​fanclubwallet Is Making Rock Music Accessible

"I spent a lot of time feeling like a stranger in my own body," says Ottawa songwriter Hannah Judge

Photo: Ian Filipovic

BY Megan LaPierrePublished May 19, 2022

Hannah Judge is doing something cool. And whenever possible, she's doing it in sweatpants.

"Time to record and produce this EP from bed the #disabled way," the Ottawa artist known as fanclubwallet — named after a piece of Dennis the Menace merch her father once owned — wrote in an Instagram story at the outset of what would become 2021's Hurt Is Boring, the filler-free, bedroom pop-meets-slacker rock debut EP she made in lockdown during a lengthy Crohn's flare-up. A form of inflammatory bowel disease, the condition involves inflammation of the digestive tract and can affect people in myriad ways; Judge experiences extreme abdominal pain, as well as more generalized body pain and consequent insomnia and exhaustion, alongside an aversion to eating and the inability to get out of bed when going through a flare.

"Well, better. It was better," she laughs over Zoom when I ask what it was like to venture out of her bedroom to the Port William Sound studio in Frontenac County, ON, to polish her debut LP, You Have Got to Be Kidding Me. "I would have a lot of moments [of being] like, 'Whoa, this is so cool! Before I was just in bed and now I've got a real music studio!' It felt more real — like, 'Okay, I'm making an album.'"

Getting out of her bedroom doesn't make the record any less DIY, though — it was all made in collaboration between Judge and her childhood friend and producer, Michael Watson. "Everything starts off with the same sort of approach," she says, illustrating how she and Watson would go back and forth between each other's houses, spitballing ideas both separately and together. "We recorded most of the demos at Michael's and then took them to Port William Sound to solidify them, and that's where I think they got really taken to the next step," Judge explains, noting that she got to use a Mellotron, a grand piano and other expensive instruments she hadn't previously had access to that allowed her to expand on the sound.

When she announced the album, there was a quote in the press materials about how Judge had been watching a lot of of Grey's Anatomy during the writing process — though it seems unlikely that she got too deep into the series' 18 seasons. "Every time I try to start rewatching Grey's Anatomy, I end up having to stop a couple seasons in because I'm like, 'This is so depressing,'" she admits, further illuminating the headspace she was in while writing. What resulted hardly sounds anything like Sleeping at Last covering Snow Patrol, though. In fact, if you were to compare it to any television series set in a hospital (and there's no shortage to choose from), Scrubs would be a better bet.

"The first time I was ever hospitalized, I remember asking the nurses, 'Is it like Scrubs here?' And they were like, 'No, not really,'" Judge recounts of the illusion being shattered for her 16-year-old self. "All those medical dramas are like, 'We'll get to the bottom of this!' They put in all the work possible to find a diagnosis…" she trails off before adding, "That's not real."

There's comfort in humour, at least: "I find that anytime I end up in the hospital, I watch so much Scrubs. I'm like, 'I'm in the hospital and it's super depressing and I hate this,' but then I'll watch Zach Braff being stupid." One of these hospitalizations was in October 2020, right after the release of Hurt Is Boring's opening track and single "Car Crash in G Major," which she notes accumulated lots of plays by the time she was released.

Conversely, You Have Got to Be Kidding Me was just made during a period of remission.

"[The album was] very much written when I was starting to feel better and things were kind of opening up within the pandemic," reflects Judge. "I was like, 'Okay, I'm gonna start being a person again. I'm gonna leave my house and feel emotions; I'm gonna exit survival mode and go into life mode.'" This relatable premise of learning how to get back out into a world that had become increasingly harder to navigate is distilled most literally in "Go Out," which follows the circular whirring clicks and pings of two-minute instrumental "55," as if to commence a new chapter. 

In constant motion like a restless mind, the singer-songwriter traces the cyclical thought patterns — "Rattling around in my head like rocks," as she puts it on lead single "That I Won't Do." The album's steady loops of fluid guitar riffs and synth pads sound as if they were designed to inspire movement, and we see a cartoon Judge mid-step on the album artwork by Meredith Smallwood, its grayscale-leaning sepia evoking the muted, Casio-toned warmth that manages to seep into the album's most alienated soundscapes. From the biting sarcasm lurching out of the syncopated vocal phrasing on "Gr8 Timing!" to the acoustic strums and twinkling synth haze of '90s rock slow jam "Coming Over," the musician's landscape sprawls in new directions as she tentatively emerges from beneath the covers.

"I was just feeling super unbalanced and everything was different too," Judge says, describing the period of immense societal and personal upheaval. "Like, 'Okay, I'm a musician now,' and just getting used to my own body again."

She offers, "I feel like a big part of it was learning to like how I looked again, because when I was sick last year, I was on Prednisone and that makes you gain so much weight." She's quick to add, "I was cute though! This time was really surprising — the first time I got sick, I lost a ton of weight."

Judge is touching on something that a lot of people with invisible illnesses, myself included, grapple with: they don't have a particular look to them. And with the strange sense of obligation to remain visually recognizable that I myself have felt, going through similar fluctuations depending on the course of treatment, it feels like we're constantly reckoning with perception — others' and our own. The one consistency is inconsistency, but it never feels easier.

