Interview with Hannah Fury

Hannah Fury has been creating subtly spellbinding, but richly expressive music for over a decade, and she has written, performed, engineered, and produced several albums and EPs permeated by her unique, self-described “mellowtraumatic” sound.

Hannah’s songs, marked by a continuous undercurrent of ominous tension, are disquieting, but captivating, and graced with her haunting vocal style that caresses the ears and emotions with densely layered, whispered, usually coolly clear, but sometimes tremulous, vocal lines, which on occasion break free from the restless calm to glide ever so smoothly and sweetly, or to sometimes rise to a sharp cry. The accompanying instrumentation of flowing piano or organ runs and delicate, music-box notes either follow her airy vocal melodies or provide a bright counterpoint to her inner turmoil.

Hannah’s latest full-length Through The Gash was released in August 2007 to high acclaim by music critics and discerning music listeners. It’s her most sonically fleshed-out, diverse, gorgeous, and compelling album to date, down to its eye-catching cover art and the lyrics booklet inside. The whole package, with all the artistry involved, seems like a labor of love, and a gift for the listener.

Delusions Of Adequacy: Hello Hannah!

Hannah Fury: Hi!

DOA: Your vivid, stark lyrics cut to the quick, and deal with themes of love, longing, and loss (in its various forms), innocence, deception, and corruption, betrayal, hurt, and revenge, and justice, survival, and hope. When did you first start writing songs, and did they first take the form of poems or short stories? Why did you choose music as an avenue for your self-expression, as opposed to, say, becoming a writer?

Hannah: I would say that I started writing when I was about 16 or so. I didn’t play an instrument at the time, so at first I was just singing the songs to myself, and I wouldn’t really call it writing. But I was definitely having a lot of recurring melodies, chords and words and I dreamt a lot of music. Most things were just bits and pieces, but I had one that was a complete song and it was almost always there in the back of my mind, and that’s what made me motivated to learn to play piano. It had lyrics, melody, title – everything. And I felt like I had to do something to make it real, so I really needed to learn to play something. We had a piano, and it was pretty easy to figure out the basic chords to it, but it took me several years to really be able to play it, with separated notes and everything.

But no, my songs are never poems or stories first. They’re either complete songs right away or they end up being nothing.

I’m not sure exactly what made me think I could or should make music. When I was younger I used to draw, but I think I just realized at some point that songs were what I connected with on the deepest emotional level. So to me, songs became superior to other art forms, and then it just seemed like that was what I should be doing. I don’t come from a musical family, but I think that from the time I was really little I had a very strong connection with particular songs, and that just eventually evolved into me trying my hand at it myself.

DOA: Going along with the previous question, what was the initial spark that made you decide to leap into the musical fray? Was it a person, an idea, or an experience, or a combination of the above?

Hannah: Well, some of my very earliest and strongest memories involve songs, and I had very intense reactions to certain songs growing up. Which I think everyone does — I don’t mean to make it sound as if it’s unusual or anything. But regardless, I think it’s part of what made me gravitate towards songwriting later on. Anyway, as a toddler I used to be completely destroyed every time my uncle sang a particular song to me. He would sing his own words set to the tune of “Blue Moon” and I would become completely and utterly unhinged. I cried and cried because I thought the words he sang were so sad. That’s probably when I first started to be undone and altered by music. Actually, it’s kind of weird, because my grandfather used to predict that I would be a singer. There was really no reason for him to do that, because it wasn’t as if I showed any talent for singing or anything. From the time I was really little he would say, “Lillgumman ska bli sångerska,” which means “the little girl will be a singer” in Swedish. And I would scream back: “Jag ska inte bli nan sångerska!” Which loosely translates to “I ain’t gonna be no singer!” I would get so mad at him. But I guess somewhere in there my inner self was listening, ’cause the idea came back with a vengeance later on. But all through my childhood, I never once thought of music as something that could be created by me. That never even remotely occurred to me until I got to high school and I had a boyfriend who was really into all kinds of music, and he had some friends who were in a band and they wrote original songs. That’s when I started to realize that music was made by people, not behind some magic curtain by unknown forces. I just don’t think I’d ever really thought about it before that, so I’d never made the connection. I never really considered that music could be one person’s creative vision. The minute I realized that it could, it seemed like a very natural thing for me to try it myself. And as soon as I did, I started having songs come through. I would plunk them out on the piano whenever no one was at home – just simple chords. Eventually I actually managed to become a decent player. At least in terms of my own songs. I’m not able to play much of anything else, but I feel like I can do what I need to do.

