his job, thank you very much. [laughter] He found us just looking through Record Kicks‘ roster and wanting to find something more modern. He heard the song and was like “OK, let’s do this. This is the one.” So it’s pretty Hollywood.
The story itself is kind of unbelievable and I’m literally every day like, “Someone pinch me!” because this definitely is not my life. What the hell is going on?
I’m sure it’s not bad to get some recognition for your artistry. But at the same time I hope the money was good.
[Laughter] Well I didn’t write the song so I don’t necessarily get royalties, but I think genuinely—and I don’t want to say this and have you go “Yeah right. Bullshit!”—but genuinely it is not about the money. My life has always been about music. I love doing this. I do it because I want to, not because I have to or because I feel like I need to make some sort of break in my life. I’ve been super lucky in everything and I’ve worked really really hard to get to where I am. But I’ve also been really well accepted and supported and encouraged throughout my whole life being a musician. I’m 35, I’m not a kid. I’m not a new artist by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve been doing this for a really long time. I’ve had loads of breaks, some of them have been little and incremental and they’ve just made one little change in my life that has kind of turned it around.
This obviously, I’m not gonna lie to you, it’s the biggest thing that’s ever happened. It’s the most public thing that has ever happened, and with a household name endorsing what we’re doing and saying how much he loves it. I mean you don’t really get much bigger than that when it comes to the music industry. So yes… of course, this is huge and I hope I make a bit of dosh out of it. Of course I do. But that’s genuinely not what it’s about. The thing that makes me so happy is that the music that I made with a bunch of people who I love with every fiber of my being and who are my best friends, and are called The Affirmations because they affirm everything that I believe, because they affirm how I perform, because they are my absolute rocks when we are on tour. They’re brilliant musicians. That’s a bit that actually matters. That we are getting recognition for music that we’ve made together. Now the rest of the world is starting to go “Oh my god! How did we not know about this?” and that’s what for me is like, wicked exciting. Yes I’d love a big house and a nice car but being able to go to gigs to bigger audiences and come over the pond to you guys and do some U.S. dates… That’s the dream.
It’s funny because you probably read about what No I.D. said. How your song actually made him get up at this time in the morning, 4:44a.m., and pour out his emotions. Some people say this is like the best song he’s ever done. It’s an incredibly intimate song. That must make you feel good…
So is the original. I think that’s why…I’m hoping that’s what the gamechanger was. It’s such a deeply personal, emotional, song. The way that Kanen wrote it, in the way that I interpreted it, in the way that we as a band delivered it, and all the kind of augmentations and instrumentation that’s gone into it when it was first delivered to us as a raw little bedroom recording. All of the emotions and the stories that are attached to that have made it this, like, cosmic thing that clearly has gripped No I.D. and gripped Jay-Z by the cojones and gone to town on them.
But it’s a wonderful thing, another wonderful thing—there’s so many, I could keep saying that forever—but one of the most beautiful things for me is that he’s chosen not just the title track from our album for the title track on his, but he’s chosen my favorite song that i’ve ever recorded and he’s chosen the moments of my favorite song to be the main features of that sample. And that’s where the universe connects and you just go, “Oh my God! I’m glad I felt like that about that bit. Clearly I was right.” That makes it even more special than it was.
It was ordained I guess as some people might say.
Did you like the album Lemonade, by the way?
I don’t know the album intimately, but yes the tracks that have been more commercially played over here, yes, I think it’s great. Obviously, any singer—especially any female singer—holy crap you’ve got to have some respect for Beyonce. She is just an absolute tour-de-force. And her sister! Absolutely incredible family. The genes there are wicked strong. But yeah I mean, I really respect her. And I think she’s, much like Jay-Z, and a lot of other artists that I really respect, she hasn’t made a fool out of herself with her music. She’s kind of been really dignified. Even though she’s ridiculously sexy and she brings herself in these incredibly skimpy outfits, but she just absolutely emits class in everything else that she does. I think that along with her having a phenomenal voice and the ability to write some pretty hard-hitting, popular songs… She’s an absolute tour-de-force. So she and Jay-Z, I can totally see why that relationship started when it did. They’re clearly kindred spirits. But short answer, yes I do like Lemonade. And I need to start listening to it more in case I might meet her and she quizzes me about it.
I know, right? So, you’re based in Bristol?
I actually live in Winchester, but the rest of the band are all based in Bristol so yeah we’re kind of South England.
Are you like a big celebrity now back at home? Are people like “oh my god” I mean you said you teach at university like…how has your week been?
No! My weeks been mental. It genuinely…when people say “Someone pinch me!” I’m always like “It’s just a stupid phrase.” But genuinely it’s just like…it doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t feel like it really happened. It’s really odd and I haven’t seen the band. I don’t see the band till tomorrow. We haven’t been able to scream and jump up and down in the same room yet.
So you’re all gonna have a few late nights then.