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Interview: HANA’s ‘arcane magic’ remains in audiovisual overdrive

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Cloaked in futuristic fairy dust, the result of HANA’s unprecedented recording process is just as unique as her month-long Twitch scheme itself

HANA is a master of being private in public.

Four weeks, one interactive streaming service, and exactly zero preconceived songwriting ideas: That’s how this fantastical Los Angeles songwriter, producer, and Grimes collaborator made history while churning out her debut album, HANADRIEL. Cementing herself to her studio for hours on end earlier this year, HANA (born Hana Pestle) became the first artist to ever broadcast the making of a full-length record via Twitch, a live video streaming service namely used by gamers.

Cloaked in futuristic fairy dust, the result of her unprecedented process is just as unique as her month-long scheme itself.

Following the November release of HANADRIEL, Vanyaland chatted with HANA about the intricacies of producing her own music, “infiltrating” Twitch with kindness, and the future of electro-pop and recording-making.

Victoria Wasylak: I know that you’ve already been asked up and down about putting the album together on Twitch. How was that not distracting for you, having people try to interact with you while you’re trying to put together something that’s pretty important?

HANA: Honestly, I think it was quite distracting. But the fact that I was committed to working on it for 12 hours a day — I was doing quite long days, and that was actually something that I noted [during] the last week. I would skim through the days and I’d be like, “Okay, I’m definitely looking at the chat way too much.” And so, the last week I covered it up a little bit more. But I think it was distracting, but it was also something that I really welcomed. I think just because I’m usually working by myself, and I’m usually just so in my head, that it kind of kept one foot on the ground, because I feel sometimes I get too lost in the sauce. I think it actually worked for keeping me present in some way. But it definitely was distracting at some points.

Many artists, when they go to make a new album, they go to the desert or the middle of nowhere and they lock themselves in a room — and you did literally the exact opposite of that.

Yeah, it’s so interesting. I mean, obviously the chat [members] are people, but it was almost like the chat was there to my right, and it was just sort of this stream of consciousness coming at me, because I still felt super isolated. I mean, I barely saw any friends for four weeks, and I barely even would hang out with my boyfriend. So, it still was really isolating, and I was locked in this room for four weeks.

But the way that chat was, I mean obviously they’re sitting there and they’re watching me and they’re talking to me, but it was almost like it felt disconnected. I don’t know, I don’t know how it worked in my mind, but it was almost just like this stream of consciousness, like the world passing me by as I worked. It was just a very interesting experience. But I was surprised by how much I actually really liked it. I think it’s just because for so long I was just by myself in the room.

***

How different would the album be if you hadn’t done the streaming while you were working on it?

I think it would’ve been very different. For me, I think the main practice of this was the deadline, because I’m independent. Basically, I’ve been giving myself deadlines over the last year, and I would always just move them. I’m just such a perfectionist, and it was just too movable of a deadline. I think a lot of what this process was, was setting the deadline and then over the four weeks, getting other people invested in that deadline so I can’t move [it]. You know? [laughs]

The fact that I did a full album, and then got it out [in] six weeks, I just don’t know, I feel like I needed these extreme points of self-discipline to get it done. I think that was what this whole thing was about, was just to get over that fear of putting something out, [and] of working on something too much. And, of course, I went to the extreme case scenario. But it was such a good learning experience in letting go and listening to those around me, and being okay with something not being perfect, but “good enough.” Because I think, oh my God, you know when you get to that moment, and it’s just like you can just keep tweaking forever?

Right, it’s hard to let go.

Yeah, exactly. Just the quantity of songs — I don’t think I’ve ever made that many songs that “finished,” ever. I think that’s the main difference. There were some thematic things that the audience gave me on the first day, but I think that the themes were kind of where I was going mentally anyway. Like climate change, growing older. [The chat was] one thing that pushed me in the direction of writing about mental health, because that was a suggestion of a lot of people. I think that just pushed me more in that direction of writing about that. I think it just pushed me to be a little bit more creative, because I was just taking ideas from everyone, and then I had this notepad of ideas that I could always go back to. It was just endless inspiration.

