Hannah Wilkinson interview (Part Two): Jamming with the voice within – The Football Fern striking smooth to the soul
When Hannah Wilkinson spoke on here back in March 2014, the University of Tennessee standout had a World Cup and Olympic tournament on her record but was very much still finding her feet, with music a guiding hand for her thousands of miles from home. If that initial interview essentially cast the New Zealand striker in the midst of her demo track, you now find the first-year pro with much more of a full-length release to share, packed with meaning, discovery and a voice able to far surpass simply soothing the senses.
Soccer prospects arrive at colleges all around the U.S. each year with distinct qualities to offer and undoubtedly a whole lot of promise. It is true, though, that very few begin such a period in their life and burgeoning career having already demonstrated their talents on the loftiest level of the game’s international pyramid. As New Zealand’s Hannah Wilkinson headed to Knoxville to begin her University of Tennessee chapter in 2012, she did so as the one who’d already delivered her country’s first-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup point, before gracing the Olympic knockout stages in an unforgettable London 2012.
Even the benefit of such world travel and those experiences in front of huge crowds doesn’t come close to providing a guarantee of being able to seamlessly move your life to a new country and culture. Despite the initial rough edges to smooth out, the powerful Whangarei-born forward not only showed her international class on the field in earning NSCAA All-American honours and becoming UT’s second all-time top scorer (33), but she found the rhythm off it, too.
However, that doesn’t tell half the story. There was an ACL injury that left her completely crestfallen in 2015 and had her watching from the sideline for months on end, wondering if her senior season had been snatched away from her for good. There were also the significant and somewhat shocking political developments in the U.S. in the latter stages of her American adventure to ultimately spark her into action in ways she’d never known before, with the small matter of making the long-awaited jump to professional player to add in next.
What always ran alongside her through all of that and more was her devotion to painting her feelings over a melody. A guitar has long been Hannah’s foremost travel essential on the continuous tour that is life as an international footballer, and as she enjoys her first season in Sweden’s top-tier Damallsvenskan with Vittsjö GIK, the recently-turned-25-year-old feels at a genuine peak of contentment and inspiration in her young life.
She explains how music is a magical source of strength and her perfect sidekick, now more so than ever.
“I think as I neared the end of my time at Tennessee, I felt I’d become more confident and sure of myself, and along with that, I was aware of the influence I could provide for those who do look up to me. I think my openness to specific issues was predominantly inspired by the democracy and the protests of the liberal American public when Trump was elected; it was like a collective movement that was so, so powerful and inspiring.
“I definitely took that expressive, open and fearless attitude with me to Sweden and I’ve been especially proud and accepting of who I am. Music is something I’ve always used to express myself, so whenever I’m feeling a lot at the time, music is always there as an outlet.
“I think during that controversial time in America, I played a lot that connected with my strength in knowing who I really am and being proud of that, and having the power to show others that it’s okay to be different.”
As well as participating in Knoxville’s chapter of the worldwide Women’s March following the Presidential Inauguration on January 20th, Hannah spoke in candid detail in an interview with Out For The Win. Recalling how fearful she had once been of people’s reaction to learning she was gay, she told how confiding in a teammate on a national team tour at 20 and having her support had been a pivotal step to fully embracing all that she is and all she can be.
When placed alongside something as deeply personal as that, performing music in public may seemingly fade into insignificance. It is, however, its own precious note in the very chords of who Hannah is, and she has been increasingly harnessing that creative flame in a way that others can feel and enjoy.
As she told way back in part one of this interview, it was during another national team tour that her on-stage story started to take flight, after she had seen a woman performing in a hotel bar in Cyprus and managed to go on stage and borrow her acoustic electric guitar to perform ‘Don’t Forget Your Roots’ by the New Zealand band Six60. Hannah has shared a number of videos on social media showcasing the warm and smooth vocals she carries, as well as the soulful yearning and touch of funky flair with which she performs.
Whether it’s via music or other means, hers is a voice that has started to resonate with more and more who hear it, as she continues to cross borders with where she performs and who she connects with. At the time of her last interview, she told how she had recently performed one of her own songs (along with Ne-Yo’s ‘Because of You’) in a bar in Knoxville.
From Pennsylvania to the Emerald Isle, the sets have kept on coming in more recent times.
“Well, because I’ve been practicing a lot more, my voice and my playing ability has definitely improved, so I’ve been a lot more confident playing live and in front of people. I played live at a small bar in PA when I went to see one of my good friends, and that was just such a cool experience.
“Then I briefly played live in Ireland while I was there for New Year’s with my family; the Irish musicians in the bar let me have a go on their stage and it was really amazing! So really I’ve just been playing in front of friends and teammates, and I’ve written a bunch of songs that I practice a lot.
