On “4:44”, rap hero Jay-Z used Hannah Williams’s raw, soulful voice to beg his wife Beyoncé for forgiveness for his extramarital adventures. It’s high time we discovered the rest of the repertoire by this colourful singer from Winchester, England.
Hannah Williams was extremely curious on the morning of 30 June 2016, when Jay-Z released his new album 4:44. Until that point, she had had to keep silent about the fact that the American rapper had asked her permission to use the title track of her latest album Late Nights & Heartbreak. It finally happened at 5 o’clock British time. “Via a YouTube link of a listening party in Australia, I got to hear the album along with the rest of the world,” she says. “I was shocked. [Laughs] Samples usually only use a snippet of the original song, and the end result is often distorted and overproduced. But in this case, I heard my voice very clearly. It was authentic and undistorted, and it just continued.”
The fact that her favourite song from the album that she released in 2016 with her regular band The Affirmations (the late Sharon Jones had already been a fan for ages) was now getting global attention, only made her astonishment all the greater. And Jay-Z had used her song as an apology track for Beyoncé. “I had no idea about their marital problems because I don’t read gossip magazines. As a mother, singer, and director of the Winchester University Choir, I have no time for them. But it did explain why Jay-Z wanted to talk about the lyrics when he phoned me. It is about the regret that you feel when you are in a relationship but can’t manage to keep the fire burning all the time. In fact, it was a case of pure serendipity that Jay-Z coincidentally discovered my track. He had asked his producer to look for music by contemporary artists with a penchant for his musical heroes – Otis Redding, Etta James, Bill Withers, etc. – and with lyrics about things he never wrote about, like infidelity.”
There’s a good chance that the song will win the Grammy Award for Song of the Year. “I will be giving my first concerts in Japan during the Grammys”, Williams says. “The attention that we’re getting thanks to the Jay-Z sample is incredible, but it would be really amazing to perform the song together. Fingers crossed!” But on the eve of her European tour, she has no time to rest on her laurels. “We are working tirelessly on new material. The new album will be a wicked mixture of the classic soul, funk rock and psychedelic aspects that we had in our previous records. There’s been absolutely no complacency. People may be thinking: chill out, girl. But now is when things really start.”
The singer who was once described by a colleague as a blend of Nina Simone and Janis Joplin and who started her career in the church choir of her minister/father when she was six years old says that she found her own vocation when she started singing soul. She first started attracting attention with The Tastemakers. On the cusp of an international breakthrough with The Affirmations, she recently put her job with the university choir on hold to chase her dream. “My tagline as a voice coach is that you shouldn’t bother wasting time trying to imitate other people because why would you try to sing like Beyoncé when you can amaze the world with your own voice?”
> Hannah Williams & The Affirmations, 16/1, 20.00, Ancienne Belgique