Interview – Hanorah

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If there’s one thing that I know for sure, it’s that Hanorah is an artist.  She could’ve been born thousands of years ago in ancient Greece or in the 60s in San Francisco, it doesn’t really matter where or when.  She paints, she sings, she plays guitar and she is lovely.

I first discovered her as the opening act for Mavis Staples during Pop Montreal and was immediately intrigued.  After downloading her E.P. “For The Good Guys and The Bad Guys”, I became a fan.

On one of those Montreal October days that starts off dark and drizzling and then clears up with that autumn sunlight that turns everything golden warm, I got to speak with Miss Hanorah.   

So how did you end up getting that Mavis Staples gig? She’s really big.

Yes! Ok, so at the time I was working at Just for Laughs festival which is ironic, but I was sort of in this phase of feeling a little bit stagnant because we had released the E.P. done some regional touring in Quebec and a few shows in Toronto but I always felt that my voice needed a wider audience, especially given the fact that I sing in English and it’s soul music.  I know that while there are pockets of people all over the world who like it, I don’t think that the ultimate crowd for me is in Quebec.  

So I met this guy Evan who works at Pop Montreal through my friend Ada Lea who’s a fantastic musician and you should meet her. And we got to talking about career stuff and he was thinking who could I put you with for Pop Montreal because he really liked my music.  On the very same day, I got a call about my first US tour and about the Jazz Fest.

Wow!

Yeah, on the same day I got a call for all three. So I quit my job a few days later.  (Chuckling)

Opening for Mavis Staples is a pretty big deal.  It’s like something you can tell your grandchildren about.  She’s 80 years old but she insists that her work is not done yet because she is a “messenger.”Have you heard her latest album? It’s great.

Yes I did, it’s awesome!

Do you feel like you are the messenger?

Yeah, I feel like as hokey as this sounds, there is some kind of force or energy or idea moving through you that you need to deliver to other people.   I know that it sounds like a messiah complex but if you have something important to say or something important to do, you do it until you can’t do it anymore.  So it makes total sense to me.

Hanorah was sexually assaulted when she was 18 and has been very vocal and courageous on many platforms regarding this incident.  We discussed many personal issues but I did not want this to be the focus of the interview. I wanted to catch her at a time when she was feeling powerful about her voice and beginning to enjoy her success.  We spoke for almost 2 hours and stuff got real deep real fast. I had a feeling it would. If you listen to her songs you will understand.

Did you always sing?

Very briefly when I was a little kid. It was actually my mom who was in a gospel choir when I was growing up. I would just sit in St. James Cathedral while they rehearsed.  I was just 6 years old and I would sit there with goosebumps.

I read somewhere that you’re happy you did not win La Voix.

Yeah. Some artists, not all,  on shows like that have a really good voice and stage presence and it ends there. And that kind of person can sing another person’s song as if it was their own and wear whatever and do whatever and if they’re game, why not? But for people who write their own material,  that could be a problem because they have their own identity and confidence in who they are, whether that’s in line with what a team or label wants or whether it’s cohesive enough for them, that’s a different story. In my case, I got a lot of exposure and I made a lot of great friends but it was just a stepping stone.

So, because of that, Les Soeurs Boulay (a folk music group from Gaspe) who were guest mentors on La Voix, heard me and really really liked what I was doing.  They showed Eli Bissonnette from Dare To Care Records my duel video and after coming to a few shows and having a few meetings, they finally made an offer. Record labels can be very slow but eventually, we put out an EP.

I really liked the EP “For The Good Guys And The Bad Guys”.  Why only five songs?

So, it was a long way to get there.  I have a lot more songs, obviously but we had spent a lot of our budget on our first producer which didn’t work out.  But I’m honestly really glad because it gives me more time to develop a full album on purpose and not just pick our 10 favorites from the last five years.          

In that sense, your songs are extremely personal.   They are your words and your voice.

Exactly, my story my idea, my heart and my soul.

You don’t have to have the “greatest” voice but if your words resonate, you speak your truth, if you’re believable, you don’t have to have perfect pitch (like Cohen or Dylan.) I love when a voice cracks.

It’s good to have range. On one end there’s artistry and on the other, there’s technical perfection and you want to have a little bit of both.  

Did you ever have any vocal training?

No it’s all trial and error.

We talked a lot about vocal damage which is very common with singers like Adele and Kelly Clarkson who keep pushing themselves too hard.  Hanorah is conscious not to strain her voice and practices breathing technique that she learned from an 80-year-old Italian opera singer.  

So when you were a little girl, what did you wanna be when you grow up?

A musician… (laughing softly) and an artist, a painter and I’m both now. 

Who did you admire or aspire to be like?

Joss Stone.

Wow, I bought her first album… I think I have a CD somewhere still. I can’t remember that hit though. What was it?

(Hanorah begins to sing it and it’s so natural for her but I am mesmerized for a minute by her beautiful voice and I just sit and listen.)

Calling herself a “Joss Stone nerd”, she then goes into detail about Joss’ career.  

We agreed on a lot of our favorite voices such as Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes.   And then Hanorah made me laugh.

