Photo: Jing Feng

Interview: Hana Vu digs into the process and lyricism of her new album Public Storage

LA-based songwriter Hana Vu may have been making music since she was in high school, but in many ways, Public Storage release feels like an arrival. She’ll tell you herself: despite having released two album-length statements in the past – both billed as double EPs – this is the first she considers a proper LP. In many ways, she has good reason. Public Storage is by far the most focused and musically ornate she’s gone to date, extending beyond the bedroom in bedroom pop to bring in collaborators who helped add intricate layers to Vu’s music.

I caught up with Hana on the eve of the release of her album, it was our third chat together, having talked around the release of both her prior projects, so there was a certain level of comfort on hand, and we got right into it.

Let’s do the same here.

So at least from what I remember our last couple times chatting, the songs you’ve released up until now were written in high school. I assume that was no longer the case with this one, so basically, what’s changed, and did you write it in a short period or a longer span of time? 

I think the same perspectives that are shared by everybody when they graduate high school versus when they’re like, ‘I’m an adult’, kind of figuring things out, that sort of basic perspective shift. Also, when I was releasing in high school, and when I was releasing before this record, I was not really like… that focused on music, I was sort of moving around, working random jobs, figuring things out.

So, with this record, I was like, ‘Ok, my job is to make this record now.’ So I had a lot more intention, and a lot more ambition with this record. I worked with Jackson Phillips on it, it was just a really different process versus the other records. We made it in lockdown, which is just completely different. 

Since you brought him up, how was it bringing Jackson and others into the fold as opposed to basically working alone from home as you were before? 

I only did a couple sessions with Jackson and some other people before lockdown. I had never worked with anybody else before I did those sessions, so I was still kind of getting used to it, and finding a flow, and then in lockdown I was just working by myself again. Then it was sort of like, emailing Jackson, ‘Here’s a song that I wrote’, and us just fleshing it out over time. 

Do you prefer this way of working now? 

I definitely prefer it now. I think it’s so much harder to be accountable when you are alone. I think working from home is too hard for me to focus, so going to Jackson’s studio and talking things out with him and working on things with him is actually motivating versus me just sitting around. Because I have to work [when I’m there], versus when I’m at home… I don’t have any ideas until I go somewhere and ask someone, ‘What do you think about this?’

How we worked together on a couple of the songs on the record,; we would go in, me and him and his friend Henry, we would make an instrumental track, just instruments, and then I would go home and write a song to it – lyrically, melodically write a song. I would bring it in the next day and be like, ‘Here’s a song I wrote to that thing we made,’ and then I’d piece it all together.

That sort of ‘Oh, I have to bring something in to Jackson to work on, so that I’m not wasting time’, it motivates me to push myself and do work, and do the work that I have to do, to see what I’m bringing to the table. Versus at home, doing all of it by myself, where I’m thinking, ‘I don’t really have to do any of this for any reason.’ [Laughs] 

So this is probably an annoying question, but as this is being considered your debut album, what do you consider the difference to be between a “double EP” and your proper debut album? 

I draw the line… I think that this is one is better than the other ones [Laughs]. So, that’s maybe where I draw the line. It’s not really…it’s all subjective, people release things, PinkPantheress, she released something called like a ‘mixtape’, because I don’t think she could call it an album because it’s all samples or something legally, she couldn’t call it an album, something like that. It’s all just stuff that goes on the streaming service.

I think that this is maybe my most publicized, heavily-marketed record. There is a lot more going on in terms of, like, creative direction and world-building that I didn’t really consider for the other ones. The other ones seemed like more just a collection of songs, and this one was more a project as a whole, and that’s how I was thinking about it when I was making it. 

So going off that do you think a quote-un-quote “proper LP” album needs to have a cohesive narrative or story behind it, or a mood that’s consistent?

No, a collection of songs is good. People like songs, but all my favorite records are the narrative records, the concept records, those are the records that define an era of an artist. 

Speaking of this being your most publicized record, it’s your first with Ghostly, and they’ve largely been known for electronic music, is there a particular story as to how you ended up there? 

I think they were just fans of me, and they had a couple artists that I really like, so they had, in the past year, partnered with Secretly Group, which is kind of an overarching group, that has Dead Oceans, Jagjaguwar and Secretly Canadian. Ghostly is now kind of merged under that umbrella tree [chuckles] umbrella in the family tree. I think I was the first artist announced after their merger or whatever. I love the music that’s on Secretly and on Ghostly, and I love the collective creative direction that Ghostly has, so, yeah, I think it all just worked out. 

So the press release made a big to do about the Public Storage angle of the album, in terms of you living next to one —  

Oh. I’m not really allowed to talk about it anymore. [Laughs] I don’t know, they’re a private entity, Public Storage. Which is funny, because they’re public but a private entity. I can speak a little bit to it. 

