I’m curious to know when you first knew you wanted to play music.
My mom actually started me on piano and guitar and voice lessons when I was really young. She was a musician when she was a kid and even to this day, she still plays instruments. She started both me and my two siblings on instruments when we were really young. For me, it’s funny - I get asked this question a lot and I never feel like I made a concrete decision that music is what I was gonna do. It just kinda became what I was going to do. It was always the question of “Okay, am I not going to do music and do something else?” I was always playing and I started writing songs when I was really young. I started playing in bars and venues when I was in high school. So then when it came time to apply to college, it was when it was really like “Okay, am I going to pursue a degree in music or music industry or something along those lines, or am I going to pivot and study business?” The schools that I actually applied to were actually pretty diverse. I applied to a few conservatories and music schools, and then a few state schools and a few small liberal arts schools. I got into Berklee College of Music, which was my dream school at the time. The decision was made instantly. I went to Berklee for about a year before I moved to LA and then eventually transferred to USC. I never really diverted from music industry since.
What was your experience like at USC? Like, did you have any fun memories and how do you think you grew as a musician at USC?
I’m still at USC, actually.
I didn’t know that! What year are you?
I’m a second semester senior so I’m almost done! But I can tell you, my USC experience has been pretty different from I think most people. For context, I went to school in Boston and then I dropped out to be a rockstar. I took a few years off in the middle and worked and worked on my music. And so for me, when I applied to USC, it was the only school I applied to as a transfer. I was like “Okay, if I’m going to go back to college right now, the only school on the west coast that meant anything to me is USC” for the Thornton school. I’m really grateful I got into that program because otherwise I wouldn’t have gone back to school and I don’t know what I would have done. I already live here in LA. I live in the Valley, and I’ve lived here the whole time I’ve been at school. I already had a pretty rigorous part-time job and life up here, so I’ve been a commuter student the whole time. I stack my days so that I’m on campus a few days a week, and then working and doing music the other days of the week. But I would say the most fun I’ve had as a musician at USC has been in the songwriting classes because I’m a music industry major and I already went to Berklee, so I didn’t have to do any of the musician stuff at Thornton. By being in the songwriting classes, I was able to really work on my songwriting and get to hear other songwriting majors and pop majors in the program and meet these really talented songwriters that push me to be a better songwriter. Every week, I just really love coming in. Even when I’m not super proud of whatever I’ve written, I’m always excited to hear what everyone else has written because it really inspires me that these songwriters who are living and breathing music reminds me of when I was back at Berklee and that’s really fun for me.
It’s really interesting to hear about your journey and I happened to listen to some of your music. I absolutely love it. Something I really admire about it is how you are so vulnerable and I love art that is like that. You mentioned songwriting and I’m curious to know what your writing process is like, especially with your deep lyrics.
This is another question that I get asked sometimes. My writing process is kind of spontaneous honestly. Some people have rituals and will sit down and light a candle. It’s very spontaneous for me and it’s very much based on how I’m processing an emotion or experience that is happening to me. All my songs are very vulnerable and personal because I don’t really feel like I have the right to write about anything other than my own experience. I’m not trying to create blanket statements about grandiose things. All I can talk about is my experience and how I’m working through it, and that seems to have been a beautiful way to connect with other people who can empathize and relate to my experiences. For me when I’m writing a song, sometimes I’ll write out a whole bunch of lyrics and I’ll wake up and word vomit a bunch of lyrics into my phone. I write a lot in the car because, as I said, I’m a commuter student, so I have like upwards of almost two hours in the car a day. Sometimes I’ll hum the melodies or sing some things. Sometimes I pick up my guitar or piano and fiddle around until I find a chord progression or melodic line that I like. From there, it usually comes pretty quickly if I either have a prompt for songwriting class or I have something I’m passionate about and I’m super emo about it. It’s essentially like a journal to me. But I write my music super fast. Some people that I know who are brilliant songwriters will spend years perfecting a song. Most of the time for me, I will finish the song in one sitting and sit with it to see how I feel about it. I send it to my songwriting friends because you get really close to your material. That’s been working really well for me.
The first song I heard of yours was “Better Off” with Hayley Brownell, and I fell in love with it. What was it like working with her?
We’ve actually done a few songs together and we room together up in a house in Sherman Oaks. She’s a really talented songwriter and instrumentalist and singer. She started as my drummer in my band back in 2015 for about 6 months. The first song we wrote together is a song I have out called “Joshua.” A few months after we wrote “Joshua,” my roommate was moving out and Hayley was looking for a place and I suggested we could live together, so we did. We’ve lived together since May 2016. We were both going through kind of a similar feeling at the same time. A lot of people think that song is about a romantic relationship, but for both of us, it wasn’t. We were both going through what felt like breakups with friends. She was feeling very disenfranchised from a friendship in her life and I had just been like ghosted by a friend, and that felt really bad. We just sat down and wrote that song one day and it came out really really well. When I knew I wanted to put it on the EP, we went into the studio and tracked it live. That song was recorded in one take and the way it is in the music video is the way it is on the EP.