"I spent a lot of time feeling like a stranger in my own body," Judge agrees, emphasizing the discombobulation of trying to go shopping for clothes. "I was feeling just so unhinged. The album's a lot of me just being like, 'Who am I? What's going on? What is the world now?"

She adds, "I think people could relate to it in a coming-of-age way, but also in more specific ways — like [through] a disabled lens." She also approves of considering it a Gemini album with its May 20 (close enough!) release date — after all, she sings about splitting herself in two on "That I Won't Do."

You Have Got to Be Kidding Me's exasperated titular sentiment reflects an important realization for the singer-songwriter: her candid rejection of idealizing herself as the quintessential cool, chill girl.

"There are a lot of scenarios in which I'm like, 'I would love to seem like super normal and cool right now,'" Judge explains. "I don't drink because it just makes me so sick and, playing venues, they automatically give you drink tickets," she says, lamenting the standard protocol of scheduled social procedures like going to parties or on dates. "When you're young, people are like, 'Let's go for drinks,' and I'm just like, 'I have to come up with some other equally cool thing,' and it's this whole other added level of pressure."

She laughs, "I would love to go out and have a few gin and tonics and feel very relaxed, but I'm just very high-strung." 

Judge recognizes that the archetype of being a laidback, low-maintenance woman as being steeped in ableism. In turn, coming to terms with it has meant recognizing her own internalized prescriptions of what's normal. She gives an anecdote about when she was on a nasogastric feeding tube in high school and being at Thanksgiving dinner with her best friend's family. "Everyone else was eating turkey, and I was just eating this huge gummy bear with a knife," she grins at the ridiculousness of the image. "Everyone was looking at me like I was so weird, but that was just the coolest."

When she sings "I'm just kidding / No need to overreact" on the title track, she embodies the forces behind the verbatim missiles that have been lobbed at her — from blatant ignorance to straight-up gaslighting. While many chronic illnesses aren't visible to the untrained eye, the power of disclosure is a double-edged sword. Judge recalls having told one of her university professors to contextualize having had to miss a few classes. "She was like, 'When are you going to get better?' And I was like, 'Never! I told you this,'" the singer-songwriter remembers. 

Chronic illnesses thwart the traditional recovery narrative, leaving us in the perpetual in-between of 'health' and death. It's also an additional challenge with the lifestyle of a musician — namely, going on tour. fanclubwallet's maiden voyage was a stint opening for Montreal band Fleece last November, when Judge says she was starting to feel better. She ended up having a Crohn's flare-up on the road, and needed to pull over on the way out of Chicago so she could throw up.

"It's really scary being in the US and getting sick," she explains. "In the car, I was like, 'If we were in Ottawa, I would probably go to the hospital, but I don't know how that works here.'" The artist brings a bag packed with her chronic illness management necessities (a heating pad, pain medication and more), but there's only so much preparation that can be done.

"I ended up lying in the backseat of the RAV4 SUV for three days until I started to feel better," Judge recounts. "I'm lucky — my bandmates would do the load-in and teardown for me when I was not feeling good. I would just lie down and then get onstage, do it, and then lie down again."

Though it's the only touring landscape she's known as a musician herself (she's been on a few tours as a photographer), playing live during the pandemic has been extra precarious. "Oh my god, it's such a stressful thing for everyone," she recognizes. "If a small DIY band gets COVID — if we get COVID, we're kind of screwed."

She adds, "It's such a mess," noting the financial hardships of venues that get in the way of having different green rooms for different bands and other ways of mitigating COVID-19 risk. In terms of making live music more accessible for both fans and immunocompromised artists like herself, she would love to see venues continuing to require proof of vaccination and masks.

"You're in there for like an hour or two — it's not hard," she remarks of masking and artists exercising their power, however limited, by asking fans to keep their masks on during the show. "It's good to see a lot of the discourse on Twitter opening up about it and bigger indie artists posting," citing SASAMI's recent tweets begging for her audience to stay masked. In a pandemic where they have been incessantly treated as disposable, Judge and disabled people at large are confronted by more undeniable rampant ableism on a daily basis.

Not that she's not used to mourning imagined futures: her diagnosis made the artist feel like like the world caved in.

"When I got sick, I was in high school and I was so upset," Judge tells me. "I was like, 'I'm never going to be able to do anything cool.'" She goes on to say that an early shift in perspective came in the form of finding out that a guy she knew also had Crohn's, and he was coping with it while going on train-hopping adventures: "Just knowing that someone else had the same illness as me and was doing kickass stuff made me be like, 'Okay, maybe everything is not horrible forever.'"

That's why it's important for her to post about her disability online. "Being able to be open about Crohn's on the internet — if anyone sees that has it and is like, 'Oh, she's touring and making music even though she can't get out of bed, maybe I can do that too,' that would be an amazing thing," Judge says.

So far, 2022 has been a better year, but the fear of inevitable flare-ups to come looms. You can hear the fragility of the world she spins in You Have Got to Be Kidding Me, where there's no time to be wasted on sugar-coating. "I'm always worried that I could get sick again at any moment," she admits. "And then like, who knows?"

But that stands as a key tenet of her whole disabled-DIY ethos of meeting herself where she's at —  and it's become embedded in her signature sound. "Anyone can make lo-fi music and it's so awesome to me," Judge effuses. "[It's] pretty accessible; you don't even need to get out of bed at all!"

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