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King Hannah is two people, not one, but while speaking with Hannah Merrick and Craig Whittle, that line does begin to blur. When I do so, Merrick is on a family vacation in Portugal, and her corner of the Zoom is bathed in an orange, golden-hour glow, birds chirping in the background of a balcony overlooking treetops and the North Atlantic; meanwhile, Whittle is back in their Liverpool flat, knife block over one shoulder, guitar headstock over the other. Even 1,500 miles apart, they might as well be in the same room the way they speak, finishing each other’s sentences and anticipating each other’s answers to my questions about the road to I’m Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me, their debut album, released today (Feb. 25) on City Slang. This is King Hannah, I realize, and any attempt to take a headcount misses the point.
Long before it was the name of their band, “King Hannah” was just an idea in Merrick’s head. The Welsh-born vocalist and guitarist dreamed of singing in a band from an early age—she recalls thinking, “Well, that’s what I want to do. So I’m going to make it work. I’m going to find out what it is I need to do, work backwards and just make it happen.” Whittle, meanwhile, picked up a guitar as a teenager, learning Jackson Browne songs from his older brother and beginning to play in bands soon after. The pair’s fateful first meeting was no meeting at all: Rather, Whittle saw Merrick perform at a university band showcase in Liverpool, where he’d gone to see a friend play, and was stunned by her voice. Two years would pass before the King Hannah planets finally aligned: Whittle got a job waiting tables at the pub where Merrick worked, and she was assigned to teach him to lay silverware and bus tables. “I used to be a singer by day / And bar-tend by night, a big, big, big time,” Merrick recalls in the opening moments of their album.
The duo’s formation in 2017 was less like a lock clicking open, though, and more like a seed being planted. Though Whittle “immediately pestered [Merrick] to play music with him,” per press materials, the pair were nervous to perform in front of each other, which required them to take their time. Merrick says of their creative partnership’s beginnings, “We always say that that moment took us so, so long. We took a really long time getting to know each other, and we always say it was really … “ She searches for the word, which Whittle supplies: “Necessary.” Their friendship was the foundation of their collaboration, he recalls, “and I think that if there is a magic in our music, it hopefully comes from the fact that Hannah and I are so close, and very open and honest with each other. And that’s how we try to make music together, isn’t it?” It is, she agrees.
Honesty is one of King Hannah’s defining qualities, but it was something they had to develop as ambitious young songwriters, as well as friends. They recorded a lot after their initial formation, but shelved almost all of their early material—“Maybe the songs just didn’t come from a very real place,” Whittle offers in retrospect, while Merrick concludes, “We knew we could do better, didn’t we?” “Yeah, and we always knew that you never get that moment back again, where you first release something into the world.” That moment finally came in the form of their debut single “Crème Brûlée,” which they released in May 2019, catching the attention of not only their soon-to-be label City Slang, but also Sharon Van Etten, who shared and co-signed the song. It’s easy to hear what Van Etten must have in “Crème Brûlée”: herself, for one, but also the indistinct eeriness and insistent grooves of Portishead, the hushed melody and muted psych-Americana of Mazzy Star, and even the oceanic guitar heroics of The War on Drugs. “I need you / So bad / And I think I like you / Too much / Wanna do something about it?” Merrick murmurs over the song’s synth hum and placid lap steel, addressing crème brûlée itself like the love of her life.
After sealing their deal with City Slang, King Hannah started work on their debut record, the six-track, half-hour EP Tell Me Your Mind and I’ll Tell You Mine. “How long can we go on for?” Merrick wonders on atmospheric opener “And Then out of Nowhere, It Rained.,” one eye on the future even as she’s making introductions. On the EP’s second single “Meal Deal,” the duo draw their fine stylistic line between darkness and light: Merrick sings about touring a house and befriending the spider who lives there (“Hey Mr. Spider / You’re not looking too well / Why don’t you go get / Yourself a lovely meal deal?”), her vocals smoky over Whittle’s bluesy slide guitar until the duo’s whimsical charms fall away, the song spiraling out into epic guitar-rock. They reference Mindhunter on “Bill Tench” and Uncut Gems on “The Sea Has Stretch Marks,” evoking one immersive art form through another. And all the while, they’re getting closer to the sound they want—finding the identity for which they refuse to apologize on I’m Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me.
There are a few different ways of understanding that identity. King Hannah humor me when I ask who they’d chisel into the Mount Rushmore of their influences, down to Whittle thoughtfully first confirming how many heads the landmark has. The duo answer jointly, considering Sun Kil Moon before tossing anything involving Mark Kozelek aside, and landing on Neil Young, PJ Harvey, Mazzy Star and Portishead. Merrick attributes her growth as a songwriter—as seen on deeply personal I’m Not Sorry track “All Being Fine,” for instance—to the influence of artists like Harvey and Bill Callahan, who “don’t care and just do what they want. I think that’s the best way of writing.” There’s a truth-will-set-you-freedom to King Hannah’s instrumentation and lyrics alike: Whittle says they make a point to “record sounds exactly as we hear them in the room,” likening “the honesty in the music” to “an instinct.” And their love of film guides us to another way of understanding them: If Merrick is the screenwriter, then Whittle is the production designer, crafting the mise-en-scene in which their stories are embedded.
