New To Us – Hannah Cohen

A letdown is worth a few songs. A heartbreak is worth a few albums.
Taylor Swift

Yeah we’re quoting Taylor Swift, so what?

“Heartbreak meet music, music meet heartbreak” someone must have said around about the time they first invented songs, and the pair have skipped merrily hand in hand ever since, with far more success and durability than most relationships could even hope to have!

Ever since Tommy Durden andd Mae Boren Axton sat down and penned a song about the suicide of a lonely man who jumped from a Hotel Window and handed it to one Elvis Aaron Presley, music has been thoroughly lodged in the Heartbreak Hotel. You only need to look at how many people wanted to hear Adele emoting her way through the thoroughly depressing, relationship breakdown anthems of 21 to know just how entwined the two are.

It’s quite possible that everyone who’s ever written a song has written a song about heartbreak. Bob Dylan might be better known for his musings on politics and race relations, but when he penned the lyrics to Don’t Think Twice Alright back in the early 1960’s he only had heartbreak on his mind:

I ain’t a-saying you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right.

In the 1970’s the greatest crotchety old-crooner of them all, Tom Waits, wrote Had Me A Girl; a country ballad not just to one particular girl, but to all the girls he ever loved. The girls who had let him down and left him singing “my doctor says I’ll be alright, but I’m feelin’ blue.” Whilst not all the relationships ended romantically, for instance the girl in Chula Vista when he was in love with her sister,  and the girl in France who just wanted to get in his pants, elsewhere there was some real sadness for the girl in San Diego who one day just had to go and the girl in New Carolina who’s still on his mind.

Etta James would rather go blind than see her man with another woman, Ian Curtis was just torn apart by it and even Nick Cave was left “suspended in a deep and fishless sea” when PJ Harvey his “brave-hearted lover”,  “at the first taste of trouble went running back to mother, so far from me.” Bless him!

If it’s evidence of heartbreak still being at the forefront of music in the here and now you’re after, look no further than the big hitters of last year, on Eyes To The Wind, from the just plain sad War On Drugs album Lost In The Dream; Adam Granduciel sang of being “all alone here, living in the darkness”. Sharon Van Etten loved you but she’s lost, that’s when your love wasn’t killing her of course, and our personal favourite Angel Olsen, well she’s just plain heartbreaking… “I want the best for you, so I won’t look your way, maybe the clouds will clear and I’ll be seeing you someday.”



Well Hannah Cohen obviously, and both her debut and her latest album, Pleasure Boy are produced by Thomas Bartlett, aka Doveman. Also involved in the making of the album are drummer Ray Rizzo, bass player Josh Kaufman and Doug Weiselman on horns.

Whilst her debut album, Child Bride, was a largely acoustic folkish offering, Pleasure Boy see’s her explore new sonic avenues. It’s an album largely built around gentle washes of tuneful electronics, a smattering of percussion and layer upon layer upon layer of Hannah’s impressive vocal; a mixture of Jocie Adams of Arc Iris’ tone and Joanna Newsom’s youthful vocal inflexions, whoever you think it sounds like, it’s beautiful to our ears!

Hannah was born in San Francisco, the daughter of jazz drummer Myron Cohen and granddaughter of the Belfast born poet Bertie Rodgers. Hannah left home in her teenage years and relocated to New York where she became immersed in the city’s art and music scenes. Modelling, writing songs, and just generally becoming part of inner workings of the city that never sleeps.

Hannah was born back in 1988, and her debut album emerged after she relocated to New York and began working with Doveman. Her debut album Child Bride arrived on Bella Union in 2012, whilst the follow up Pleasure Boy is set to be released, again on Bella Union, on March 30th.

Sadness arguably never sounded so real, lush or beautiful. The opening track Keepsake sets the tone. Playful vocal melodies and a rich electronic underpin a plea to “tell me her name” as she laments the entire relationship asking “was it just a lie to keep me down.” Whilst on Lilacs over arpeggiated keys there is plenty of bitterness in the repeated line “in your perfume are secrets and lies.”

The star throughout is the quality and flexibility of her vocal performances, which manages to play not just the role of the singer but as an instrument in it’s own right; weaving melodic tapestries, the use of multi-tracked and layered vocals give the album a full feeling that often belies the generally minimal backing she gives the songs.

Watching You Fall has shades of Radiohead’s more recent output as layers of electronics and synths are overlayed over what is at heart a heartbroken ballad. Queen Of Ice add’s a saxophone to the mix, which alongside jazzy drums and hypnotic bass creates the feeling of being stuck in an episode of Twin Peaks, whilst the single, Fake It, has a huge pop chorus which disguises the bruising emotional hit of “a mistake I can’t erase, but I still keep you around.”

Best of all is Baby, an early contender for our favourite track of the year. Building from repetitive strums of an acoustic guitar and a distant swell of electronics, her voice is a just wonderful. Here left free of any clever production, it’s just the beautiful, shimmering qualities of her performance laid bare. It manages to sound at once strong and resilient, but brittle; “I just wanted to love you, I didn’t want all this trouble, I just wanted to be your baby sometimes too.” It’s a maudlin, broken lullaby of a song, a tear jerker that ends an album full of them. It ends with Hannah alone with the gentle stabbing chords of a piano and a distant hum of electronics floating into the distance, it’s stunning.

Why Not?
It’s hard to escape the feeling that her vocal will be the divisive element with Hannah, there’s a love it or hate it quality to her delivery and it will unquestionably grate on some people and with a large amount of the music as a whole being taking up with textures of Hannah, if you can’t get on board with it, you wont get on board with Hannah at all…that’s definitely your loss if you ask us!

Pleasure Boy is out on Bella Union on March 30th. Hannah Cohen plays London’s Corsica Studios on March 26th.

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