Hannah Ford: The Princess Ride

hannah ford

Sometimes fairy tales come true. But even an unassuming, sweet girl like Hannah Ford couldn’t believe it when she opened an email from what would turn out to be the manager of the one and only Prince. The wording was vague, just a lot of general praise for her style and presence behind the kit, but no mention of who the “boss” was who wanted her to audition. As a woman in the male-dominated craft of drumming, Ford endures almost as many haters as she does fans, so she approached the random message with caution.

“I was like, “Am I being punked?’” she recalls of the surreal events that unfolded rapidly over the next couple of hours. At the moment, the 21-year-old drummer is wandering around in search of something to eat in a trendy part of Vancouver, where last night Prince’s new trio, 3rd Eye Girl, played the second of two consecutive performances. A day off feels weird for the preternaturally focused Ford, whose dedication would come across as OCD if she didn’t have such a bubbly disposition.

Back to that email. Ford’s manager, Dave (who happens to be her dad), makes a point of sifting through every Web page comment and sundry piece of traffic generated from her drumming videos. Unassuming netizens, the Fords’ savvy response to the mysterious email set off a rapid back-and-forth that, after a few video submissions of Hannah playing along to Prince tunes, prompted a first-class ticket to Minneapolis, destination Paisley Park, the famed studio where the pop star had cut some of his biggest albums.

Ford packed a small bag while trying to keep at bay the idea she was being taken for a ride. “I didn’t know if there were going to be other drummers [like an open call] so I didn’t know what to expect. I just went with an open mind and was just going to do my thing.”

When Ford showed up she saw Ida Neilson, 3rd Eye’s bassist, tuning her instrument. Guitarist Donna Grantis had yet to arrive. State-of-the-art is a term thrown around a lot with studios. Prince’s compound is all that but instead of being tucked into the usual industrial-zone warehouse, Paisley Park is a gleaming futuristic cube designed by a well-known architect. “Prince came in and introduced himself to me and he was just like, ’You want to go jam?’ And we just started playing the songs that he had wanted me to learn for the videos. It was really laidback and he was super cool. There was no pressure or any expectations. A situation that could have been a high-pressure, uncomfortable situation … it was so not that.”

A Smile Is Worth A Thousand Strokes

Until a few days ago, Ford had been living at Paisley Park for the last six months recording and writing music for the full-length album tentatively titled Plectrum Electrum. Several of the tunes have made it onto the set list of the tour. “I’m not certain on a release date, but I’m really hoping that all [the new material] is released because it’s fantastic music.”

If the Revolution was the “hits band” in the ’80s, and the ’90s/early 2000s saw the New Power Generation working a funk/hip-hop mode, 3rd Eye Girl is the Purple One’s rock experiment, and fans occasionally need reminding that he is a fret-smoker on par with Hendrix. “When I came into this, I never heard of his rock stuff,” Ford says. “All of what [the fans] usually hear from Prince is his pop stuff. Unless you’re a hardcore Prince fan and you really dig into his catalog, you don’t really hear a lot of the rock stuff. So I didn’t realize how much he loved rock music, but I think that’s totally were his heart is.”

The few singles that have been released (“Screwdriver,” “She’s Always In My Hair”) have a hedonistic vibe, but with cleaner production and tighter execution than their acid-rock counterparts from the late ’60s. Live Out Loud, the current tour, is all about intimate setting (The Vogue Theater last night had a capacity of 1,250 – the largest venue on the tour).

The smaller scale might seem like a step backward for a musician once denoted by the Love Symbol, but performance-wise, the theater- and club-sized spaces make Ford’s playing more visible, at least compared to any previous Prince drummer. The cozier vibe also lends itself to experimentation as opposed to the dumbing down necessary at sports domes. “You feel the energy from the audience in a totally different way because they are right up on the stage and screaming at you,” she says. But she is quick to point out that it cuts both ways. “It totally gives you a whole other level of, ’Oh, man, I’ve got to step it up. I’ve got to keep giving them what they want and make them happy.’”