If I’m correct, your most recent EP is called “Giants,” which features “Better Off.” What inspired the EP?
The “Giants” EP is interesting, actually, because it’s my third EP technically. The first one came out in 2015 and the second one is a loose collection of singles that came out between 2016 and 2017. The “Giants” EP I worked on for a really long time. There isn’t one thing that inspired my EP - it’s not really a concept piece. It’s more of just an end of a chapter of my life. Some of the songs are older, one of them was written back in Berklee in 2014, which is crazy. There are more recent songs, like “Docs.” Some of those are written in 2017 and I was in production for a long time. It’s really an amalgamation of different parts of my life - good things and bad things and a lot of growth. The reason why I was in the studio for so long was because I was really trying to find my sound. It took me a while. I felt like I was one kind of artist and then I was another kind of artist, and I couldn’t find my way. The songs for the most part oscillated most of the time back and forth between different genres. Finally, I had some kind of epiphany one day and I called my producer and I was like “I’m coming in and we’re re-producing these three songs.” “Docs” and “Better Off” were already out as singles before I was even finished with the rest of the EP. I went in for a few days of twelve hour sessions and my producer and I stripped the rest of the songs down. “Out of Love” wasn’t even going to be on the album. Same with “Settle Down” - it used to be a very different song. I re-tracked the vocals and rewrote some of the lyrics. They were all in such a very different sonic base until July of last year. I’m so proud of it now. It’s exactly how it was supposed to happen. It was supposed to be a crazy development where I find my sound as an artist and what I really wanted to say. I’m really grateful it happened like that because I think if I had put out the songs before they were ready to be put out, it would have been a step back rather than a step forward. The EP feels like a stepping stone now into what I’m doing now.
I can totally see your growth and I feel like it will only continue to go up. I guess a question I’m always dying to ask musicians is who are your influences?
That’s a crazy question for me because I’m influenced by everything. I get asked this question and I usually end up writing a list of like thirty artists because I can’t really narrow it down. When I was a young songwriter, my favorite bands were from the 90s, like old school Matchbox Twenty, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Counting Crowes. It’s funny because my music back then didn’t sound anything like that - it sounded like Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson and those pop singer/songwriters on piano. When I got to Berklee, I was really influenced by the more esoteric arty songwriters like Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette a little. Also Annie Lennox, Bjork, and the trippy stuff because going to a conservatory means you’re living and breathing music theory. You’re like “how can I make this chord progression weirder?” My self-titled EP from 2015 was written in that time and the sound was a little weirder which is cool and I’m super proud of that EP too, and it’s a little more left of center. Now, I would say...God, I’m such a rabid consumer of music, it’s crazy. Anything Justin Vernon does, who is the singer/songwriter behind Bon Iver and some other side projects I love. I really love Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker and these girls who feel more contemporary to me. I love St. Vincent and a lot of the indie pop stuff. I’m a sucker for some Top 40 pop music stuff. I can’t get enough of “thank u, next” the album and I love it. I don’t really make music like that but I listen to it and I take what I can from that. I mean, there will be a couple pop songs coming from me in the next year. I’m dipping my toe into pop waters a little bit without losing sight of the alt rock stuff that feels really authentic to me.
I feel like we’re in such an awesome place for music now. You mentioned a bit about making some pop songs. As a final question, I want to know what you hope your journey looks like in the near future.
I have a lot of excitement. I don’t want to give away too much but I have a whole plan in place. There is going to be a lot of new music coming from me this year, and a lot of shows. I’m playing a few shows here in LA over the next few months that I’m really stoked about. I’m actually playing a music festival and trying to book a little tour around that in the midwest over the summer. I will be releasing some singles, music videos, and some other content before the end of this year so I’m really excited about that. And most importantly, I feel like I was really stuck for a while in between “Docs” and “Better Off” coming out and with the EP being finished. I know I said I just had an epiphany one day and fixed the songs, but it wasn’t really like that. I hibernated on that stuff for like a year from 2017 to 2018 just to try to figure out who I was. Now that I feel like I’ve done that, working on the new music feels really really good again because I don’t feel so lost sonically. I’m like “No, I know what this is going to sound like, I know what I want to say. I know what these songs are about.” I don’t feel like I’m necessarily finding my way, but that I’m finding out how to share that now, which is super exciting. So I’m creatively at the helm of my projects and I’m very hands-on with everything - that feels really good. I’m about to graduate, so I’m going to have so much more time to dedicate to my art. I think this is going to continue to be a really good year for me. I’m so grateful for my team and the people who have been helping and believing in me. I’m excited to continue to share myself with people who want to listen.
— Hannah Ackles, DJ