I’ve read that you had hundreds of unfinished songs on your computer going into this. How did you even begin to cherry pick or sort through what you did want to put time into, and what just absolutely wasn’t going to work for this album?

I actually didn’t use any of them, I started every song from scratch. When I started it I was saying, “Okay, if I have a hard time writing songs maybe I’ll go in and I’ll choose some to finish on the stream.” But then it became this thing that I wanted to prove to myself and other people that I could do 12 songs from scratch — well, I guess 11 songs, because one of the songs is a remix of an older song of mine.

But yeah, they just kept coming. [laughs] And then of the other songs, I have a three-song EP, which includes “Black Hole,” coming out [later]. Those will be some songs that I’ve been working on the last couple of years, and then there are some other songs that I’ve been working on for the last couple of years that I do want to put out. I think I’ll probably release them here and there over the next year, the ones that I want to finish.

Was there ever a moment when you were in the middle of a stream, when you stopped and thought to yourself, “why did I do this to myself?”

Surprisingly, that happened a very small amount of times. There was this one day that I was just really banging my head against the wall with this one song, and then for some reason that was the day that a lot of new people were coming into the chat. I don’t even know why, but they were kind of troll-y, like “What are you doing? Oh my God, you obviously don’t know what you’re doing because you’re starting a song at bar 73,” or something. Stupid dumb comments, and that day was just the day where I was like, “Oh my God, why have I subjected myself to this?” [laughs]

But ultimately that was just the one little moment. Whenever anything remotely uncomfortable happened or [there was] something that really took me out of my zone, I would just cover the chat with another window, and just go back into my zone, just not look at the chat, and then I was fine.

***

Which song was it that you were working on when that happened?

That was “Creatura.” I just could not figure out the drums. I think I’d spent probably the most time on “Creatura” in the end. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but I kept changing the drums, I had so many different drum options for it, and for some reason it was just the one that was taking me [a while], I just couldn’t decide, ultimately.

And so, the people were helpful in the end, the viewers. I was like, “Do you like this?” or “Which one do you like? Let’s vote out the worst ones.” And most times it was super helpful.

Well, I’m glad that sometimes you were able to cover it up or just filter it out, because I know that women can be treated with a lot of hostility on these platforms. When I first read about you doing this, that was the first thing that came to my mind: “oh my God, I hope she’s okay, because people are really terrible.” I mean, you can’t see them, so they’re very emboldened to speak their mind.

Yeah, absolutely. And that’s a big part of why I’m going in so hard on Twitch, is I just think it’s such a cool thing that I think should be safer, and just more chill for women and minorities. I just am really trying to infiltrate it with good vibes and nice people, and just a very, very kind and welcoming community.

I have some amazing moderators who are people that watch over the chat, and anytime anybody is doing anything remotely annoying, they take care of it. I’ve been streaming since last February, [that] was when I first started getting pretty into it. I was like, “Oh, this is fun,” and I could see the potential of what this could be. Slowly over the course of last year, I was just building this shield, I guess, or building this community that I want the rest of the site and Internet to be like.

When you think about it, performing in front of people is really daunting, but you’ve rehearsed those songs and you know those songs really well. Whereas what you were doing is you were starting from scratch in front of the whole world. So, if you can do that with all the trolls watching you, I think you can do anything, right?

Yeah. I really felt so satisfied and happy after this album was done, I was just like, “Damn, I really feel like I’ve been underestimating what I can do.” It’s almost like I surprised myself. It really turned out much better than I even imagined, so that was cool. And the trolls weren’t even that bad at all, so I was thankful.

I know it didn’t really start as a power move, but I think it ended as a power move for you, because you were literally demonstrating every single bit and piece that goes into working on your own album. Women have worked so long to be respected as singers and songwriters and instrumentalists, but for whatever reason, when you tell them that you produce your own music, it’s like “Whaaaaat? You can walk and chew gum at the same time?” I don’t know why that still astounds people, but it does. And it’s kind of weird that it’s about to be 2020 and the concept of a woman producing her own album is still a really radical thing.

