Growing up, Hana Vu documented her life the only way she knew how: writing songs and packaging them into collections that she put out at the end of each year. After picking up a guitar her dad had lying around and teaching herself to play, the 21-year-old Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter discovered the local DIY scene and started self-releasing her bedroom pop experiments on Bandcamp; her earliest projects, which are no longer available on the platform, date back to 2014. She went on to collaborate with Willow Smith on the 2018 track ‘Queen of High School’, but it was the song ‘Crying on the Subway’ that caught the attention of Gorilla vs. Bear, which released Vu’s self-produced EP, How Many Times Have You Driven By, on their Luminelle Recordings imprint that same year. Vu followed that up with a double EP, 2019’s Nicole Kidman / Anne Hathaway, before signing with Ghostly for her debut full-length, Public Storage, released last Friday.
In many ways, Public Storage is an album steeped in conflict, almost all of it internal; its title is a reference to Vu’s experience moving around in Los Angeles as a child and making frequent use of self-storage units, but it also alludes to her relationship with songwriting: an honest means of capturing her emotions, but something whose value partly – and sometimes uncomfortably – comes from rendering them public. Vu’s meditations on self-worth, failure, and identity are punctuated by a stark vulnerability and emotive performances; it is a thoroughly striking album about “waiting for something/ anything striking,” a frequently anthemic pop album about succumbing to hopelessness. “I’m vain and conceited,” she sings on the defiant title track, adding, “Tomorrow is evil/ And so are the people/ Who say that they’re not the same.” The final song, the transcendent ‘Maker’, finds her begging some unknowable force: “Can you make me anybody else?” But whatever Vu has in store for the future, it’s clear her captivating voice has grown into its own fully realized force.
We caught up with Hana Vu for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her relationship with songwriting, her headspace going into Public Storage, and more.
I thought the title of the album, Public Storage, would be a good place to start, because it relates to your experience of moving around between neighbourhoods in Los Angeles and having to use these self-storage spaces quite often. What was that like for you, and when did it become an important metaphor for your songwriting?
I moved around a lot as a kid. Not a lot, but maybe every three years or so I’d move around, and then when I became an adult I moved around like every year. So I just remember me and my sister would go looping our Razor scooters, when my dad had to go to a Public Storage, which was so emotionally exhausting, probably, for him to put all of his stuff in there and revisit it and log everything around with him for all of his life into this unit. And we would just scooter around the whole building. And then when I was 17 I moved out, and I was moving around so much – I was just so aware of how much metaphorical or physical stuff you carry around with you your whole life. And the stuff that you carry around with you, it’s like your identity.
I liked the phrase Public Storage, and I think I’ve always thought about songwriting in that way, where every year when I was in high school and middle school I would just write a bunch of the songs and then release them as a Bandcamp album at the end of the year. It’s kind of like a journal. But the public aspect of music, the releasing it and sort of business of it, was kind of a subtle theme in this album. Because I thought a lot about how, if I just genuinely wanted to just make music, then I would just make music and not release it or have a campaign or a record deal or anything. There’s something deeper there; I think about people who want to perform stuff for the world, you know. So I thought it was kind of fitting.
Because you’re making it known with the album title that that’s what you’re doing?
Yeah. I mean, Public Storage is a brand name, so maybe that’s the initial analysis, but I also think those two words describe my relationship to music and the topics that I write about.
You said you always thought of songwriting as a way of storing memories and experiences. How far back does that go?
I started writing songs when I was like maybe 13. I never thought a song was enough, so I would just write throughout the year and I liked releasing little albums of my year or the grade that I was in. Kind of like having a yearbook that you can look back on. I don’t think I was consciously like, “I want to look back on this when I’m older.” But I do now, and I really appreciate that that’s how I thought about it.
You mentioned Bandcamp, but was there a point where you were just writing for yourself?
I think probably before I ever entered high school, I was writing a lot for myself. I was in freshman year of high school when I made a good friend, and I just revealed to them I make all these songs. And they were like, “You should do something.” And I was like, “Okay.” And that was the start of like, my endless show playing and intentionally making something that I thought people would hear.
What do you think it is about songs that makes you consider presenting them to an audience in a way that you wouldn’t if they were a diary? What do you think you get back from it?
I think validation. [laughs] Validation and respect, if it’s good. I don’t know, glory. That’s like the whole pinnacle, is like everybody, or at least I do and a lot of people I know, you want money, power, glory. And then you’re just like, what is the path to getting there?
How do you feel when you’re revisiting those early songs?
