Interview by Jessica Fynn / Edited by Jessica Ann Richardson
On Reckless Youth: Hannah Ewens In Conversation
Jessica Fynn sits down with writer and editor Hannah Ewens to muse on INTERVIEWING THE-DEVIL-MAY CARE JOAN JETT, COURTNEY LOVE, KINDER-WHORE, CHANGING BRO-CULTURE IN NEW MEDIA, HER GIRL GANG OF “GOBLINS” AND THE ADVANTAGES OF BEING A YOUNG, OBNOXIOUS FEMALE ARTIST.
Hannah Ewens is a girl with stories to tell. She’s sat down with Viv Albertine to plot revenge in an empty café, spent an afternoon with Slowthai and his nan, followed Oli Sykes around Dover Street Market. Once, Hannah and her co-conspirator Daisy gate-crashed an exclusive Courtney Love DJ set, laughing like hyenas as they bypassed security. She’s found her way into the Karaoke World Championships, travelled to Japan’s Harajuku district, taking the night bus every day for three months - only so that she could wait outside live music venues and chat to the teenage fangirls, yearning to catch a glimpse of their idols. A year later, she sat down to write a book about what they had to say.
Sitting opposite Hannah at a table in a pub garden is nostalgia in reverse, a trip of sorts. It’s like staring at the girl, who, like myself, came of age twice. Turns out, we also share the same taste in heavy-metal, with her eyeing my Soaring Eagle ring from The Great Frog – the original Soho spot known and loved by punks, bikers and rockers – that we both wore on our middle, “fuck you” fingers.
A fierce London girl who didn’t always live in London, Hannah grew up through scratched Hole CDs and torn-out notebook pages, blonde box dye and baby doll dresses. She tried on attitudes like an older sister’s clothing, testing limits of misbehaviour and stripping off layers like the changing of the seasons. But with each worn out leather jacket, unruly-holed pair of fishnet tights, and throaty shout of “Fuck you!” Hannah was growing out of her sleepy life on the Isle of Wight, a place where ego-centric gossip travels around in ghostly whispers.
Head-strong and high off of inebriated arrogance, Hannah moved to the city with the knowledge that she had nothing to lose. Armed with grit and a mantra for any conceivable situation (Ask: “What would Courtney do?”), her foray into the publishing world began at the intern desk of For Him Magazine, (“A lads mag. All tits, football and shagging. And beer”). From the ground floor, Hannah fell through the upstairs offices of Kerrang! Magazine and experienced many firsts: her first real stint in music journalism, the first of many doors that she would shout down, the first place she would make herself at home in – uninvited.
Long days and nights of interning ended with a three month stint at Vice. There, she has remained for the last seven years. One of few plucky women on editorial, Hannah moved through the ranks from staff writer to features editor, raging through hair colours and personalities with the same untamed energy of her adolescence. She’s in good company there. Across the expanse of office, her would-be rivals are fiercely supportive while boasting their own individual successes.
“I’ve really done most of the things I could possibly think of doing, or wanted to do.” Hannah had told me, hunched over happy-hour drinks. Her look was one of sheer intent. It was that same look I recognised on the faces of many rebellious women who have broken down doors to get to where they were once told they couldn’t be. A look that says: I will not take no for an answer. “I’ve been a reckless, obnoxious knob. When you’re in your twenties, everyone is – you age and don’t understand how you were relatively lacking in self-awareness. But you were also brave.”
HE: A lot of the time I feel like a mirror for other people.
JF: I’d say I’m a sponge.
HE: Are you a Libra?
HE: Kurt Cobain was the most famous Pisces I can think of. My mum is a Pisces as well. Very emotional. Very deep and emotional.
JF: I absorb the energy of the people I’m around. I’m not sure whether I intend to do it. Which I suppose means that it is unintentional, at least on some conscious level.
HE: I say mirror, you say sponge.
JF: That’s right.
HE: It’s being an empathetic person. If you’re really empathetic, you’re there on the level of the person very quickly… How do I say this without sounding like a tosser?
JF: You just say it.