DOA: Have you ever taken singing or music lessons, or are you self-taught?

Hannah: I am self-taught. I had some music lessons on and off when I was younger, but I didn’t retain anything. I only decided to teach myself to play after I realized that songwriting could be a form of creative expression. Before that, I don’t think I really saw any reason to learn an instrument. I was in choir for a year in high school. That was really good because the teacher was very passionate about music and she picked all these really beautiful, sad requiems and things for us to sing. That was probably my favorite class in school. Then later, I left the country for a year and met one of my best friends. She plays classical piano, and I spent a lot of time listening to her play, so I think I soaked up a lot from that. I never learned to read music or anything, but I know what sounds right to me. I think mostly I’ve learned from listening to records and radio, and from my own songs.

DOA: Your recordings are all released on the MellowTraumatic Recordings label, and you describe your sound as “mellowtraumatic”. Is this a company that you created yourself, and if so, what is it like to run the company?

Hannah: Yes, it is my company. I’d made a demo tape and sent it out to four independent labels. I can’t remember which ones now, but I never heard from any of them. Denied! I realize that most people get rejected way more than that before they finally find someone willing to take a chance on them, but that was enough for me, so I decided to do it myself. It’s a lot of work, and it took me a long time to build my studio and learn how to use it, but I feel like it’s been the right thing for me.

DOA: Did you coin the term “mellowtraumatic”, and if so, how did it even spring to mind? Did this apt description of your sound come before or after you started forming songs?

Hannah: Yes, I did, and I do think it’s an apt description – and I liked that it was a play on words, too. I had kind of an epiphany with it. It just hit me out of the blue one day, and I thought it was perfect for the music, so I trademarked it and started the label.

DOA: You have an intact, undiluted sound and vision that comes from being a solo artist who is in control of every aspect of her career. How do you accomplish this without running yourself down? Do you collaborate at all with other people in the music field?

Hannah: Thank you so much! I hope it comes across as undiluted. Doing everything can be pretty exhausting sometimes, but I really need that amount of control, so for me it’s really the only option. If I had people telling me what to do or if I had to rely on other people to do things for me, I think I would go absolutely crazy. I haven’t done many collaborations, but I’m totally open to them. It just depends on what the project is. I’m so solitary when it comes to writing and recording my own music, but I wouldn’t need to be that way if I was working in collaboration with someone else on a joint project. And I’ve always hoped to work with other people on their stuff. I want to sing a duet with Jemaine Clement. Actually, if I could just sing one line in one Flight of the Conchords song, I think my life would be complete. Okay, even just one word in one of their songs would be fine. Like maybe I could sing the words “uh” or “yeah” in one of their songs. But as far as my own music, I’m really hoping to add other musicians to the recording process in the future. I’d love to have some strings and guitar or mandolin or saw on my next album. I think I could really do something amazing if I had access to an orchestra.

DOA: In relation to the careful crafting of your new album, I was wondering what your perspective is on the shift away from buying a complete album and having it physically on-hand, towards the more “pick and choose” digital download system that breaks up the continuity of an album? Has this on-going change affected how you release your music at all?

Hannah: I definitely see an album as a complete work of art. I don’t see music as entertainment, except of course it can be that as well. But to me, music is second only to love in terms of what makes life worth living. So I do think the way that songs are presented is important. But having said that, I think that each song on an album should be strong enough to be separated from the whole. I think people get very creative when making their own mix CDs or iPod playlists and YouTube videos and things, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. I was the Queen of Mix Tapes at one time, so it doesn’t bother me one bit if people want to take a song from an album and put it somewhere else. It hasn’t affected how I release music. I feel that once I’ve made it and released it the way I want, I don’t need to control what other people do with it. I do think CDs are becoming obsolete, though. I think the future of music will be made up of downloads and vinyl.

