Alex Hahn: “When I hear the blues, it just sounds like home”

When Alex Hahn relocated from Syndey to Melbourne last year, she brought her baggage with her – a suitcase full of blues (ed.note: I know that as a writer I should keep away from such cliches, but this is my website, and I’ve been waiting for 20 years to use this metaphor). The “suitcase” of course, in this scenario, is an album and the “blues” in question are not just any kind of blues, but the songbook most associated with the late, great Etta James, the woman who probably defined what we perceive as female blues singing. So yes, to say that Alex Hahn is fearless to compete with such a towering presence in her first foray into the blues, would be an understatement. She is more than that: a fearless performer, with a commanding, soulful voice, who loves singing the blues and telling stories. She’s also a skilled writer, which helped her break this website’s record for quickly answering these questions.

How has your journey in music been so far?

I guess it’s been a whole lot of ups and downs, much like any journey. I recorded ‘The Wallflower’ in 2013 and it really went from strength to strength; we got shortlisted for Australian Music Awards, and Unsigned Only, got nominated for some creative NSW award, then I got to take the show all over the world! I was invited to the USA, UK and Europe to perform it and I did just that! It was an amazing experience but also extremely intense, so when I came back to Australia in late 2015 – early 2016, I took a bit of a hiatus from music to recover, but I slowly realised that I just can’t keep away from it, so I’m back with the show and am so excited to be performing it for the first time ever in Melbourne!

Why did you do an album of Etta James songs?

Etta James to me has always been somewhat of an idol. I remember hearing that gritty growling voice for the first time ever when I was 14 years old and I was hooked. She had such a raw and powerful voice and I’ve always preferred voices that had a bit of character to them. Give me rough and gravely any day of the week over a clean choir-type of voice. There’s something about her sound that just spoke to me, so I could think of nothing better than to pay homage to her through an album.

What did you learn about yourself in the process?

That I’m very lucky to call some of this country’s finest jazz and blues musos friends; the guys who played on that album are just such lovely wonderful people. I feel very lucky to have been able to share the stage and the studio with them.

What would you do different if you were to record it now?

I wouldn’t change much to be honest, maybe release the album on vinyl as well! That’s about it!

Why the Blues?

I don’t really know why the Blues speaks to me the way it does. I think it’s the rawness of the emotion that gets me. The pain, the heartache, the unpolished nature of it. When I hear it, it just sounds like home. I can’t really explain it.

Who are your heroes?

Well, Etta James is a big hero of mine, I’m sure that goes without saying. Other heroes include Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Mae West.

When did you realise the power of your voice?

Actually it took me ages to realise that I could even sing. I used to sing along to CDs as an early teenager, and I’d have the music up so loud that I wouldn’t really be able to hear myself singing, until one day I turned the music down and kept on singing and realised: “oh shit, that’s actually me singing!” One could argue I was slow as a child! But honestly, I’m very self critical so I still get super awkward whenever anyone tells me anything positive about my voice. I just say thanks and get this stupid awkward look on my face and then run away.

What do you get out of singing?

For me singing is catharsis. If I go too long without it, I get unbelievably depressed. I can’t survive without it. That sounds overly dramatic, but it’s the truth. When I’m on stage I feel everything and anything, it depends on what I’m singing. I really believe a vocalist’s one and only job is to be a great storyteller, that’s more important than hitting the right notes, more important than being able to read or write music. So when I’m on stage, I’m just 100% immersed in the song, it’s completely mindful and frankly, that feeling when you’ve done a great show – it’s completely addictive.

What is your greatest aspiration?

A few years ago I would have said it would be to be the best singer/songwriter in the world and to earn the respect of the most accomplished musicians out there, but now my greatest aspiration is to try and make the world a little bit more just, a little bit fairer, a little kinder. To recognise my privilege and use that to stand up and defend those who are most vulnerable. I think that’s what my greatest aspiration is.

Why did you move from Sydney to Melbourne?

At the risk of sounding like an utter cliche, I moved to get a better culture hit. The music, the arts scene, the vibe here is incredible. Melbourne has not disappointed, that’s for sure!

Alex Hahn and the Blue Riders

What would you say to make people come to your show?

People should expect to see some great musos jamming out to some of the best Etta James tunes out there! I’m so excited about the line-up for this show; you’re going to see some of Melbourne’s best musos on stage giving it their all! There’s something for everyone in this show, whether you like blues, funk, soul or jazz it’s all in there. But these aren’t just carbon copies of Etta tunes we’ve re-worked, reimagined and revitalised them to give them the unique Blue Riders touch.

If you could ask anyone to join you onstage, who would that be?

Other than Etta, I’d say it would have to be Ani Difranco. I’ve seen her perform so many times and she is absolutely electric and mesmerizing.

Which song best describes your current state of mind?

Feeling Good (but the Gregory Porter acapella version)

Alex Hahn and the Blue Riders will perform their Etta James tribute at the Paris Cat Jazz Club on Friday 23 March