It’s kind of like a touchstone, where if I ever become lost in whatever, I will hear something that I wrote a long time ago and I will just remember the actual core of why I write songs, which is obviously not for like, money and power and glory, that sort of public aspect, the releasing music aspect of it. But surely, because that’s how I just process and exist. Everybody needs to express themselves or say something, and I think that’s what I needed to do when I was younger. I feel like my oldest, like when I was an early teen, I will listen to it and it obviously isn’t that good or anything, but it speaks to me because I wrote it, so I know what was happening and what I was feeling.
Do you still feel that need now, to write songs that are not intended for the public in any way?
Yeah. I think as you become a more self-aware songwriter, you’re kind of thinking too much about how you’re going to be perceived, but every time I’m thinking about it too hard, I will listen to how raw and emotional the music of my early teenage years and kind of tap into that home base.
After graduating, how much of a risk did it feel when you decided to devote your time to music?
Yeah, it was definitely a risk. I never intended on being a musician professionally. In high school I played a lot of shows and it was just kind of fun – there was a big DIY community right where I was, and I just wanted to be cool, like all my friends were in bands and playing shows too, and that was kind of like my hobby. And then in my last year of high school, I just had released a song for fun, as I do, and then it got kind of got picked up. And then I got signed to a label when I was a senior in high school, and so when I was deciding whether or not to go to college, there was just a lot going on. I didn’t really want to pay for college because I didn’t really know what I was trying to do, and when I got signed, I thought at the time, Oh, this is like my job now in a way. It kind of just happened to me – I had been releasing music for a good amount of time before that, but I wasn’t trying to take it anywhere.
Did you expect that bigger things would come in the following years?
I don’t even think bigger things came, I think I just kept releasing music and kept playing shows. Like, nothing crazy has happened to me yet. I’m not like a superstar or anything, I just sort of write songs and release them and go on tour sometimes. I think while writing this record through I was really desperate to get to a place where I felt successful with my music, and I think that was also a big theme. But now when I think about it, I’m like, that just wasn’t real. We’re talking so much about my early music, and I was never really that concerned about being a big act, I just wanted to make songs. So I’m trying to get more in touch with that than being obsessed with things that don’t matter.
How do you think of success now?
I was very caught up with the opportunities that I would get or wanted opportunities that I wasn’t getting, but now I think it’s more: I want to be like these other artists that I think are making respectable work, and having a very rich body of work versus getting like getting a playlist or something like that.
The songs on Public Storage feel deeply personal, though not necessarily in an autobiographical way. There’s this line on the title track: “I don’t really care now/ Or that’s what I’ll say/ Who knows if it’s true/ I don’t think that I even know that I do.” I was wondering how true the songs feel to your experience and the headspace that you were in then versus now.
When I was writing that, I thought of myself as this sort of character, and sort of emphasized the parts of this character who I had been this whole time of writing that. I think there are a lot of themes, like ‘Everybody’s Birthday’ and ‘Maker’ being this very empty, desperate person that I was leaning into. You think of yourself as this character, at some point, at least a lot of people I know, you tell yourself, I’m a happy person and these are the things I do and that’s just who I am. And so, I thought of myself as this character that I didn’t really know if it was true to myself anymore.
In what way?
It’s kind of like a fake it till you make it type of mentality. Like, if something is happening to you that’s upsetting and you’re like, “I don’t care.” It might not be true, but that’s what you tell yourself.
I think this relates to something you’ve said, too, which is that even though you’re not religious, you felt this “punitive force” when writing these songs, which to me explains the sort of self-defeatist attitude that comes through on the record. If not some higher power, where do you think it comes from, this tendency to see yourself in that way?
This is very vague and conceptual, but it’s kind of like, how do you think about life in general? Like, do you inherently think that you deserve something or deserve good things? Do you believe in fairness? I just had always had the notion that nobody really deserves anything, and I was like, if there is some sort of force, it’s really fucked up. Because good things happen to awful people and horrible things happen to very good people who maybe have done nothing in their life wrong yet. It’s this absurdity of like, what do you think you deserve? So it’s kind of a battle within myself, having all these goals and having all these expectations for myself, but knowing that no one really deserves anything or gets what they actually deserve. There are awful people who rise to the highest order, and then there are people who are truly suffering for doing nothing.
I know the lyrics aren’t necessarily meant to be taken literally, but I was curious what your thoughts are outside of the character who’s singing them. There’s this line about being the world’s worst talker, which relates to one of my favourite lyrics on the record: “What can I sing that isn’t song/ Words become lost.” This idea that words are useless and you can’t communicate except through songwriting.
