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John Wort Hannam talks change and depression with Josh Forbes

Juno nominated Alberta singer-songwriter John Wort Hannam released his brand new album on Sept. 7.  Josh Forbes spoke to him for Roots Music Canada.

Josh: Can you tell me a little bit about John Wort Hannam? What’s your background? Where did you grow up? How did you come to be in Alberta? 

John:  I was born in Jersey in the Channel Islands, UK and immigrated to Canada when I was eight years old.  My parents left everything they had and everyone they knew and came to Calgary with three kids and $14,000 to start a new life in Canada.  I didn’t know how brave they were back then, but I know now.  I stayed in Calgary until 1992, when I moved to southern Alberta to attend the University of Lethbridge to do a degree in Native American Studies and Education.  I have lived in southern Alberta ever since.

Josh: When did you first start to realize you had a talent for songwriting?

I’ve always loved singing.  I remember reading once that if you want to find out what your passion is, find the thing that makes you lose track of time. For me, that is certainly true of singing. Writing is something that came much later. I admire a lot of lyrically driven, narrative songwriters like Billy Bragg, Guy Clark, Louden Wainwright III, and Fred Eaglesmith. I started dabbling in songwriting by mimicking their styles and eventually found my own.

Josh: I read that you used to be a school teacher? What was the process like transitioning to an award-winning singer and songwriter?

John:  I was a Grade Nine teacher for six years at Kainai High School on the Kainai Nation, a large Blackfoot reserve in southern Alberta. Transitioning from teacher to troubadour wasn’t that hard actually.  Probably because I’ve never really been afraid of failure. I’ve had my fair share of failure in life and probably fallen flat on my face many times. But what are you going to do? Curl up and die?  If something doesn’t work out the way I hoped it would then I just get back up and try something else.  If songwriting hadn’t taken, I probably would have tried carpentry.

Josh: Who were the inspirations you looked up to musically? Who did you listen to as a kid?  

John:  The music that influenced me when I was younger doesn’t really find its way into my music today.  My favorite band of all time is The Clash, and I feel like the album London Calling changed my life a little. As a kid, I listened to a lot of The Specials, Bad Manners, Stiff Little Fingers, and The Jam, but also a lot of Frank Sinatra, Elvis, and The Beatles

Josh: Who inspires you today? 

Today I listen to a lot of Americana music.  Whenever I hear new music, I listen to the lyrics first, so I’m a fan of American writers Hayes Carl, Sam Baker, and Danny Schmidt, but I’m also inspired by many Canadian writers.  Actually, Lethbridge, Alta., where I live, has a great songwriting scene with Dave McCann, Leeroy Stagger, Corb Lund, and Shaela Miller all living within a few blocks of me.

Josh: Let’s get to your newest album now.  What’s the name of your new album and what was the process like recording it?

John: Acres of Elbow Room is the name of the new album. The album title and the title track is about Fort Macleod and, more specifically, my move from Fort Macleod to the “big city” of Lethbridge two years ago. While I enjoy aspects of city living, I often crave the simpler life that small town Fort Macleod offered.  I especially miss the Wilderness Park across what Fort Macleodians call the “green bridge.”  I used to go there a lot with my wife and son. In fact, that’s where the chorus for Acres of Elbow Room comes from.

“Sometimes I need to breathe, I need to move

I need acres of elbow room

Somewhere where my mind can unravel

Out where the dotted lines turn to gravel”

The process on this album was very different.  Previous recordings had me send the players demos of the songs and then record them without properly working on the arrangement.  With this record, the four main players in the band – Jason Valleau on upright bass, Jon May on drums, and Steve Fletcher on keys [and me] – lived, ate, and holed ourselves up in a room for eight days before we entered the studio. In that time we took the songs apart and put them back together multiple times.  We experimented with different tempos, keys, and grooves. It was very much a collaborative effort from all players. It felt more like a band creating music instead of hired musicians simply playing on my songs.

Josh: What was the inspiration behind the new album?

John:  Change.  I didn’t set out to write around this theme but recent years have seen a great deal of change in my life – becoming a dad, turning 50, a move to the big city (Lethbridge), a marital reckoning, a long, deep bout of depression, and episodes of losing my singing voice.  But I’d like to think I have emerged a better songwriter, a better singer, and a better player. On Acres of Elbow Room, I think I have quite literally found my voice. 

Josh: Is there a particular song that stands out for you? A favorite?

John: I love all my children, Ha! But certainly “Ain’t Enough” is one of my favorite songs to sing.

Josh: Your songwriting abilities really tug at the heart of this poet and storyteller. One of my favorites, and I think one of the most powerful songs on the album is “Key of D Minor.” Can you tell me a little bit about how this song came to be?

I went through a deep depression a few years ago, and among other things, it manifested itself in losing my singing voice.  Not completely but enough that performing was difficult, and because I identify strongly as a singer first, it compounded the anxiety and depression.  It was a vicious spiraling circle, and I couldn’t really write during that time. Once I dealt with some personal things, my voice came back, and I started writing songs again. “Key Of D Minor” was one of the first songs that came.

Josh:  Acres of Elbow Room may be one of the most well-written albums I have come across in a long time. “Song for a Young Son,” is a type of song that is needed in today’s world but is seldom ever written. “Old Flame New Regret” is wonderfully fresh, yet it sounds comfortable and familiar at the same time. What is the secret to creating an album where every song is different and unique yet they all come together so well as an album?

John:  The thing I did different with this album is I didn’t over-produce it.  Sparseness is the common element than runs from song to song to song.  I didn’t get carried away and start layering the songs with other instruments that are not in the band or parts we could not reproduce live.  The only thing on each song is guitar, vocals, upright bass, drums, and keys with the exception of “Key Of D Minor,” which has some slight embellishment from Jesse Zubot on violin.  

Josh:  I really want to thank you John. I truly do think this is one of the best-written albums I have heard in years. Every song is solid. I also want to thank you for opening up and speaking about your various struggles and how you’ve been able to use those struggles to inspire some fantastic creativity. Thank you. 

See John Wort Hannam live:

  • Sept. 14 – Fish Creek Concerts, Calgary, AB
  • Sept. 15 – Fernie Chautaqua & Fall Fair, Fernie, BC
  • Sept. 16 – Carstairs Heritage Centre, Carstairs, AB
  • Sept. 21 – Sea-Esta, Canning, NS
  • Sept. 22 – Trailside Cafe, Mount Stewart, PEI
  • Sept. 26 – The Carleton, Halifax, NS
  • Sept. 27 – Corked Wine Bar, Fredericton, NB
  • Sept. 28 – Lansdowne Concert Series, Fredericton, NB
  • Sept. 29 – Dancing Tree Concert Series, Saint John, NB
  • Sept. 30 – StrongWill Barn, Annapolis Royal, NS
  • Oct. 5 – Nancy Appleby Theatre, Athabasca, AB
  • Nov. 3 – Foothills Folk Club, High River, AB
  • Nov. 4 – R’ouse Concerts, Sherwood Park, AB
  • Nov. 15 – Ironwood Stage and Grill, Calgary AB
  • Nov. 30 – Rocky Mountain Folk Club, Calgary, AB
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