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In 2018, unless an artist has a Drake-like grip on the charts, it’s tough to directly gauge success. Seven-digit streams don’t always translate to actual fans at shows. One act might draw the attention of every tastemaker going, while still failing to sell more than a handful of physical records.
In the case of London duo HONNE – Andy Clutterbuck and James Hatcher – their time in the spotlight has been disorientating. Success has paved every step, but tracking where it comes from has proved a tough task. One week they’re selling out a 3,000 capacity show in their hometown, the next they’re headliners at a festival in South Korea, playing to 20,000 people, and shortly after they’re jet-setting to LA to collaborate with other artists. In this age when anyone can access music from virtually anywhere, HONNE’s 2016 debut LP ‘Warm on a Cold Night’ has been embraced by different corners of the globe (the album went triple-platinum in South Korea), a swarm of fans all equally obsessed with the pair’s skill in writing relatable, emotion-fuelled, romantic pop.
For their next move, instead of getting caught up in different audiences, vast territories and the demands of a world-spanning fanbase, they focused on themselves. Placing a microscope to their own lives – the jet-setting highs and lows of being in a band, the relationships they tried to hold up back home – they emerged with a touching, personal second album with its own universal appeal.
‘Love Me / Love Me Not’ - HONNE's new album coming out on August 24th 2018 - captures the duality of life’s ups and downs, and the balancing act of navigating between two states at once. Whether it’s the honeymoon period high of a relationship, the frustration of a long-distance separation, the fear of losing someone close, Andy’s lyrics dial in at the reality of most people’s lives. The record acknowledges that for every peak, a challenge is round the corner; and equally, that whenever life throws everything at once, better times are ahead.
Take ‘Day 1 ’ and ‘Sometimes ’, the first two tracks unveiled from the record. The former is a sunny-side-up ode to an everlasting love (“You’ll always be my day one, day zero when I was no-one”), complete with gospel choir and candy-coated synths. ‘Sometimes ’, meanwhile, sits at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. It was penned when Andy heard news of a London terror attack and couldn’t get hold of his girlfriend. The news turned out to be false, but the frontman spent hours dwelling on what might have happened. “It’s the same with everyone, but your mind just starts to think the worst in a situation like that,” he explains. Via a Kanye-like vocoder that conveys despair through digital strain, he dwells on mistakes he might have made, wondering out loud if he might ever see his girl again. It’s a touching reminder that we need to keep the ones we love close.
Debut ‘Warm on a Cold Night’ found itself under the covers and in a loved-up, blissed out state. ‘Love Me / Love Me Not’ instead looks outwards and considers the bigger picture. It also finds HONNE coming on leaps and bounds, both as producers and lyricists. Swapping a bedroom production aesthetic for a richer, more textured style, they also explore more beat-driven territory, nodding towards hip-hop royalty like Dr. Dre, DJ. Dahi, Pharrell and BadBadNotGood.
Andy’s lyrics can be earnest, funny and self-mocking in the space of the same verse. Not least on ‘306’, a tribute to James’ knackered Peugeot car, which he still drives today. The song jokes about the false mirage of fame (“One record down and I’m riding in this piece of shit”), and the days the pair spent as fearless twenty-somethings, driving round east London while blasting Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Money Trees’ with the windows down. “Every time I listen to it, I get nostalgic memories of growing up,” Andy says, reflecting on the track.
Sticking to their London flat-turned-studio, HONNE worked with some of pop’s most diverse, exciting talents on ‘Love Me / Love Me Not’. North London drummer/vocalist Georgia stars on the jet-lagged ‘Location Unknown’; Norwegian singer Anna of the North gets caught up in the fidgety dayglow of ‘Feels So Good’; Jazz-pop prodigy Tom Misch and pianist Reuben James also make timely appearances. For some acts, collaboration is often a box-ticking exercise to cram big names into songs for the sake of it, but HONNE have a different motive, where they’ll only work with an artist who can provide something new. They scout out new music, track the artists down and promptly slide into their DMs. “These people have a lot to offer, a fresh perspective that maybe you wouldn’t otherwise see,” states James. “It’s a shame to limit yourself purely for pride, to limit it to just us two in a room.”
In-between records, the pair would spend hours on flights, dreaming up their next steps. “We’d spent so long touring and listening to other music, we just had loads of inspiration bottled up,” James remembers. They drew up notes on their phones, recorded voice memos on the go, and by 2016’s debut release, they were raring to go on new material. Before hitting record, they seemed to have a clear idea on what they wanted to achieve: a lusciously-produced follow-up with an emotional depth that went beyond their first work. Andy also saw the band’s early ideals coming further into focus. He cites the band’s name (“Honne” meaning your true feelings, those you keep to yourself) and the name of their early record label (“Tatemae”, which reflects the other side: what you say and what you display in public). In time, this dichotomy between an online persona and actual reality has become starker.
“Those two sides have been rooted in us from the beginning. Perhaps we didn’t explore it completely on the first album, but it’s been bubbling away,” Andy says. “Finally with this next album, we demonstrated it.” Honne’s early vision is more evident than ever, and the remarkable songs on this second LP capture themes and feelings their debut only hinted at.
Andy journeys back to this idea of duality, something that’s defined HONNE since the beginning. “I love how one side doesn’t exist without the other. These songs have to be there together.” James agrees: “You can’t have good without the bad, and we wanted to show that: not everything is always rosy. In your head, you think everything you aspire to have doesn’t come with its own problems. Relationships, work, home life, family – there’s two sides to it all. Films and TV shows either show the good or bad, but we wanted to show a balance and the grey space.”
‘Love Me / Love Me Not’ achieves exactly that. It’s a journey through grey space, fears and doubts, peaks and pitfalls and the in-betweens. These are soul-searching songs that make you look inwards, to the point where it’s impossible not to relate to each moment of introspection. That, in itself, is a remarkable and rare quality in a band – this ability to make you listen closer to your own thoughts. A sign of success if ever there was one.