The musical odyssey of Hannah Yeun
Hannah Yeun's musical coming of age story is nothing if not unusual. The Tucson musician's road to musical identity included sojourns in New York City, the South and the Pacific Northwest before she landed in our desert landscape.
Yeun and her band weave dark, majestic, otherworldly indie pop laced with traces of dark psych, angsty no wave and '60s French yeye, and theatrical sorcery in the vein of Stevie Nicks or Kate Bush.
We caught up with her this week to talk about writing and playing music, the incredible incestuousness of Tucson bands, her unorthodox childhood and more.
TucsonSentinel.com: How did you get started as an indie artist?
Hannah Yeun: I wrote my first songs around the age of 5, and I guess I just never stopped writing. I started playing cello around 9 and got my first guitar around age 14. My high school at the time had a fine arts and music focus, so they would put on these little open mic nights every month. Nirvana's "Sappy" was the first song I ever played live, and I'll never forget how proud I was knowing that semi deep cut track! I remember saying to the audience, 'If you know this song, you're cool.'
My mom is an opera singer and sang in the Moonie church choir, so these were my earliest exposures to music. A lot of our church songs were traditional Korean tunes, folk-songs written by other members of the cult, and John Denver tunes, oddly enough. Like many people, I also grew up listening to the Beatles. However, the torch song obsession was introduced to me in the '90s when Dionne Warwick took the stage of a Moonie blessing ceremony — my first concert ever. I was hooked in and even wanted to call her Psychic Friends Network at one point. There's this one performance she did that absolutely haunts me. She walks straight up to the camera and looks directly into it, singing the classic, "Don't Make Me Over." I can't get over it. Chills.
I go by my first and middle name for this project. "Yeun" is Korean, though I am not. My parents were involved with the Moonies for a long time and they gave all of my siblings and me Korean middle names because the leader of the cult, Sun Myung Moon, was Korean. I guess you could say it's cultural appropriation on their part, no pun intended.
A lot of my influences come from the torch songs and girl groups of the '60s and the pop stylings of the French yeye movement. I am also influenced by the witchiness of Stevie Nicks, Kate Bush, and the fiery no-BS rage of PJ Harvey and Kim Gordon. The Crystals song, "Please Hurt Me" is a direct influence for my track on "Heavenly Sister," "Do it Now". This song is about when you know a relationship is over and one partner starts pulling away, but instead of breaking up and providing some relief to the other party, they let the charade continue. You just want to scream, "Do it already!". Or sing it, in this case.
TS: You spent some time in Portland right?
Yeun: I'm actually from the East Coast originally. I was born in New York City and then grew up in the South, but Portland is great. There's a part of me that considers it to be my home. I'm a florist, so it was a little sad moving away from Rose City to a literal desert. It just got to be too expensive and it was exhausting trying to work and also do music. Touring was especially difficult depending on what time of year you go. I toured from Portland last year with my band and crossing the Siskiyou Pass was a bit nuts in winter. We survived though! Tucson is great for touring. I also am able to live and work and do what I love without much worry. You can't really beat that.
TS: What's the backstory of your band?
Yeun: My band is currently me, Michael Ford on drums/synth, Damon Matal on guitar, and Marta De Leon on bass/backup vocals. Michael and I met in Portland and he convinced me to move to Tucson and reform the southwest version of my band down here. Marta I met through a mutual friend, Andrew from La Cerca, and I fell in love with her stuff from her old Brooklyn project, The Meaning of Life. Damon I met in a very cute way. Michael and I were at a bar discussing the fact that we needed a guitarist for the band, and sweet, angel-faced Damon walks up and says that he overheard us talking about needing a guitarist. He had just moved from Oklahoma and was looking for a band to join up with. We let him audition and he blew us away. Together the four of us create the current Hannah Yeun lineup.
TS: Marta De Leon says you "class up the joint" in her band Weekend Lovers. She also plays in your band. What are your thoughts/experiences on that kind of reciprocity in bands, especially in the Tucson music scene, where we tend to be more musically incestuous?
