“Hello old friend, it’s been a while” is the opening of Hattie Whitehead’s new EP Old Soul.
The “old friend” she refers to in her song “Ups and Downs” is her guitar, but it could just as much be an opening statement to her fans.
It’s been three years since the Richmond-born singer songwriter released her debut EP Home, which led to radio play on the BBC and Amazing Radio, and a sell-out gig at St Pancras Old Church in London. Since, she has performed at a raft of festivals such as Latitude, Secret Garden Party, Wilderness, Field Day and Cambridge Folk Festival, supported the likes of Beth Rowley, and won the third prize in Glastonbury's Emerging Talent Competition.
Hattie’s new EP of glorious heartfelt folk-pop is worth the wait, brimming with lilting melodies that are always enthralling and never predictable, and vocals that are distinguished by their combination of soulfulness and crystal clear purity. Tackling themes of grief, friendship, relationships, and the processing of difficult emotions, the music of Old Soul sees her matured since the release of Home. It’s summed up by the title of the EP itself. “I guess I have done quite a lot of growing up over the last three years, so I’ve become a little bit older in my soul,” she says. “And I’ve always been quite a deep thinker anyway so it feels quite fitting.”
One reason for growing up so much during this period being the loss of her mother in 2016. “It’s been a difficult time for my friends and my family. We said goodbye to someone too soon,” she sings in “Ups and Downs”, which tenderly and honestly explains why Hattie’s not played the guitar in a while.
“When things are difficult, I find it difficult to be creative”, she says. “So the old friend that I’m referring to in that verse is my guitar because I hadn’t played a gig for so long and I hadn’t written.”
Understandably, her mother was an inspiration for the songs. “Even though they’re not all directly about her she’s managed to weave her way into three of the four songs.” “More Than That” tells of the need for a partner’s deep emotional support and understanding at that difficult time, while “I’m Seeing You Now” is about the evolution of grief, from sadness and negativity to “getting to the point after a while when suddenly there’s a glimmer of light, and thinking about her doesn’t just bring sadness, it brings gratefulness and feeling like she’s in me. So I guess finally seeing her as opposed to just grieving her.”
The song “Old Soul” was an empowered response to difficult interactions over a period of time with a friend. “Expressing anger has been something I have always struggled with”, explains Hattie. “Sharing that new sentiment with audiences filled me with a new found power in my music making. It felt like a huge release to write and perform the song.”
For Hattie, writing music and performing is the most powerful - and easiest - way of expressing feelings and thoughts. “Music gives me a platform where I can freely share the deepest thoughts and feelings that I would often struggle to express outside of music. Writing this EP has enabled me to reflect on and share my own grief, deep sadness, loneliness, anger, yearning and finally the surprising emergence of hope and positivity in an intensely sad time.”
That range of emotions from sadness to positivity and hope for the future is captured nowhere more beautifully than in “Ups and Downs”. “The year my mum was diagnosed with cancer, my brother found out that he had a role in Dunkirk which was just amazing. We also lost a really close family friend. Then the year that my mum passed away I had my busiest year of festivals to date.” It was the year she went to Glastonbury to perform for Michael and Emily Eavis, and won third prize in their Emerging Talent Competition. “So that song was all about things being really terrible, but also some amazing things happening as well. And it’s about the polarisation of those things.”
It was her family’s diverse favourite artists from Paul Simon to Miles Davis that provided a solid musical grounding from an early age, and significantly shaped Hattie’s melodic and heartfelt style. Her jazz inflections have prompted comparisons to some of the musical greats she grew up listening to – including Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake, James Taylor, John Martyn and Jeff Buckley. Her love of modern alternative, folk and indie bands has further developed a style comparable to current artists such as Bon Iver, Laura Marling, Jose Gonzalez and The Staves. What they all have in common are melody, emotion and soulfulness.
Music was always in the house, not least because her father Tim Whitehead is a renowned jazz saxophone player and composer. “I’ve been going to his gigs my whole life really”, says Hattie, as she recalls memories of running around the Southbank Centre, the Royal Festival Hall and the Barbican as she accompanied him to daytime gigs. “I’ve just always been around his music. He would practise and write in the house, and sometimes it would be late at night and we’d get complaints from the neighbours, because once the music comes to him he would have to get it down. Music is definitely an overpowering force in the house.”
Her mother, too, would would to listen to music in the family home. “My mum used to sing May You Never by John Martyn to us when we were going to bed. It wasn’t until I was 21 that i rediscovered that album, and it was really nice knowing part of that had been there in my childhood as well. I think I took her more folky side as inspiration.”
She also took inspiration from her mother’s poetry, which left a profound mark on many including Hattie. “I really like how she used really simple imagery, so I’ve probably taken on that thing of wanting to make things quite digestible for listeners and not making it too complex.”
From her father, she also took influence from his emphasis on the necessity of music being true and from the heart, which is strongly felt in all four of Hattie’s soulful songs. “His belief is that the best music is really true to yourself and from the heart, so that’s probably the best influence I’ve taken from him.” It’s something that the artists she was listening to as she grew up have in common as well.
Hattie’s parents first noticed their daughter’s talent for music when she was as young as two, going around the house singing along to her favourite Disney vinyl. Her father saw that even at this young age she noticed where the key changes were, so he sat her down with a tape recorder and played guitar while the young toddler made up songs - her very first album. “He was really encouraging and would play something really simple and wait. They were just about my best friends and fairies and cakes. I’ve got this dream that when I do my first album that that will be a little hidden track.”
She started playing piano aged five or six, then she began flute lessons, and, later, singing lessons at college, before reading music at Leeds University. It was that encouragement of her creative talents that also enabled her siblings to follow their creative paths. Her younger brother Sonny is a budding artist, while her older sister Maisie is a dancer, physical performer and aerialist - she choreographed and dances in the video for “More Than That”. Her youngest brother Fionn is an actor who played the lead in Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk.
“They just supported us in whatever we wanted to do. I’m so grateful because I know how different things can be for other people, particularly in music. If I was ever having doubts, every time I spoke to them about it it gave me so much clarity that I was doing the right thing. And because I love it so much, it’s the right thing to pursue.”
Hattie was performing jazz standards and pop covers on the gigging circuit, but it was when she accompanied the Decca-signed artist Natalie Duncan as a backing singer that she was inspired to start writing her own music. “Seeing Natalie do it was quite an inspiration to start making my own music and express myself through writing. Her performance was incredible - so heartfelt and real, and raw.” She credits going on Jools Holland with Duncan as one of the highlights of her career so far. Hattie still does session work, providing backing vocals for The Young Voices’ annual tour.
The first song she penned was written on ukulele - before she could properly play guitar. From then the melodies for her own songs started flowing. Sick of relying on other musicians to accompany her, with the help of a friend she taught herself to play guitar. Her first finger picking pattern she learnt from her father; she recalls playing the pattern over and over and working out different patterns until she’d developed her own style.
She remembers the euphoric, and empowering, feeling of performing one of her own songs live for the first time, and from there she’s never looked back. “It’s like a magical feeling, sharing something with a room full of people and to have people respond to my performance.”
When she performed at Wilderness festival, Hattie dedicated the set to her mother. Her already soulful style of performing was injected with still more emotion - and we will be witnessing a lot more of that heartfelt talent in the months to come.
“My dream is to keep sharing my music with audiences and travel the world doing so."