Hannah Kol’s first album, “Sunny Day,” delivers on its promise: eight upbeat sunny-side tracks, with notes of reggae, pop and Americana, all evoking hope and positivity. However, its release comes on the heels of a year that was anything but bright for the former Wilmingtonian.
The 20-year-old’s battle with mono and a diagnosis of Lyme disease, which took its toll on her physically, was followed by heartbreaking news her childhood friend and ILM musician Cole Rassin passed away in February 2018. “I was just really not in a great place,” she surmises. “But Cole’s family gifted me six of his songs.” The end result garnered the highest praise Kol could ask for from Rassin’s mother. “She said it sounded like something Cole would have written,” Kol remembers, “and that was the ultimate compliment to me.”
22-year-old Rassin suffered from schizoaffective disorder and went missing at the beginning of the year. When his body was found, it was believed he died from accidental drowning in the Cape Fear River. Rassin loved music and in honor of such, Kol’s album release party at the Annex at BAC on Sunday will gift a portion of sales to Music Heals Minds. Kol founded the nonprofit to help young people with mental illness obtain instruments for therapy. She also will collect donated instruments at the party.
While Rassin was a couple of years Kol’s senior, they spent much of their formative years together throughout middle and high school. They were both active in the theatre community. “His whole family was my second family,” Kol says. “He’d call me ‘Sis’ and he was like my brother.”
Rassin was a prolific songwriter. To honor his talents, Kol decided to piece a few of them together for “Sunny Day.” “[I] actually did the whole album in the order they were written and the first six are [Cole’s,],” she tells, “and a lot of them weren’t finished, so I felt like I was kind of writing with him. It was a cool experience for healing.”
While some songs had a verse or chorus, Kol filled in the blanks and structured them. It was her first foray into songwriting. “I was so intimidated,” she admits. “[Cole] was a natural writer and ‘easy come, easy go.’ I’m sure he wrote hundreds of songs, and that was something I always admired about him.”
Kol remembers when Rassin wrote the first track, “Beautiful.” They were young teens and his words at the time were seemingly indicative of typical growing pains:
“I start worrying about things no one else can see / Is it bad that it’s hard to be me? / At times we all hate things about ourselves / And we all wish we were someone else / We’ve got to learn to live with what we’re dealt / Because you’re beautiful if you’re yourself.”
The lines would become more telling for Kol. “It’s just something everyone struggles with,” she expresses. “I wanted that song as close to what it was as possible . . . and that’s one I had to write the least on.”
While Kol felt pressure to commit to a genre for her debut record, Rassin’s work didn’t fit into one category. It matched his personality. Kol wanted to represent different parts of who her friend was as an artist and person. She achieved help with James Waddell at Nashville’s Lyricanvas Recording Studios.
“I had YouTube videos of Cole singing; voice memos of the songs I’d written,” Kol tells. “I didn’t have much of anything—immediately he had all these ideas and it was super cohesive. I didn’t expect it to be that easy.”
One video shows Rassin in his room, singing “I’ve Got Love.” He sits on a box and wears a beanie. For Kol the scene evoked a reggae feel, in tone and sound. She ultimately pursued singer Javier Rodriguez.
“The song is about where you’re from, your roots, and love for city,” she explains. “I just thought it would be awesome to have someone from my roots, someone from Wilmington, be a part of that. [Rodriguez] got to write a whole verse and ad-lib throughout.”
Though Kol never met Michael Eakins, featured on “Here I Am,” she saw him perform online and invited him to be a part of the project at the last hour. Eakins jumped on board with ideas.
“He said, ‘I hear this kind of Lady Antebellum duet thing,’” Kol remembers. “I knew it was the right move based on how passionate he was . . . [the song] did a complete 180 in style.”
While the first six songs started with Rassin, Kol kept her friend in mind for the final two she wrote. Her first song, “Someday,” was written the night she found out Rassin was missing. The urge to unite was inexplicably overwhelming. “I was kind of writing it to his parents,” she divulges. “It felt completely natural, which was weird for someone who always felt uncomfortable writing.”
Kol also wrote the title track, and while it is metaphorically appropriate in encapsulating the album, its start was more literal. “I really wasn’t going to name the album ‘Sunny Day,’” she tells. “A girl contacted me who had been a friend of Cole’s for years, but I never met her. Her name was Sunny. . . . As I was talking to her, I literally had to get off the phone and sit down at my piano . . . she had been so positive and uplifting to me with the whole situation.”