Verity Vincent caught up with Hannah Hu as she prepares for her last show of the year for a conversation on music, mental health, and empowerment.
As Hannah Hu prepares for her last show of the year on 1st December at Coventry’s - Just Dropped In Records, TONIC spoke with the London based singer about her experience in the music industry so far and paying tribute to her friend and mentor, Terry Hall.
Having released a debut EP ‘Prisoner Of Love’ on her own label, Priscilla Records, Hannah is carving out a unique career for herself already. Her friendship with founding TONIC patron, the late Terry Hall, has left a lasting impact on Hannah, both personally and as an honorary member of The Specials.
Reflecting on her journey with the band, Hannah remembers, “I had Terry on Instagram for a few years, he followed me back and was aware that I was a musician. One day he just messaged me saying, ‘Hi Hannah, We're currently recording a new album and we're looking for a female singer to sing this song, would you be interested?’ … I went to the recording studio expecting just to sing the one song, ‘Listening Wind’ but it turned out to be much more! We started out with a Leonard Cohen cover and I was sat thinking, ‘I’ve got to pull this out the bag’. It was a really great experience and I remember being in the booth, looking through the glass seeing them all sat there and I was like, ‘My God, I'm in the studio with The Specials’ but it worked, it just clicked. Terry then asked if I would perform at Coventry Cathedral with him playing his back-catalogue of solo material, a few Fun Boy Three songs and other covers. Then they asked me if I'd like to go on tour with the band and obviously I said yes! They really took me under their wing and looked after me. It felt like a family to be honest, we all had such a laugh. It was just an instant connection with all the musicians and it was such a positive, fun, entertaining experience. The Specials are my family and I still have to pinch myself that I’ve worked with such a legendary band.”
Hannah on stage with the Specials in 2021
In October, Hu performed in LA at a charity gig with Specials members Lynval Golding and Horace Panter as a celebration of Terry, approaching the one year anniversary of his passing. “We did a collection of Specials songs and Fun Boy Three, and I performed Listening Wind from the Protests album. It was a really healing experience for me.”
The importance of this healing period, paired with the motivation to keep shining a light on the work that Terry advocated has led to TONIC’s involvement with Hannah’s upcoming show.
“When I was touring with The Specials, TONIC were really friendly and we connected on a personal and professional level, so moving forward in my career, I'll definitely be involved with TONIC. I want to promote everything that they stand for and also pay tribute to Terry. Because TONIC was so close to his heart, having them with me makes me feel like he's close to me as well.”
Terry’s impact on Hannah’s career thus far has not only brought to light the conversations around mental health, but also showed her what touring as a family unit can be like. A stark difference to situations that female solo artists can find themselves in.
Hannah on stage with Lynval Golding
“I've faced obstacles as a female musician but I keep fighting the fight to keep my voice heard and I am careful with who I work with now. If something doesn't feel right it probably isn't. I stand for safety and respect in the studio, something I didn't think I would have to fight for when I first started out. My first EP experience took a big toll on my own mental health but when The Specials found me they showed me how it's supposed to be in a recording studio, performing and working with musicians who are male. I was under their wings and they offered support.
When you tour with The Specials, you’re looked after, you go on tour buses, your accommodation is sorted, it's a well-paid show. But when you're independent, you’re self funded, it's all coming out of your own pocket. My first wages that I got through The Specials all went towards my solo career; my flexi disc, photo shoots and merchandise, so one part of my career was supporting the other, but it's a struggling time for independent music.
The financial and mental strains that musicians regularly feel are all too evident, as music promoter and long time friend of Terry, Heather Davidson, reflects. “From what I've observed, living the dream can quickly be undermined by insecurity, related lifestyle choices, irregular work patterns and the sheer uncertainty of how you're going to pay the rent. There are also the adrenalin highs of going on tour that can lead to low points on return and coping with this takes its toll on mental wellbeing. Substance misuse and dependency were a by-product of the industry too, but I have seen a definite change here alongside wider societal shifts.
Early intervention, education and recognising the signs of what we sometimes call stress or overwork are critical, as is having accessible information and support that is readily available through initiatives like the Tonic Rider. I believe this in particular is a very tangible part of Terry's legacy. And speaking out about his own mental health journey was also key in gaining wide recognition that it's OK to talk about mental health.”
Identifying the need for this early intervention is a shared feeling with Hu also. “I think there should definitely be more mental health awareness in education. I personally try to spread awareness from my social media accounts as I myself have and treat depression and anxiety. If we all treat each other kindly, offer support and most importantly talk, then that's how we can benefit and support each other.”
Being open to conversations and utilising resources have become a key part in Hannah’s methods of practising good mental health. Having recently joined the ESEA Community for East/South East Asian minorities in music and the creative fields, there is a sense of belonging, knowing a community is there to support her. Additionally, Hannah attributes positive mental health to programmes like Tonic Rider and not being afraid to reach out to family and peers.
“Working with TONIC and being in communication with other female musicians has been really positive. I think it's good for women to support women and be there for other independent musicians that are in the same field as you. When I was on tour with The Specials, I would take myself for a walk. Or have some quiet time after soundcheck, even just doing my hair and makeup was quite therapeutic. It’s the small things, like communicating with your loved ones. I'd call my mum and my friends all the time when I was on tour to talk about how I was feeling. It’s good not to keep things inside.”
Touring with an established band offers an element of security which is absent for a solo artist. Particularly navigating the industry as a young female. Holding onto empowering experiences has been pivotal in the progression of Hannah’s career so far.
“I've worked with a lot of men, but I think the doors are finally opening and women are being given the place where they can shine. When I was in LA (performing with The Specials) and Jane Wiedlin and Donita Sparks walked in the room I thought - Wow. I could feel the energy shift and when we performed live I had such a strong feeling in my heart. It felt absolutely amazing being next to two women who are so rocking and powerful. I've always played with male musicians and it was a really heartwarming feeling to be honest, and definitely good for me as a female musician to have that experience.”
Looking ahead to a new year, Hannah will be taking a welcomed digital detox while she focuses on songwriting and finishing her first full-length album. This social media break is a practice she regularly puts into place to keep her mind creative and away from the pitfalls and distractions of scrolling and online comparison to peoples “dream lives”.
Hu’s story resonates as a testament to the transformative power of music, the evolving landscape of the music industry, and the crucial role of organisations like Tonic Rider in fostering a supportive community for musicians.
Any remaining tickets for the gig on 1st December are available via Eventbrite, and Hannah will very kindly be donating a percentage of all merchandise sales to Tonic Music for Mental Health in memory of Terry. “I'm very excited to have TONIC at my gig and hopefully we can raise more money for a charity Terry loved and TONIC will continue to be *literal* lifesavers!”
Terry's legacy remains strong within the hearts of the TONIC team and within their work.
He was a champion and patron of TONIC from the very beginning - we hope Terry would be proud to see the charity growing and supporting more people year on year.