The percentage of female producers and engineers — and basically anyone working in the music industry — it’s really low. We just have to make it more comfortable for women and non-binary producers, just because it’s tough, it’s not fun having people be incredulous that you’ve been working on your own music. It’s like, “Why? It’s not that surprising…” This is what I’ve been doing for many years. But that was a big point of it too, there’s four weeks of me making an album, and the entire thing is on the internet, and that is so satisfying to me because it says, “There you have it, it’s all right there.”

You documented all of it, every single second of it. It’s indisputable.

It’s indisputable, exactly.

What would you recommend to other people who want to work on producing their own music, but they never have before, or they’re frustrated with the people they’ve worked with? Kind of like the position you were in, where you were frustrated with what you felt producers wanted to make your music sound like. What advice would you give to other people?

It kind of reminds me of when I wrote my first song when I was… I think I wrote my first song when I was like 14, and I just remember so clearly sitting there and being like, “How do I write a song?” I’d be like, “How do people do this?” And then just kind of having this thought, “Well I guess I’ll just try, I guess I’ll just see what happens.”

And I think that’s the same case for people who want to produce their music. You probably need a laptop, I don’t think you really need something that’s that nice, just something that will run GarageBand or Ableton or Logic. And just dive in and just mess around as much as possible. Watch YouTube tutorials, type in “EQing,” or type in “vocal singer,” “bass EQ.” Just whatever you’re curious about or are not comfortable with, just dive into it and keep learning. I’m still learning, I’m by no means at the end of my process. I’m always learning, always trying to get better. Just be curious and don’t be afraid to do things the “wrong way.” I think doing things in new ways is the way forward, honestly. Learn, get informed, but then have fun and just experiment.

Would you record an album, or work on an album over Twitch again? Can you see this becoming more and more popular with artists working on their own music — in front of everyone?

I mean, I’ve talked to my team and the people on my stream, and I think I want to start doing this like every year, or maybe every two years or something, just because I loved it that much. It was just such a cool experience. And yeah, I feel like probably this could become a thing in the world. People were really interested, and every day I keep getting more comments, because now I uploaded all of the days to YouTube, and people are really fascinated to see what goes into the making of an album and the making of a song.

So, I’m going to say, I think so. I don’t really know. Privacy while you’re making music is also nice, but at the same time, I think it’s a cool experiment, and it’s interesting also just to have external output while you’re making the song. There were a couple of songs that I would have given up on or just trashed, and people in the chat were like, “Oh, this one’s my favorite so far.” And so I kept going with it, and now it’s one of my favorites.

***

For your music as a whole, it sounds very futuristic, but sometimes the subject matter is more old-fashioned. I think of “Arcane Magic,” that sounds medieval. You’re really blending these two very different worlds. What is your process for marrying the old and the — I don’t even want to say the new, it’s like the future, it’s beyond new.

I’ve been reading a lot about the past and the future. I’m obsessed with Sapiens and Homo Deus, which are these two books. I feel like that’s probably where a lot of it comes from, just because I’ve been thinking so much about history, and then also the future. I am a songwriter who usually calls from emotional places, or pulls from relationships or these more organic, emotional places. It kind of all just comes together in this way, I guess. I’m trying to think of “Arcane Magic”– I mean, I guess I just always like to think about things in a really grand way, but at the same time try to make them simple. I like playing with big ideas, whereas “Arcane Magic” you don’t exactly know what I’m talking about. To me it might even be vague. I feel like “Arcane Magic” is about just generally me understanding personalities better, and just getting better at communication. But that’s really boring. [laughs] I like to think of really grand ways of explaining these simplistic things that I’m going through in my life.