“I’m definitely looking to try and get them professionally recorded once they’re perfected.”
One of the regular questions of each interview on here focuses upon which teammate or teammates the player would choose to record a song cover with. Of course, for most interviewees, it is just a fantasy scenario they are imagining, so Hannah is a little different in that regard, but New Zealand teammate Erin Nayler was the name she put forward in our first conversation.
The Football Ferns keeper has been through Under-20 World Cups, senior tournaments and so much more besides with Hannah, who is also set to be a bridesmaid at the current Olympique Lyonnais (on loan at Grenoble) stopper’s upcoming wedding. While long-time and since reluctantly-retired captain Abby Erceg laughed in her interview on here last year as she mentioned the ‘questionable voices and dance moves’ in the Ferns ranks, she also didn’t hesitate to name Hannah and Erin as the golden voices.
The first major competition at senior level they went to together was the 2011 World Cup in Germany as 19-year-olds. It was in that tournament Hannah delivered a memorable team moment and claimed a little bit of history, as a perfect first touch on the chest set her up to bury a 94th-minute finish into the Mexican net as the Kiwis completed a comeback from 2-0 down on 90 minutes to earn their first point at a World Cup.
The rush of emotion on the faces of the team, head coach John Herdman and all his staff was clear to see, while Hannah’s giddy amazement as she recalled the goal in a post-game interview was such that surely anyone, football fanatic or not, couldn’t help but share in it with her. After helping lead the line as the Ferns reached the quarter-final of the Olympic tournament a year later, Hannah started each group game at the 2015 World Cup in Canada, netting the equaliser to earn a point against China in their last game.
When you have a team that throws themselves without a second’s thought into singing for fun, recording videos, or even putting on an ultra-exclusive acoustic show behind the scenes, certain songs are just bound to play their way into the memory banks of the players. Hannah shares her memories of the unofficial soundtrack to those recent major tournaments and moments with Tony Readings’ squad.
“When I think of the World Cup in 2015, I think of the song ‘Catch Hell Blues’ by The White Stripes. That song never failed to get me pumped and ready to play, on the way to training and on the bus to the games; it was a song that made me feel invincible in a way.
“There were a lot of songs at the Olympics in 2016, but one that I remember in particular, that (Katie) Bowen, Erin and I would jam out to on the bus, was called ‘Goldmine’ by Colbie Caillat, a really catchy, feel-good song. Ali Riley, Anna Green and Bowen had actually all brought ukuleles to Rio, so believe it or not, we formed a band called ‘Wilky and the Uku-Ladies!’
“I’m not sure if you saw any videos that Riley had posted of us, but we had a few jam sessions playing songs like ‘I’m Yours’ (Jason Mraz) and ‘Riptide’ (Vance Joy). It was definitely a fun time and I’m sure we’ll make another appearance on tour in the near future.”
In part one, Hannah recalled her first CD, which, like with so many players on here over the years, went down the boyband route, this time with England’s very own, Five! Her instrumental skill set includes some piano, while she can play the drums and wants to get her own kit at some point.
On her guitar that goes along with her wherever she goes, Hannah drew a small Maori koru design, and she also plans on adding some illustration to the ukulele she recently bought in Sweden. A certain somebody who had early beginnings with a uke was Jimi Hendrix, an artist who so many around the world still turn to today to get blissfully lost in their personal connection to his repertoire and everything his performances, style and personality conveyed.
Hannah puts into her own words what comes across when she listens to the late and lamented icon, as well as introducing a current artist out of Texas who has impacted upon her playing habits.
“I think it’s just the fact that no one else has Hendrix’s sound. Even when artists cover him, they just cannot come close to the sound he’s created.
“From his voice, to his guitar, to all the different little psychedelic components in his songs, it’s all just so original and nobody could ever replicate it, and that’s what I love. It’s so special and one of a kind, and it all flows together so beautifully, and you can interpret the meanings of his stuff in any way you want, which is also really special.
“Another artist that I’ve totally fallen in love with is Shakey Graves, another one-of-a-kind artist. He’s like a one-man band who is able to produce masterpieces out of just a kick drum, a tambourine and an open-D-tuned electric guitar.
“He inspired me to make my own suitcase kick drum that I unfortunately had to leave behind in Knoxville after moving to Sweden, but I highly recommend giving his stuff a listen!”
Shakey Graves heads the list of artists that remind Hannah of her college years in Tennessee, which was a time that also saw her find a real passion for not just Hendrix, but Led Zeppelin, as well as the southern sound of Zac Brown Band, Jamestown Revival and others. Playing for UT coach Brian Pensky, his staff and all her Vols teammates while living out all that those years had to offer is something she’ll always cherish.