I guess my question – answer or don’t as much as you’re allowed to – is that something that impacted you before you started writing the songs as in, ‘This is what the concept is based around’, or once you had completed the songs, it was more, ‘Hey, that’s a good title for what I’ve recorded’? 

Well I came with the song “Public Storage” and that was one of the first songs I started writing for this record, and so I wrote that and that was sort of based around a time. where I was moving around a lot. I was pretty… dejected and stressed all the time. I was living near Public Storage, and thought, ‘That would be a cool name for a song,’ then I made the song, and I thought, ‘This would be a cool name for a record.’ This was way before I started actually intentionally writing for the record. It was an idea I had in the back of mind throughout the entire writing, so I think it just influenced and gave me a sort of compass for how the rest of the record should go. 

It has to be asked: how did you decide on that album art. It’s gotten some…let’s say, strong reactions. 

That picture…well, I took it on my iPhone. When I was first talking with the creative director of Ghostly, Molly Smith, before I ever finished the record, she was asking me what I might want for a record cover type stuff. I was like, ‘I think I want a personal aesthetic leaning towards more darker, kind of grosser type stuff.’ I said I really didn’t want it to be a portrait of me, or a picture of my face, because I just…don’t like it. I don’t like when people do that. She’s like, ‘I get that, but people like getting records with the artist’s portrait, it feels personal, a piece of yourself to the audience.’ To me that’s sort of the opposite thing, you’re not really exposing yourself, you’re sort of like, it becomes more, ‘Do I look good in this picture?’ as opposed to expressing something genuine about the music. So, have you seen Bruce Nauman’s Studies for Holograms? 

I can’t say that I have. 

It’s this series of photos that Nauman did, sort of the same idea, these really close up pictures of his face, I think he screen prints them on film paper or something. But they’re really… they’re just his face but so close up and in that textured context it’s sort of gross, but it’s real, and I was like, ‘I think I wanna do something like that, pieces of myself, and store them in a way that’s a little bit extra gross.’ Add some fun elements, like, I don’t know if you can tell with the mouth, but we have edited it so that there’s just more flesh in the mouth. An actual human mouth wouldn’t, I don’t think, look like that. But I don’t think you can really tell, it’s subtle, just more flesh.

So I worked with the designer to take these iPhone pictures I took of my face and get to that sort of grosser aesthetic. I felt that the music was very sort of lush and some of it is even orchestral sounding, so it was like, ‘This the kind of art that I like, and this is the sort of music that I like.’ I don’t think there’s many things that both look like that and sound the way that it does. There’s not many things that went with that sort of art direction. 

Diving into the lyrics of the album, I was struck by, “What can I sing that isn’t a song” – is that your goal as a songwriter? What exactly do you mean by it? 

It’s funny, I did an interview yesterday and they asked me about that exact same lyric [Laughs]… You know that Depeche Mode song… I don’t remember which one, but one of the big ones, and he’s like, “Words are meaningless and forgettable.” I feel in song is the only time I’m actually saying anything versus just… I think my normal demeanor is sort of rambling.

I also think songs have a different gravity to people who hear them and people who write them than, maybe, other word-based art forms do.

That was the first song I wrote in lock down, because I wrote it in April. The ethos of the song is, ‘Everything is sort of meaningless, and things can happen at the drop of a hat’, but, at least for me, you can only sing your little songs. That’s sort of my act of control. 

“Do you believe in failure, because I don’t think that I do”, have you been asked about this one?

[Laughs] Well, I think that everyone has asked about every lyric, but it makes me really be more intentional about my music, and makes me think, ‘Oh yeah. Things mean things.’ [Laughs] Things mean things.

What I’m trying to say is that, deep in my soul, I do not in believe in failing. I think that I’m a very ambitious person, and I think there are people who think, inherently, they’re sort of doomed… Actually, there’s two sides to this: you’re sort of doomed to fail, but I also think that’s the kind of character I like to play in my music. This despondent, doomed-to-fail type person, but I think deep in my soul, I have some sort of intent compass within myself that won’t let me fail. 

Going right off that one, “Do you believe in family, because I don’t think that I do.” I’m sure that speaks to a lot of people, the idea that family is the people you choose – 

I feel like family is not the people you choose. I feel like the people you choose are your friends who you love, and your family is… I think people have this weird concept of family, it’s just ingrained into society, people have a group friends that they’re like, ‘You’re my chosen family,’ or, ‘You are my family’, and that’s where I think that’s weird… I think your family are people who traumatize you, or are supposed to, and that’s how you become who you are. You know?

I have no ill will towards my parents at all, I just think that I don’t believe in this sort of… that family is this sort of end all be all of love and acceptance. That’s not what that means. When people say, ‘This is my chosen family’, or ‘You are my family’, that means love and acceptance, but it doesn’t…I think it means something way different and layered. Everything but love and acceptance, you know? [Laughs] 

So, “Everywhere you go is Heaven”, is that speaking on the ultimate optimist or? 

