Hana Vu always wanted to be older. Now, at 21, she’s had to find that adulthood isn’t quite as freeing as it sounds. “I really was trying to grow up all the time throughout my teenhood,” says the LA singer-songwriter, just out of bed and chatting via Zoom from her sunny home. “Now I feel like I’m finally as old as I ever thought I would be, and I wanna be younger again.”
It’s an age-old feeling – superstars like Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish have encapsulated it on a mainstream level in recent years – and one that stings even harder after key years and moments have been lost to the pandemic. But on her debut album ‘Public Storage’, Vu captures that disillusionment so vividly and viscerally that it’s brand new all over again. Take the menacing ‘Everybody’s Birthday’: with striking vocals and subtly stubborn melodies that evoke Lorde and Lana Del Rey, she pulls you into a dimly-lit New Years Eve party that’s more depression than debauchery.
“I was thinking that New Years Eve is kind of everybody’s birthday; you’re reflecting on your life and you have hopes for the future, but you’re ultimately sad every time the year passes and you aren’t who you wanted to be. That was sort of the ethos for that song.”
Writing the album (which follows up two EPs, 2018’s ‘How Many Times Have You Driven By’ and 2019’s ‘Nicole Kidman/Anne Hathaway’), Vu was moving between neighbourhoods in Los Angeles and at one point living in the shadow of a huge self-storage building; it was this structure that she named her album after. The building felt like a looming metaphor not just for her transitory circumstances, but for the stockpiled emotions in the songs she was writing. “Self-storage is just a collection of my things that I accumulate over time, and that’s what songwriting is to me – notes back to myself of experiences, and stuff I was feeling.”
Vu felt ungrounded in many ways: “I moved three times in one year or something. It was really hard to make friends and have a network of support. I think I was really obsessed with like, I’m almost an adult, I’m almost at this place where, when I was younger, I had imagined myself being something great. I was really desperate to get to a place in my life that I felt safe in, and comfortable. All I had was this conviction that I can make music and that it will propel me to be somebody that I wanted to be when I was younger.”
Her lyrics across the album probe at ideas of failure, evil, and worthlessness. ‘I’m nothing but the world’s worst colour, I stain all your skin,’ she sighs on ‘World’s Worst’, while on closing track ‘Maker’ she begs a higher power: ‘Can you make me anybody else?’ She was envisioning the perspective of someone completely downtrodden and hopeless, an extreme version of her own mindset. “I was thinking about, ‘How do I get to this next place, and who controls that?’. Sometimes you wonder if going through all these hard things is going to make you a better person, or if you’re just sort of taking punches every day. I think it’s hard to know that.”
She continues, “I didn’t grow up religious, but I always felt like, if there is some sort of God, he’s really mean. I felt this really punitive, oppressive force. I think the perspective [of the lyrics] is someone who’s just very self-loathing, because when something tells you that you do not deserve good things, or a happy life, then inherently people think there’s something wrong with them. That’s the perspective that I was writing from.” Strangely enough, at the time the brand new hopelessness of the pandemic hadn’t even arrived yet. “I listen to how sad I was and I’m like wow, this person wasn’t even in lockdown.”
Vu start playing around LA in different bands when she was 14 years old, and she formed her musical identity at DIY shows, surrounded by punk and surf bands. But making ‘Public Storage’ during lockdown led her to search for her own voice. “Not being around other musicians and musical context really just makes you have nothing to compare yourself to or work off. I just did what I wanted without influence.”
She dug into her pop sensibilities, trying to emulate the likes of St Vincent and Grimes in bringing her own edge to a pop framework. We hear that in the dancey synth hook of ‘Aubade’ or the big, dreamy chorus of ‘Keeper’. “Pop music is for everybody, so it’s interesting to see how everybody takes it, or where it goes,” she says.
She also wanted the album’s sonics to be “bigger and more intense” than her previous work. Mostly, she wanted to subvert the way streaming culture encourages music to be taken out of context and tailored for short attention spans. “I wanted to make music that you can’t ignore. On streaming there are a lot of playlists that are like, ‘Songs for when you’re taking a shower’, ‘Songs for when you’re at the gym’ – just sort of a background score to your life. And I’m more drawn to music affecting you versus accompanying whatever you’re doing.”
Assisted by co-producer Jackson Phillips of Day Wave, she achieved exactly that, an unsettling but captivating album that encourages multiple listens to really let it unfold; melodies build on themselves the longer they’ve been stuck in your head, and close listening to the production on tracks like ‘Heaven’ and ‘April Fool’ reveals its careful crafting.
“I think it just felt really good to feel like I was good at something. And if I couldn’t get everything else together, at least I could write a pretty concise song about how I was feeling,” says Vu, looking back at ‘Public Storage’ from a new vantage point.
“I think when you remember your life in terms of the past, it always seems better than where you are now. Life changes, and you grow up. I think if you change your narrative in your mind, and you’re like, this is the narrative of your life — you’re the only one who lives it, so who else is gonna know?” Out from under that shadow, she begins to write the next phase of her life. “I think I have a lot of room to just keep growing up.”
Hana Vu’s new album ‘Public Storage’ is released November 5 via Ghostly International