Music: Sound of the Sirens
U.K.-based singer-songwriters Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood talk about their journey as Sound of the Sirens
Text + Photos: Saroyan Humphrey
Arts | On this early spring night in Ullapool, Scotland, there’s only one pub still open after 9 p.m., and the place is packed. The Arch Inn is hosting Sound of the Sirens, the folk-rock-pop duo of Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood, singer-songwriters from Exeter, England. The band's soaring harmonies mingle warmly with the Highlands crowd in this small, west coast town. Their folky sound and casual beat are inviting, and then you hear it: the words. The Sirens write introspective songs dotted with well-crafted metaphor.
Dedicated to their music, Abbe and Hannah are on the finishing end of a Scottish tour and making plans for a summer filled playing music festivals across the U.K. as they continue to promote their debut record, “For All Our Sins.”
Their “overnight success” began when they met 10 years ago while tending bar at Timepiece, a “pub club” music venue in their hometown.
“We would sing together randomly after nights out and we would be like, ‘Aw, that sounds all right,’” says Hannah. They formed Sound of the Sirens about five years ago after earning their musical stripes working in a variety of cover bands.
Both in their early 30s, the women have a performing arts background. In the last few years the band has continued to gain a buzz in the U.K. with a TV appearance on a popular music show and a record deal with DMF Music, a small, Exeter-based label featuring folk and alternative artists.
On the final night of their tour, a bit weary from the road, the duo sat down over a pint and a veggie burger to chat about their journey.
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How’s the Scottish tour going?
Abbe: So fun. Scottish people are lovely. Honestly, we’ve met only one grumpy Scottish person this morning. OK, maybe two, within 10 minutes. (laughs)
We’ve been playing small venues and it's been great. These places, like last night, we played The Garage in Glasgow, and tonight it’s Sneaky Pete’s here in Edinburgh; these venues have a good reputation. They’re cool, dingy, dark music venues that every band has played at some time. It’s like a rite of passage, I guess.
Hannah: Tonight, it’s a perfect venue for us because people are listening; they are there to watch music, rather than a pub to talk at.
How would you define your music to someone who hasn’t heard it before?
Hannah: Probably folky-rocky pop. It has the sound of folk with the mandolin…
Abbe: Our songs are based more on the lyrics rather than massive instrumental solos. But that would be great; we might get there with our instrumental solos one day… (laughs). But I think it’s more about the message in the songs that we are focused on. We love words!
How do you create your songs? Do you write together?
Abbe: Each song is different, isn’t it? Sometimes we’ll just be playing around… we’ve tried different things. Even last year, we were like, ‘OK, let’s pick a key and lets pick a subject…’ that didn’t work. (laughs) We came up with something funny and we were like, ‘This is really good, this is really good!’ We are really enjoying this and then the next week we listened to it and said, ‘This is utter shit.’ (laughs) But it did develop into something else. We’re really quite strict.
We meet twice a week to write and rehearse and practice. So, then there are other things like, where one of us might write a poem but not have a tune and then we’ll come up with a tune and go from there. Or, we might read some quote that we’re moved by, or something somebody has said. Or, there might be a whole song written. Like Hannah might write something that we like and say, ‘That’s lovely.’ Let’s just play on that with harmonies. It’s all different, really.
Do you write otherwise, besides songwriting?
Hannah: Yeah, I’ve just got Notepad on the phone and every time you’ve got a little idea… or, if you’re having a really crappy time, it’s good to just write it all out and get it off your chest. You might not use it but it’s cathartic.
Your songs seem very personal; they seem to come from a personal place…
Hannah: Yeah, definitely. We like to talk about our emotions.
Abbe: We just air our dirty laundry in music venues around Europe. (laughs)
Hannah: Yeah, so true.
Abbe: All that’s missing in the songs are the names and addresses… (laughs) Everything else is there.
So, we’re talking non-fiction?
Hannah: Some of them are fiction…
Abbe: One of them, “The Yellow Road,” a friend of ours wrote some poems, just brilliant poems and he sends them to us in the post. He’s a much much older guy, an old family friend and he sent us these poems and one of them was called “Pretty Lies.” It was beautiful and there were a couple of lines in there and we developed it into a song. So, that was completely written from a stimulus and it isn’t about anybody; it’s not personal necessarily.
But I think even when songs are personal, they mean different things to different people for different reasons.
I think it’s the emotion in your songs that really draws people to you.
Hannah: That’s really nice to hear. I think it’s nice as well if you can make somebody feel not alone in life. We do the mental health song [“The Voices”], which talks about the monsters in your head. And we’ve been advocating to get mental health talked about in schools (#itaffectsme website). So, doing that, and we always get people at the end of the night coming up to us and saying, ‘That made us feel really nice,’ or something else. And that's amazing because you know you’ve made someone feel better that day. Or, we get messages that say, ‘You pulled me through a really dark time.’ Even though it doesn’t go any further than that, at least we know we’ve given something back.
How has it been as a band promoting yourselves?
