Hannah Kessler: “Music is an incredibly therapeutic thing”

Lily Begg discusses subverting the male gaze, empowerment and juggling Oxford life with up and coming musician Hannah Kessler

Hannah Kessler performing at The Bullingdon.

Hannah Kessler, an Arc-and-Anth student from St Hugh’s, is one of the most formidable up and coming musicians at Oxford. Having just released a new music video for her fierce single, My Love is Not a Currency, and with an album release on the horizon, I wanted to chat with Hannah about how things were going.

Famous for her jaw-droppingly risqué cabaret performances, she’s an artist who’s difficult to ignore, and I can’t help but love her unapologetic attitude. When she answers my Skype call one summer’s morning, she’s reclining delicately in her room having just returned from an all-nighter. Apart from a slightly croaky voice, Hannah is on sparkling form as ever and I start asking away, aware that she’s secretly dying to pass out on her bed.

I take her back to the beginning: where her music-writing days began. Like most of us, Hannah came across music-editing software from an early age and started messing about with tracks: chopping, changing and creating loops.  Unlike most of us, she became a lyric-writing factory and learned how to play the guitar beautifully. By thirteen she was doing her own gigs around London.

Since then, she’s come a long way and performs both as a single artist and as the lead singer for her London-based band, The Quim Smashers. They’re a three-piece band and play in a genre which Hannah describes as “punk burlesque”. I blink at her and she then elaborates: “We sing in revealing clothing which is oddly subversive. For example, Stella, the bassist, has a pair on knickers which she sowed a load of fake pubes and wears them on stage. It’s all a bit disgusting, but always challenging the male gaze.”

In her own performances as a single artist, Hannah is well-known for her subversive presence. However, she explains to me that her solo work is less about the anger and the politics, and more about expressing her own feelings, and the words which go around and around inside her head. More than anything singing is cathartic for her, a way to access experiences which have made her fragile: “The more I sing about them, the stronger I become.” On that, I ask her about her single, My Love is Not a Currency. It’s a song which she wrote when she was 17, for which she has recently released a music video, and which I know to be about a particular experience in her life. Unwilling to retell the story in my own words, this is what Hannah says to me:

“When I was 17 I was invited to a test shoot by a mysterious photographer. He spoke to my father first – dad trusted him, and he’s very protective. So I went to meet this man; he picked me up at a tube station and drove me to a private boat docking station where we got on his boat. The first thing he said to me was: ‘take your clothes off’. It felt like I was in a movie because you hear all these stories about girls being taken off to secluded locations and told to strip, but it’s not the sort of thing that happens to you. But it didn’t seem weird at that point: he said ‘I need to measure you, just take your clothes off’.

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“So I took my clothes off and he measured me, but he was sort of pulling at my arms, claiming he was looking for self-harm scars. It was all very man-handly, and it just got worse and worse. I went into this weird dissociative state and I didn’t know what was happening. He was making me do these really suggestive poses and wearing really revealing clothing. He told me I would be nothing if I didn’t embrace my sexuality, and that ugly feminists only campaigned against this sort of stuff because they’re not beautiful. And then the icing on the cake was when I was locked in his car on our way back to the station, he told me that if I wanted to work with him, I’d have to have sex with him.

“This man was about 50 years old or something, by the way. When I asked what would happen if I didn’t want to sleep with him, he just said ‘Well, I’m only human, and I’ll find someone else to work with.’ And I was like ‘Well I don’t really want to be a model that badly’. And so I ran away. But it was a scary situation as I was locked in his car, and I felt very vulnerable.

“The song is basically just a middle finger up at him. The line: ‘Sex it up alright, but I won’t be at your beck and call’ is like, ‘You want me to sex it up? Ok, I’ll sex it up, but you won’t touch me. I’m doing this for myself.’ It’s all about personal empowerment, and nothing to do with you. All this is why I’m interested in subverting the male gaze and being sexy on my own terms. If I want to have hairy armpits and wear stupid shoes, that’s what’s sexy for me. It’s not a man’s job to tell me what I shouldn’t wear.”

Hannah’s encounter is unfortunately one which is not unique – talented and dedicated teenagers who are thrown into competitive industries experience this sort of thing very often. I ask Hannah whether she believes that this song has the power to speak to others who have undergone similar experiences, and can inspire them to “put a middle finger up” at those who have harassed them. She considers this for a moment.

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“It can, but it doesn’t have to. Perhaps it’s a little bit selfish, but it’s a song I had to write. In the weeks that followed, I was in a turmoil inside. I didn’t really know what had happened. I was confused and blamed myself a lot. And I just had to write that song. I think it’s got quite a catchy hook and so I think at minimum people listening to it will enjoy the sassiness and then if there are people who have been through similar things, they might find it refreshing to be like ‘fuck you’ rather than to be submissive. It might empower people a bit and make them feel more like they have the right to say what they do with their bodies.”

Those who know Hannah will be aware via her frequent Facebook profile picture updates that she’s involved elsewhere on the University scene; it seems as if every week she’s either acting in a new play, directing one, modelling, or making films. It must be that all of these activities complement one another, or act as different ways of expressing the same thing?

“Not really. Acting is just completely immersive for me. My actual Hannah brain is completely empty, and it’s great. I love the creative control of directing, and collaborating with people. It’s very exciting. But music is the one I want the most.”

Fair enough. So, between juggling her degree, her acting, her social life and her sleep, has Hannah had a chance to think about what the future looks like for her music? You bet. Up next is a new album release entitled Not your little girl – a series of songs which focus on toxic relationships, and the empowerment of not letting anyone else make you feel “shitty” about yourself. She’s still working on it though, so stay tuned. As the yawns become more frequent and her ability to hold her phone in front of her face diminished, I steer the call to its close, and ask whether she has any parting words.

“Music is an incredibly therapeutic thing and I highly recommend it. Any young woman who’s feeling pissed off and pent-up, find a guitar somewhere and screech your fucking lungs out.”