Hannah and Sophia Johnson are sisters from Birmingham, who front the band The Toy Hearts. Together with their father Stewart, they play their own blend of bluegrass and western swing. I spoke to the sisters backstage before a recent show….
So it’s the Glee Club in Birmingham tonight. A bit like playing on your home ground again?
We’re very excited about this show, and that we have the album to launch here in our hometown. We first played this venue about 3 years ago, when we opened for Imelda May, and I remember thinking wouldn’t it be great to headline our own show here. So we’re really proud and excited about tonight.
Given the large number of music festivals over the summer months in the UK, are you now coming up to your busy period of live gigs, or is it year round?
Things are really kicking off for the next couple of months with this tour to launch the new album, and dates are filling up over the summer. We just get out there as much as we can really. We usually have a busy summer, but we do tour all year round. We love to perform, so we are happy to be on the road as much as possible. There aren’t quite as many festivals as last year, due to the Olympics
You seem to be doing a big variety of events, from small venues like this, to huge things such as the Cambridge Folk Festival
We are at a weird point in our career where we are outgrowing a lot of the places where we have been playing, and stepping up into the bigger ones. It is a bit odd playing a 500 capacity arts centre one night, and a 50 capacity pub the next. Our music is at its best when played in a smaller, packed room, and we are not fans of huge stages. We like it when we can stand close together, though it would be stupid to say we don’t like bigger gigs, as that’s obviously where we are hoping to be.
I see from your website that you have landed the support slot for Robert Plant’s concert in May
That came completely out of the blue, only last week, and we are really looking forward to it, if a bit overwhelmed. He’s launching his new band, the Sensational Shape Shifters, which will be very eclectic, lots of world music and also stuff influenced by Appalachian music, and things from Louisiana, so our music should fit well with that as an opening act. Either way, we are just chuffed to bits.
Your 4th album Whiskey is due out very shortly. The first one came out in 2006, how long had you been together at that point ?
We started in 2000, it was just a fun thing to start with. We didn’t really write, and we were just learning to play bluegrass as a band. We had a weekly residency at the Ceol Castle, and we played the Roadhouse quite a lot, but when we started writing, that’s when it changed from being a fun jam band into something more serious, and to something with a bit more longevity.
Your last album was all done in Nashville, whereas the new one was recorded at home, but mixed over there. Why the change ?
When we did that album in Nashville, we quickly realised that the unique skill that they really have to offer is in the mixing and the post production. We saw how they miked up the band over there, and it was almost identical to how we did it at home. Recording it here frees us up from all the logistical hassles of getting over there, recruiting support musicians and booking studio time etc. We could just focus on doing the best performances possible, and then send the audio to Nashville, for Ben to do his magic with, and we are absolutely thrilled with the result.
The new album features 6 original songs and 6 covers. That’s a big change for you as the first 3 albums were all self composed.
This is our 4th album now, and perhaps we felt the pressure was off for us to prove ourselves as songwriters, so we chose some of our favourite songs to play on this one. They aren’t particularly well known songs that we’ve covered, just ones that we absolutely love. We haven’t changed them radically from the original versions, we’ve tried to keep the same feel to the songs, though we may have upped some of the tempos slightly.
It’s quite well documented how you two got into bluegrass by listening to your dad’s records, but how did he discover this very American style of music?
His father was in the RAF and was stationed in Germany in the early 60’s, where everyone listened to the American Forces Network radio station. This was around the time that the Beatles were playing in Hamburg, and our dad got together with his brother and formed a band playing American roots music. The stuff they played was much more left field than most, as dad really loved things like delta blues (he’s got a huge pile of delta blues records)and of course bluegrass.
Between the 3 of you, you seem to do just about everything, as regards running the band. How does that pan out when you’re not touring?
During the day, dad tends to handle the logistics side of the band, and we are on our laptops looking after the social media and promotional side of things. We tend to rehearse in the evening. If we need to structure some time for writing, we head out to our mum’s house out in the country, to get away from other distractions. In fact several of the songs on the new album were written there, on one of those trips.
Any thoughts of moving to America?
We’d love that. Find us some nice Americans to marry and we’d be there in a shot. It is really hard to get over there, but we’d love to move to Austin, Texas. That’s got to be a goal, somewhere in the distance.
I then asked a rather convoluted ‘not trying to insult you’ type question about reality TV shows as a shortcut to fame, but as neither they nor me watch this type of show, or have any interest in them, it rather fizzled out. Some ideas look better on paper.
For more info on the band, or to buy their new album, go to thetoyhearts.com
Interview – Alan Carruthers