Well, you know, it’s like that Depeche Mode song, “words are meaningless and forgettable.” There’s something I’m drawn to in songwriting and in other people’s songs: you can just say things, quite simply and quite frankly, and it’s a little bit more pungent than if you were to – you know, people talk all the time, it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s kind of like if you were just to write in a journal, but in a more intentional and kind of coded way. I think songwriting is this balance of being personal but being a little bit vague and simple in a true way to yourself, at least that’s what resonates with other people.
Considering what we’re talking about with the dynamic of private vs. public, what was it like to open up this world by having a co-producer, Jackson Phillips, help bring that vision to life on this record?
It was really freeing. Before, I had never worked with a producer because I had such a – I think like before 2016, the DIY culture of doing everything yourself was the most respectable, and I had thought that people who don’t produce and write and engineer and mix all their own songs, like, they’re lame. [laughs] At the time, I wanted to be more of a respectable musician, and I was like, I need to do what I’m good at, and I need to have that space and trust in someone else to think in bigger picture terms, versus wasting a lot of time and energy doing production that I’m not that good at anyway. I really wanted to focus on the writing of it and the bigger picture, what I wanted the record to be and how I want it to feel.
Can you tell me a bit about the cover artwork for the record? I saw the photo is credited to you.
Yeah, I took the picture of my iPhone. When I was talking to the creative director of my record label, Molly Smith – it was a very primitive preliminary type of talk, and she was like, “What are you thinking about record cover?” And I was like, “I want a very dark aesthetic. I feel like that’s sort of my personal aesthetic, and it’s a nice contrast to the music that I think sounds very lush and layered.” And then I was like, “I really don’t want it to be my face.” She was like, “I get that, but also I think people like having record covers of their face because it’s like you’re getting a piece of the artist. You’re being more personal with your audience.” But I was thinking about that concept, and I just feel like when it’s like a portrait of them, it’s not really about “How does this represent my music?” It’s kind of more like, “How good do I look in this photo?” And I think it would become that if it had been my face.
I’m interested in that rawness, of giving a piece of myself to the audience in this sort of raw way without being shrouded in like, “How does this photo look of myself look?” So I worked with this graphic designer, Collin Fletcher, who took a bunch of pictures of my face. He was looking at a lot of Bruce Nauman’s Studies for Holograms and Ann Hamilton’s portrait series. The Bruce Nauman ones really are so raw, and you really get to see like a human face, kind of like the grossness of reality and the human body. So that was the impetus for that.
You mentioned ‘Maker’ before, and I think’s the perfect closer for this album. Because it’s not stereotypically hopeful, but it does signal a desperate desire for something to change. I was actually wondering if you’ve ever seen that song in relation to ‘Fighter’, from your double EP, Nicole Kidman / Anne Hathaway. I think it’s interesting how it changes from wanting to be that powerful force, that savior, to then calling out for one.
Yeah, it goes back to the idea that I think I had felt at the time of writing this record, like, I want all these things and I want to be all these things, but I’m not in charge of my actual life in terms of who I want to be in this world. You can try as hard as you want, but it’s not really up to you to get what you think you deserve. I still don’t know, but I think at the time I was like, I don’t know who it’s up to, I don’t know who I have to beg to be somewhere where I feel good about myself. Is it some sort of rich guy who has all of the power? To God? It’s that desperation.
There’s still that desire, though, right? It goes from “I want to be able to save me, to save you” to like, “Well, I know I can’t, but I still want it to happen somehow.”
Yeah. Like a very defeated type of trajectory, I think, from ‘Fighter’ to ‘Maker’.
But in the trajectory of the album, I think it’s a positive shift.
Well, not defeated in the quest, but in the activeness of it. You’ve given up hope, in a way, but you still want a better life for yourself, always.
I realize we got into some heavy questions, so I wanted to end with a lighter one. And because we started with a question related to the album title, I thought it would be nice to end with another title-related question. Going back to your EP, Nicole Kidman/Anne Hathaway, you said that there were so many other actors by the time that it came out that you were obsessed with. What are some things or people or actors that you’re currently obsessed with? Or has that need to obsess over things gone away?
I don’t obsess over things anymore, but I still heavily idolize celebrities. I was just consuming so much content at that time. And I was studying actors because it was cool to see a different kind of art that I have no business in. It was such a novelty to me. But I love all the classics: Amy Adams, Natalie Portman. I think after that record came out, Hustlers came out, and I was like, Constance Wu is a force to be reckoned with. Julianne Moore. I’m trying to think about what I’m watching now. Oh, I’ve been watching Grey’s Anatomy, and Sandra Oh is so amazing in it.
You don’t idolize musicians in the same way?
Because you are one?
Because I am one, yeah. [laughs] There’s no glory, to me at least.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.