The Toy Hearts Biography – June 2017

The Toy Hearts Band came into being at some point in the year 2000, when sisters Hannah (15) and Sophia (18) informed their dad Stewart that they didn’t just want to go and watch American bands anymore, they wanted to start their own family bluegrass band. This began a theme that ran through out their careers, the sisters consistently defied everyones preconceptions and broke almost every rule they ran into, often not even realising they were breaking rules. From the very beginning, this wasn’t a family band where the girls were ‘forced’ into practicing for hours each day by their father. On the contrary, Hannah and Sophia were too independently minded for that, and it was in fact the opposite; the girls wanted to form a band, approached their multi instrumentalist father, who was of course delighted. In fact, he told them that he had already got a name in mind, just in case this very situation ever arose, and that name, The Toy Hearts, was taken from a classic Bill Monroe song of the same name, the first line being “Darling you toyed with a toy heart”.

The genesis of the band really did stem from a deep love and respect for bluegrass music, a passion for learning and desire to be on stage and perform. From pretty humble beginnings, the Johnson family band honed their craft by playing weekly gigs in their home town of Birmingham. For 5 years (first at the Ceol Castle in Balsall Heath and then at The Road House in Stirchley), The Toy Hearts barely ever missed a gig and began to really develop their own sound, which featured the sisters singing in harmony and their songwriting.

The band initially included other musicians, but as the years passed and the group changed from a hobby/past time to something far more serious, the line up solidified and the core family trio of Hannah Johnson (Vocals/Mandolin) and Sophia Johnson (Guitar/Vocals) and Stewart Johnson (Banjo/Dobro/Steel) became less reliant on other people and began to just be accompanied by a bass player, but handled all other duties amongst themselves.

To date the Toy hearts have recorded 4 full length albums, and an EP. They have toured extensively across the British Isles, Europe and the USA. Hannah is a proud alumni of the prestigious Leadership Bluegrass programme run by the International Bluegrass Music Association.

The musical path which initially led the Johnson’s to Nashville (where they recorded critically acclaimed 4th Album “Femme Fatale” produced by David Mayfield) soon led the band to their real ‘home from home’: Austin, Texas. Their love for the lone star state and particularly the music of Bob Wills became more and more important to their sound. In their last couple of years of touring the band’s set would include a completely acoustic bluegrass first half followed by an electrified second half, allowing Stewart to play steel guitar and the girls to switch to electric mandolin & guitar.

Through out their 10 years of serious touring the band’s gigs have included performing at IBMA World of Bluegrass, SXSW, Tri-State Bluegrass Festival, The Bluegrass Heritage Foundation Festival, Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival, The Shetland Folk Festival, Country Rendez-Vous Festival, Buhl Bluegrass Festival, Cornbury, Shambala, Bestival, The International Gypsy Guitar Festival, Blues on the Farm, Wolverstock Country Music Festival and opening for artists such as Robert Plant, Imelda May, Chris Thile, Ricky Skaggs, Tim O’Brien, The Quebe Sisters, Gene Watson and Peter Rowan. They participated in the first ever Bluegrass jamboree, touring around Germany/Austria performing 19 shows with The Steep Canyon Rangers, who are now comedian turned bluegrasser Steve Martin’s back up band. They have played a live BBC 2 session for Bob Harris and The Toy Hearts can also count Commander Cody guitar legend Bill Kirchen, and Rolling Stones Ronnie Wood as some of their fans.

However, their path wasn’t easy and certainly not always rosy, the bluegrass ‘police’ always found the girls challenging. The sisters became aware that the small British Bluegrass community could, at times, be highly critical of their image, airing such views often on public platforms. Fans of traditional bluegrass music tended to find Hannah and Sophia’s clothing, videos and photographs problematic, and finally the inclusion of a western swing second half of the show signalled the end of acceptance within that community.

Hunter S Thompson called the Music Industry “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench , a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs” it can safely be assumed that all three Johnson’s share this view.

The Toy Hearts were self managed and self financed, any brushes with the ‘old boys network’ that makes up so much of the the music industry resulted in the band being ripped off by Booking Agents, Radio pluggers and managers alike. Grown PR men stormed out of meetings, refusing to listen to ‘girls’. One ‘booking agent’ even refused to book any more shows until the girls agreed to wear leather play suit outfits and even though this sounds like the kind of thing one might expect to have happened to a musical act in the 60s, this was actually around 2009.

In the end their love for each other as a family and for the music they made forced them to take stock of where they were career wise, and all felt so broken down by the industry that they decided to preserve both their sanity and interpersonal relationships by taking an indefinite hiatus in 2014. This was an incredibly painful decision for all involved, but fear not it is not the end!

Over the last three years, plenty has been happening for all three of the Johnson family members. After relocating to Austin, Texas, and getting married, Sophia released an album in her own right in October 2016, challenging herself to sing the lead vocals and incorporating more and more of her love for swing music.  Mean while, back in Birmingham, UK Hannah and Stewart formed ‘Hannah Johnson & The Broken Hearts’ as an offshoot of The Toy Hearts with their focus being traditional Country & Honky Tonk with a distinct bluesy feel. Hannah’s solo record Shaken record in Austin and co produced by Hannah, Sophia and Cris Burns is released in July 2017.

Looking to the future, the year 2020 will mark the 20 year anniversary since the band’s conception and after taking the time to pursue their own projects, and having a break from the gruelling nature of trying to ‘sell the thing that you love’, the three Johnson’s are finally feeling recharged, refreshed and ready to collectively take on the beast that is the music industry again.

The Toy Hearts are pleased to announce that they are beginning to write material for what will be their 5th studio Album and have plans to accompany that release with supporting tours in the UK and the USA.

Watch this space!