In addition to her goals, she provided 19 assists in 68 (61) games and her 85 points took her to third in the program’s all-time list. A two-time All-SEC First Team Selection, she was a Psychology major and earned her degree in the fall of 2015 before finishing the graduate certificate program in Cultural Studies in Education last December.
With the season and semester underway when she first arrived, Hannah had to play catch-up both athletically and academically, but she soon began showing the capabilities befitting of a senior international. After her All-American-worthy freshman season, in which she scored eight in 16 as the Vols reached the NCAA first round, she struck five and assisted on five more in 2013.
In her junior year, Hannah led the Big Orange with nine goals and three assists en route to the semi-finals of the SEC Tournament, but there would be no 2015 season waiting around the corner, as ACL agony hit. Out of high school for seven years by that point, there was prolonged uncertainty surrounding whether she would be granted that medical redshirt year so she could play her last season in 2016, and it was excruciating.
The staff put in a waiver and in May 2016 they got the answer they all wanted, with emotion to rival any last-minute winner for Hannah and undoubtedly her teammates, too. In October that year, she became the first Vols player to be named the NSCAA Player of the Week since Alexis Owens five years earlier, earning All-SEC First Team honours in Pensky’s fifth season in charge.
That final campaign on Rocky Top may have ended at the SEC Tournament quarter-final, but the years had been a journey for so many reasons. Although it had felt an unsteady road at times, it was one that ultimately yielded sights, sounds and sentiment to treasure.
“Oh it was definitely a struggle for me to adjust to the culture in Tennessee. New Zealand is a very different place, and I was already such a reserved person in general, so it took me a while to come out of my shell.
“I tended to just shut myself out, be on the phone to home most of the time, questioning whether I should stay or not. Being in the south eventually helped because of how friendly and warm everyone was in Knoxville, and once I opened up and made close friends with my teammates, I was just fine.
“Once I became more passionate about my music, I branched out and found a really special group of friends who were musical and artistic, some of whom I am still really close with today, despite being overseas. That friend group positively influenced my song-writing and my appreciation for good music, and using it as an outlet outside of football.”
For so many who’ve made their mark at collegiate level, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is the natural destination to aim for to begin life as a pro athlete. As is the way with such a system, however, even vastly experienced prospects are not guaranteed to be taken, with only 40 picks to be had at the last two years’ College Drafts.
It goes without saying that plenty closely connected to the game knew all about Hannah as she approached the end of her career at Tennessee, and she also had her best season in 2016, notching a career-high of 11 goals, ten assists and 32 points. Ahead of January’s Draft in Los Angeles, though, she was sizing up other possibilities, eventually moving to another of the world’s best leagues in March.
“Well, I really wanted to continue playing in the U.S. because I was very familiar with the culture there and it would’ve been exciting to experience a U.S. state other than Tennessee, but as the NWSL Draft came around, it seemed unlikely I would get drafted, so I explored options in Europe. I’d had my eye on Sweden for a while, simply because of the great things my New Zealand teammates had said about their experiences there.
“I secured a contract at Vittsjö GIK and I’ve been absolutely loving it ever since.”
Over the past five seasons, Vittsjö have finished between 6th and 9th in the 12-team Damallsvenskan and currently sit 5th after seven games of the 2017 campaign. Hannah has also found an instant bond with teammates, which has led to some adventures together already, and she has even been jamming with team physio Niclas Blomqvist.
When memories and meaning are layered into your enjoyment of a song, it can become deeply personal to you, almost as if the rest of the world fades into the background and it’s just you, the artist and all those spine-tingling sounds crashing together in a perfect storm. Perhaps it’s not all that different to how time can slow wonderfully to let you celebrate a particularly meaningful goal, whether you’re a player or a fan in that moment.
Inspiration comes to us in the most varied and sometimes strangest moments and it can be impossible to really put an art form down as a clear process, but Hannah sheds a little light on how her song-writing often plays out, as well as how the world feels to her once she steps on stage.
“Sometimes I’d find a nice rhythm or chord progression and lyrics just come naturally. Other times, lyrics will just enter my mind and I try to write them down, and I can just sit and continue writing if I’m in my zone and I just think of so many things that work well with the meanings of my songs; I then add the music later on.
“Either way, I’ve come up with some really great stuff that I try and practice as often as possible. One of my biggest inspirations is Ed Sheeran and the way he can almost rap his words but he’s still singing them – he is incredible!
