Hannah Cottrell: Finding Her Voice

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Hannah Cottrell talks music, coming out, and inspiring others. "With my music, I just want to encourage people and empower people. I think when it comes to the LGBT community, feeling empowered is important..." - Hannah Cottrell

Hannah Cottrell

After a two-year stay in South Africa, singer-songwriter Hannah Cottrell found her voice – quite literally. Self-taught and determined, Cottrell picked up a guitar, took a successful shot at singing and the rest was history. Now, she’s made her way back to Austin to take the music capitol’s scene by storm, but not before utilizing her voice in more powerful ways as well.

Photo by Lisa Hause

Hannah Cottrell, Photo by Lisa Hause

Following in the footsteps of her parents, Robert and Susan Cottrell, who founded FreedHearts, an Austin nonprofit helping Christian parents of LGBTQ children love, accept and affirm their child without sacrificing their faith, Hannah hopes to use her voice and her lyrics to inspire others with inspirited messages. With an EP already out, titled Ranna, and another project in the works, it seems Hannah is well on her way and for this vibrant, talented musician, the only way from here is up.

When and how did you first get involved in music?

My family is pretty involved in music. My dad has always played the piano and my brothers play guitar, so we always had music instruments around the house. When I was 13 or 14, I picked up a guitar. My dad had this thick book with just guitar chords and I thought, okay, I can do this. The first song I tried was Amazing Grace and from there I’d pick a song I wanted to play and I’d just look up the chords for it. I never had a teacher and I’m pretty grateful for that because I think when someone teaches you how to play the guitar you learn how to play like a worse version of them. When you teach yourself you actually figure out your own style.

And singing – I used to be such a bad singer. My brother actually told me they used to put me at the back of the choir because you used to be really bad [laughs]. So, I think it just sort of came with age. It was random. I really couldn’t sing and I went overseas and it really just appeared. It sort of freaks me out.

Photo by Lisa Hause

Hannah Cottrell, Photo by Lisa Hause

How would you describe your music to someone who’s never heard it before?

What’s to come is a little bit different than what I have now. For the past two years, I’ve been playing music on my acoustic guitar. But now, I have this really old keyboard that I’m using to write music. So, I’m going for this deep, indie, house, electronica sound while also keeping it acoustic.

 

Who are some of your musical influences?

My number one is Amy Winehouse. My heart literally just sunk in my chest just talking about her because I think she just saw the world in a different way from everybody else and I think that was a really hard thing to handle. I know that’s pretty deep to say about someone I never knew, her but her music is amazing. Also, James Blake – he’s brilliant. He’s so genius. His beats and the way he uses his voice as another instrument is really cool.

Where do you draw your inspiration from for songs?

It’s in moments like this, when I’m just totally creeping on people [laughs]. I also draw inspiration from people I’ve met. For example, I have one song about a homeless guy I met. I had just gotten off from work at the mall and he stopped me and he said, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you for money, I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to know if you have any food or if you could get me dinner.” So we went inside and got Panda Express and he just started telling me about his life and how he got to be where he is. He had such a good heart. So, just meeting different people inspire me, just seeing how people interact.

Shifting gears a little bit, what was your coming out experience like?

I didn’t have the big dinner talk with my parents to tell them I was gay. I actually have a sister who identifies as queer and she has dated women, but she just got engaged to a man actually. But she had identified as bisexual when I was younger and I saw that and it just stirred something in me. I think my sister really got the gears rolling. Then, I watched the musical, Rent and there’s a lesbian couple in it and I’m sitting there thinking this is my life.

I was actually terrified because I used to really condemn and debate people because I was raised a conservative Christian. I used to say, “You’re going to go to hell if you’re gay,” and “God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve.” I truly believed it. So, seeing myself become one of the people I’ve condemned and hated for so long made me think, oh no, this is not going to happen. So, I told my mom. I was driving to the airport to leave to South Africa. I committed to a year, so I knew I had some space. But I was such a coward about it. I couldn’t even say I was gay, I was just so scared. I told her, “I’m bisexual, but no boys.” [laughs]. She was really kind about. My parents are awesome now, but at the time they were just leaving behind the idea that being LGBT was wrong. So she said to me, “That’s awesome, but I think you might still be too young to know.” And I thought that was valid. So, I went to South Africa and I just knew at that point.

Photo by Lisa Hause

Hannah Cottrell, Photo by Lisa Hause

I spent a lot of time trying to pray the gay away, reading the bible, trying to do all these things to make it disappear. It took me about seven months of really digging and finally at one point I was just bawling my eyes out praying, “God you have to tell me what’s going on because I love you, but I also love girls. What’s going on?” [laughs] and I heard him say, “I love you, you’re perfect.” I know that’s totally cliche, but it was so real to me. So I thought, screw all of the self-judgement and all of the hate. I had condemned myself before I even knew. But that was really the turning point and everything made sense after that. Then, I came out on Facebook January 17th. I was out to everyone in South Africa so they all knew and it was obvious. But no one in the states knew because I hadn’t dealt with that. So a day before I flew back home, I put on Facebook, guess what everybody, I love Jesus and I’m a lesbian, surprise! And the post got close to 600 like or so. I never expected so much support, even from some of my most Christian friends. So, I guess the big coming out was only two months ago.

Your parents are well known for founding FreedHearts – what does that support mean to you?

Honestly, I think it’s so cool. My parents are amazing. I seriously could not ask for better support. It’s so cool to see the lives they’ve really touched. There’s a lot of LGBT people who have committed suicide just because of the lack of support, fear and rejection and there’s also been people who’ve decided not to because they had someone to talk to. I just think it’s so cool if you can literally save someone’s life with your own story. I’m so proud and grateful for my parents because they’re doing that all the time. And it’s not easy, they get a lot of hate, but they understand it’s worth it.

To the community I say, you have exactly the same amount of rights as anybody, the exact amount of voice that anybody does. If you want to sing and be a lesbian, do it!

As an LGBT artist yourself, what kind of message do you hope to send to LGBT youth or just the LGBT community in general wanting to follow in your footsteps and what advice would you give a fellow musician or artist looking to break through? – Hannah Cottrell

Music is so powerful it’s ridiculous. Music literally has the power to change your soul within seconds. It’s a scary amount of power that music actually has. So, as a musician, you’re handed that power or you take that power onto yourself. So, with my music, I just want to encourage people and empower people. I think when it comes to the LGBT community, feeling empowered is important because people really feel weak and like they live on the outskirts of humanity. So, to the community I say, you have exactly the same amount of rights as anybody, the exact amount of voice that anybody does. If you want to sing and be a lesbian, do it!


Interview by Megz Tillman
Photos by Lisa Hause
L Style G Style – Storyteller of the Austin LBGT Community.
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