Beyond the Looking Glass
Written By Shank Wilson
It's hard to imagine a local artist being closer to stardom than singer, songwriter, and guitar player, Hannah Wicklund. The 22-year-old powerhouse performer and Hilton Head native has logged an astounding 2600 shows since her first live performance at the age of 8. Her last album, 2018s self-titled "Hannah Wicklund and the Steppin' Stones," currently boasts 89,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and is approaching 3 million streams. The top cities for her listeners are Atlanta, London, Chicago, and Los Angeles, which speaks to her ability to captivate audiences wherever she performs. Fresh off an inspired main-stage performance at Shaky Knees Music Festival in Atlanta, we were able to catch up with Wicklund and delve into the fascinating details of her 14-year musical endeavor.
Despite her youth, it would be wrong to assume that Wicklund stands on the doorstep of national-act-status due to gatekeeper blessings and promotional budgets. Instead, Wicklund has done it by traveling profusely, playing show after show, and winning over uninitiated onlookers nightly. As someone who has wanted to perform live since age 8, it's safe to say that being on a stage suits her. On the flip side, starting a band at eight automatically made her different from the other kids, and we all know what happens to kids that are different.
"I was bullied," she admits. "It was really tough." Making matters worse for the rising 5th grader, "My first drummer, Mark, passed away when I was 9. No one at my school really knew what happened, so I was still being made fun of for having the band. That was the year I skipped my first grade because I felt so alone." From then on, she says she "did a good job of keeping her head down," which kept her away from the typical childhood experiences and relationships. That would not be the last grade she skipped though. "I graduated high school a month after I turned 16, and I've been on the road since." She beams, "I'm so grateful to have had supportive parents.”
With her diminutive frame, a billowing swarm of curly red hair, and lead-actress facial features, she then spent the rest of her teenage years thwarting skeptics and racking up apologies. "That was my favorite thing when I was young. Nobody knew who I was, and we would pull up somewhere and someone would be an asshole to us. I do like that gratification of ‘Oh you're going to be a prick to me?' Tilting her head to the side, "Well, I'm going to make you regret it. And then they do and that's the best!" She laughs at herself, "I've had to find motivation from some less petty places lately."
The desire to be taken seriously is understandable since Wicklund is a woman that has reached the verge of success by winning at what has traditionally been a man's game. Like the legendary power trios fronted by Clapton, Hendrix, and Vaughn, Wicklund masterfully delivers roaring rock ‘n roll dramatics as the only melody instrument in her band. Her voice, a bellowing monstrosity that reminds me of a young Pat Benatar, is certainly enough to captivate, but the coup de grace is the guitar oscillating at thigh level. Admittedly, not yet the virtuoso she one day hopes to be, Wicklund is beyond formidable as a lead guitar player.
Reaching beyond her modesty, I would argue that what Wicklund has is "IT." She has a certain je ne sais quoi, a quality greater than the sum of her parts, that she has developed over the years. I would also argue that this intangible quality is both the blessing that has her on the industry radar, as well as the curse that has them confused about her music. As many signed artists have shared in the past, industry professionals will remain cool on them for years, and then they seem to all come at once. Wicklund appears to be in the middle of a similar experience.
So Wicklund keeps pushing herself forward on her own, and perhaps at times, pushes too hard. "I definitely hit my wall of exhaustion last year," she shrugs. "I thought I had fibromyalgia. I could barely walk. I'd just been going going going for so long." Forced to take some time off for the first time, she did some writing and was able to complete most of the songs she will record as her next album. "With the last album," she notes, "I was going through a breakup. A lot of it wasn't very inward looking. With this next record, it's way more of a personal reflection."
Personal reflection appears to be the overarching theme in Wicklund's life right now. The time off due to exhaustion created the opportunity to focus on developing friendships, something she regrets missing out on growing up. "I realized I don't know how to just hang out," she says laboring to hold back emotion. "I've gotten better at it lately. I feel like I've been able to cultivate some friendships that weren't just based around music. That's been really hard."
She mentions a poignant dream and the interpretation of that dream by her brother, who is also in music, Luke Mitchell of "The High Divers" (new EP out in June). In this dream, she is being chased, and while running as fast as she can, slips and falls to the ground looking upwards. Wicklund explains, "I went from looking up at a gun to holding the gun and looking at my dead body on the ground. So, I killed myself, but it wasn't like I was committing suicide. I told Luke about it, and he said, ‘I think you're making room in your life for the next version of you.'"
The dreams of a new Hannah then turned into reality after the Tropic of Cancer Music Festival in Mexico. Wicklund compared notes with other musicians in a similar position and credits artist, Senora May, for bestowing pivotal counsel regarding following your gut in the music business. "She was a huge influence on me getting the courage up to change my situation. There's been a definite shift since Mexico. Mexico gave me a lot of friends, a new band, and a new perspective. It's kind of had me fall back in love with music."
The new "Hannah Wicklund & The Steppin Stones" have enough love for two continents as they kick off a 5-month long American and European tour at The Royal American in Charleston on Wednesday, May 22nd. Wicklund also expects the video for her favorite song off the last album, "Shadow Boxes and Porcelain Faces," to be released soon. Of the song, she says, "It's a ballad that is my take on social media, but I like that it can be taken and applied to many different things."
Using obstacles as motivation, Hannah continues to chase the dream of her eight-year-old self. I can't promise you she's going to break the glass ceiling, but I can promise you that she is already a star. As evidenced by Shaky Knees reaching out to her, she will never need a major label contract to be a career musician. As evidenced by her Shaky Knees performance, anyone still willing to doubt her should go ahead and get their apology ready first.
Below is the teaser for her new music video, “Shadowboxes”