“I think that no matter what I’m singing, I like to close my eyes and hear it as I’m playing, and I just get lost in what I’m doing. I completely forget where I am and that there’s even anyone listening.
“There’s not really any thinking that goes into it; once I reach that level of flow, it just comes naturally, and my ability to reach that level has definitely come with a lot of practice!”
A vital ingredient in Hannah’s international career has been the laughs she’s shared with teammates whenever they meet up for camp, and as you may have seen with some of the captions that go along with her Instagram posts, she can roll out the puns from time to time! Her song material, however, is generally much more heartfelt.
“Most of them have been about significant others; heartthrobs and heartaches! One has been about music itself as an outlet, called ‘For Those Who Feel the Most’, and one of my latest is called ‘Wolves’, and it’s about being alone when times are hardest.
“As soon as I’m able to professionally record my stuff, I will probably look to post them. I’m so paranoid someone would steal my material if I posted it without any copyright protection – just need to figure out how to do that at some point!”
When Hannah’s move to Vittsjö was announced, Brian Pensky paid immense tribute to his former player, stating that ‘the sky is the limit’ for the 2011 New Zealand Football Young Player of the Year. It was during her time at UT that she notched goals in each game of an October 2013 friendly double-header against the U.S., after she’d done the same when seizing on a Kelley O’Hara back-pass to lift over Nicole Barnhart in a February 2012 friendly in Frisco, Texas.
One of those efforts was an 87th-minute, quick-break equaliser to grab a 1-1 draw in Columbus, Ohio, and the way she took Rebekah Stott’s pass in the right channel before going on to flash an unstoppable shot over Hope Solo into the far corner showed her opportunism, power and potentially deadly finishing ability all in one. A debutant against Australia when she was still just 17, Hannah already had the two biggest international competitions under her belt at 20 years old and the way she was battling physically with experienced defenders in competitions like the 2012 Olympics particularly sticks in the mind.
When reminded of this, Hannah offered her thoughts on how she has changed since those relatively early glimpses of her on the big stage.
“I think that’s an area I’ve definitely improved since I’ve been committed to working my upper-body strength as well as my lower. Over the years of international football, I’ve learned the sheer importance of keeping the ball, and recently I’ve been better at holding defenders back with my frame, with the ball at my feet.”
A one-time Kamo High School student, Hannah had started playing the game as an eight-year-old – anything her brothers Tom and Samuel did, she wanted to try, too. Back in Whangarei growing up, her father Simon coached the three of them and last August saw Hannah become a two-time Olympian as she started in the Ferns’ group games in Brazil against the U.S., Colombia and France.
The Northlander says she is grateful to be from what she describes as a ‘liberal and culturally diverse’ place like New Zealand, with southern Sweden of course recently becoming her second adopted home. The accepting and supportive team environment she has been at the heart of during her international career has been especially crucial in her life to date, so has she found anything similar in amongst her multi-national teammates and the beautiful lake and forest scenery of Vittsjö?
“So far, Sweden has been fantastic! The Swedish are incredibly friendly and funny, and I’ve already made such good friends.”
In this revisit to Hannah’s ever-winding odyssey, we’ve seen someone now wiser from all her experiences; from the moments of drudgery to those that have had her roaming in dreamland. As a striker and songstress, she has both the ability and platform to push herself on as far as she wants to, while the chances of her continuing to inspire along the way look more than favourable.
Whatever havoc she wreaks on the field and whatever melodic magic she weaves off it, she has two brilliantly different, yet funnily very similar worlds to lose herself in. Before you get to have her songs as your own, you’ve at least got the studio pass via social media, while it’s really only just getting started on the field, even after everything that brought her to this point.
If you’ve read the site before you may have seen that the interviews typically close with the player searching for four current or former teammates to join them in a fantasy 5-a-side line-up. The 2014 Hannah already went through that in part one, so let’s put the 2017 version in charge of a festival instead!
There might be some teammates who’ll want their own spot on the bill, but with absolutely any artists or bands eligible for booking here, whether retired, disbanded, deceased or still going strong, Hannah has a pretty good idea of who’d be headlining…after ‘Wilky and the Uku-Ladies’ of course!
“Jimi Hendrix for sure makes that list, 100%, along with Shakey Graves, Kings of Leon, Led Zep, and Jack Johnson. I have actually not been to many live shows at all, mainly because of football commitments!
“I did go and see Six60 live in New Zealand and that was utterly incredible; I’m still a really huge fan of them. The last live music experience I had was actually in Nashville, when I went there to visit a friend before I left Tennessee for Sweden.
“That was really, really amazing, and I thought seriously about how I was going to come back and try to live in Nashville!”
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