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The Glee-esque level of discipline in 3rd Eye Girl is not unlike the manic energy a pack of cheerleaders would deliver. Unlike that fluffy blood sport, though, Ford and her fellow Girls seem to be having a ball. “When we got off the stage me and the girls all started jumping around and like hugging each other; it’s so much fun,” she says. “On stage you see us and we’re like hardcore rock and roll chicks and then when we get off the stage we totally turn into these middle school girls.”

For all its spontaneous energy, Live Out Loud is a well-rehearsed set. The band records each performance as well as every rehearsal to see what works and what doesn’t. There’s a pep talk before shows, mini-pep talks on stage, and a post mortem the next morning. Even then it still doesn’t seem like enough preparation. “You never know how the sound is going to turn out,” Ford offers. “Sound check can be great but when all the people come in it totally changes the room.”

The moments before the lights go down is the most crucial: “If I can I get away for a couple of minutes before I go on and stretch and breathe and pray that the show goes well and that I have the strength to get through it, that’s a big help.” The key, Ford says, has been to trick herself into thinking of live performance as just another practice. “And Prince says the same thing. He tells us to think how we’re just jamming and we’re not doing all kinds of crazy tricks and that the music isn’t loud, and that we’re not in a sphere with all the lights. Just go back to find your center and go there and stay there. As the show goes on we’ll get to that crazy place.

“People say I look relaxed when I play but I totally feel like I’m a monster,” she laughs. “I totally go into this like whole other place where I’m literally – you can’t hear it but I scream and really lay into what I’m doing. I smile a lot when I play, which I think gives the optical illusion of relaxation. But relaxation is something I really work on. [Drumming] is so physical that if you are tense and tight, right away trying to play like that for two hours it’s not going to work for your body.”

No “I” In 3rd Eye

A serious head-trip comes with the delicate dance between Prince’s fickle temperament and the stresses of delivering on supersized artistic ambition. Ford has tasked herself with laying an effortless-sounding pocket but also playing with big ears. Maybe the average rock bassist and drummer lock as a unit, but in 3rd Eye Girl all bandmembers’ energy flows to the singer: “Mainly I think we all really tune into Prince and his vocals,” Ford says. “Because at any given point he can call a cue to break the song down. Or he’ll say ’Just groove’ and so I’ll have to [vamp] so that he can play with the audience a little bit more. Within the same song, though, different melodies or even the bass line will cue another section, so I listen a lot to everything and I listen to the music as a whole. But we really focus on Prince to make sure that we’re all on the same page.”

This mindset is a fundamental change for Ford, who in many ways drove her previous bands with a blend of showy musical playing – first with fusion trio Pandorum and, later, Bellevue Suite, which broke up for good last December. “As a drummer we tend to [want] to be in control over the music with the time and the volume and fills leading in to the next section, and being the ones making the cues.” she says. “So one thing that I really had to do was remind myself to always stay focused on the band because ordinarily I love to just close my eyes and put my head back and play the music.

[laughs] But because at any given moment he could call [out for something] that’s not what we’re used to, I have to really pay attention and keep my eyes on him. That’s something I had to make second nature.”

And has The Artist been pleased with the results so far?

“We talked last night about the first show,” Ford says carefully. “And he was just saying how good it felt and how it’ll only get better and that different sound issues will get fixed. After the shows it’s just a really good vibe so I think he’s been very pleased so far and he will continue to because it will only get better.”

