Philippa Hanna on faith, music and sharing the gospel

Storm 5 Management

Having grown up surrounded by music thanks to her father, Pat, who was a touring performer, Philippa Hanna dreamed of becoming a musician. She found faith in her late teens and has gone on to release three albums and an EP, and has toured with Lionel Richie. In October, she will begin recording a new project in Nashville, Tennessee. She spoke to Christian Today about her journey so far, and why her next recording will be her most faith-filled yet.

For those who aren't familiar with your story, can you share your journey to faith?

I'm from a music background, not a church background. My dad is a musician, and raised me in music and we used to go to shows and watch them together. My mum's a school teacher and she was always very open minded about faith but we weren't a church-going family. I hit some really bumpy times in my teen years, which isn't uncommon, and there were some issues I had with self esteem. As a little kid I'd been bullied at school, and that affected my confidence going into secondary education.

I made a bit of a mess of my school years and didn't do very well academically. The only thing I wanted to do was music, that was my only passion, so I left school with a view to go to college and study music, but after a couple of months I began to suffer with anxiety and it was really debilitating, I couldn't leave the house, and so I had to drop out.

I think the anxiety came from the big change of going into full-time education after bunking off most of school, but also from some of the big questions I had about life. Why are we here? What's life all about? Where do we come from? All these existential questions led me to seeking some answers. I went on a journey looking for the meaning of life, and bought lots of books and crystals, I went to see healers...and somewhere in the midst of that I moved out of home to pursue music as a career. I was really struggling and in an unhappy relationship.

I hit my most desperate point when I was about 19, and that's when I met some Christian musicians and was impressed by their zeal for life and was very jealous of the peace that they had. I was such a worried and anxious person, so I was envious of their certainty. I put it down to their personality or upbringing, I didn't think it was because of their faith, but I was interested and went along to a couple of events. Eventually I went to what I thought was a concert but was actually a worship meeting in a church. It was very humble, just one person leading on a guitar, but as we sang songs about Jesus I felt the words prickle in my heart. It was all about casting your burdens onto Jesus and laying them down, and I had a moment where I just thought, wow, if this is real, then I want this. I want to start my life over, I'd love to be a new creation. I was looking at the words on the screen and thought if this is true, then it's what I need. So I prayed the only way I knew how to, silently in my head, and said "God, if this is real, if you're really there, and I can have a new life then I gladly give you this one."

That started a chain reaction of coincidences and chance meetings with other Christians, and I really felt I was being guided. It was quite supernatural, and the following day I picked up my Bible and started reading it. I'd read some of it before and thought it was a load of nonsense, but after having prayed that prayer it began to make sense; it felt as if it was directly speaking to me and changing me.

Your roots are in gospel music, but you've toured with mainstream artists as well. Do you hope to bridge the gap between secular and faith-inspired music?

My songs have all come out of my faith journey, and so I've never had a professional agenda for it. In fact, because I've been trying to make it in the music industry since my teens, I had kind of let go of any hope of wanting to be a famous singer. I felt like the pursuit of that kind of career was destroying me; I had so much rejection and I thought I wasn't cut out for it. So I started writing songs about my faith, and it felt completely natural. I started to be invited to sing, and one of the chaps that led me to church became my manager. He invested in an album that we made together, and that was the beginning.

The tours with mainstream artists have happened naturally too – as and when those opportunities have presented themselves I've prayed about them and said yes or no. But to be invited to have an audience of maybe 100,000 people over the course of a tour who aren't church-goers is a no-brainer for me. We dream of being able to reach that many people with songs that are faith-inspired; it's not my agenda to do that, but when the opportunity arises it feels like the right thing to do.

Some of your songs are explicitly Christian while others are more subtle. Is that deliberate?

I write whatever I'm feeling, and so many of my songs can be read from the listener's point of view. I like that; it gives them freedom not to feel pressured or feel like the person who's written the song has an agenda. I think that's good because a lot of people are open to the gospel, but they're not open to religion or to church. People are generally open to faith and to miracles and being prayed for, but they don't want to be brainwashed into a religion or an institution, so I like to write things that are different. It's good to be original; I think that can be refreshing for Christians too!

Has the development of your music been influenced by your journey as a Christian?

It's been a wonderful journey. The first album was full of songs written as a brand new Christian, and brought with them musical influences from my teens. It was quite jazzy and soulful, but I think some of the Christian music I've listened to has influenced my subsequent albums. But I also think I've been influenced by my audience in a good way. As people started to respond to my songs, I got a feel for what they needed to hear. So with my second and third recordings [Taste, released in 2009, and 2011 EP Out of the Blue], I feel like I found my audience. I knew what to sing and write to engage and bless them, so I've been on a journey with people who've been listening to me.

Where do you look for inspiration?

I try and find it everywhere. I find it in nature, which is a cliché, but if I go to the seaside I'll write about the sea, or if I travel I'll write about different cultures. I love a good metaphor, so if I see a picture that's almost a picture of God, that's the sort of thing that inspires me. I have a song called New for Old, which is about a little old man who finds bargains in second hand shops and rescues them, reclaims them, loves them and makes them new. That's a metaphor for God – he reclaims people that have been forgotten or abandoned or written off. There's nothing to him that's beyond repair.

How have you dealt with both successes and failure so far in your career?

It's been an up and down journey. People don't see the failures or the set backs, because as an artist – and as a human in normal life – you only let people know what's going well. So people see this filtered, edited version of life that you put on Facebook, but really you just keep praying through it and try to let God keep you humble.

This year, my husband [Joel Cana, a drummer for The Gentlemen] and I have had some fantastic boosts, but there have also been closed doors. In all these situations, we just keep thanking God that he has a plan, trusting in Him, and believing that he uses those closed doors to mark our journey out and fix where you're going. So it's like 'Okay, doors opened in Jesus' name, or doors closed in Jesus' name – trust in him.'

Do you feel different leading worship and performing a set?

I lead worship mainly at my home church, and I do that as a way of pitching in and I love it. In some ways, it's a lot easier – it's not about impressing anyone or drawing strangers in. It takes the pressure off you; you're not the centre of attention, which is refreshing. And I find that I have the best times of worship when I'm leading because I can't be distracted! I have to be in the moment; it's a very beautiful thing.

It's great to do both; it's nice to take time to sing to people about things you hope will connect with them, and it's great to sing with people as well. That's the best thing about leading worship; you're all singing with one voice, and for the same reason.

Storm 5 Management

What projects do you have on the go at the moment?

I've been doing some writing in Nashville and over here, and I'll be recording a new project around October-time. I'm currently working on a single which we're planning to release ahead of the album, and preparing for tours! I'm touring in Autumn with my dad – he followed me into faith, as did my mum. God did a great work in my family.

What can we expect from your next album?

The sound is bridging a few different styles, I think people will be quite surprised with what we're doing. Everyone expected me to go to Nashville and make a country album, and that's not what you're going to get, particularly. There is some country influence, some songs will have a country edge, but we're going with something fresh and contemporary.

You'll hear even more of my faith. I've spent four years connecting with people outside of the church while touring and I want to let them know what this is all about, so I'm planning on sharing my faith even more.