HANA: The Best of What’s Next

Music Features
HANA: The Best of What’s Next

One year ago, Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter/producer HANA (rhymes with Donna) released her shimmering electro-pop track, “Clay,” to SoundCloud. Highlighted by her tranquil vocals, and boosted by endorsements from Grimes and Lorde via Twitter, the song created instant buzz and incited inquiring music outlets to investigate who HANA was. It turned out that “Clay” had marked an artistic rebirth for the musician, who previously recorded under her full name, Hana Pestle. She had spent six years of her late teens and early 20s singing in coffee houses and touring college campuses as an acoustic-based singer/songwriter/guitarist.

Last month, under a violet hue of stage lights inside Los Angeles’ El Rey Theatre, HANA found a pure moment of bliss while performing “Clay” during an opening set for Christine and the Queens. At the tail end of the song, HANA closed her eyes, flashed a serene smile, and swayed to the synthetic beat as a prerecorded loop of backing vocals repeated the chorus: “Now I’m going away/ And you’ll never find me…Now I can find happy/ Nothing to show but my name.” HANA, who plays solo while operating an electronic rig, describes those last seconds of “Clay” as meditative joy.

“Every time I perform it, it’s almost like I’m singing it for the first time, just because it is about so many raw emotions and this relationship that happened,” she explains. “I think once I get through it, and I’m at that point of the song, I’m just relieved and reminded that I have gotten through a lot.”

“Clay,” the opening track on HANA’s eponymous EP released in March, was co-produced with Mike Tucker, a collaborator and longtime friend of Grimes. Tucker also has produced for Madonna and Justin Bieber, formerly under the moniker Blood Diamonds and now BloodPop. HANA met Tucker through her roommate three years ago, at a time when she was feeling creatively stagnant after six years of driving herself campus to campus with her acoustic guitar.

There were positives to the touring: she was doing what she loved, the campus gigs paid well, and she enjoyed interacting with students. But she wasn’t playing for many people, the florescent lights of cafeterias and student centers were aesthetically uninspiring, and the hours on the road got in the way of writing new songs. When she did find the time to write, the material wasn’t exciting her. For a year, she experimented with Ableton and Pro Tools workstations, hoping to approximate the more exotic sounds of artists such as Bjork and Fever Ray, but she hadn’t broken any ground prior to meeting Tucker.

“I was explaining to him what I do,” HANA recounts, “and he asked me point blank, ‘Are you proud of your art? Are you feeling fulfilled?’ And I was like, ‘No. I’m really not.’ So it was that meeting that sparked me to take a break and fully dive into learning how to produce and make art that I was proud of.”

The EP’s spectral third track, “Underwater,” is the first computer-composed song where HANA felt she had something special. She wanted to write a soothing song about encouraging someone to persevere during uncertainty. The lyrics project a maternal sensibility, with the song’s narrator guiding a child through the depths of adversity.

“I’ve always been kind of a maternal person,” HANA says. “I’m a Cancer. I don’t know if I really believe in that kind of stuff, but it is one of the main attributes of a Cancer, and I identify with that. With ‘Underwater,’ it was kind of a mixture between thinking about my little sister and then also thinking about me at the age of my little sister. She’s five years younger than me.”

Born in Atlanta, HANA moved with her family to Salt Lake City when she was six, and then to Billings, Montana at eight years old. The moves were prompted by her mother’s pursuits in the medical field after earning a master’s degree in nutrition. HANA’s father teaches English and drama. Her memories of Atlanta revolve around music, living in the Five Points district, which she remembers as grungy, and blasting songs by R.E.M. and Alanis Morissette in the car. Her parents listened to a wide variety of artists, from Bonnie Raitt to Metallica to Lauryn Hill. On a return visit to Atlanta in 1998, HANA saw Spice Girls in concert.

“It was amazing,” she says. “It was the best experience of my entire life.”