HE: If you’re a really empathetic person, sometimes you can almost be one step ahead of the story. If you’re talking to someone, you can see what they’re saying, and see, energetically, where they’re coming from. You can see what their story is. Here is a person who is feeling this way about something, but they’re actually really torn and thinking something else. Being able to empathize with people gives you access to all these secret layers to them. It can get you closer to the truth of a person. If you’re good at being an empathetic person, you have greater control over your emotional power. You can pull back from the situation and see the whole picture in a holistic way.
JF: Do you have any other powers as a journalist?
HE: I’m curious about the world and about other people. But that’s not what the musicians – at least not what the women in rock that I’m interested in – that’s not what they’re like.
JF: These women in rock, what are they like? What are you like by comparison?
HE: They’re self-directed. A divining rod for culture and activity and energy. I love being in the mix of things, but often I want to stay on the periphery so that I can take stock and understand it all.
JF: Do you think we admire the qualities in someone else that we don’t possess ourselves? I often wonder if it would suit me if I were that level of self-possessed. I think I prefer to romanticise it in other people.
HE: I interviewed Joan Jett recently. She’s cool as fuck. She doesn’t put labels on her sexuality. She has this androgynous style, wears vests, no bra. She has a massive fucking tattoo on her arm that says ‘FUCK YOU’. As if you could go out and get a massive tattoo that says ‘FUCK YOU’ on your arm and not be scared about what people are going to say about you! She just doesn’t give a fuck. Speaking with her, you can sense that.
JF: On page two of Fangirls, you write: “I tried on everything that she has: expressions, clothing and songs.” Who were you trying to be at that time?
HE: What appealed to me was seeing women who were able to be punk rock, really feminist and larger than life, in a way that I didn’t feel that the women around me were being as role-models to look up to. It wasn’t about rejecting femininity. It was saying: “I’m going to scream in your face and I’m going to have messy, disgusting hair, but I’m going to be bleach blonde and wear this baby doll dress.”
JF: It’s getting to be everything, isn’t it? Not being pinned down by a certain value of femininity.
HE: It’s making femininity grotesque, sickening. Almost like spoilt milk. Courtney Love and Babes in Toyland do that. When you’re a teenager, as far as aesthetics go, you respond to them in a very emotionally raw, almost basic way. The aesthetics that are the most direct in their messaging are the ones that resonate with you the most. There are things from that aesthetic that I still carry through, although I think I’m more inspired now by the kinder-whore aesthetic as a mood and an idea, rather than something that I draw on in a more direct or obvious way.
JF: Did you hear about Courtney Love’s feature in Violet Magazine?
HE: Ordered it. It’s on the way.
JF: What did you think of the previews?
HE: I read them and I thought “oh my God. Courtney Love is the queen of saying things that sound poignant and almost make sense, that sort of give you something to think about, even though you know that she’s not articulating something precisely.” She’s always got good opinions on things. The most famous one now being that she was calling out Harvey Weinstein for being a sexual predator years before everything came out.
JF: She said that this is the first interview she’s done where it feels “her”? Has she done much press?
HE: She’s done bits here and there. She did a really good In Conversation with Lana Del Rey for the cover of Dazed. I know that she’s been hiding out in London for the whole of the pandemic with her dog. She has a very funny, romanticised, very American idea of what London is. I find that amusing.
JF: “Los Angeles is the most lawless city in the world.” I remember her writing that somewhere. She talks about London being a place where no one fucks with her.
HE: I’ve always felt like London is safer than where I grew up, because it’s so populated. I was born in Tooting, South London and then my parents moved to the Isle of Wight. I spent my teenage years there. I’ve had periods where I’ve gone back home for a while for various reasons. Whenever I’d come home drunk from a night out, the streets would be silent. You could hear a pin drop. I’d be all jumped up on inebriated arrogance, walking through the streets thinking that if anyone comes along, I’m going to have to sprint so fast. It’s eerie and desolate and seems like the sort of place where bad, strange things could happen. Instead nothing really happens there at all.
JF: Did moving to London change your perspective on writing?
HE: I found that people are so cynical and almost conservative about how they view other people. People have bad faith readings on people. A lot of the time you’re taking a risk – if you want to get something interesting. When you’re prepping for a piece, you get a sense of all the different things that are expected of you. The PR wants questions that show the person in their best light and promote in the most basic way, what the artist has to promote. Your publication will have things that they want out of you. Usually you’re aligned with that. Sometimes going off the script completely is what’s going to be the most interesting and be what ends up going into the final piece.