Otis Redding, he could sing about his grocery shopping list but he’s going to give it everything he’s got.  You know, because there is a larger purpose in him. That’s kind of what draws me to a vocalist.

 Who do you admire?

That’s a difficult question because due to my career I have a hard time separating admiration from envy.  That’s a common thing for musicians my age cos of Instagram. You only see the good stuff or the successes of people which can make you feel really inadequate if you have an unhealthy relationship with it. So what I’ve done is I’ve curated it to only show me stuff that is good for me.

How do you do that?

You only engage with stuff that you want to see.  So I follow a bunch of musicians but if the stuff that they’re posting is trying to make themselves look bigger than they are or better than other people… it’s difficult to articulate but it is a thing going on and I need to focus on my career and what I’m doing.

Actually, I really admire Brittany Howard, she is probably the one that I admire the most right now. And I really love the Seratones.  I was on tour with them, they’re from Louisiana and they did a gig at Quai des Brumes in September and it was really fun. AJ, the frontwoman has an Afro, a ballerina tutu and an electric guitar.  She’s like the Barbie I always needed when I a little kid. She’s also very political in her content which I really like. But I have a hard time separating a musician from someone I admire for their career versus the art. I find myself pulling away from people within my own genre.          

You do use social media though don’t you?

For me it’s a tool to connect and yes it’s a calling card but it lets fans know what you’re doing and where they can find you next. You’re also a person, you’re not just a brand. For me, because so much of this has to do with healing and overcoming trauma, finding my place in this world as a woman of color. I include all that and all the doubt and all the contradictions. My bad days go there too.  I think it’s a way for me to have a healthier relationship with it and not feel inadequate. Because it’s got nothing to do with reality, it doesn’t affect my talent or my ability to write or how good I am on stage.

Yeah, because you objectify yourself sometimes and I see it with young people, especially girls who think they always have to look picture perfect.

Like La Voix, Instagram or a musical career, you bring who you are and what you stand for to every given situation and demand your surroundings to reflect that. Where you plant your seeds is where you’re going to see growth.  I don’t want to plant my seeds in jealousy or envy, I don’t want to plant them in superficiality and self-doubt, so I put it in what’s important to me.

You seem to have reached a level of consciousness that most people never achieve.  I’m not trying to sound like Oprah but people don’t seem to be truly conscious of their words, their behavior, their image and what they’re projecting.  

Well, I had to, it was part of dealing with the trauma.  I needed to make a change. I needed to change what I could control.  That’s part of it. Looking at yourself honestly. Is my behavior or action coming from the right place or is it just a response to fear? It’s so shocking when you really look at yourself, how much fear can ruin your life if you’re not conscious of it.

You sound super evolved. 

Oh, you see we’re having a moment of clarity right now and I can tell you these things because I’ve been ruminating in them for seven years, but it’s not as easy in practice in day to day life.  It’s not the same if you’re exhausted or underfed or have been on the road for 19 hours. That’s why I remind myself as much as possible to be in the right place.

Do you like touring?

I do love it. It’s awesome.  (Big smile)

You’re doing Venus Fest in Toronto

Yeah, it’s on November 9, if you want to come, come it’s going to be great.

Oh, I can’t go to Toronto right now, but you do have a few more Canadian dates?

Yes,  a few Canadian dates, getting a US visa is complicated.  

  • Nov 07 Cabaret-Théâtre ,St-Jean-sur-richelieu, QC
  • Nov 08 Théâtre du Grand Sault LaSalle, QC
  • Nov 09 The Baby G Toronto, ON
  • Nov 16 National Arts Centre -Ottawa, ON
  • Nov 21 Café Centre d’Art Boucherville, QC

After that, I’m going to Banff, with my guitarist and co-writer Paul (De Rita) to write another album. They have the artist residency center so we’ll be there November 24 till December 11.  They have a bunch of workshops, equipment and studios, so we’re going to go focus. No gigs, no touring. We have an inspirational playlist.

What’s on it?

  • Trouble Sleeping   (Corrine Bailey Rae)
  •      Over You. (Seratones)
  •      I Wish (Stevie Wonder)
  •      The Difficult Kind (Sheryl Crow)
  •      Come Together (Beatles)
  •      Up For The Down Stroke (Parliament)
  •      On And On (Erykah Badu)
  •      Free Me (Otitis Redding)
  •       Balsa Wood Bones (Saint Motel)
  •       Michael Kiwanuka (Love and Hate)
  •       Bill Withers (Use Me)
  •       Respect (Aretha Franklin)
  •       No Rain (Blind Melon)
  •       You Ain’t Alone (Alabama Shakes)
  •       River (Leon Bridges)
  •       (Joss Stone and Lauren Hill)

I thanked her for her time for being so open and honest with me.  I realized that what drew me to her wasn’t simply her voice. Hanorah has that gift that is difficult to articulate.  The ability to simultaneously express vulnerability and strength. There is a power in that gift. Hanorah is a messenger.

Annette Aghazarian 

November 5, 2019

“I’m going to do my best to honour my gift“ 

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