Best of What’s Next: Hannah Jadagu

Music Features Hannah Jadagu
Best of What’s Next: Hannah Jadagu

To be direct in our communication with others is often a misunderstood approach. When we deliver sharp, necessary truths and leave dead air to hold the space that follows, it’s perceived as being rude or abrupt, but both parts of that interaction serve their own purpose: If the spoken statement cuts down to the bone, all of the unspoken emotion which prompted its delivery hangs in the surrounding silence. In singer/songwriter Hannah Jadagu’s case, she fills that silence with layers of MIDI instruments and echoing guitar melodies, as if she’s aware of how her swift and punishing lyrical turns need to be softened by noise that will express the teary-eyed motivation behind it. It’s in the riff which bolsters the damning shock of repeating “I know what you did” over and over again. It’s in the beat looping beneath the confession of “I don’t wanna work this out.” It’s in the keyboard line layered over the finality of “Am I supposed to say I don’t care? / ‘Cause I’ll turn my back / Now you’re faced with that.”

That last line appears at the beginning of “Warning Sign,” the third single from Jadagu’s debut album, Aperture. It’s followed by a lyric even more brutally direct, if not more self-aware, barely softened by the airy sweetness of her voice: “Sorry if I’m being short / It’s just that I can’t stand to hear your voice / When it’s oh-so loud / Could you quiet down?” The rest of the track is peppered with woozy synths, an insistent drum beat and vocoder-drenched backing vocals, almost embodying the sensation of how overwhelmed Jadagu is by the situation she’s describing. If the sucker punch of a lyric is her shoving you back, the soundscapes it’s wrapped up in contain the universe of feelings you both might have in response to that action but don’t know how to voice. It’s the way your eyes water involuntarily in the aftermath.

“I think I am just obsessed with layers,” Jadagu says, calling from her dorm room at NYU, attempting to trace the origin of Aperture’s sound back to her earliest notion that she might have a knack for writing her own music. “I like loud, borderline-overstimulating stuff. It helps to create this blanket that my vocals can just move throughout. A lot of it is very instinctual. Luckily, the melody part is not difficult for me, so I think that just comes naturally.”

That natural impulse to write perfectly contained pop melodies is so intrinsic to the 20-year-old that she struggles to articulate how she even does it. To the best of her ability, she attributes that urge to create to her hometown of Mesquite, Texas—specifically, memories she made in the passenger seat of her older sister’s car. One landmark moment arrived when the Japanese House would come up in her sister’s musical queue; Jadagu felt something click within herself, as the magic of Amber Bain’s take on ambient pop poured out of the speakers. But she hid her gut reaction. “I would go home and search all of the lyrics because I didn’t want to ask my sister, ‘What are you playing?’” she laughs. “I was always hating! But the music felt so personal, while also sounding so heavy and full, and that really connected with me.”

That lyrical and sonic balance spurred Jadagu into action, leading her to “channel my love for music into making it, saying whatever came to mind and what felt true to me.” Inspired by Steve Lacy, she began recording songs using only her iPhone 7, uploading them to SoundCloud and attracting her own small following, as well as the attention of Sub Pop. Her first release on the label, 2021’s What Is Going On? EP—which was also recorded and produced entirely on her phone—received immediate critical attention. Suddenly, during a time when she thought she’d be prepping for her sophomore year of college, she was fielding offers to open for artists like Bartees Strange, Men I Trust and Faye Webster.

“The idea was: ‘I’m just gonna take the year off and do as many opening tours as I can and build a fan base,’” she recalls, admitting how unprepared she was for the disruptive challenges that come with being 19 under normal circumstances, let alone what happens when you’re traveling in a van across the country, isolated from people your own age. “I was trying to maintain relationships while being outside of school. The accessibility is stripped from you and you have to work 10 times harder to keep that going, especially when you’re on the road. You’re in Florida, your bestie’s calling you saying, ‘Where are you?’ and you haven’t spoken in two weeks. I was failing at maintaining those relationships, and I also found that they weren’t the best relationships to begin with. I don’t think I had the greatest boundaries for myself.”

It’s fitting, then, that the songs that came out of this time eventually formed the basis of Aperture—the title of which usually refers to the space inside a camera where light can pass through, allowing you to capture the image. By being able to preserve that precarious time in amber, you can gain perspective on what parts of the image still serve you while deciding to erase that which doesn’t. In Jadagu’s own words: “It’s about coming into your 20s and figuring out the people that you want in your life, and how you’re either going to get rid of those people or keep those people, and that sort of push and pull and what it takes and what it means.” Overwhelming life questions call for something to fill those overwhelming spaces you need to leave.

