It’s a voice that stops people in their tracks. Within two weeks of hearing her for the first time, Dermot O’Leary and his team had cleared space for her on his Radio 2 show, simply because of that voice. You might think you don’t know it, but you do. It’s the voice that appears on the version of ‘Praise You’ that has been a radio staple through summer 2017. Instead of treating the song as a dance banger, Hannah Grace brings out the gospel within it, beginning it subdued and aching with melancholy, and ending it leaping octaves – how did she hit that high note?! – and creating something that transcends the original.
Since the release of that breakthrough hit, Hannah has exploded into mainstream awareness. The release of the beautiful The Bed You Made EP in 2019 preceded the collaborative EP December, made with Gabrielle Aplin later that year, and during that summer she played her biggest show to date, supporting Barbra Streisand in Hyde Park.
The steady ascent hasn’t stopped there, when in February 2020 Hannah was personally invited by renowned designer Richard Quinn to open and close his show at London Fashion Week. Her performance led LOVE Magazine to say, “I felt a single tear roll down my cheek”, and Vogue to describe her as having a voice “like honey”.
Her single ‘Blue’ sailed straight on to the Radio 2 playlist, followed by a stunning live performance on Michael Ball’s Sunday show on the station, which instantaneously won her a whole new legion of fans. But while more and more fans are discovering her with each passing month, other people have known about her voice for years – like Hozier, who took her out on tour as his support, and Gabrielle Aplin, who signed Hannah to her label Never Fade Records.
She grew up in Bridgend in South Wales, and surrounded by music, listening to greatest singers, picking up the pieces she loved, leaving aside what she didn’t. She would listen to album after album – by Cher, Dido, Mariah Carey, Björk, Joni Mitchell, Frank Sinatra, Nick Drake. “All different eras, all different styles,” she says. “Some of them I’d listen to one song and never listen to again. Some of them I’d listen to on repeat.”
The moment she understood the power of a voice came when she asked her dad – a musician himself – about her favourite singer, Eva Cassidy, and learned that Cassidy had died. “I was listening to someone who was no longer around and that was really significant for me – this person was singing to me and she wasn’t even here anymore. It was like she had a magic power. I was amazed by that.”
The first time she exercised her own magic power was on a family holiday in West Wales – she thinks she was eight or nine – when she sang an Eva Cassidy song in a pub, her dad playing guitar. “I thought singing was just something everyone could do,” she says. “Afterwards, when people were coming up to me, it was the first time I realised that it wasn’t just something that everyone did. Singing became ‘my thing’.”
She was born to sing and says the thing she most wants to do is tour, as much as possible, whenever, wherever. All she really wants to do is be on a stage, a microphone in front of her, behind her a band of musicians who can improvise, follow her, pick up her cues.
Yet Hannah Grace wasn’t a natural performer at first. She had the voice, but singing was the only thing she wanted to do. At secondary school, she would be cast as half the lead in school plays. “I’d have the lead sings of the lead part, but I wouldn’t actually act. They’d get someone else to act. I was annoyed at myself, I wanted to be more confident. But as soon they made me read a line …” That’s not the case anymore. Now she’s a performer who can hold a theatre spellbound, who can have other singers telling her they are scared to follow her onstage.
What changed everything for Hannah Grace was going to Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama – the Welsh national conservatoire – in autumn 2012 to study jazz singing. Suddenly, she realised that there were plenty of good singers in the world, and that to be something special required putting in hard work. Then more hard work. Then yet more hard work. For the first time, she wasn’t the best singer she knew, and for the first time, adults were telling her not that she was brilliant, but that she needed to get better.
And it was where she realised the empathy with jazz that a previous music teacher had noticed – a gift for improvisation, for altering songs, for rhythmic displacement, that being moving the motif to a different beat in the bar – was something she could build on.
“With jazz music, feeling like a musician and not just a singer, is important. I wanted to live up to my contemporaries and to be seen as equal…I didn’t want to be a singer who was just brought into a studio and told what to sing. Studying jazz really taught me to be a musician and think of myself as an instrumentalist. I’d be a totally different singer if I hadn’t been to that college.”
She says she recognises some of the themes in the film ‘Whiplash’ - in which a psychotic conservatoire teacher bullies his charges to greatness - in some of her classmates. “Sometimes people thought how good teachers were was based on how hard they were on you – ‘Oh, I just want to get a good roasting tomorrow.’ People wanted to be told how rubbish they were, because they thought it would make them good.” She pauses, and smiles. “I didn’t entirely believe that. I was very sensitive to criticism, but I got better.”
Even as she was studying, she was beginning to build a career. She had met Aplin, and recorded her first two EPs, working with writer-producer Luke Potashnick, who demanded she make the most of her voice. “He pushed me to the very edge of my physical ability,” she recalls. “People call me a ‘vocal powerhouse’, but before Luke I hadn’t really found that. He literally helped me find my voice.”
She worked on her songwriting, too, looking to find her voice in another way. And she really discovered her affinity for the stage, especially supporting Hozier, when she realised the connection she could make with an audience.
“One of the shows was in Berlin and I was overwhelmed afterwards – it felt like my own show. Afterwards, there were queues and queues and queues of people coming up to me, and I’d never experienced that before. And when you get that and you’re not remotely famous, you know that’s because they want to talk to you because they’ve heard you sing. They liked you so much they’re willing to wait half an hour to talk to you. All those experiences through college made me realise I wanted to sing, and share it with people.”
Since leaving college and moving to London in 2016, Hannah Grace has been working, writing and recording songs relentlessly, predominantly in RAK studios where she is working with production duo MyRiot (London Grammar, Birdy, Aurora). With her early releases Hannah was taking the first steps to understand the kind of musician she is. She’s now crystallised her sound over the songs on her debut album Remedy, which was released in late 2020.
Hannah Grace’s music is not jazz. But she does see herself as a jazz singer: “I think it’s in my approach to singing. I don’t want a song to be the same every time I sing it. And I think with pop music a lot of the time it is.”
She works at the place where the big melodies of pop meet the subtleties of jazz singing. Her music is meant to be heard, not shuffled away and theorised over. It’s music, she hopes, that will make listeners feel – feel emotional, angry, hopeful, energised, amazed. This is the voice you have been waiting for.