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SiS Featured Songwriter: Jim Hanna

10 Jul Posted by in Blog | 1 comment
SiS Featured Songwriter: Jim Hanna

The childhood home of singer/songwriter Jim Hanna was one infused with the sounds of Americana. “There was always music in the house. Dad played several instruments including tenor guitar, tenor banjo, mandolin, piano, and the occasional ocarina/kazoo/harmonica. Dad’s siblings all enjoyed playing as well, so there would be music whenever they got together – which was fairly often.”

Outside of the home, church added to that soundscape with mom’s influence. “Mom didn’t play any instruments, but she made us get up and dressed every Sunday and headed us off to church where there were plenty of hymns sung,” he reflected. Though his siblings played piano and sang, Jim’s contributions in church were only vocal. “I sang in the church youth choir, but (stupidly) refused to take piano lessons when I was young because ‘that was a girl thing’ – three older sisters made it seem that way to a young boy.”

Though Jim did not start writing songs until later in life, he did catch the performing bug in elementary school. “The 5th grade talent show was a very tenuous thing for me. I was so nervous I could hardly play guitar or sing, but somehow my two buddies and I made it through Evening of the Day (Rolling Stones).” Perhaps because of working through that nervousness, he continued to perform in occasional bands throughout junior high and high school.

When college beckoned, Jim put off any regular performing and earned a degree in physics before moving to Southern California. Once there, he began to explore open mics. “The Banjo Cafe in Santa Monica was walking distance from my house, and I could not resist music and beer! The Banjo Cafe had a Monday night open mic, and I decided to try it out. That’s where I met my friend and guitar player extraordinaire, Gene Williams, and we started playing music together – first as a duo, then a trio, and finally a 5-piece country rock band. We had some great times playing the California beach bars.” He added, “During that time I wrote a few songs; however, I really did not know how to structure songs or what it meant to write good lyrics.”

A wife and raising children filled up his life after a move to Washington State where he focused on his career as an aerospace engineer. But as his children grew older, Jim was able to return to his ‘other life’ as a musician. “I once again got the performance bug and started searching out open mics near our home in Maple Valley, but there were no open mics close to home. The closest at the time was in Kent, at Titusville Station, and I frequented it for a while.”

Since necessity is the mother of invention, for Jim Hanna, the lack of a local performance space was the catalyst for creating a space for him and other artists to fill the void. “I complained about that void to friends and family until one day an artist friend told me there was a new space in town, and they wanted to do an open mic. I took on the challenge and started running one – with no idea what I was doing. That blind attempt turned into seven years of great fun and wonderful performances.”

Though now a veteran performer, Jim Hanna still experiences challenges. “As a performer my biggest struggle was, and sometimes still is, confidence. It took a lot of years to gain what confidence I have. I remember pretty well when I got over that hump.” He went on to explain, “Sometime around the fourth or fifth year, I was on stage and realized that the people in the audience were actually enjoying what I was doing. I knew then and there that if I could do something I loved and make other people happy doing it, I was there!”

The transition from performer to songwriter took some additional time. “While I feebly attempted writing songs when I was in late high school and college, I did not start writing seriously until I was in my 50’s, “ he explained. “Somewhere in that time period I decided that I could probably write songs – I had a decent vocabulary, could make simple rhymes, and could play guitar a little. Like any other activity it took quite a few attempts to get something that I was not embarrassed to play for other folks.”

While Jim’s career was aided by his study of physics in college, this knowledge and skill set did not necessarily cross over into his new focus on songwriting. “I earned a physics degree and was an aerospace engineer for my working career. When you write as an engineer it is point 1, point 2… without room for metaphors or insinuation. I am often challenged with keeping my lyrics on subject without being overly straight forward. Now,” he elaborated, “I try to employ lyrics that can be interpreted in different ways by different listeners.”

Contrary to Edison’s belief that success is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration, Bill stated that he, “tend[s] to be more of an ‘inspiration’ writer than a ‘perspiration’ writer. By that I mean that once in a while I will hear a phrase or stumble upon a guitar part that inspires a song. I am about equal on starting with lyrics or music.”

That is not to suggest that he does not work at his craft. He went on to say, “I have written towards a particular subject (for me that equals perspiration) with limited success. I have penned a few numbers for bands that I have been in, and they are passable but not of the quality of some of my inspired songs, in my opinion.”

While Hanna’s career may not have helped his songwriting skills, there were other beneficial aspects. “Having never had to rely on music to survive allowed me to approach it casually. I am not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing. I have never seen music as a chore. It has always been a fun thing to do. Being generally lazy, I never had to push myself hard, and so I didn’t. Consequently, I don’t read music and have a limited but working knowledge of the fretboard and music theory.”

That is one thing that Jim would change if he could defy the physics of time and space. “If I were to go back in time, I would definitely learn keyboard/piano and at least some music theory. It’s not that I am unhappy where I am musically; I would just have that many more tools at my disposal and more ways to get my music out there.”

Songwriters just beginning their careers might do well to heed this advice to acquire every tool possible, but for Jim Hanna, his greatest resource was actually provided in community. “Music is meant to be shared. It should be shared with an audience, with other musicians in a band situation, or with friends and family just sitting around. But, it should definitely be shared.”

“I learned most of what I know from other musicians – stealing guitar licks, learning new styles, and trying new instruments.” He reflected, “When Chet Atkins was asked if he stole guitar licks he said, (and I paraphrase) ‘I really just borrow them but sometimes forget where I got them.’”

He added, “By far the best situation is to play with other musicians who are slightly better than you are and have them pull you up to their level. There is a fine line where they are so much better than you that it’s uncomfortable or even embarrassing, but if you are able to find that sweet spot where it all works, it’s amazing.” Hanna has had ample opportunity to find that sweet spot as he plays with other musicians in a variety of settings. Though he is mainly an acoustic guitar player and does most of his composing on guitar, he also plays a little electric guitar, electric bass, mandolin, piano, and harmonica.

For Jim Hanna and his new career in music, the business world’s model of “continuous improvement” still applies. He reflected, “There is always room to improve. I am fortunate to have recently retired and can spend more time learning, writing, and performing. My latest adventure is to try and learn to make quality recordings at home. Books, an online class, and several software programs later, I understand more than I did a year or two ago, and my recordings sound better. I feel like I am on the verge of getting it!”

Hanna’s excitement about this new phase of his songwriting career is tangible. “I have plenty of material for a new CD and just need to get it produced. I am trying to finish before I have enough songs for yet another CD. It’s a race to the finish.” Unbound from the time constraints of his former career, now retired and with ample time on his hands, Jim Hanna’s home now reflects the same soundscape found in the home of his childhood where a father and his family filled the air with music. But now the music is his.

Char Seawell
Char Seawell is an award winning singer-songwriter, a novelist, and essayist from Bothell, WA. A journalism graduate from Colorado State University, she is currently working on two historical fiction novels, one based in the North Cascades and one in pre-Nazi Germany,
  1. Carmen Zullo08-01-17

    Thanks for the Jim Hanna insightful journey. I just experienced Jim’s songwriting and performance at Grumpy D’s and enjoyed it immensely. His CD “Patches” is now a regular in my car CD player. Thanks Jim for your musical contribution and lyrics.

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