JF: How do you profile someone when you don’t have that kind of access?
HE: You have to write it in a whole different way. You can’t act as if you have access. That’s why I hate Zoom interviews. I interviewed Shirley Manson the other day. She had her camera off. I felt morose after that because what I like about doing an interview is meeting the person and spending a good amount of time with them.
JF: Do you have a favourite profile you’ve written?
HE: A Vice cover feature of Slowthai. He was at a weird point in his story. It was looking like he was being cancelled for an incident at an awards show that had been videoed and perceived to be misogynistic. I was there and what some people online were saying happened, well, it wasn’t quite like that. My interest was piqued because I felt uncomfortable about the whole situation, about how something can be misrepresented and editorialised instantly online by people who weren’t there or don’t have all the information, particularly if it’s coming from video clips. I went to his studio at home. I met his nan. It dawned on me that I’m just a person, who likes writing, who gets paid to write about things that I’m interested in and how much of a privilege and blessing that is. He was meeting me with vulnerability. I realised that I had quite a bit of power in that moment, which made me feel uneasy but the piece turned out great and I’m proud of what it meant, ultimately.
JF: What would a ‘bad’ journalist have done in that situation?
HE: Put things in the story that they know are just making it more sexy and salacious, more interesting to read. Even though it could unnecessarily hurt the subject or cause extra prying into their life when it doesn’t add to the overall narrative. Or maybe it does add to the narrative but you can’t shake the idea of it causing undue discomfort to someone. Sometimes people say things that look worse written down or you know the meaning has changed very subtly or the nuance is gone. Your moral compass is involved. You have to be hungry for a story, but you also have to be compassionate for other people and understand how to tell another person’s story and get as close to the truth as you can without letting your ego get too involved.
JF: What are your thoughts on professionalism in the creative industry?
HE: Being “professional” is not being a good person. It’s also not necessarily being good at your job. If you’re professional you get all the things done that your company want you to get done: you get all your emails done, you spend all your time doing the admin right, you suck up to your manager and your bosses and kiss company arse. That’s fine if you want to climb the ladder in the creative industries.
JF: I feel there’s a but coming…
HE: Ha. But if you’re someone who wants to make things…I’m not that great at doing emails because I want to be making things for myself as well as helping other people make things. I’m not necessarily turning up looking the most immaculate. I don’t sound especially articulate or professional. Maybe I’m presenting as too scruffy or casual – I have yellow hair right now! I’m not an arse-kisser. I’m respectful but I’m never going to be the perfect cookie-cutter colleague or employee, or whatever that is. Meet deadlines. Get your shit done. Communicate well. That’s what you get from me. And to me, that is professional. The people whose work I respect, and who are genuinely helpful and nurturing to other writers and people in the creative industries, aren’t professional. Often the professional people are those that are going up the ladder as fast as they can, and pulling it up behind them.
JF: What’s the culture at Vice like?
HE: Early on working there, I was the only woman on the editorial team for the UK site. I made friends with Emma Garland who was working at Noisey – the music website. It felt like we were doing our own thing quietly, getting on with stuff, squirrelling away. There was a well-documented bro-culture. It’s changed now, multiple times over. I guess it’s fairly corporate at the moment with a lot of incredible smart people who make it a good place to work.
JF: Do you think in some ways that earlier culture worked in your favour?
HE: It allowed us to do work that was exciting and what we wanted to do. It gave you an instant big, silly platform. I really miss the freedom and humour of culture and lifestyle blogging in the early to mid-2010s, for all its faults. The double-edge sword of some of that culture specifically, is that as a woman or minority coming into that, it’s not necessarily welcoming. You might feel like you either have to disappear and be as small as possible, or you have to contort to make yourself larger or different to fit into that space.
JF: It’s easier to be visible when you’re part of a pack. You found your girl gang at Vice – you call yourself the “goblins”. What’s the story behind that?
HE: Myself, Emma, Daisy and Lauren – we were just going out, minding our own business, when this guy asks why us “goblins” were going to lunch together. Just a group of women being friends in a male-dominated space. We call ourselves “The Goblins” now because it’s a sick name. Adult women being friends makes people, straight men in particular, uncomfortable. I have observed it all my life in multiple settings, especially workplaces. It makes others suspicious. I don’t mind, really, I just find it interesting.