DOA: Getting a bit more in-depth here about your creative process, I would like to trace the evolution of your sound. Did you know from the beginning exactly how you wanted to sound, that you wanted to layer your vocals, use certain instruments, enigmatic effects, and unhurried pace, and that you wanted to take the listener on a wonderfully uneasy ride to an otherworldly realm?

Hannah: With the writing I never know what I’m going to get, except that I generally know what thing or things I’m snagged on at the time, so I’m usually somewhat aware that those things will eventually turn up in songs. But the actual songs always surprise me. I never know how things will come through lyrically or melodically, or what other things they’ll bring with them. With the recording, I know the feeling that I want, but I don’t always know how I’m going to get it. For Through the Gash I knew that I wanted something that would feel like a carnival or circus in outer space – kind of a fair or carnival in a place that has no time. That’s kind of the idea that I was trying to get across with the sounds. So as I was recording I eliminated anything that didn’t feel that way to me. I wanted a core of layered, dense sound with thin, clear, bright things shooting out from it.

DOA: I’d like to hold a looking-glass up to Through The Gash now and ask what the main instruments are that you play on the album. (I hear piano, funereal organ, bright, bell-tone notes, music-box notes – I’m assuming coming from keyboards?)

Hannah: Yes, they’re from layered keyboards played in real-time, not looped or programmed. There are also some music boxes – the kind that you play with a crank – that I recorded and reversed, and there’s a toy tambourine on there, and some bass and of course the drum machine on some of the songs. There’s also some sampled traditional carousel music in two little spots on the CD. Other than that it’s all played on keyboards.

DOA: As your songs invite introspective inspection, could you take us through the gash – no, I mean, could you please guide us through the process of creating of one of your songs? I’m offering up the mesmerizing “No Man Alive”, which pulsates with an undercurrent of dark, dreamy energy and is filled with breathy, echoed sighs and whispers, and sinister, hissed vocals, along with breaking glass, piercing shrieks, chiming music box notes, piano runs, and cymbal smash. How did you create this song? Did you come up with the lyrics first? How did you decide on what accompanying instruments to use, and the vocal treatment?

Hannah: It’s so hard for me to remember how songs come together because it’s always in kind of a “fit” of inspiration. But the lyrics, melody and chords almost always come at once, so I’m pretty sure that that’s what happened in this case. There are three songs on Through the Gash that were written to a programmed beat, but all the rest, including “No Man Alive,” were written on piano. A lot of times I’ll get a little phrase or feeling – something that sounds and feels nice or interesting to me – and then it just takes off. It always seems like writing is something that charges through me, or around me – like I’m in it, and just as quickly it’s over. And while I’m in it I have this glittery feeling, and when it’s over I’m normal again. There are months and months where I won’t write anything at all, and then all of a sudden I’ll write three songs all at once. It’s very unpredictable. As for the recording and production, the feeling I wanted to get across was one of communication with something from a very long way off, so I used walkie-talkies for some of the background vocals, and at the end of the song there’s a thin, wavering keyboard sound that I hope sounds like an astral cord, which is kind of how I imagined you could retain a connection with someone when they are far away, or when they’re with someone else, or maybe even after death. The song is basically about romantic obsession and ill-advised possessiveness, so I needed it to have a very forward-pushing feeling to it. I wanted it to sound the way you feel when you’re compelled to be around someone, always rushing forward, like blood. So the bassline in that song needed to feel that way. The bass and piano bassline are very similar, but adding the electric bass to the piano just made it all feel much more forceful. Also, that song is really angry and full of despair, so there had to be a lot of screaming in it. But until I screamed I didn’t know how it was going to sound.

DOA: This is just my take on your recorded work, and please tell me if I’m way off base, but of all the songs on all the albums you’ve released, I find the song “Carousel” to be your most poignant and personal piece, with the lyrics “Don’t worry, don’t be sad, think of the time we had, there is no future or past, and life is not meant to last”. Can you go into the origin of this song, and if it is the song closest to your heart, or if there are other songs that mean more to you?

