Interview by Annar Veröld. Promo photo by Cedric Bihr.
L.A. based songstress, Priscilla Ahn recently released her sophomore album with Blue Note Records, a jazzy label that has been home to John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, and currently working with Norah Jones and Amos Lee. Despite not having the jazzy style as her colleagues, Ahn produces a very sweet, but melancholic sound, full of soul and tenderness. Her second album, When You Grow Up, was produced by the notorious record producer, Ethan Johns, who has worked closely with Ray LaMontagne, Rufus Wainwright, and Kings of Leon. We caught up with Priscilla Ahn recently to discuss her experiences working with Blue Note Records, Ethan Johns, her inspirations, why she chose to change up her songwriting style, how she’s grown as an artist, and of course, what’s coming up next.
Since your first full length album in 2008– how have you grown as an artists, and what have you done differently?
Ahn: I think the way I sing has changed a little bit. Also, with this album, I did a lot of co-writing, which I haven’t really done before. So, that is sort of a big, new experience for me. Some of my songwriting has changed a little bit, and I have grown from that. Also, the way I approached the second record, I approached it kind of differently. I approached my first album very much more “go with the flow and see what happens” kind of thing. Whereas with this album, I sort of went in and gave it a little more thought and had outlined what arrangements I wanted with each song, and the sound of the record.
Who or what inspires you as an artist?
Ahn: Things that happen in my life is where I pull a lot of inspiration from. It’s a lot easier to pull inspiration from sad things that happen in my life, but there have been a lot of happy, good things going on, and that is sort of a new challenge for me– to find inspiration in songwriting in that way. In terms of who inspires me, Neil Young is one of my biggest heroes. His songwriting is one of the best. Also, Andrew Bird inspired me. I just loved how he builds an orchestra around it. I used to do a lot of classical singing, so I sort of wanted to build, in my mind, like a chorus of voices around me. I try to read books; the new Patty Smith book is totally inspiring to me. Just artists, people in general are inspiring.
Working with Ethan Johns resulted in you having to create the record in England. What was it like working on your art in such an unfamiliar environment?
Ahn: I have to say, I was really against it, at first. England is really not one of my favorite places. You know, it is usually cold and gray. Most of the times I have been there, it has been like that. I wasn’t looking forward to that. Also, I was so used to working with my friends here in L.A. whenever I make a record. So, I knew I wasn’t really going to be having them around. Also, I’m such a homebody. All of those things combined made me really against it. But, I have to say, it was really one of the better things I have done for myself– just to get out of my comfort zone. Because I was over there, I was on time limit. I had a plane ticket to go home in five weeks, and the record had to be done by then. I had to really focus and work all the time, which made the days go by really fast and it ended up being really awesome. I met a couple of other great musicians that were based in London. I got to fly a couple of my friends out, so it really wasn’t that bad.
I read that you changed your process of songwriting and decided to collaborate with other writers. What lead you to make that decision, and how has your songwriting process changed now?
Ahn: Well, I have to say, my A&R guy had encouraged me to do some co-writing in the beginning. So, he set me up with some great songwriters, but they weren’t perfect matches for me musically, but it made me think “Oh, well, if I’m going to do this, I should do this with my friends”, because I would feel way more comfortable. It’s a really awkward thing, especially if you don’t know the other person. You have to be very vulnerable. You have to be honest if you don’t like an idea. So, I discovered that writing was really hard. I think it sort of changed the way I write a little bit, seeing how other people write. It not exactly a mild approach. There were a couple of things here and there that I was like “Oh yeah!”, and I sort of applied that to some of the other songs that I wrote on my own. I do feel like I love the other songs I wrote with them, but that the songs that I just write are still the most personal and the most “of me”.
Every artist has a certain way of creating, where do you ideas stem from, and how do they turn into a full-blown song or album?
Ahn: I think that songwriting is a really emotional thing. So, if I’m really sad about something, it is really easy for me to pick up a guitar and write a song about that. When I pick up a guitar, I try not to even be like “Okay, I’m writing.” I try not to go into it consciously knowing I’m going to write. As soon as I do that, I start over thinking it too much, then everything becomes a little stunted and not completely genuine. My favorite songs come when I least expect it. I’m ready to go out the door, and I’ve got ten minutes to kill, so I pick up my guitar and all of the sudden I have a song. It weirdly happens like that. For this album, there were some songs about being confused about where I am right now. After writing a first record and releasing that, there is sort of a weird and in between phase. It is like you have something to prove in the next album. If I would go off and play shows, I would have to play old material, because that is what people came for. So, I couldn’t really play any of my new songs for people and get feedback. So, I had a lot of songs down when it came down to the second record. It made me really confused. I hadn’t always really cared about this stuff; I wrote songs for me, and never worried about what anyone else thought. Now that I’m on a record label, there is just this added weird pressure that sort of sucks, and it is hard to block that out of your mind. There are songs about that, and then there are just some made up songs. I just write about a story I imagine.
What was the concept behind your music video, for “I Don’t Have Time To Be In Love”– it comes off as very abstract? What was your vision?
Ahn: (laughs) You know, it wasn’t really my vision at all. I was in New York, and this guy who is an amazing photographer and videographer was a friend of mine. He was available and wanted to do it as a friend. So, I just sort of let him have at it. I was really shocked when I saw it. In a cool way. I was like “This is cool, but it is so weird. I think I like it, I’m not sure.” But, I do, I really like it, but it’s weird. It’s like very trippy, but it’s sort of cool. It was very interesting, but I didn’t really have anything to do with any of the ideas, so I can’t take any credit.
I saw that you have put out a few video blogs. Do you plan on doing them more regularly? How did that get started and how does that connect you with your fans?
Ahn: I decided at the beginning of the year that I was going to do this every month, but I totally stopped doing it. It was just a way to get back in touch with my fans in a more intimate way, since the record was coming out soon. It’s sort of hard for me to do those things. Coming up with interesting ideas and things to talk about. It’s so weird. There was this thing called “Be You”, where people can ask you questions, and you can send them video responses answering their questions directly. It was sort of cool for a while, and then you end up getting these really weird questions. It sort of freaked me out. At a show, I love creating an intimate feel with the audience and connect in that way. When it comes to normal life and this stuff, it gets weird. I’m definitely going to do some more video logs, but it is definitely weird to get people’s feedback immediately. Some people are really opinionated and you just want to say, “Shut up, what do you know?” You have to block that stuff out, it is very interesting.
What are your plans for 2011? Where are you headed?
Ahn: I have some tours coming up in the end of July and in August in Japan, Korea, and Singapore. Then, we’re aiming to set up tours in the U.S. and, hopefully, in Europe in the Fall. Then, I think we’re going to try and look at making a new record soon. It is all happening very fast. I sort of have these next couple of months to write and stuf. In the meantime, I’m trying to work on other things. On my last big touring cycle, I was selling these homemade magazines that I made. I’m working on that. And I’m trying to make my “Elf Song” into a children’s book. I have a few side projects that I’m trying to do. Mostly, just writing and being creative. It’s hard because people, like my friends, are always asking “Are you going on tour soon?” and ask if I’m going to be so busy touring, and I’m like “No, not really.” I’m a little like “I guess I’m not doing much?”, but I am. I’m trying.
Watch the video for “I Don’t Have Time To Be In Love” below: