Hannah Jadagu grew up in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite, Texas, where she began experimenting with music at an early age before her hobby became a passion. After uploading a string of demos on SoundCloud, she recorded her debut EP, What Is Going On?, entirely on an iPhone 7, and released it fresh out of high school. The EP caught the attention of Sub Pop, who signed Jadagu just before her freshman year of college at New York University, where she studies music business. The 20-year-old is now gearing up to release her debut LP, Aperture, a captivating collection that moves through styles with ease while maintaining a strong indie sensibility. From the resentful, distorted ‘What You Did’ to the warped electronics of ‘Admit It’ to atmospheric tracks that call back to her earlier material, the album exudes an air of confidence even as it captures a period of turbulence and uncertainty. Aided by French producer Max Robert Baby and working, for the first time, in a professional studio, Jadagu showcases her unique eye for detail and melody, using it to zero in on the important things that get caught in the constant push-and-pull between light and dark.
We caught up with Hannah Jadagu for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about her upbringing, the making of her Aperture, the album’s progression, and more.
You’ve talked about your older sister being an inspiration for you growing up, and the song ‘Admit It’ is dedicated to her. Do you mind sharing some fond memories of bonding through music early on?
My sister and I, when we were younger, we would be in the back of the car, and we always had very similar music tastes for the most part, so I remember my mom would play something and we would both be like, “Ew, change this.” Or we’d be like, “We love this, play it again, play it again.” And as we got older, my sister was the one to venture into that alternative indie soundscape before me, because my sister is like two and a half years older than me. She was listening to all the cool stuff, all on Tumblr and that kind of era. So I’m really appreciative to have an older sibling who showed me all the cool tracks and is definitely a big reason as to why I make the music that I make today.
How did you realize you were deeply passionate about making music?
It’s funny, because when I was in middle school, that’s when I really started coming home and always making songs. It started off as a hobby, but when I transitioned into high school and was around 16, the only thing I would ask for Christmas and for my birthday was music-related gear. I remember I would come home and it was the only thing I did, and I found that it became a way for me to just channel whatever was happening in real life. That was a good outlet for me, and I think that was my big transition.
Did you feel the need to keep it separate from your family at first, even your sister who you looked up to?
You’re totally right, at first it was so secretive. I didn’t even show my sister my songs at first, and eventually my sister was the first person that I showed my songs to, just because I felt like they could relate. But I remember I would literally go under my covers and record very quietly – I would wait till everyone was asleep in the house. Luckily, that’s also when I was most creative, but I was super shy about it at first. I didn’t tell a lot of people for a long time. I was just privately uploading tracks to SoundCloud to listen to when I woke up the next day. It took me showing that first song and feeling like I wanted feedback and I wanted criticism, and that’s what helped me get more comfortable sharing my music because I wanted to make it better.
Is there a part of that secrecy that you still try to tap into when you’re making music?
Definitely, yeah. Even when I was demoing the album, I did it in this bedroom, which is in New York, and I have a roommate right now who’s, like, washing dishes, but I wouldn’t record until she left. I was still so precious about it and shy about it, because to me it is a very personal experience, and I just tend to be on the more shy side. Never when I make a song am I worried about the live rendition or who’s gonna hear it. I think sometimes you can be scared to share it because someone’s going to listen, but the process of making the art itself, I’m never worried about who’s going to hear it.
You wrote Aperture in this transitional period between graduating high school in Mesquite, Texas and your sophomore year of college in New York. Was there a part of you that was torn about whether to lean on reflecting on the past and your upbringing or capturing this new space you’d found yourself in?
I think it honestly came down to just whatever I was inspired by at the moment. For some of that album, there were songs from when I was graduating high school that I felt like I was beginning to relate to again, because I was leaving college after my first year to go on tour. So the sense of leaving again and making a new routine and starting over again was something that I related to, even though that was me when I was 17 or 18, and now I was 19, just trying to figure out the industry shit. I think those had a common thread for me, but then I was also learning a lot more about myself and my interpersonal relationships, and that was something I really wanted to focus on in terms of what it means to come into your late teens and your twenties. While I was in between touring, after I left school that year, that was something that I found was so easy to write about for the album, and it made a lot of sense as a common theme to explore.
During that time of leaving to go on tour, did it become clearer to you what leaving your hometown meant in the first place? Not just what it meant, but also what was worth holding onto, and what it was time to let go?
Definitely. Even now, I still think about that a lot, because right now I’m finishing up my second year, and I’m going to have to leave again in the fall to go on tour. It’s never an easy decision for me to leave school, because younger worked so hard to get here and my mom worked so hard to put me in this position, so any time I have to leave it’s definitely a really big internal conflict that I battle with. And everyone’s like, “No, it’s cool, you’re playing shows,” but it’s hard to let go, and I think any normal human is afraid of change. That’s something that I just happen to struggle with, that I always want to work through. But a big thing on the album is just understanding, well, if you are letting go, then what are things that you can take with you and that you can learn from and continue to implement in your life? And what are things that you don’t want to take anymore, boundaries that you’ve set up? How are you going to move forward in that way, whether it be touring or your relation to your people and your team or friendships in your life?
Is it easier to recognize now what those things were for you?
It’s a bit more clear now. I think I had to learn a little bit of the hard way the first time I went on tour. Everyone’s so excited the first time they go on tour because it is such a unique opportunity, and I love to perform, even though I don’t like all the other stuff that comes with it. [laughs] I definitely learn certain things; I’m more introverted so I need to recharge more, and that’s a boundary that I’ll establish, and that’s something that my team knows about me. Just being vocal about what you need and how everyone can work together to make it happen is a big thing that I took away.