JF: What are you like as a group?
HE: We all have really great taste.
JF: Do you ever get jealous of each other’s successes?
HE: For me, what’s really healthy about having this group of friends I love, is that it’s a space where I don’t feel jealousy. Jealousy is rife because of social media, and because of the disparity between money and success that is spread across writing. There are some people making significant amounts of money and a lot of talented people just about ticking over for their whole careers. I’ve noticed a few of my favourite writers have almost tapped out of the media and publishing industries for various reasons – mostly because the business models are just not sustainable and aggressively capitalistic and follow trends and what is obviously marketable. It’s frequently demoralising and depressing trying to make a living just from ‘this’.
Jealousy comes from a place where you have a lack of resources. I’ve recognised in myself that the times that I feel most creatively jealous have been when I’m struggling for therapy money or trying to find somewhere else to live on a short timeframe, and my nervous system is going “fuck, fuck, fuck”. When I’m coming from a place of fear and self-doubt in my personal life, and I’m subsequently scrolling on social media. That’s why, for my insecure, yet also quite competitive and ambitious brain – for people with that kind of brain – it’s really important to have people around that you are genuinely rooting for, to be able to see people’s experiences and opportunities and genuinely be happy for them and celebrate their success. If you can’t think “good for them” for other people, you know that you’re in a bad place with yourself and by extension your own work.
JF: Is this something you’ve learned from writing Fangirls?
HE: This is stuff that I’m still learning. I realised that I wanted so many things out of writing a book. When it came out, I thought: I don’t feel safe, I don’t feel beloved, I’m definitely not suddenly financially OK. Why don’t people think I’m a genius yet? All these different things. I felt freaked out. And confused. And I was grieving the loss of having finished the book but didn’t realise it was proper grief. There was definitely a part of me that very genuinely and innocently loves writing, and does think that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. There were also all these other things that I secretly wanted from this experience that I just wasn’t getting. I basically thought it was going to solve all my problems.
JF: What did the experience bring you?
HE: I realised that I could write a book. That I’d actually made something. It was never the biggest book ever. It didn’t sell the most, it was not a perfect book, but it really emotionally resonated with a lot of people. So who gives a fuck if it didn’t get into the hands of every person in the world? The girls and young women who did read it – I’d almost forgotten that those were the people I was putting it together for.
JF: In your writing, you talk about being obnoxious and making trouble. What’s the one thing that you would tell every twenty year old to experience while they’re still young?
HE: The answer that came into my head is not an answer I should be giving, nor is it even related to any of my work.
JF: Humour me.
HE: If you’re interested in having casual sex, then have casual sex. Some of my favourite and most tender and also stupid experiences of my twenties have been through sex and dating.
JF: It’s getting to know people intimately in a very different setting.
HE: Definitely. There’s a lot of fun, laughter – maybe not even pleasure – but just a good time to be had. Hilarious stories come out of sleeping around. You learn about yourself and about other people. But obviously it’s not for everyone.
JF: People keep saying to me that the best time I’m going to have in my twenties is when I start being a little more reckless.
HE: I’ve definitely squeezed the lemon of experiences that you can have in your twenties. I would say: don’t be afraid to have fun. I remember being very confused with certain people – people I’ve come across throughout my whole life. I’d think, “Why am I having to convince people to have a good time? Why am I trying to convince people to have fun, to be silly, to let their hair down and do reckless things?” I couldn’t get my head around it. I think people are scared of having a good time, and letting go of control. I sound like a withered old bitch, but I see it more in younger generations. Maybe it’s a phone thing. When I was a teenager, we’d go out, smoke, drink, take an album of disgusting, incriminating photos and put them on Facebook. Now, I can’t actually believe that we did that. But don’t be scared to have a laugh. Take things seriously, but know when to not take things seriously.
And now I’ve just told a dictaphone that you should just go and shag whoever.
[TAKEN FROM A CONVERSATION BETWEEN HANNAH EWENS AND JESSICA FYNN IN JULY 2021. HANNAH IS NOW THE FEATURES EDITOR OF ROLLING STONE UK.]
@ Eva Watkins
© Linda McIntosh