Interview: Toy Hearts

The Toy Hearts are well known faces on the British bluegrass scene and have established a strong reputation and loyal fan base over the past few years. Their second album is due for release soon and they have several festival appearances lined up for the summer including EWOB next month. We spoke to members Hannah and Sophia Johnson about the band and their music.

Hannah Johnson was born and bred in Birmingham. For clarity she explains that’s the one in the Midlands, rather than the one in Alabama. For the lead vocalist for the Toy Hearts, it’s perhaps an explanation that needs telling.

Hannah, together with sister Sophia Johnson are the driving force behind the band. Their debut album, If The Blues Come Calling, is one of astonishing maturity and quality that could easily have hailed directly from the southern Appalachian states.

Aged 22 and 25 respectively, they’re a young pair which forms the core of a family band which has been going now for some 7 years or so. Most of If The Blues Come Calling was written by the two, and blends a good deal of traditional bluegrass with a fair amount of western swing and a touch of blues.

Completing the line-up are dad Stewart on banjo and dobro, Howard Gregory on fiddle, and cousin Lauren Rogers on bass.

Stewart’s musical career spans five decades as a dobro, banjo and steel guitar player in a plethora of bands, theatre, musicals and TV shows, and though obviously proud of her upbringing, Sophia is keen to point out whose band it is. “It was definitely mine and Hannah’s decision to form the band, and dad was obviously thrilled, but people assume he some how brainwashed us into it, which is totally not the case!”

“I have always been around music, and as my dad’s profession is Musician on my birth certificate it follows that there was lots of music in the house when I was growing up. However, dad has totally allowed me to pursue my own musical path, he has always been there to support me, but he has never pushed me toward anything.”

That support has enabled Sophia to become a fine guitarist, and her flatpicking skills receive regular plaudits. Playing since the age of 7, initially classical, then graduating on to electric and doing the school rock band thing, she says “it was really when I started getting into Clarence White that I realised how much I wanted to be able to flatpick, and I wanted to be in a bluegrass band.”

It’s a thorough guitar grounding that encompasses a huge range of styles from flamenco to gypsy jazz, blues, rock and roll, which shows through in the Toy Hearts’ music. Sophia also sings in the band, but is happy to back-up her sister on the vocals.

“Hannah is definitely the lead singer,” says Sophia. “I love to sing harmonies with her and just try to match her voice. Hannah spent a lot more time learning to sing, when I learned to play the guitar. Where as I listen to Tony Rice for inspiration in my guitar work, Hannah will listen to Lefty or Hank for her vocals. I feel I express myself better as a guitarist than a vocalist, playing and writing are enough of a challenge.”

Hannah’s vocals are arguably the distinguishing sound of the band. “I’ve been singing since I was about eight, and I was in a large youth theatre for ten years in which I performed in plays, choirs, and musicals in Birmingham, London and Germany,” she tells us. “But without doubt, what I have always loved to sing from a very young age were songs by the likes of Dolly Parton, The Everley Brothers, The Johnson Mountain Boys, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and Alison Krauss.”

You’ll certainly hear a fair smattering of songs by their like at a Toy Hearts gig, together with Monroe classics like Can’t You Hear Me Calling and standards like Old Home Place and John Henry. The band is clearly built on a fine bluegrass heritage.

With this upbringing, the quality of the writing on If The Blues Come Calling which was released last year shouldn’t come as any surprise. “It was only when we started writing together that we decided to record an album,” Sophia tells us. “we did everything ourselves from writing to recording and producing it. It was a great learning curve for the three of us. The skills we learned through the process of making the album should stand us in good stead for the next CD.”

The second CD, When I Cut Loose, is well on the way. When we spoke to the band recently, they’d just completed the studio phase and it’s planned for release some time the next couple of months. Says Hannah, “We may have eleven tracks again, all of which we have written. On the album there will be lots of fast paced numbers and one of my favourite songs The Angels Sing to Me which my sister and I wrote after we came back from Nashville in 2006.”

2007 was a busy year for the band, with the album, appearing at festivals across UK and Ireland, and supporting Ricky Skaggs in Wolverhampton in August. If The Blues Come Calling gained favourable reviews in both Bluegrass Unlimited, and Maverick Magazine, of which they are justly proud.

Already this year, the Toy Hearts have completed a tour of Texas, including playing at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, and have a number of festival appearances lined up for the coming months, not least as the UK’s sole representatives at EWOB.

“We are all very excited about getting the chance to go to EWOB”, says Hannah. “The band has been performing for seven years and we feel ready now to go and make a good impression, with our own material at its strongest. We hope to be performing in Europe much more in the future as there is a lot of work and a large bluegrass fan base.”