What comes to mind when you think about your upbringing that maybe wasn’t as clear or really in your mind when you were going through it?
Something that I talk about on the album is just how embedded religion is into everybody’s lives. When you grow up in it, it’s almost weird how normal it is that no one questions anything. Especially growing up in Texas, the way that everyone was living, I started to realize that no one was asking questions, and I felt this sort of groupthink happening amongst everyone. That is something that I’ve begun to reflect a lot about, especially on the album, and even still now, how that plays into my life today and how it’s shaped me. Like we talked about earlier, certain things that I might take from that, certain things that I might leave behind. It’s something I’m still figuring out.
You talked about relating to some of the older songs in a new way, but did you also feel your personality or beliefs changing in the process of writing and wanted the album to reflect that?
I think I’ve grown in those ways of, I’m a bit more confident in what I want out of my life, but at the same time, I think I’m still very similar, and maybe I’m just more comfortable with who I am as a person. I’ve grown into who I am a lot more, and am more self-aware of my existence and what that looks like in relation to other people in the world. Obviously, when you make an album, you learn a lot about writing and the process and production and how to collaborate, but those might be the only freshest takeaways that I’ve added to my arsenal in general. I think I’m still me.
I’m curious how your relationship to your voice changed from your EP to your debut album. Some of that shyness seems to have gone away, but it’s also led to you being more vulnerable and manipulating it in different ways.
On that EP that I made, I tended to shy away a lot from letting people know what I was actually saying. A lot of people were like, “Love your EP, don’t know what you’re saying.” And now I’m like, “Do I wish they knew what I was saying?” When it came time to record the album, I was super intentional about knowing that I felt like I had a little bit more to say this time around, and I knew myself a little bit better, and I wanted that to be heard and understood. But also, I wanted it to still be intimate and vulnerable, and to showcase just how personal it was to me. Like you said, we played with a lot of manipulation on tracks like ‘Six Months’.
I was going to ask what inspired the experimentation on that song.
What was I doing? I remember I was like, “This song needs to have AutoTune.” In my mind, I just wanted to mess around with something and have fun. ‘Six Months’ started with dry vocals, and it was a lot slower and groovier, a Faye Webster kind of twang-inspired vibe. And then somehow it transformed into this chaotic beast, and I was like, if it’s chaotic, AutoTune is the best way to be chaotic and express your voice in a weird way that helps add to that sort of craziness. I decided I would have this AutoTune verse that was like, you don’t know what’s going on and you’re at a crossroads, but then the chorus, we take it away and you find a sense of clarity. I think that’s ultimately what I was trying to do with the vocals, but I also just love how it sounds.
You worked with producer Max Robert Baby on the sonic palette of the album. What aspects of your songwriting do you feel were unlocked through that collaboration?
Max introduced me to the world of using actual acoustic instruments, because previously, I was only privy to doing stuff on MIDI and inside of Logic. And while he operated out of Logic, he was such a big analog nerd, so a lot of the stuff that we did with the synths was analog. That was really cool, because you’re tweaking it in real-time, and it just doubles creativity when you’re in the room. Another thing we did that I love about him is he recorded the drum parts – I had never done that before, I’m used to using a drum machine. I think when you have live drums, it gives it such a harder-hitting feel overall, and it drives a song much more, which I felt like I was missing. In general, Max helped bring out the songwriting in a way that he added so many flourishes. I think we both kind of do that, but when I added flourishes back in the day – it was cool, but the way that he came in was just so unique and original, and it complemented a lot of what I brought to him already. He really expanded upon it in a big way.
When you were thinking about Aperture as a title, how did it shed light on and bring the themes of the album into focus?
My friend Sterling [Smith], he’s a close collaborator of mine and we did the album art together. He recently directed the ‘Admit It’ music video. He’s always talking about aperture, and eventually I would just wake up and think about the word. I was just doing my research – because I’m a music business major, I don’t know much about photography to lay it all out there – but when I was doing my research, it had multiple meanings, and I felt like a lot of times, in your own work, it can be interpreted many different ways. So that was something that opened up a gate of, “Oh, this could be the title.” Because when you make art and you put it out in the world, it’s going to have a different meaning to someone else than what it might have to you. But furthermore, just the fact that the basic meaning is like an opening, a gap or a hole – I felt like I was going through a lot of different gaps in my life, in a literal sense; going on tour, leaving school, leaving home. I felt like I was having a lot of different new beginnings and new doors opening. But also, it talks about the light that passes through. I think a lot of times, coming into your early twenties, I feel like that’s what it’s all about: just looking at what’s happened in your life and figuring out how to dial in on the things that matter and the things that don’t.
You spend a lot of the album confronting other people, but the two final tracks are framed more like an inner monologue. Why was it important for you to put the weight there towards the end?
In a literal sense, I felt like when it came to sequencing, I knew I wanted to start off with something that relates to me personally, but also could be an open question for anyone. And then we move through, and it’s like stages of grief: ‘Say It Now’, you don’t believe it, and then you have ‘Six Months’ where you’re bargaining, and then you have ‘What You Did’, where you’re angry, and then later on you see ‘Warning Sign’, where you’ve gained acceptance and you’re putting your foot down. And at the end of the day, it’s really just you and your thoughts, so that’s why I wanted to end it that way. You go through your day, you talk to a lot of people, you hang out with your friends, and, you know, maybe somebody on the street is a biker and wants to run you over. You experience a lot of emotions, but something that I realize is: you have to be able to live with yourself and what’s going on in this brain up here, and that’s such a battle that a lot of us face before we go to sleep. It’s also a call back to a lot of what the EP was. When I first started making music, it was super introspective, and I didn’t explore my relationship to other people as much. So I thought I would come back to the issues that I face within myself.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.