Hannah: Well, all of my songs are personal, but lyrically I think that one is more direct than a lot of them. I wrote that after the death of my friend, and I feel like it helped me get through that time in my life. I think that song seemed to come through as a message from him to me. Whether it’s wishful thinking, or something more, I don’t know and I also don’t really care. I think that part of the point of this album, at least for me, is that it’s the mystery that matters. It’s the fleeting nature of it all that makes it so valuable and important. To be alive or to be in love would be so much less meaningful if those things were guaranteed.

I always tend to feel closest to the most recently-written song.

DOA: I also consider “Girls That Glitter Love The Dark” to be your “epic” song, and I love the sweet melody floating over such bitter lyrics. This was my introduction to your music, and I succumbed to the defiant and sublime vision that “…girls that glitter deceive death…glitter covers all the ugliness…shimmer covers all the mess, glitter covers darkness…” – and I was assuming that the song was about the mistreated, wronged, or unloved girl, the girl who has been traumatized, but who stays strong and who carries on, but then I read through all your lyrics, and it sounds like the “girls” of the song title are the ones who are cruel and doing the traumatizing, and not the other way around!

Hannah: Cool! I definitely think that that’s my “epic,” so that’s very nice to hear you say. I kind of think of it as an anthem for the cruel girl who doesn’t want or intend to be cruel.

DOA: Could you provide some details about “Carnival Justice (The Gloves Are Off) Part II”, which appears on Through The Gash and also on your previous EP Subterfuge (with accompanying DVD of the video for the song, which features you and two marionettes)? Did you re-record the song for Through The Gash, and if so, what changes did you make? Why did you choose to do a video for this particular song, and where do those curious marionettes come from?

Hannah: It’s the same recording, it was just re-mastered for Through the Gash. I thought that song could lend itself to a pretty simple video, which is all I could afford to make. It was intended to be sort of a ’70s or ’80s-style video. You know, kind of the performance-with-a-twist type of video that a lot of people were making back when videos first started being made – like David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” or “Liar” by Henry Rollins. I wanted to do something kind of dark and carnival-like that would feel glittery and scary. I’m not comfortable performing, but I tried to convey the emotions in the song – hopefully an equal mix of anger and vulnerability. And maybe a little bit of humor, too, because, you know, blowing bubbles is so spooky. A friend of mine made the lit-up heart, and the marionettes were custom-made for me by one of my favorite artists, Scott Radke.

DOA: I hope not to provoke an irritated response from you, but to my ears, the song “You Had Me” sounds like an atmospherically spooky take on a traditional country music song, with plainer, more straightforward singing, a verse, chorus, verse structure, and less lush production than on most of your other songs. Was this a deliberate attempt to create a more “mainstream” tune, or to take on a different music style and make it your own?

Hannah: Yes! That’s so interesting that you say that because I actually always referred to that song as my “classic pop song.” It wasn’t deliberate, but it was clear to me once it was written that that was exactly what it was, and that it should be produced in that way as much as I could.

DOA: Going back to the do-it-yourself theme, did you also create your wickedly witty and delightful official web site, or does someone else have the duty of running the site? Can you please list the address for your site?

Hannah: Yes, I do the site. By the way, in case your wondering, it’s a mime-free zone.

DOA: I noticed on your web site that you have a link to a Merchandise area called “Antoinette’s Revenge Boutique” where you are selling your recordings, as well as other self-crafted items like jewelry, clothing, and bags, but I don’t see any jewelry or bags listed yet. Is this something that you’re currently working on? Is this another avenue that you want to explore, besides working in the music sphere?

Hannah: I had a lot of jewelry on Antoinette’s Revenge, but it all sold, and I haven’t put any new things up yet. The bags are still in-progress. I have a sister who is made of yarn and she sews the bags after I pick out the fabrics. So, because that’s collaborative and sometimes she comes unraveled, it takes a little longer to get done. They’ll be done soon, though. She’s already sewed a whole collection of really cool bags and now I just have to print something mellowtraumatic on them. But all of the non-music stuff I do is mostly just for fun and to keep me occupied. It’s much less intense than making music, but it’s still creative, and it’s good for me to have things like that going on for the times when I’m not writing or recording.