Hannah: Well, it's been tricky. We’ve had points where, like four years ago, before any of the TV or radio stuff happened, we got to a point and nothing was happening and we were like, ‘Oh, what are we going to do?’ So, we got on as a support act for an Irish band who had their own audiences and we were like, 'Yes! We got our buzz back again' and we were like, OK, it can happen, it can happen. We had to keep just not giving up on it. And we got a bit of a following, but it's a really hard industry to make it in as a living. You’ve got to work on the side, unless you get a big break.
Abbe: I do think it’s all about supporting bands. So many acts that I really like, I’ve discovered when they’ve been a support act of another band that I’ve paid to money to go and see. That's been our advice to anyone we’ve taken onboard with us. Just go and support as many bands as you can. Music that you like, get involved.
You seem to have a good following.
Abbe: Yeah, it’s taken time. We’ve both had jobs for years. We would do this every weekend. So, pretty much for the last decade, including the functions band that we sung in, we’ve been singing for like every weekend, haven’t we? We’ve been really dedicated to it. So, we’ve managed to build these careers and get a gig every weekend, and when it reached a point where a nice opportunity came along, we got the chance to do some stuff on television and then the game kind of changed. We got a booking agent and management and we realized we couldn’t work full-time now. But because we were both self-employed with our teaching, it's been easy to kind of cut it back and put more effort into this. So, we’ve been really lucky.
Who have been some of your inspirations over the years?
Hannah: Alanis Morissette.
Abbe: Oh yeah. If we go back to when we were really young, Hannah was a massive Hanson fan and I was really big on The Carpenters. I loved their harmonies, and there was a band called Alisha’s Attic that I loved as a teenager. And then in recent years, people like Mumford & Sons, Laura Marling… um… I’m really loyal to Coldplay. But then there’s other music that I like that’s really nothing like our music… like The Killers. My music taste and Hannah’s is quite diverse, so we’ll listen to all sorts of stuff.
We’ve been driving around Scotland for the last two days listening to Will Varley, and he’s sort of an up and coming singer-songwriter. His lyrics are amazing. Bright Eyes, we’ve been listening to them a lot… and annoying warm-up CDs. Driving around going, ‘Weee weee weee,’ ‘Bruppp bruppp bruppp’ (laughs). Really annoying!
Tell me about the floor tom and tambourine?
Hannah: Well, when we were starting, we listened to the playbacks and we just had this stomp box in the middle and it all sounded a bit same-y. So, my brother built the tambourine box. It’s brilliant because with just two beats you can get so many different rhythms out of it. I think we got the idea off of a band, The Fellows.
Abbe: The floor tom, that would have been upright in a drum kit but it has a conversion kit to make it worthy. We bought the floor tom for like £60 on ebay and I didn’t know what I was buying, I just knew we needed a floor tom and we covered it in glue and decoupaged it with our album cover just to make it look pretty, and there was a gig we did and this drummer said, ‘Is this a Slingerland…?’ So, we were massacred for ruining a nice piece of kit. But it is what it is.
So, what are your aspirations as a band?
Abbe: World domination, ultimately. That's just to start with and then... (laughs)
Hannah: Well, obviously, our main dream is the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury.
Abbe: Oh my god, yeah! But like real-achievable-now goals would be to get our next album on the (BBC Radio) playlist… we’ve had music of ours go to the playlist meetings. That's how it works with the BBC here, and they sort of whittle it down to 20 songs and then from that, they’ll pick four. But if you’re a new artist, it’s so hard because you’re competing with everyone who’s current and the comeback acts, and we’re even competing with the dead nowadays. Even David Bowie will release a track and that will obviously go straight on the playlist. So, it’s really hard for new acts to break through. But we’ve gotten to those meetings twice now and we got whittled down and we had to wait all day for the phone call… (laughs) I don’t know if that’s more achievable than the Glastonbury stage because it’s so hard to get through.
Hannah: But it’s also important to make sure you’re living in the moment, to appreciate what you’re doing right now. Like, right now we get to travel around, get free food, free beer.
Abbe: A free pint of ale; I don’t know what else there is to achieve in life. (laughs)
But honestly, the music industry is so very ageist. That’s been another reason why we’ve found it so hard as we’ve become commercial, as we’ve had some attention put on our music. And it goes, ‘How old are these girls? Oh, they’re in their 30s; they’re not in their 20s… Oh, but this band—they’re very similar—they’re in their 20s.’
Hannah: And they’ve got longer legs ...
Abbe: But it’s not about long legs, it’s about personality. (laughs) But on a serious note, I think it’s really important to not be ashamed of our age because—so what?—we’ve worked very hard and I’m proud of what we’ve done in the last 10 years.
Hannah: And I think as women, it's hard, too, because there’s that thing of ‘When are you going to have kids and fulfill that window?…’ but I don’t want to do that, I want to do this!
Abbe: You can always just get another dog… (laughs).
But yeah, that’s another one of our aspirations: to tour America, play South by Southwest and we’d love to support Mumford & Sons.
Hannah: That’s not too much, is it?