Hana Vu Exits Her Comfort Zone

The Los Angeles singer-songwriter discusses exploring existentialism in music, keeping her vision insular, and working with Maegan Houang to create the visuals for her new album, Romanticism.

Music Features Hana Vu
Hana Vu Exits Her Comfort Zone

Hana Vu feels like she has seen it all. Exhausted by being so old and so young simultaneously, the 24-year-old musician confesses “I don’t wanna go anywhere anymore / And I don’t wanna be anything” in “22.” Vu brought the intense drama and irrational imaginative world of her new album, Romanticism, to life by stepping outside of her comfort zone lyrically and creatively—including learning how to sing backward and allowing her head to be cast in a mold for her stirring “Care” music video.

“I went to this scary warehouse in Riverside where they put a bald cap on you and then plaster your face for like an hour. It’s really heavy—you can’t see, and it’s hard to hold your head up after a while because it’s so heavy,” she laughs. “Then, I had sessions with a linguist to study my mouth movements. I’d sing the song forward, and we worked with track-by-mouth movements. I would just watch this video backward and try to match it. It’s impossible to say something and sing something perfectly backward, but at least I could get lip-sync moments.”

Hana Vu’s music has always been emotional and vulnerable, but, for her second full-length album, she made sure it was uniquely hers for the first time. She holed up and wrote all of Romanticism without outside influence, a different approach from her previous albums where she collaborated with a team. It felt right, as she explored the feelings of a post-teenage yet pre-adulthood coming of age. “The only person who heard it was my co-producer, Jackson [Phillips],” Vu says. “I didn’t send it to anybody I knew. It was cool because nobody pressured me, and they trusted it would be ready when it was ready. It’s vulnerable to share your music and to be writing during any critiques. To assert my vision and myself, I wanted to keep it pretty insular to crystallize my experience—being in my early twenties, growing up and existing. I wanted to have a universally relatable story through my perspective and in my voice.”

Vu came of age as an adolescent in the Los Angeles DIY scene, releasing her debut EP How Many Times Have You Driven By at 17 in 2018. She played shows around the city, diving into the singer-songwriter scene, learning from her peers and expanding on her talents with each year of honing her craft. “Every time I make a new album, and I have more access to resources or skills that I didn’t have before, I always want to utilize it to its maximum,” she explains, pointing to her approach behind the ambitiously grand soundscape of Romanticism. “Every time I make an album, I want it to be as loud and aggressive as possible, sonically, because I feel like a pretty demure person, so it’s just fun to exercise. I was listening to a lot of the Killers and Coldplay—really big pop rock, the songs that you play on the radio in your car or you sing at karaoke at full volume. That’s what I was going for. We live all day long as people in our little inner worlds and feelings. So to be like, ‘I’m going to scream this and be loud.’ It’s very cathartic.”

Another place Vu finds release is through her writing process. “What kind of lesson is life?” she asks in Find Me Under Wilted Trees”—a question that had me sit silently staring at the wall for a good hour after hearing it the first time. Vu seems to be conjuring the answer herself when she writes. “Music is an avenue for me to explore a certain existentialism with life and myself. It’s a projection of my consciousness,” she says. “Things I don’t know, things I do know. It’s very spiritual to me. You ask these questions that plague your soul. That’s why people make art because we have all these questions about life that can be answered. So we project them into our relationships and our day-to-day [lives].”

While getting loud and questioning life’s meaning is its own therapeutic practice, spending so much time in your head can be draining. So, after pouring her soul into Romanticism for months, Vu was ready to hand the reins to her more than capable collaborative partner, writer/director, Maegan Houang. The duo worked together for the first time in 2022 on the music video for Vu’s track “Keeper,” where, according to Vu, Houang graciously over-delivered with their small budget—an accurate assessment of the incredible continuously shot music video. “I didn’t know her at the time, but I knew she was this well-to-do, prolific, and creative person,” Vu says. “We became very close and started to work with each other on a lot of stuff. She’s probably one of my closest creative collaborators.”

The album’s visually stunning qualities all stem from the partnership they developed two years ago. It was as simple as Vu saying that she wrote an album called Romanticism, and Houang was ready to run with a gorgeous creative vision. Vu herself isn’t one to express herself visually, so the pair fill in each other’s missing pieces with ease. “I had a very clear idea for the album sonically and lyrically. I wanted the art direction and creative directions to match that. Maegan took on the challenge of passing the post-album production baton,” Vu continues. “I made this little PowerPoint to get the vibes across—my aesthetic, styles and what I gravitate towards. It’s all part of one thing. It’s all spiritual. When you consume any sort of media, music, movie, TV show, book—its aesthetic and visual world is all a part of the consumption.”

The pinnacle of this perceptible world is the Romanticism cover artwork, which is based on Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi—with Vu standing-in for Holofernes. It’s richly tragic and vivid, mimicking the drama of the album’s soundscape and bringing the spirit of the 18th-century Romanticism movement to life in a way Vu never imagined. “I’m so grateful that anybody is inspired by my songs or art. There are things that I can’t do. So it’s very freeing to relinquish energy and control on something so important to me,” she says. “When I’m writing the album, it’s very emotionally laborious and intense. So, when we do the art direction and the covers of the videos, I really don’t feel personal about any of it. When you’re a musician, and it’s your job, it’s a very egocentric practice. If you’re constantly working on something that ultimately serves your own expression, it’s not spiritually good for you. Even if I am constantly working to release or make music, I have to train myself not to take it all super personally and have it all be such an extension of myself.”

On Romanticism, Vu paints a portrait of the pain of getting older through her personal experience while persevering with a level of ambiguity that allows people to relate and latch on to the work itself. Vu summarizes the ethos of the album in “Look Alive” as she croons, “Therе’s no air in my lungs / Cause my breath has changed / And now I’m a ghost of who I have been.” We all kill off a piece of ourselves every day to make room for growth. Here, Vu captures the space between youth and adulthood with a stunning, somber elegance.

Olivia Abercrombie is Paste‘s Associate Music Editor, reporting from Austin, Texas. To hear her chat more about her favorite music, gush about old horror films, or rant about Survivor, you can follow her on Twitter @o_abercrombie.

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