In Billings, HANA’s parents bought her a guitar at a garage sale when she was in the fifth grade, but it was difficult on her fingers. She upgraded to a newer, smaller guitar that was better suited for a youngster, and with persistence and calluses, she learned to play songs by Radiohead and Morissette. A fascination with politics and anti-establishment music coincided with her learning songs by Ani DiFranco and Bright Eyes, whom she saw perform in Montana circa the Lifted album. By learning the chord structures and progressions to play covers, she developed a sense of how to compose her own songs, culling lyrics from poetry that she had written in her journal. In her notebook, she made a list of all the coffee shops and bookstores in Billings and asked them if she could sing and play guitar there.

“Usually, they would let me,” she recalls. “My first shows were at the Borders bookstore, and I had two original songs, and I would play six Radiohead covers.”

She also had a punk band that went through various names. At one point, they were called Lavender Strat, after her guitar.

“I think we changed it the next day,” she says, laughing and disparaging the name. “We would cover a whole spectrum of things. I would want to play ‘Sunday Morning’ by No Doubt, and my bassist would want to play Metallica, which I was pretty stoked with too.”

By high school, HANA had submersed herself in music. While building a repertoire of original compositions, she sang in choir and performed in musical theater at school. As a sophomore, she played Belle in Beauty and the Beast.

“I felt like I was living my childhood dream,” she says, remembering her early obsession with Disney. “I think it’ll be something that I do again, hopefully, being in a musical.”

When HANA was a junior in high school, a tape of her performing found its way to producers Michael “Fish” Herring and Ben Moody, a former member of Evanesence. Months later, she met with them in Los Angeles, and that led to her working on an album with them during her senior year, while bouncing back and forth from Billings to L.A. She moved to L.A. at 17 years old, a week after graduating high school.

“I wish I had been more outspoken about what I wanted the project to be,” she confesses. “Now, I look back and I’m really thankful to both of them, although I did get involved with one of them, which was not great. But it really just became something that I don’t think was very me.”

Still, this period had its highlights. She opened for the shared bill of Collective Soul, Live and Blues Traveler at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, and she recorded backup vocals for Celine Dion’s Taking Chances album. However, when the time came to launch her project as HANA, she removed what she could of her previous music from the Internet. Some tracks under the name Hana Pestle remain available, because she doesn’t have access to them.

“I guess I could have left it up, but I just wanted a clean slate,” she explains. “The stuff didn’t feel like it was really me. It had a lot connected to it, past relationships. It’s a complicated situation, because my whole past career is tied to so many negative things in my mind.”

Through HANA’s relationship with Tucker—they are currently a couple—she became fast friends with Claire Boucher, a.k.a. Grimes. HANA felt an immediate sense of comfort with Boucher, whose friendship with Tucker goes back six years. They bonded over various similar interests, including movies.

“I remember specifically when she started to respect me,” HANA says. “We were playing some dumb trivia game, and I beat her in Harry Potter trivia.”

Last year, Boucher asked HANA to join her as a backup singer for her support dates on Lana Del Rey’s Endless Summer Tour. For the tour’s last two shows, Boucher invited HANA to step out front to perform “Clay.” The first of those nights was in Atlanta, at the Lakewood Amphitheatre, where HANA saw Spice Girls when she was eight years old.

“Being able to see Lana’s show so many times was inspiring,” HANA says. “Being able to be onstage with Claire at the same time, and just experience that energy, it was eye-opening. I was so inspired by that whole entire thing and honored that she would ask me to come out with her.”

HANA has been taking meetings with labels ever since she self-released “Clay” to SoundCloud, but she doesn’t want to rush into anything.

“I just want to keep a good eye on the situation,” she says, “until I feel like the right one is right in front of me.”

For a time, HANA struggled with regret, and there’s still a part of her that wishes that some of the situations she encountered after moving to Los Angeles had never occurred. But now she’s surrounded by a circle of friends that she cherishes, and she’s proud of the songs on her EP, which are a testament to how she’s endured. They make her heart feel full, and the responses to them have surprised her in the best way.

“I didn’t realize that young girls would find so much hope in my music,” she says. “Some girls have said that ‘Clay’ helped them get out of a really bad relationship, where the guy’s being abusive. I’m shocked, because I was writing them to help my own pain. You always hope that people are going to listen to them, but I can’t believe that I’m helping other people, and that makes me so happy. When I get letters like that, it blows my mind. It really brings it full circle for me.”

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