Hana Vu: The Best of What's Next

Music Features Hana Vu
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Hana Vu: The Best of What's Next

For years, Paste has introduced exciting, up-and-coming artists to our readers. This is the return of The Best of What’s Next, a monthly profile column which highlights new acts with big potential—the artists you’ll want to tell your friends about the minute you first hear their music. Explore them all here.

Hana Vu and I greet each other over Zoom and discover that we are both seated on the floor, backs against our couches, with our laptops on our coffee tables. I apologize for my disheveled appearance, to which Vu replies, “That’s okay! Sorry, you look amazing. I didn’t mean to affirm that you looked like garbage.” However, I believe even if I did look bad, Vu would see the beauty in it.

Vu has entered her 20s with the breathtaking debut Public Storage, released in November. Whereas Taylor Swift crafted heartfelt confessionals of love and loss (and eventually revisited Red through a more mature lens), Vu expands upon the groundwork laid by sad-girl heroes such as Swift, Japanese Breakfast and Mitski with her own adolescent flair as she confronts the universe with a lifetime’s worth of knowledge ahead of her. I catch myself forgetting Vu is only a few years younger than me, as she possesses an immense knowledge and wisdom that comes with being surrounded by the energy of Los Angeles.

Previous coverage of Vu has focused on her age and, to be fair, it is hard to separate Vu’s unbelievable talent from her youth. She has been cultivating her sound since she was only 14, playing in bands around the once-burgeoning Los Angeles underground scene. That’s not to say the scene isn’t still alive, but a lot changed as Vu grew.

“I don’t really see that there’s like a big DIY team community in L.A. anymore, but maybe I’m just like, you know, too old now to be in the know about it. There were a couple all ages, venues that were really big. When they closed down, or moved locations or whatever, people lost general interest,” Vu explains. “Then again, I mostly would play in parking lots or under an underpass … or in a bus.”

These scattered and scrappy memories of growing up in the punk and indie underground of a city as big as Los Angeles were crucial to Vu. It all started with a simple desire: to belong. “When I was a teen, that’s where all the cool kids were! They were always at the warehouse shows over the weekends. I wanted to be a part of that.”

Asked what she took away from her unconventional upbringing, she replies, “I just felt like I was doing something with myself.”

Within the confines of her bedroom, Vu began experimenting with electro-pop and fuzzy, distorted indie pop. While working on her conceptual dual EP Nicole Kidman / Anne Hathaway, Vu watched interviews of the actresses to create elaborate backstories for them that are tragic and relatable, digging into the unconscious performance of daily life. Much of that adolescent desire to belong, but also subvert is still present in Vu’s work.

Public Storage prefers to sit in the uncomfortable, bringing life to the intrusive thoughts that play in your head. On opening track “April Fool,” Vu’s echoing vocals ease into the repetitive piano as she asks, “What could you say to a man with a gun? / Could you say that I’m on my way home and I’m already late?”

Vu wrangles with guilt across Public Storage in an earnest display of vulnerability, whether admitting “Evil is my name, I guess I earned it” on “Everybody’s Birthday,” or “I’m just the world’s worst talker” on “World’s Worst.” Vu manages to capture tiny moments of anxiety and grief, magnifying them until they become tangible and impossible to ignore. Underneath the fuzzy guitars and Vu’s crisp, liquid vocals is the innate desire to question and confront, doused with a healthy amount of shame.

It can be concerning, but upon further discussion with Vu, we come to the conclusion that such self-deprecation is a product of the Internet. Under her breath, she tests the waters by mentioning Tumblr. Turns out we both existed before stan accounts became more widely acceptable, with Vu operating a Grimes fan blog (and chuckling when I tell her about my old Death Grips blog). Despite this, Vu never really made any longterm internet friends, despite spending a large amount of her time on a site that bred vibrant communities surrounding music and aesthetics.

Of the lyric “Do you believe in family? / I don’t think that I do,” from the album’s title track “Public Storage,” Vu says, “It’s widely expected that family is equivalent to love and acceptance, but it’s also widely known that that’s not most people’s experience with family. When someone says, like, ‘Oh, you’re my chosen family,’ they mean they love and accept you, and you love and accept them. But I don’t think that’s what family even means. I think your chosen family or your friends means something else.”

Vu navigates the world like a budding philosopher, fiercely protective of her ideas and identity. In a social media-obsessed world, in which many young people such as herself are typecast as tech-tethered, Vu has struck a perfect balance with her public persona.

This is found most prominently in the artwork for all of her releases, none of which show her face. When approached with the idea of following the expectation to make her face the cover of her debut, Vu took this to the extreme. Influenced by Bruce Nauman’s Studies for Holograms, which features close-up photographs of manipulated facial expressions, Vu used a high-contrast photo of the inside of her mouth as the artwork for Public Storage. “These are legitimately like pieces of me, but in the gross aesthetic that I wanted. I wanted to make it look like raw meat,” she explains. “I thought it would be cool that it looks nothing like how the record sounds, too.”

That is an understatement. Vu garners a lot of comparison to her aforementioned peers, as well as Lana del Rey. Guitar feedback and her rich, warm alto conceal painfully honest lyricism with all the intention and purpose of her predecessors. Aided by Jackson Phillips, better known as Day Wave, the two crafted a delicate album about despair and loneliness wrapped in straightforward indie-pop production.

It’s this juxtaposition that makes Vu so interesting, prompting constant further whittling away at her effortless cool. Much to my surprise, we have extensive discussions about Taylor Swift conspiracy theories on TikTok and crocheting. She lights up as she discusses sourcing antique beads and bonding over the evolution of soft grunge influencers on Tumblr. Underneath the fiercely intelligent, reserved and darkly funny Vu found online and on her album, she is a representation of a generation of young people utilizing the breadth of resources at their disposal to create new and exciting ways of expressing themselves.

Before our conversation ends, we return to her desire to belong and to achieve. She says, “I’ve always had the mindset like I have to prove myself to everyone and to myself, and that’s a lifelong journey. It motivates me.” Vu’s mission becomes clearer, seeing existence as a performance (as explored on Nicole Kidman / Anne Hathaway) and the perfection of her craft as a lifelong competition against herself. However, Vu herself says it best: “I feel like I proved to myself that I could make a good record.”

Public Storage is out now on Ghostly International.

Jade Gomez is Paste’s assistant music editor, dog mom, Southern rap aficionado and compound sentence enthusiast. She has no impulse control and will buy vinyl that she’s too afraid to play or stickers she will never stick.