Hannah & Maggie find their niche in the LGBT-college-folk music scene
Hannah Hickok and Maggie Kraus first met when they joined an a cappella singing group at Smith College in 2009, and it didn’t take long for them to realize they were on the same wavelength in a number of ways. Their voices melded beautifully and they both liked folk music and girls, but it wasn’t till they wrote their first song together that it became clear how simpatico they really were.
The two singer-songwriters, who had grown up listening to Joni Mitchell and James Taylor on either side of the Hudson River—Hannah (pictured above left) in Westchester, N.Y., Maggie in Maplewood, N.J.—decided to enter a songwriting competition as a duo. “We thought, ‘Why don’t we do it together? We can rally our fan bases and combine forces,” explains Maggie. “So we sat down one afternoon, and it pretty much happened in one sitting. I think I had had some chords in mind and we got our guitars and wrote for half an hour, and then we shared the words we’d written and kind of reorganized it. It was amazing how easy it seemed. The fact that we made the same decisions in a very smooth and natural way was remarkable.” Hannah likens it to a platonic love affair. “I have a partner I live with, and then I have this relationship with Maggie that is so artistically fulfilling in ways I never anticipated,” she says. “It’s unlike any other relationship in my life.”
In 2011, the duo released their debut LP, Fine Being Here, followed by Muscle & Bone in 2012. And last month they unveiled In the Company of Strangers, 13 new acoustic songs embellished with the occasional mandolin, clarinet and trumpet, marked by sweet, effortless-sounding harmonies. “I feel like we never had to think twice about harmonizing together because we’d already been doing it in the singing group,” says Hannah. “It was second nature to us.”
They still have day jobs, but Hannah & Maggie have found a comfortable niche for themselves in the LGBT-college-folk music scene—about as supportive an environment as they could hope to find, and much more so than pop, rock or country. “Yeah!” says Maggie. “The most uncomfortable I’ve ever been is when we accidentally booked a performance at a honky tonk bar in Salt Lake City. It was the kind of place where we consciously toned down the gayness of our music—we swallowed all the s’s of the ‘she’s’ in the love songs to play down the fact that they were love songs to women. I was a little freaked out.”
“It’s important for us to find safe spaces to sing love songs to women, and obviously some are safer than others,” adds Hannah. “When we started, I didn’t want to be seen as using our gayness as a gimmick. As soon as you start marketing yourself as a gay duo, you alienate certain people. It was parallel to coming out of the closet as an individual, to come out of the closet and own a lesbian identity as people who are trying to get their name out there and do an artistic project. It was a double-edged sword at first, but now we’ve embraced the identity of being a gay duo, and the gay community has embraced us.”
“I wonder what niches other singers find to help them succeed,” says Maggie. “The folk and LGBT worlds have been very open to us. It’s not unlike the feeling you get when you meet another gay person—there’s a camaraderie. It’s best not to generalize, obviously, but it’s a comfortable space to inhabit when you know there’s at least someone who’s on the same page as you.”
“It’s important for us to find safe spaces to sing love songs to women.”