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hannah ford

Ford's 3rd Eye Girl Setup

Drums Gretsch USA Custom (Piano White with Gold Sparkle Inly and Gold hardware)
1 24" x 18" Bass Drum
2 20" x 16" Bass Drum
3 14" x 5.5" Snare Drum
4 12" x 7" Snare Drum
5 10" x 8" Tom
6 12" x 8" Tom
7 14" x 14" Floor Tom
8 16" x 16" Floor Tom

Cymbals Zildjian
A 14" A Rezo Hi-Hat
B 8" Z Hybrid Splash
C 17" A Rezo Crash
D 10" Z Hybrid Splash
E 18" A Rezo Crash
F 21" A Rezo Ride
G 22" A Swish Knocker with rivets
H 19" Z Hybrid China

Electronics
I SPD-SX pad

Nitty Gritty Girl Band

Besides reading, rudiments, and technical abilities, Ford’s keen eyes and receptive ears are essential to her reactive drum approach. Much of this skill was forged with her four years of study with noted instructor Paul Wertico at Roosevelt University (she also studied with Wertico privately for two years before enrolling.). “I love to say this about Paul: He really makes you feel comfortable outside of your comfort zone,” Ford says. “He pushes you to do things you wouldn’t normally do but makes it feel natural. Things like putting towels on your drums throughout your solo or putting your feet on the snare drum.” She recounts a performance where Wertico suddenly threw a large black tarp over himself and began soloing underneath so only the swishing of the fabric was audible. “Just really random stuff. [laughs] So he would really encourage me to think of drumming as more than just time keeping.”

With the 3rd Eye gig, there are nuts-and-bolts things that Ford has adopted into her approach at the urging of Prince. “There’s one technical thing he really likes [and that’s] for the hi-hat to be consistent and even strokes where normally drummers tend to put accents on the downbeat, and almost ghost note the upbeats on the hi-hat. I had to train myself and make it become muscle memory. But there are also certain songs where that doesn’t fit, but for the most part, like for funky stuff, he really likes that consistent hi-hat to be there because it sounds better. That’s something I never even thought about all the way up until playing with him and I was like, ’Whoa, man this is so cool!’ It makes everything come together and it sounds so much better and I totally would have never thought about that just because of how I naturally played the hi-hat. That’s something I also had to get used to because it requires a lot of forearm support for the even strokes rather than a looser wrist technique.”

Too chops-intensive for pop; too slick and consistent for funk; too straight ahead for jazz. Nailing the sort of player Ford is cannot be summed up in a catchall phrase. Her setup reflects this with a double pedal on a single-kick setup plus a smaller second bass drum on the far right operated by a slave pedal next to her main one, à la Stanton Moore. “I just kind of slide my foot over to the next pedal whenever I want to use the auxiliary bass drum, and it’s just kind of for a little flavor,” she says. “Just on certain sections of songs for a different sound and different bottom.

I don’t use it all the time. I tend to stick to my 24 [inch]. But every now and then that 20 gives it a little oomph.”

On the straight-to-board mix DRUM! heard from last night’s set, Ford’s use of double bass is spare, mostly as a way of accenting at the end of groups of phrases. Sometimes when doing bass drum doubles she’ll alternate strokes between her main bass and the auxiliary one. “I haven’t really been doing that recently because it tends to sound, I don’t know, it just doesn’t always work. But in solos and stuff when I’m not [the one] keeping the band together and I’m just kind of just playing by myself it sounds pretty cool because it’s almost like a stereo effect. But as far as a player and how I use double bass, I use it more as an accessory. I use it a lot more in this band because it’s such a heavy rock band, but I don’t go too wild with it. I can get down to metal every now and then and some days I want to blast Shadows Fall and all kinds of crazy metal, but for the most part I tend to keep it simple. But when I do [add double bass] it totally adds like a whole new level of excitement.”

The pressure of playing for the cameras is a whole other element that’s been ramped up with this gig. On a recent performance on Jimmy Fallon just minutes before going live, the show’s producers changed her setup to two bass drums with single pedals instead of the double-pedal/single-bass configuration. “Especially doing it after sound check was a surprise,” she chuckles. “It didn’t alter the playing or anything but it was just one of those last-minute decisions like, ’Hey, let’s add another bass drum to show off the 3rd Eye Girl logo [on the resonant heads].” She’s since added a third, but only for show.

