Crying on the subways with a young artist bored of her town
Every morning when Los Angeles-based artist Hana Vu wakes up, she listens to ‘Promiscuous’ by Nelly Furtado. Pop music, particularly the top 40s of the early 2000s, is Hana’s go to playlist first thing. It makes her feel good and sets her up for the day.
In the afternoon, or maybe when she’s writing, she’ll switch to artists that are more familiar with her songwriting style, St Vincent, Porches or Japanese Breakfast, for instance. Hana is still growing her musical tastes and, in turn, has created a hybrid of genres in her own music. Rhythmic drumming and repetitive jangling guitars sit behind her pop bravo voice that could easily nestle within the commercial and alternative music charts. Both come together on her second EP, and her first on Fat Possum’s new imprint, Luminelle.
The refreshingly honest way Hana lists her music tastes, (Natasha Beddingfield and Michael Bublé are both what she’s been playing when we speak), could partly be down to her age. Hana is currently 17, this is the music she grew up with, noting the brilliance of both Destiny’s Child’s songwriting and Lana Del Rey records as influences. In many ways, stars like Taylor Swift – “a genius” who she recently based her college entry essay on – are also her contemporaries, picked up by record labels at a young age just as she has been.
While Hana’s young age will always be brought up in relation to her creative pursuits – mainly because it’s so impressive – it’s not the fascinating thing about her. Instead, her age filters into a narrative about how you interact with the world in your late teens. While other LA-based bands write about the area’s idyllic beaches and lifestyle, Hana’s songwriting is carved around the relatable concept of being a fed up teenager stuck in the place you’ve always known. “I love LA, it’s the best,” she says, “but it’s so chill, you can do whatever you want. It gets old after 17 years, but anywhere does. It’s cars and the ocean, you know?”
Cars and transport in general are the unlikely protagonist of Hana’s new EP. Its title proves this (‘How Many Times Have You Driven By’), as does its lead single, ‘Crying on the Subway’. Public transport isn’t regularly the songwriting spur for artists but it’s where Hana spends a lot of her time; she can’t drive after all. “You can be 16 and drive but I don’t want to,” she explains. “It feels like a lot of effort on my part.”
Instead, Hana gets the red line, the most popular in the city that travels through all corners of Hollywood before heading downtown. “It’s sort of what every valley teen takes,” she says. Her journeys on the subway began “when I was younger… I mean when I was younger than I am now,” she laughs. She played a lot of shows downtown as part of the DIY scene, in backyards and at parties, and her “commute” was where she listened to music the most. “That’s why I love being on the subway,” she says. “I don’t really like where I’m going and I don’t like where I was, but I like the in-between. I guess transportation is a thing for me, subconsciously.” Her lyrics speak this sentiment just as she does in conversation: ‘In my dreams I am in the grey room / In my chest I’m feeling dark blue,’ Hana sings on the EP’s opening track. ‘Take the red line into downtown / I’m trying to escape you, crying on the subway.’
The teenage diary-like account that flows through Hana’s lyricism has made her music so relatable. It’s a comment about her music she enjoys hearing too, when she says, “someone texted me saying they were listening to my song on the subway and I was like, that’s what it was made for!” But at the same time, this isn’t purposeful as she goes on to explain: “I read somewhere that was like, ‘Hana Vu’s music is so relatable to teens,’ but I don’t mean it to be! I’m just this kind of person and everyone’s kind of a version of each other. It feels good for me to hear that people like my songs, and know I’m not the only one crying on the subway.”
A large reason why Hana’s songs evoke such a strong sense of feeling glum as an adolescent, a little dramatic and hopeful in equal measure, is due to the time period the record was created in, from November 2016 to now, or between the ages of 15 to 17 in Hana years. It’s also a characteristic Hana believes to be the reason Luminelle signed her after stumbling across her video on a Reddit thread: “I think what my label liked about the album is that a lot of the songs are really different from one another. But I think just depending on what time I wrote them they’re all a little bit about the same thing – being in the city as a young person it’s very lonely but also not at the same time.” By developing her songwriting at such a young age also means that Hana is self-taught, producing the EP herself through what she admits was “trial and error”.
Her set up in the bedroom of her parents’ home (“I don’t even try to record when my parents are in the house.”) is minimal. “I don’t have a lot of equipment because I don’t have my own space,” she says. “I’d love to get a home studio going but right now I have my interface, I use a Logic keyboard, and I don’t have a proper microphone. I think for all the vocals on the EP I used my Apple headphones, but mixed it to the maximum.” This effect creates a very endearing quality to Hana’s release and a sweet image too. “You have to hold them [the headphones] a little far from your face, so it doesn’t distort. Get that sweet spot, turn the air conditioning off and close your windows and you’re fine.”
At the time of speaking, despite putting out two records in her own time, Hana is juggling high school, music and a part time job. High school appears to be the least necessary in her mind. “I don’t go too often these days,” she says. “I try to go twice a week, at least. I try to do well enough so I don’t have to go. I do all this other stuff during the day; I don’t really have time for it. And it’s almost done!” Despite her college entry essay on the brilliance of Taylor Swift, university is an idea Hana isn’t keen on either for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, “the college system in America is ridiculous; no one can afford to go,” coupled with a pining to make music “my full time thing.”
Hana’s blatant honesty continues when she mentions her ideal future too: “I did apply to college, so that might be on the cards. But if I think about what I want to do this year, I kind of just want to be a rockstar.” She lists a want for stability but views this becoming a reality through touring places like Denmark, Sweden or the Midwest rather than just moving in to a dorm room. “It’s a bit juvenile and nothing-y about the future, but right now I just want to be a rockstar.”