DOA: Have you performed your songs in a live setting? If so, is your sound more stripped down than what is on your albums?

Hannah: No, I haven’t yet, but I hope to. I don’t think it will be more stripped down. I would like it to be more saturated and hard-core, actually. I don’t feel like the recordings need to be duplicated. I’m starting to look for band members again. I got really frustrated the first time I was looking, so I abandoned it for a while.

DOA: Much is made in reviews about the eerily swirling instrumentation of your music, but another main draw is your vocal delivery and inflection. You have a varied vocal style and range, sometimes coming across in a clear, pure tone, and at other times burying the words a bit with wavering layers of vocals , or drawing your words out and twisting them around a bit to magnify the underlying tension of your lyrics. How do you decide on what vocal style (or styles) to use on each song, and what lyrics you want to accent and bring to the fore?

Hannah: Thank you so much for noticing the vocals. Some people just seem to hear whispers and I think they’re missing a lot. The way I record the vocals just has to do with what I’m feeling as I’m singing. I like what you said about “magnifying tension” – I think that’s a really good way of putting it. I think that I often feel that words or phrases need to be sung in several different ways in order to get across the layered emotions behind them. It’s all very precisely recorded, but it isn’t pre-meditated. I just know what sounds right to me as I’m singing it. I also think the way I do vocals has a lot to do with the way I used to sing along to records when I was younger. I very rarely sang the main melody. I always sang some kind of harmony part, and I guess that’s what I’m still doing. I can always hear harmonies. It’s hard for me to stop hearing them.

DOA: The more I listen to the lyrics of Through The Gash, the more I feel that the song “Where The Wounds Are” is your most direct exploration of the idea of escaping “real life” by focusing on the formation of a song. You sing “…just weave all your sadness into a song…” and “I am fine, just left with scars, to remind me where the wounds are…where madness ends and music starts…”, possibly suggesting that the process of creating music has a hopeful and healing power against the hard knocks of life. Do you find yourself in this situation, where you are creating your music as an escape mechanism or a way to deal with “real life”?

Hannah: Definitely. That’s exactly what music is for me. It’s kind of where I can make sense of things in my life or redeem myself in some way.

DOA: There are a multitude of references (historical, literature, pop culture) in your songs, and on Through The Gash you touch upon Alice In Wonderland, (Marie-) Antoinette, the Biblical apple, the Moulin Rouge, cell phones, and ummm…Gael Garcia Bernal, and use some slang, like “hustle and flow” and “step off”, as well as a smattering of French phrases, and I’m just wondering if these subjects emerged from the ether, or if you actively read up on these subjects for your music (I’ll study Gael Garcia Bernal any time). Also, is the album title Through The Gash a tip of the hat to Through The Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, or is my imagination getting the best of me?

Hannah: I do read a lot, but I don’t actively read up on specific things, really. It’s kind of hard to describe, but I think I get caught-up with certain things and they become meaningful to me in some symbolic or aesthetic way and then they end up in songs. I have always called it the “incubation period.” When a million things are buzzing around and eventually they make it to the surface. Sometimes I don’t feel like I know what’s going on until after something appears in a song, and then it all seems so obvious. I really think that a lot of writing is almost a psychic thing. You know things without actually knowing them, and you do things without knowing why, but in the end they make complete sense. Most of the references that you mentioned are things that have multiple meanings and atmospheres attached to them, but my relationship with them is mostly intuitive and emotional, not specific or factual. And some of the things that come through seem really funny to me. So I write them, and then I sit back and laugh at how clever I think my subconscious is. And Gael was very cute in that French Dictionary commercial. But no, Through the Gash was not a tip of the hat to Through the Looking-Glass, but it absolutely did occur to me that there was a resemblance in the sound of the title and probably even some of the ideas behind it. But the title of the album just came from the fact that the words “through the gash” kept coming up in the lyrics of the songs as a recurring phrase with many possible meanings.