April 18, 2014

Spotlight: Hannah Lew

Catching a dream: An interview with Hannah Lew

Hannah Lew first entered my universe when our bands played together at a women's music festival in California. Hannah, who lives in San Francisco, is constantly working on something amazing. Besides shining as the bassist of one of my favorites bands, Grass Widow, Hannah also produces music videos (my personal favorite is King Tuff's "Alone & Stoned") and films, helps operate two record labels (Crime on the Moon and HLR) and plays in the bands Cold Beat and Generation Loss. I asked her for advice about staying busy, avoiding depression and maintaining long distance relationships.

THE LE SIGH: Do you feel like you’re more productive when you have more, or less free time? When you’re working jobs do you usually feel more inspired to do music? When I have too much time on my hands I just sit around and watch TV because I’m like "oh, whatever." But then when I’m working I feel the need to go on tour and write.

HL: When you have to make your own schedule, you just have to do extra stuff to kind of turn off depression, I think. I go running - there’s stuff I do to keep myself busy. I love TV, but I don’t watch TV until nighttime. You just have to make your own schedule and figure out what works for you. I definitely value free time; it hasn’t been that long that I haven’t had a job. I feel like going on tour is time away from creative projects - you’re sharing your music but you’re not getting to write music.

TLS: Do you have a place that you prefer to do songwriting? Do you do it at your house or do you have a studio space?

: Usually at my house. I’m unfortunately not a good sleeper and sometimes I’ll just kind of be up all night thinking about stuff, and writing songs helps me give it form. I demoed a lot of the songs from the Cold Beat record at six in the morning. I’d just be up all night, and you can hear me whispering cause my husband’s asleep in the next room and I don’t want to wake him up. For a while I was writing way too much in the wee hours and I was like, “Gosh, I wish I could just write in the afternoon like a normal person!,” but usually I write songs at my house, and my practice space too. Stuff happens there, but I think the root of it is definitely in my living room. For me, once the song starts getting written you have to roll with it while the energy is fresh or you kind of lose it. Sort of like a hallucination or a dream - when you first wake up, you have to catch it while its there.

TLS: Do you prefer writing and demoing, or recording or performing? What’s your favorite part of the process? 

HL: I don’t know, they’re all different parts. I always feel like when you perform a song, it’s kind of like this moment where everyone else is hearing it for the first time, and then after you perform it, it’s totally different. It actually took me a while with Cold Beat, because a lot of the songs were so old and they were just things I hadn’t really shared with anyone and it kind of took me a while to get into my skin with performing, because I was used to performing with Grass Widow and that was kind of a space identity for us, so it just took me a while to get into it. But now, I’m really into it! I get really excited when we play shows, like, “Man, I’m so stoked to share these songs.” Performance is this whole other aspect and I think the moment when a song is new and you're playing it with your bandmates, that’s always the best moment, you know? 

TLS: Are you going to put out the new record on Crime on The Moon?

HL: Yeah, it’s being mixed right now and I’m really excited about it because we’ve been playing for a while, so I’m excited to share it. The album’s 12 or 15 songs. I’m just working on the artwork right now and hopefully it will be out by June.

TLS: That sounds amazing. Are you doing all of the album art yourself?

HL: In theory. I haven’t come up with anything yet. (Laughs) I’m working on it, I’m thinking about it a lot - there’s things I know I don’t want, and things I know I do want. Well, I don’t know exactly what images yet, but this is often how images work with you. They’re kind of blurry and distant and then they just come closer and closer into focus. Right now I’m seeing the album cover as kind of blurry - it’s coming to me, all the pieces are there, they just have to fall into place, come together in Photoshop or something, basically just the details. All the songs are recorded. That feels like a really big accomplishment for us - to have a whole body of work. Feels good. 

TLS: I wanted to ask you how you deal with being homesick, how you deal with missing Lillian and Raven, and maybe your husband.

HL: With Grass Widow, there were several times during our career where one person lived in another place. Raven lived in New Mexico for six months in the beginning, and then Lily lived in Maine for six months later, and there were many circumstances where I couldn’t play for a while and we were never like, “We should all live here and everything’s chill!” Lily actually moved away recently to her folks in Washington. So yeah, it was definitely tough being around her all the time and then not being around her. Definitely an adjustment. But Raven and I hang out once a week and write still which is nice. 

I’m the kind of person who’s actually okay being away from my husband for some time because he’s in bands too, and we both always tour and have been together for eight years, so we’re just used to being autonomous and having our own lives, which I think is really healthy. I definitely don’t sleep as well when I’m not sleeping next to him, which is the hard part. Other than that, it’s good for me to go have adventures. He came on tour with Grass Widow when we went to Europe and to the United Kingdom also, so that was cool. It’s hard when you have really big experiences and then you come home and try to relate stuff to your partner and they're just like, “What?” and have no frame of reference of where you just were. If I go do something really big, I try to take my husband with me. But when you can’t, you can’t. Maybe I’m just a non-conventional married person, but I have really close relationships with my bandmates as well and with other friends of mine, so I’m happy to share those experiences with people too.

Touring can be kind of rough on your personal life. There’s been times, when I’ve toured more, we’d get back to town and it's almost like no one ever really calls you to hang out because you’re always gone and they’re used to you never coming out. I feel like recently I have friends again since I haven’t been touring as much. (Laughs) Like I have regular dates with people, which feels really good.

TLS: Do you have any daily rituals or something you have to do that helps you get in the mindset to work on either art or music? I feel like a lot of my friends that work from home have different ways they make themselves feel like they’re somewhere else, like an “office” or something, just so they can be productive.

HL: I don’t really put that much pressure on myself to be productive. It’s usually more impulsive, kind of like a survival thing for me. I know if I didn’t play music I’d be dead by now. I just know that. It’s almost something I don’t think about doing, it’s something I have to do. I don’t really ever have to think about it, because I’m always kind of in that zone. That’s kind of my approach to writing. Sometimes if you just try to sit down and you’re like, “I’m going to write!” it can be pretty hard, but I think for me what’s most important is to have a way you can record when you’re on the go - even if it’s humming into your phone or something. Then when you have ideas, just a little diddy in your head, you should honor it and then when you get home you can try to play it. It’s kind of like catching a dream, you know? It’s the same thing where it’s like, if you have a little idea, give it space and see what it will become - because you'll totally forget the vibe later! I guess my biggest advice is just, don’t forget the songs that are in your head.

Fall into Hannah’s corner of the web here.

Rachel Gagliardi, a musician who spends most days watching reality television, wearing velvet and listening to cassettes. Her happy place is thrift shopping alone. Follow her band on twitter.