The Toy Hearts are a blues-tinged Americana band whose sound is steeped in the soul of the deep south. Drawing on influences from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi Delta, the father and daughter trio have won plaudits across Europe and the US for their raw live performances and innovative take on traditional bluegrass.
Fronted by Hannah (mandolin) and Sophia (guitar) Johnson, and accompanied by their father Stewart on banjo and dobro, the band combine original songwriting and old favourites with lots of back chat and verve. They have just completed their fourth album which will be released this spring, and they will be touring pretty much non-stop from April into the summer.
For M‘s January Blues Week, we caught up with Hannah and Sophia to find out more about their sound…
When did you start making music together?
Hannah: In an official capacity, 2006 was the year we made our first album, however, we are a family and have been playing together for a long time before we formed The Toy Hearts. Our dad Stewart Johnson has always worked as a professional musician and my sister and I were very fortunate in many ways growing up; our interest in singing and music was always encouraged and there was a multitude of musical instruments made accessible in our home for us to play and learn.
What drew you to the blues, jazz, bluegrass and old-time swing sounds?
Sophia: It’s such feel good music! There is a raw passion and integrity of self expression, it’s pure, honest and you can’t fake it – you either have the chops musically or you don’t! I guess for some reason I really identify with these types of roots music, and the emotional consolation they give me is important.
Hannah: I think that all of the listed genres have an audible authenticity that has always appealed to me, especially as a singer. Whether it be the rawness of Bessie Smith to the high lonesome sound of Bill Monroe or the jumpin’ hot energy of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, I guess I just connect with it emotionally and it makes perfect sense. Blues, jazz, bluegrass, country and western swing don’t skirt around the edges, they deliver, straight to the point and for me, make an impressionable and very real impact.
Why do you think there has been a resurgence in popularity for Americana and the blues in the UK?
H: I think there are many people who are perhaps disillusioned and tired of the vast array of over produced music that dominates the charts, mainstream radio and television. With the popularisation and notable increase of annual live music festivals across the UK, people are now able to discover that which lies outside of such mainstreams. Good Americana and blues music deals with the expression of very real emotions that are delivered in an honest, simple language, the accessibility of which, I think audiences understand and enjoy more so, than that which is offered up by the likes of X Factor and Simon Cowell.
S: The Cohen brothers film Oh Brother Where Art Thou did a great job in getting some more specialist forms of music out into the mainstream. Also Alison Krauss making an album with Robert Plant helped to spread awareness about bluegrass music. But I think possibly the most significant thing is that there is a reaction against the kind of manufactured stuff generated by TV talent shows. Many music fans are just not conned by the singing competitions on reality television, they want to go and see a real band, playing real music, on real instruments.
Where do you get your songwriting inspiration?
H: As far as songwriting goes, I write biographically. I would like to explore narrative and try to write more outside of my own personal life, however, it is all work in progress. If I had to choose one particular and constant source of inspiration, I would have to mention the songwriting of Hank Williams, who never ceases to amaze me.
S: I get inspiration from lots of different places, but I mainly write about my own emotional life. Sometimes I just think of a good line or phrase and the rest develops from there, or sometimes I start with a riff or chord sequence. To be honest I still find the writing process difficult to predict, I wish I had more control over it!
What equipment do you use and are there any particular reasons for your choice?
H: I use a Shure Beta87 for my vocals, which I have found is the best mic for my voice live and I play a MF Collings Mandolin through an Audio Technica Midnight Blue, which is a fairly budget dynamic microphone, but again, it works for me personally and the way that I play. I have also just become the proud owner of a beautiful Gibson J-200, which I will hopefully be using on stage for a song or two during our forthcoming UK tour starting in April 2012.
S: I play a 2006 Martin D28CW and Gitane D500 both through a Neumann km187 microphone, the whole world might disagree with me, but I hate pick ups on acoustic guitars, or perhaps more specifically I’m not good at using them! The way The Toy Hearts stage show functions is by all lead instruments being amplified by microphones, not pick ups, this allows us to ‘work’ our mics to control the dynamics. It’s what I am used to doing, and as a band we are happy with it.
You recorded your Femme Fatale record in Nashville. What was that like?
H: It may sound like a cliché, but it really was a dream come true and the chance to fulfil a life-long ambition for myself, my sister and my Dad. Nashville is an experience all by itself and to get the opportunity to cut a record in the ‘home of country’, with a team of ridiculously talented individuals, was needless to say, incredible. I am very proud of Femme Fatale and know that we couldn’t have done it all without our very gifted producer David Mayfield (also producer of our fourth coming album), who really gets The Toy Hearts’ sound, what we are about and what we are trying to accomplish… for that I am forever grateful.
S: Fantastic – I love Nashville. We got to work with some very talented musicians and it was the realization of a dream we have had for a long time. It was a great experience for us to be in a studio with an engineer and producer who knew bluegrass so well. It was also pretty nerve wracking at the time, but we got through.
Where was your first live show and what was it like?
H: That’s a good question and in all honesty, I don’t remember my first live show! However, I do remember some of the first songs I ever got up to sing with my dad, naturally I was very nervous at the time, probably rightly so as I was young and still finding my voice. When we started The Toy Hearts, dad insisted that for us to do it properly, we had to perform a live show at least once a week. So, that was my training from the age of fifteen. With retrospect, I think it was totally the right thing for our band to do, as it helped us all to develop the level experience that we definitely needed before making our first album.
Don’t over think and don’t get hung up about everything being perfect!
Do you have any tips for performing live?
S: Don’t over think and don’t get hung up about everything being perfect. I make mistakes when I start thinking too much!
H: Practice at it, the more shows you do the more confident you will become and I think that helps put audiences at ease. A pet hate of mine are bands that don’t talk to their audience, so I would suggest that. Most importantly, if you are doing what you love, smile… as my mum always says, it doesn’t cost a thing.
What’s next for the band?
S: Rehab – because we just made an album with a whopping four drinking songs! Seriously, we have an album release in April with dates all around the UK through April, May and June, then festivals in the summer and hopefully back to the US in the autumn. But before all that we have 17 shows back to back in Germany, which we are really looking forward to.
H: Other than the continual hope of a hit radio single or that Bob Dylan would like us to open for him on his next world tour, I would say, to keep making music, to stay focussed and positive, to be the best that we can possibly be, to work harder and to enjoy the ride!
What bands/artists are you into at the moment?
H: The Black Keys, JD Mcpherson, The David Mayfield Parade, The SteelDrivers, Dinah Washington and Shannon Whitworth.
S: The Little Willies, The Avett Brothers, The Pistol Annies, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Redd Volkardt, Nerina Pallot, Wayne Hancock and Lana Del Ray.
Harmonica solos – yes or no?
H: Yes… But I guess it’s the same issue with any instrument taking a solo, if the player is any good then its always a yes, and if they’re not, probably best not to indulge them…
S: Is this some kind of debate that I don’t know about? Yes of course! Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee spring to mind straight away. However, there are a lot of people blowing away on a harmonica that should just have it confiscated! It is a proper instrument not a toy, and any old fool cannot just pick up and master it.
For details on their exhaustive touring schedule, visit The Toy Hearts website.