Jadagu stresses how “intentional” she was in figuring out how to record the new songs she’d written. She knew she needed to shift away from the DIY, reverb-laden, “really spacey” sound of the EP for whatever came next—referring to it as the desire to “level up” several times during our conversation. Enter French producer Max Baby, who Jadagu met through a Paris-based friend of her manager’s. “We started sending him demos I made on Logic, and we had tried this before other people before and it didn’t click,” she says. “He sent back a version of ‘Say It Now’ last April, when I was in a hotel room on one of my tours. I had COVID, but I listened to that version he did and it almost cured me! I got on the phone with him and we talked, and I liked his vibe so they shipped me off to Paris in June to record the album.” It marked the first time Jadagu had worked with analog instruments in a professional studio, leaving her more tools to experiment with than ever before.

That first song Baby worked on, “Say It Now,” does feel like a leveled-up version of what Jadagu had done before, introducing itself with hazy guitars and carefully deployed bursts of backing vocals—until it gradually expands into something that smothers your senses. Instrumental melodies pile on top of each other with each passing chorus, and synths screech as if they’re mimicking a human voice. The specific marriage of textures, as well as that of Baby’s and Jadagu’s production instincts, remained a pattern throughout production: “I learned that other people are going to have ideas and you owe it to them to at least try the idea, because I’m not the biggest collaborator. It was only Max and I, and I remember being very strict about not letting anyone else in the room. He knew it was sacred to me,” she notes.

These moments of discovery through collaboration characterized each session. Jadagu cites the day they recorded “Dreaming”—her attempt at writing a huge, Olivia Rodrigo-style pop hit—as another pivotal moment. Its gauzy production keeps it from being truly radio-friendly, but those unconventional elements add a whole extra layer of complexity to it. She almost sounds elated as she delivers the chorus’ bitter lyrics over a soaring melody, where a zig-zagging synth joins her alongside a buzzing bassline: “And I’m dreaming about you screwing me over now / Started believing in what I would see, I found out.” Eventually, it fizzles into a maximalist outro, where each instrument bends notes and swoons before it all shudders to a halt—almost as if it’s finally releasing the anger embroiled in the lyrics. “Right at that moment we recorded [‘Dreaming’], I knew I wanted the whole album to be just as cool as that little 20 seconds,” Jadagu says.

A similar moment came while recording opener “Explanation,” when Baby placed a booming, aggressive drum sample over Jadagu’s basic instrumental tracks, instantly snapping the arrangement into place for her. “Max was dancing and we were delirious,” she remembers. “It was like 2 AM and I was screaming: ‘Fuck it up, fuck it up!’ We pitched it up and kept playing around with it, like A.G. Cook-type stuff.” It remains buried near the end of the finished track. “You can barely hear it,” she agrees, “but, for us, that’s everything.”

Referencing the unorthodox percussion on “Six Months,” which sounds as if it’s in conversation with itself as the track progresses, due to the constant change in rhythm, she emphasizes that the sound expresses what the words can’t. Even while building these massive soundscapes, lyrical clarity came first—the music could carry all of the weight the words couldn’t. “When the EP came out,” she says, “everyone in their mom was like, ‘I don’t know what you’re saying on that song, but I liked the vibe!’ I wanted people to know what I’m saying, and I write straightforward lyrics anyway. I like the whole universal aspect of songwriting and how relatable that can be. It’s cathartic for me, too. Songwriting is like my alter ego – I don’t say these things in real life.” She can’t help but smile at that thought, like she wants to laugh at how quickly that impulse to hit you where it hurts takes over when she writes. “Establishing boundaries is something I struggle with. So yeah, in the song, I get to the point.”

By the time album closer “Your Thoughts Are Ur Biggest Obstacle” erupts into its final lush instrumental passage—containing all of the fear and longing and anticipation that comes with entering an uncertain time of your life in an increasingly uncertain time in human history—there’s no need for Jadagu to expounded upon what she’s already given us any further. For every brutal admission like “That night, I lied / I hate it when you sing,” or the begrudging back-pedal of “I’ll admit, I’ll admit, I’ll admit it,” which repeats until the song finally winds down, there is a sonic “blanket” each sentiment moves through—blowing simple truths into profound discoveries. It marks the universal experiences that come with entering adulthood, while also feeling like a personal reinvention for Jadagu—who, over the album’s run-time, solidifies the importance of where she maintains those boundaries: between her and those relationships which don’t serve her, her own self-doubt and the version of herself she has to leave behind.

“In the past, when I had attempted to collaborate with people,” she mentions near the end of our call, “I’d be like, ‘Oh man, the song I made with that dude is so bad. That’s never gonna come out.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, you were in the room! Come on! You gotta help to make it better!’ I had to learn how to stick up for myself.” On Aperture, you hear an artist staking her claim, going through the first of many steps in an ongoing evolution. In sharing her collection of magnified, bittersweet goodbyes, Jadagu unlocks an interior world worth making a racket about. Hopefully, the next step is as monumental and moving as the sound she creates.

Elise Soutar is a New York-born-and-based music and culture writer. You can find her on Twitter @moonagedemon.

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