No, it’s not boring. I think it’s very fantastical. Every time I listened to the record, the one song that stands out to me, at least sonically, is “Cowgirl Bebop.” I wanted to ask a little bit more about that song, whatever you’re comfortable sharing. But also, when you listen to the whole album, front to back, it definitely sounds like an outlier; it sounds almost like it was made for a different project. I wanted to get your insight on how that puzzle piece fits into the whole album.

So, that one is my favorite on the album, and it’s maybe my favorite song that I’ve written since my EP. I mean, it’s so hard to choose favorites, but that one is really, really, really special to me, and it’s one that I just poured so much emotion into. I literally am tearing up right now just thinking about it. I don’t know why, it’s just such an emotional song to me. I actually love how it fits in to the record, just because it’s this mix of acoustic guitar and the same synth that’s all over the rest of the album. It’s chill, it’s like a really emotional part of the movie where the protagonist is sitting on top of a skyscraper in the future with spaceships flying by, and she’s just having a really sad moment singing this song. And so that’s kind of how I envision it in the world of HANADRIEL.

But to me, it’s more a song that’s for literally everyone that I love. A lot of people in my family, and a lot of my friends are like “Is this about me?” I thought of every single person that’s in my life when I was writing this, every special person to me in my life, I thought about them at some point while writing this song. Just because life is hard, and I just love to be the person that’s there for everyone, but you can’t be there for everyone at all times. I just wanted to write a song that would let people know just that I love them, and that I need them too, and that I know that life is hard.

And it’s good that you were able to include that, because obviously you’re extraordinarily attached to it and invested in it. If you had a third-party producer come in, they might say, “Oh, this doesn’t really fit with the sound of the rest of the album.” and they’d make you, I don’t want to say throw it out, but save it for something else. But no, you make your own decisions.

Exactly. And I really feel like the album needs that… It’s like an element that the album needs, because, there are a lot of other emotional songs, but the other ones are sort of empowering. And this one is a really self-aware song, so I am just really happy that it’s there. I sometimes was like, “Oh, is it bad that it’s at the end?” But I think it’s actually perfect that it’s at the end. It’s just kind of like, “Oh and here you go, here’s a little cherry [on top]. We’re going to have an emotional moment.”

You released your EP in 2016, and now this album. But before that, you had also worked on music, and there was a time period when you became disenchanted with the whole thing because of third parties. What made you decide to come back to working with music? And what would past HANA say if she could see what you were doing now?

Music is just a part of my soul. So, I was always going to be making music, I was just kind of lost at one point, you know?  It was like I had “made it” with other producers when I was 15 and 16, which I think is a lot to do with why I became kind of disillusioned with my music career once I was like 21ish. I was just frustrated because I think I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain what I wanted my music to be.

That’s when I sold my tour van and got a new laptop, got Ableton, and just started learning and experimenting, and just figuring out what it was that I wanted my sound to be. I think once I found it and I started, and I wrote “Clay,” I wrote “Underwater,” and I was producing those songs as well, and I started feeling really good about them. That was when I was like, “Okay, I’m ready to try this again,” and [try it] with music that feels like my soul music. It was having the power and the production and musical vocabulary, I think. Just to make it exactly what I wanted it to be. And then, oh my God, HANA, my old self, would be so stoked. Really, really stoked, yeah. That’s nice to think about.

Your music — and a lot of similar music, like Grimes — already sounds really futuristic. What do you think that your music, and that kind of electro-pop music will sound like in 10 years?

Oh my God, I have no clue. I honestly have no idea. I mean to me, I really want to go kind of in the vein of… I don’t know if this will be under HANA, but I really want to start making binaural beats for meditation. I mean, I don’t know about electropop as a whole, the sounds will probably just get more and more insane. But I think it would be cool if popular music started taking things from meditation or binaural beats, and got people more comfortable with meditating or something. I don’t know, but we’ll see.

Well, if you ever do that project, I would definitely listen to it, because I love that stuff to listen to and calm down, it’s a lifesaver.

Yeah, I love that stuff too. I think I just need to look up what the exact hertz needs to be in each ear for, so that’s going to be one of my tasks for maybe 2020, if not 2021.