Mercury prize hopefuls Lanterns on the Lake: 'These things don’t happen to bands like us'

When Lanterns on the Lake were told they’d been nominated for the 2020 Mercury prize, guitarist Paul Gregory refused to believe it.

“Paul was upstairs trying to get the baby to sleep,” explains singer Hazel Wilde, the mother of their one-year-old daughter. “He said, ‘Stop kidding, what have you really come upstairs to tell me?’ Then he thought I must have got the wrong idea.” She sighs into a lager in a North Shields pub – her first visit in months, owing to motherhood and lockdown.

“The thing is, the Mercury’s based on music, not sales, so there’s always that feeling that being nominated might actually happen. But you shove it to the back of your mind because these things don’t happen to bands like us.”

Indeed, lesser-known bands from unfashionable parts of Tyneside aren’t often up for big awards. Never mind an indie five-piece on their fourth album, who have day jobs but have been beavering away under the radar since 2007. Lanterns’ Mercury nomination came 17 years to the day after Wilde first set foot onstage (in her first band, Greenspace). Spook the Herd, released on indie label Bella Union, wasn’t noticed by many reviewers, but those that did lavished praise on its emotive, shimmering songs – think Cocteau Twins meet the National. It deserves wider recognition.

“It’s bizarre to see our band name alongside Dua Lipa or Stormzy” on the shortlist, admits the 38-year-old, “but then I think ‘Why shouldn’t it be?’ And for it to come after we’ve had all our gigs cancelled and everything else [owing to Covid-19] it could not happen at a better time.”

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This isn’t the only “surreal” experience Wilde has gone through lately. A year ago, she almost died, when a detached placenta during childbirth resulted in an emergency caesarean. “I had contractions for hours. Loads of blood. Really gruesome. Then the doctors said, ‘We’ve got to get this baby out.’” Out cold under general anaesthetic, Wilde’s first thought on waking up to discover she was a mother was that everything – even the baby – had been a dream. Recently, BT Sport commissioned Lanterns to create the music for this year’s Champions League coverage. “Sometimes it feels like I’m watching a film of my life, where really unlikely things are happening.”

Lanterns on the Lake
Lanterns on the Lake

Wilde and band are a real-life case of the tortoise and the hare, where talent can win out, given long enough. Quietly determined and uncomfortable in social situations, she was the shy girl in class, “the last person the teachers thought would write songs or sing them”. The trigger was Oasis, a band who bear no discernible musical influence on Lanterns but who showed Wilde “that normal people can do this. It was inspirational.” A comment by a one-time manager at an early Lanterns gig – “You either want to do music or you don’t” – became a manifesto.

Although women musicians were more prevalent after the Britpop era, it never crossed her mind that gender might be a hindrance. “That wasn’t until much later, when I started noticing things like how people would talk about my voice rather than what I was singing. People have said: ‘Do you not think if you were Harry Wilde not Hazel you’d have got further by now?’ I hope that’s not the case.” In fact, fronting Lanterns has brought confidence and empowerment. “I always found it hard to communicate my thoughts, but that came easily in songs,” she explains. “I set myself little goals. I couldn’t read music but loved the mystery of finding a chord change and thinking, ‘This is going to become a song.’”

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Tours, festivals and ambitions gradually got bigger. In 2017 they recorded an orchestral live album with the Royal Northern Sinfonia, and Spook the Herd’s songs stretch to address polarised politics, social media, grief, addiction, climate change and divided Brexit Britain. The band kept on through “mostly financial” hardships, Wilde says, cringing at how they thought that signing to Bella Union meant they could quit their jobs. Oops. “My mum once came round with bags of shopping and said, ‘I thought you might need these.’ It was humiliating, but you just want to say, ‘This will pay off. One day.’”

Four years ago, exhausted, Lanterns began a long hiatus before a pub meeting made them decide to make another album. Now, the singer’s ambitions are for a tour bus and to make a living out of music, things a Mercury win – and the £20,000 prize money – could bring about. Can she contemplate it?

“If we win, it would be for all the artists who have been plugging away for ages without recognition,” she decides. “And we’re in unprecedented times, so for an unknown, long-serving indie band to win it with their fourth album might actually happen.” She isn’t getting carried away, though, and smiles wryly as she drains her lager. “But it probably won’t.”

• Spook the Herd is out now on Bella Union. The Mercury prize winner is announced tonight on The One Show, BBC One.


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