So when I was writing that song, I was in LA – where I always am – there were huge fires in West LA, and this happens every year, fires at night…The sky was orange and it smelled toxic outside, and you’re not supposed to go out – everyone is supposed to make DIY air filters in their home.

Sometimes you’re driving on the freeway and you can see the fires. A couple of nights ago I saw this whole hedge on the side of the 101 just on fire. People say a lot, I hear this position, that ‘New York is fun Hell and LA is shitty Heaven’. But when it’s really hellish looking outside… I think people have a different idea of LA. It was more so this kind of imagined person who maybe didn’t know any better about how this city is, and how it can look, to be walking around, and…yeah, everything’s on fire. So that was sort of my inspiration for that song. 

What led to “World’s Worst”? 

Well, as I said, I think I like to lean into this character through my songwriting, a very doomed-to-fail type person. So that was just inside me a little bit while I was living through this time and I didn’t really, I just really didn’t…I think I just didn’t like myself. I think everybody doesn’t like themselves in some sort of way, so I wanted to lean into that as a sort of character and emphasize certain things. That’s kind of the ethos for that. Rejecting yourself before you can get rejected. 

You already touched on this a little bit, but to what extent do you think that character is just a character as opposed to part of yourself? 

It’s kind of like, what is yourself? I do feel I play a lot of characters in my songwriting, and they’re all somewhat like me, but emphasized for dramatic effect or subdued for some sort of impact, I guess it’s all a part of who I actually am, but I think I’m young and changing all the time. So, who knows. 

I don’t think that ever stops. 

I think age is random. My best friend is 30 years old, and sometimes I’m like, ‘Wow, you’re so old’, but [laughs] it’s just… age is not real. Age within people can be really mature in some ways and very immature in some ways. Who’s to say? 

Are “Keeper” and “Maker” related? I just drew a connection as they’re both based around particular roles. 

Well, they’re both sort of similar in way where it’s like the song’s character is beholden to a maker or to a keeper, so they’re connected in a thematic way. But not intentionally, no. I always write songs and title them like that. “Fighter”, “Passenger”, and so on. Those are just leaning into the character-type-stuff. Just making characters. 

Was “Maker” always the last song? When I listen to it, it just feels like a finale, did you know right away, ‘Ok that’s the end’, or did it just eventually end up there? 

No. I was like, ‘It needs to be further up, because no one’s going to listen to it if it’s at the end’, but my managers who I work with and trust a lot, they were like, ‘No, it’s at the end, that’s what makes the record the record. It’s the exclamation point at the end.’ And I was like, ‘Ok!’ 

We talked a little bit earlier about how your favorite records are records with a concept or flow or yadda yadda, so this is obviously just my random insight as a listener, I feel like there’s an overarching theme of wanting to be someone else, that’s what I get from it. “Aubade”, and obviously on “Maker”, and on “Keeper” you’re talking about feeling fake… I just think there’s an overarching theme of almost wanting to astral project yourself into someone else… 

It’s definitely a theme. Wanting to be an idealized version of yourself. This idea that you have of yourself, and whoever controls who you become…

When I was in early middle school, I would just look around in a room, whatever room I was in, and think, ‘I probably wanna be anybody else in here except for me’ [Laughs]. Which is maybe a little bit dark to say, but yeah. When you’re in middle school and you hate yourself… I was just literally a vessel. In middle school you’re a punching bag for your own feelings. It’s definitely an idea. 

Reaching way back here, when I first interviewed you – 

That was probably four years ago, five years ago or something like that! 

Yeah. Your energy at the time, you felt so desperate to get out of LA. A lot of what you talked about was the feeling of just wanting to travel and escape your surroundings. To what extent has that changed or stayed the same? 

It’s definitely a very low energy for that, I guess. I think I toured a little bit since then, you know, I really appreciate where I live. I’m from here, and there’s no other place where I’m from, but you know, at that time, I had probably just graduated high school, and everyone I knew had gone to college and I was probably bitter that I had to stay back where I was from and sort of do the same things. Now I love being in a place where I know everything [Laughs]. Sometimes when I travel and I don’t know where to go – I hate that aspect of traveling. But I do like traveling. 

My stereotypical ending question: have you read anything good recently? 

I don’t read. I do not read. I tried to read a book…a year ago. No I have not read anything interesting lately. [Laughs] 

[Laughing] Switching gears, then, have you watched anything interesting? 

I watched the first three episodes of Succession today. Yeah. I really like that. 

Hana Vu’s debut album Public Storage is out now on Ghostly. Read our review.

You can find Vu on Bandcamp, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.