For the last year, the purple-tressed singer-s/songwriter HANA has been traveling the world as part of Grimes's band, confidently nailing guitar lines and dance moves alike. A few weeks ago, Grimes released The Ac!d Reign Chronicles, a 38-minute film featuring seven music videos — four from Art Angels, and three from HANA's recently released self-titled debut EP. More than just a nod to her bandmate, it was Grimes's message to the music world as a whole: HANA is ready for the big leagues. (Lorde, Purity Ring, and Shamir have also given HANA the thumbs-up).
It's a high-profile position for a musician with a scant five tracks to her name. But HANA already had almost a career's worth of evolution behind her before transforming into the all-caps electro-pop queen. Born Hana Pestle, HANA's first musical incarnation was as a teenage folkie busking around her hometown of Billings, Montana. Relocating to Los Angeles and connecting with an agent allowed her to sidestep having a day job in favor of a stint in the college music circuit, where she spent upwards of 200 days a year playing university campuses across the country. But it wasn't until she traded her guitar for a laptop that the artist began making music that she felt she could truly be proud of.
Blessed with both a beatific soprano and acute production sense (yes, that's her behind the mixing desk, thankyouverymuch) HANA in her new form is very much a modern pop star — able to tease out heartbreaking stories of emotional abuse and doomed relationships across airy beats that imply maybe, just maybe, things will get better. Melodic, moody, and sincere to the utmost degree, hers is music that's easy to image crossing boundaries and breaking hearts.
While she was at home in Los Angeles for a brief period of time between tours, HANA and I caught up at a café. Over kombucha we discussed how she finally discovered her sound, how her upcoming full-length album might get a bit political, and the true source of all happiness (dogs).
Laura Studarus: You moved from Montana to Los Angeles at seventeen, which is impressive.
HANA: Yeah, I graduated high school, and a week later I drove my car down here. I just was very ready. I think now, I look back and I think [fondly] about my childhood, growing up in Montana, and growing up near nature. But at the time, I just wanted more, I wanted to be able to go to concerts, which very rarely came to Billings. I just yearned for more going on. Now I feel like I miss nature.
LS: How did you transition from making folk music to producing electro pop?
H: I was touring colleges 200 days a year and I was making money, but I was getting kind of burned out, and I wasn't getting any artistic satisfaction. I was really in a rut writing because I was touring so much and I was never really home for long enough to create or even stop and think, What am I doing here? Am I fulfilled? Is this what I want to do for years? I was pretty young. I started doing sessions, and that's where I met my new boyfriend. That first session, he asked me, "What do you do? You have an artist career. Tell me about yourself." I went on this huge rant about how I play these college shows, make a lot of money, and I can pay my bills, which is expensive in L.A. He was like, "Are you happy?" I was like, "Yeah," then he asked me if I was fulfilled. And I said, "No."
After that first meeting I was really thinking, OK, now I'm 23, have I made art that I'm super-proud of? I had been focusing on the work aspect: If I just work hard, I will get to where I want to be! I was focusing on the wrong thing. I decided to take a real break. I sold my tour van that I had sometimes slept in on the road, got a new computer, and downloaded Ableton. I just dove in and focused on the art and music. I was making music I was really proud of, and came from deep within me, and made me happy.
LS: What role has Grimes played in your music?
H: I really can't thank Claire enough. She's a crazy, incredible friend. Just the level of generosity and support she gives to other artists is insane. She's given me so many opportunities. We toured for eight months this year. The first time I sang "Clay" live was at her show last year when she was opening for Lana Del Rey. She was like, "Do you want to sing 'Clay' live during my set?" When Claire talked about it, she talked about going to a Beyoncé concert. "I was looking at the background dancer — and I was thinking about how awesome it would be if one of them sang their own song." She just wanted to make that happen I guess! But it was happening to me, and I was like, "What is my life right now?"
LS: Was filming The AC!D Reign Chronicles as much fun as it looked?
H: We were high on life and art. Claire is always just wanting friends to be onstage or in her music videos or whatever. So on our day off, we just went roaming around London and shot "World Princess Part Two." That's the first one that we did. For most of that second stint of that tour, we were looking at footage and editing in our downtime, and coming up with new ideas. "Should we film another video?" "Maybe we should?" "Where are we going to be tomorrow?" "What should I wear?" "Here — wear this!" We just kept going and didn't want to stop because it was so fun.
LS: The big question — how is your debut full-length coming?
H: Really good! I have hundreds of songs on my hard drive. I've been trying to work on the road, but it's so hard. It's just been a lot of diving into that old stuff and getting into the mind-set that I was in and figuring out where I want the lyrics to go and what the general vibe is. I think I'm mostly out of the reflective, hurt mode. I've gone over it — I'm done ruminating. There's a lot in the world that's inspiring to me to write about because there's a lot of craziness going on.
There's so much skepticism that comes along with just being a girl. You come into a venue and people question you. I'm like, "I've been doing this for over ten years, I need this kind of cable — why fight with me on this!" Same with producing! I don't know what to tell you to convince you I do it. I'll just keep doing it and maybe one day you'll come to the studio and see it. It's just such a dumb thing to even think about.
LS: What's making you the happiest right now?
H: Probably my dog. She makes me happy every single day. She's some sort of mix, and she's freaking cute. That's my main sadness being away on tour. Obviously, I miss my boyfriend too. But anytime I wake up she's right there. It brightens my day, every day.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Laura Studarus is a Los Angeles–based writer. She is in a committed relationship with her passport.