Years ago, singer/guitarist Hannah Wicklund performed for Brian Johnson, the longtime lead singer of AC/DC. She and her band the Steppin' Stones got booked to play a few private shows for Johnson and his vintage racing team, and their setlist included some AC/DC songs. That would undoubtedly be a trial-by-fire moment for anyone who loves loud, hard rock 'n' roll as much as Wicklund does, a potent combo of terror and excitement.
When she played those shows, she was 13 years old.
"He was the first real rock star I ever met," Wicklund says. "It was super cool. He was a really nice guy, and he took the time to tell us some really cool stories. I wish I'd taken the time to pay better attention and remember all of them, but it was really cool."
After Wicklund unleashed her band for Johnson, his team, and their guests, the AC/DC singer got up on the mic and said one thing that Wicklund will never forget.
"He said, 'If these kids don't go onward and upward, it's their own damn fault,'" she remembers with a laugh. "And that's the main thing that's stuck with me."
No one's ever going to accuse Wicklund of not trying to live up to that onward and upward goal. At age 22, she's a seasoned veteran, and that's because she started her band when she was seven years old.
"My brother [Luke Mitchell] is in the High Divers," she says, "and he was kind of already playing out when he was 13, so when I was like six years old I was watching him play. Then I switched over from piano to guitar, and the next step was, 'Let's start a band.' Then it was, 'Let's get some gigs,' and then 'Let's get as many gigs as we can.' By the time I was 12, I was playing out multiple times a week and starting to make real money."
And none of that seemed unusual to Wicklund at all, probably because her brother had done that as well. So she didn't understand why she'd get the occasional surprised laugh or funny look.
"It was very normal to me," she says. "Now that I'm 22, I look back and I think, 'Oh, I get it now.' I get how strange it was. Everyone would be surprised about how young I was, and I was like, 'What's so funny?' Now I get why it was so funny."
She even had to deal with her bandmates laughing at her occasionally, though that eventually stopped.
"The band dynamic role was very set in the early years," she says. "I was definitely taking on a leadership role, and the guys were one or two years older than me. It was hard at times. There were many times that they would do shit on purpose to annoy me, and I let them. They were trying to get a reaction out of me because we were still kids. But we were still rehearsing two or three hours a day two or three times a week."
They may have been occasional laughs about her age, but no one was laughing at Wicklund's singing, or guitar playing, or songwriting. She has a powerful, bluesy yowl of a voice and is an absolute beast on guitar, ripping off mountainous riffs and filthy solos with equal ease.
"I listened a lot to people like Mike Campbell, Neil Young, Angus Young, and Keith Richards," she says of her playing style. "I was definitely going for a gnarlier guitar tone. I liked overdrive because I was a kid, and when you're a kid, what you're playing on overdrive sounds better than what you're playing clean. That definitely shaped my guitar playing early on. I got really comfortable with noise."
As for songwriting, on her band's self-titled 2018 album, produced by Jason Isbell guitarist Sadler Vaden, she can conjure massive rockers ("Bomb Through the Breeze"), emotional ballads ("Looking Glass"), bluesy stomps ("Strawberry Moon"), and delicate acoustic folk ("Shadowboxes & Porcelain Faces") like all of them are second nature.
"I've been putting out music for a long time now," says Wicklund, who, once again, is 22-years-old, "and it's important to me to be conscious of taking people on a journey. As a listener, if someone plays a million songs that sound exactly the same, I'm going to get bored. It's cool to have some bluesy songs, some rock-leaning ones, and some songwriter-focused ones. I love Led Zeppelin because they took you on a journey. There were common threads in their music, but every song was different, and that's some thing to be admired."
As for her collaboration with Vaden, Wicklund says it came through personal connections, not professional ones.
"We had a couple of mutual friends in Charleston," she says, "and they'd put him on my radar. We ran into each other at the beginning of 2017, and about two months later when we were starting to think about producers, it was something he wanted to try. Sadler hadn't produced an album before; it was the first full-length he'd ever done, and it was perfect timing. It was a good jumping off point for the both of us."