Though King Hannah arrived fully formed on Tell Me Your Mind, that’s not to say they didn’t have anything to learn from that first outing. “I feel like with the EP, we tried to layer too many things into it,” Whittle would later observe, and in that respect, the band’s approach to their full-length debut was “in part a reaction to that, wasn’t it? Because we knew what we liked about that EP and what we didn’t like.” I’m Not Sorry, then, is an act of addition by subtraction, with the duo creating more space for their songs to breathe, both within and without them. It belies a deceptive degree of confidence and vision that on their debut album, King Hannah are already doing more with less, staying true to their sound while fine-tuning its designs. It’s a trajectory on which we can expect them to continue: “I think our stuff will go even a bit more real-sounding, and a bit more demo-y sounding,” says Merrick. “And I also think, from an actual song point of view, they’ll go a bit more experimental and a bit more … whatever we want to do with them.” Whittle pinpoints Slint and Phil Elverum as sonic touchstones: “We’re always going to go smaller, aren’t we? Rather than trying to have a polished sound. We’re always going to retreat into ourselves, and make the songs sound bigger by making them smaller.”
These efforts are quick to manifest on I’m Not Sorry: “A Well-Made Woman” begins with a lone acoustic guitar, then twitchy percussion, its stylishly sparse art-rock coalescing around Merrick’s velvet vocal: “I am a woman / A well-made one,” she asserts before revealing just as matter-of-factly, “I wanna be a mother one day / Something tells me, in a big, big, big way / Oh, that I’ll be waiting a long / a long, long, long time.” The song’s neo-noir electric guitars ebb and flow, but even when Whittle takes a buzzy solo, he never throws off its swaying groove. Ambient interlude “So Much Water So Close to Drone” feeds directly into the quiet intensity of “All Being Fine,” with a dispassionate Merrick recalling her childhood struggles with bedwetting over thrumming low end, and guitars and synths that yawn like the pitch-black mouths of caverns.
I’m Not Sorry continues to twist and turn in this way, never settling into a single posture for long, at turns unnerving (the theremin-accented “Foolius Caesar”) and charming (the acoustic-to-electric jam “Go-Kart Kid [HELL NO!]”), but the duo’s light hearts always beat through the moody clouds they conjure. Merrick displays a cutting wit on “Big Big Baby,” singing over an acidic two-step, “I heard you got a lady pregnant / Well, I can only wish her well / ‘Cause soon you’ll have a bigger baby / in the family than yourself.” Americana and post-rock collide on sprawling centerpiece “The Moods That I Get in,” while delicate, meditative electronics make their presence felt on interlude “Death of the House Phone” and penultimate cut “Berenson.” Merrick and Whittle trade drowsy verses on the title track, couching their insistence on remaining true to themselves in pleasantly hushed folk-pop. Merrick’s vocals are the core of it all, the jewel in King Hannah’s crown.
None of this would be possible without the duo’s creative bond, central to which is their belief in each other. “There’s no one else in the world I would put a song that I’d started in [their] hands and trust,” says Merrick. “Craig will trust any song that I start to write, and know that it could turn into something that we both love. And when I write a piece, I’ll give it to Craig knowing that he’s just gonna add the most incredible guitar part. There’s no doubt in my mind it’s not gonna be amazing.” As Whittle puts it, “We’re each other’s number one fan.” It’s that mutual support and admiration that enable the band to be themselves on I’m Not Sorry. Merrick writes her lyrics in the mornings, when she has “the most energy and the most enthusiasm,” and when her mind is at its most unguarded—another pursuit of truth.
What comes to the surface on I’m Not Sorry is a twist on “the more things change, the more they stay the same”: that the same is true of human beings. In many ways, it’s a coming-of-age album, but with a keen awareness of what’s lost in the bargain. King Hannah long for youth, recalling “little snapshots of quite vivid memories,” as Whittle puts it, on “Go-Kart Kid” and “Ants Crawling on an Apple Stork”—on the latter track, the band’s first written and sung entirely by Whittle, he muses, “What a time to waste our time / That’s what youth was,” through a mist of soft acoustic chords and synth. Even the instrumental “Death of the House Phone” has a millennial nostalgia to its title. But at the same time, the pains of the past still ache in them, as on Merrick’s “All Being Fine,” or “Ants Crawling,” where Whittle recalls the sting of “my feelings getting hurt.” They speak to the necessity of change (“Stop acting like a baby,” Merrick commands on “Foolius Caesar”), but ultimately accept their identity, finishing the album on a triumph that sounds like a surrender: “I’m all I’m ever gonna be,” Merrick and Whittle chant together at the climax of closer “It’s Me and You, Kid,” their tribute to each other.
If any one song on I’m Not Sorry shows King Hannah are built to last, it’s that one. “It’s Me and You, Kid” captures their entire journey in microcosm, from its humble beginnings—“And I thank God the day we met in the gross bar / We’re doing it so that we can live our whole lives / Just doing this,” Merrick sings over Whittle’s lone guitar—to its climactic uplift of self-love. “We always knew that it was gonna be the last song on the album, didn’t we?” Whittle recalls. “We wanted it to be a celebration of us, basically.” They’re preparing to share that celebration with the world, touring the E.U., U.K. and U.S. in support of I’m Not Sorry, and bending their “quite malleable” set of songs into new shapes along the way. “Writing has begun” on their next record, Merrick says, joking, “Before we forget how to do it,” and the pair hope to find lyrical inspiration on the road: “Maybe the reason we both [wrote about] our childhood so much is because we haven’t done anything for the last two-and-a-half years,” Whittle says. “I’m not gonna write a song about, like, watching Parks and Recreation, are we?” Merrick points out, “You never know.”
I’m Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me is out now via City Slang. Listen/buy here.
Scott Russell is Paste’s music editor and he’ll come up with something clever later. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.