As a brand-new band with its own feel and identity, there was no previous Prince drummer Ford could use as a reference for the 3rd Eye gig, but she could not, at least subconsciously, help but think of the drummers that preceded her, such as Sheila E. “I’ve been familiar with her playing for a long time,” Ford explains. “In high school she became one of my favorite drummers. Years later I’m getting this call to come play for Prince and two of my favorite drummers had played with him.”

It wasn’t as stressful to follow drum stars such as John Blackwell and Sheila E. as you might think. Because 3rd Eye is a whole new trip for Prince, there are really no shoes to fill. A slavishly faithful approach doesn’t work with an artist who constantly reinvents himself. “It’s really easy to allow yourself to fall into comparisons and people are going to do that anyway so there’s no point in allowing yourself to do that. It’s unhealthy and I really wanted to make sure that I didn’t lose myself,” she explains. “He called me to the gig and that meant that I had something that he hadn’t seen in other people. I wanted to make sure that I really stayed true to myself [in the audition] rather than trying to add anything that I thought might increase my chances of him wanting me to play.

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“Now, that being said,” she continues. “I have totally watched John Blackwell recently because he played at South By Southwest and there have been a few times when we had been at Paisley with the whole band and I really soaked in how John played, and the power that he played with. He’s the most recent drummer and there are just so many songs I’ve had to learn that watching him play them has helped me learn the parts for the big band stuff and ’the hits band.’ But as far as the 3rd Eye Girl stuff goes and the heavier rock stuff, man, I’m totally letting me just come out full force. You will hear John Bonham come out on that playing and you might see Shiela come out or you might hear some jazz influence from Art Blakey or Louie Bellson. That how it’s supposed to be. People can hear your influence but ultimately they have to hear and see you.”

The Family That Plays Together …

Barely in her twenties, Ford is part of the generation where the idea of a hard-rocking pro-level female drummer is no longer shocking. Hell, it’s largely because of Ford that it’s no longer a novelty. She grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, before moving to Chicago at age 12. Ironically, the Windy City was not nearly as open-minded as its musically adventurous reputation would suggest. “Once I got to high school that’s when I really started to feel the prejudice kick in,” she says. The negativity didn’t end there – the guys in her curriculum at Roosevelt were judgmental too. But chauvinism isn’t about geography in the online world where she felt the most heat. “The comments on my YouTube videos were just hateful for no reason. I don’t know what it is … I guess people just would rather see a dude be playing the drums.”

During that dark period, tear-filled phone conversations with her dad helped get if off her chest, but ultimately she had to face down the detractors on her own. “You can either allow yourself to become a victim or you can conquer what you go through and come out on top.” Now that she enjoys the halo effect that Prince can bestow on anyone, the flamers are likely to wither away – not that Hannah cares. “I don’t do this for them anyway.”

Outside of Prince and the other drum-centric activities, Ford collaborates with her husband, Joshua, a music composer; producer; and saxophonist. To date, the couple has already written enough material for a recording. “At some point we’d love to tour with our band. Prince has shown some interest in us as a duo as well, so when the right time comes that’ll be released. But for right now we’re just enjoying this ride.”

A band-like harmony is a rare thing when you get into the diva-prone pop world. Whatever the long-term prospects of 3rd Eye Girl, Ford sees it as its own reward. After all, Hanging with Donna, Ida, and Prince isn’t a job description; it’s good times. “I think we’ll always be around each other and we’ll always work together because it’s just so much fun and we really enjoy each other’s company.”

Even with all that she has accomplished, it’s early in Ford’s career. She still has a lot to prove – both to her peers and herself. As for the haters, the ones that don’t kill her only make her stronger: “With everything that I’ve gone through in my life I make every situation enhance me as a person.”

She hasn’t chosen the easiest way to make a living, especially in picking her instrument, but who said it was her idea? “I can’t help that that I was called to be a drummer. I had no choice in that I was born to do this.”