Yeun: I think because the Tucson scene is small, you end up seeing a lot of musical chairs with band members in other projects. It forces the community to be supportive, I think. The singer of the band you're seeing in the bar one night just might be the bassist in another band playing tomorrow. You also start seeing the same people coming out to shows, which is cool. That support is important.
TS: What's the songwriting process in your band?
Yeun: I write all of the songs and I am fiercely protective of them, almost to a fault. As far as the accompanying instrumentation, I let my bandmates channel their creativity and try to only give some direction for the song if I feel that I need to. Everyone has their own style of playing their instrument and brings something different to the table, and I want to give my bandmates that freedom of interpretation.
TS: What are your experiences performing live vs. writing and recording.
Yeun: As a woman, performing live can make you a target to certain male audiences and every woman who performs in music knows what I'm talking about. When I was 15, I had a drunk, old man walk up to me and touch my face while I was singing and I have had similar stories since then. I'm 31 now and I don't feel any safer. It's difficult because sometimes these people are also your customers and may be genuine fans of your music too. It's a hard web to untangle and the nuances of it can be exhausting.
I am currently working on a new album, expected to be released later this year. With my last album, Heavenly Sister (hannahyeun.bandcamp.com) my brother-in-law, Daniel Hicks, and I were able to record the whole thing in three days. It still amazes me how we were able to accomplish that. I had flown in to D.C. from Portland with only my pedals and later rented a cello in town. With this new album, we are taking our time and I keep accidentally writing new songs, while trying to record old ones, so the process continues.
TS: What advice would you pass on to newbie musicians?
Yeun: I've had young women come up to Marta and me after shows to say that they wished they could play music. I always try to tell them they absolutely can! I think it's important for us to remain visible in the music community so other women can see that it's not just a boy's club. Everyone has to start somewhere.
TS: What's on the horizon for you and your band?
Yeun: We are playing at Club Congress on Friday, with Low Life and Amy Mendoza and the Strange Vacation. Doors at 8 p.m. and it's free! We are also working on the next record and I am so excited about it! We played Harvard and Stone in L.A. in December and are looking forward to getting back out there.
Also this week...
Indie blues rock band Juju Fontaine looks a little bit different these days. New drummer John Matzek (Kicking Leaves, How To Build A Rocket Ship) joins bassist John Read and guitar wielding chantuese Gabi Montoya in the indie blues rock band. Juju plays the main stage of Second Saturdays Downtown at 8 p.m., following the soulful rock of Miss Olivia and the Interlopers at 6:30 p.m. and the multi-instrumental noise/jazz/funk/improv fusion of Mik and Scott at 5.
Look to hear some new stuff soon from local indie pop psych darlings La Cerca as the band prepares to release a long awaited album in the coming months. La Cerca plays Owl's Club this Friday night at 9 p.m., along with openers Ex Cowboy.
Local powerhouse guitarist/bassist Amy Mendoza will be gracing Tucson stages twice this week - with her band Strange Vacation at Club Congress on Friday night and as bassist and vocalist for the Sugar Stains opening for all female Black Sabbath cover group Black Sabbitch on Sunday night at 8 p.m. at 191 Toole.
Stay tuned as we get nearer to March, and Tucson's live rock scene begins to get louder, cooler and weirder!
Check your local listings...
Friday, February 9
- The Jits - 8 p.m. at Fini's Landing (North)
- Lowlife w/ Hannah Yeun and Strange Vacation - 8 p.m. at Club Congress (Downtown)
- Mafiatic Misfits, McNastee & special guests - 7 p.m. at The Loudhouse (North)
- Brokedown Palace - 9 p.m. at Saint Charles Tavern (S of Downtown)
- Lookas - 192 Toole (Downtown)
- Master Rocs, Jaza Zulu, Rey Murph, Marley B - 9 p.m. at Flycatcher (Downtown)
- La Cerca w/ Ex Cowboy - 9 p.m. at Owl's Club (Downtown)
- Sunset Road - 9 p.m. at The Edge (North)
- Mike Hebert's Prison Band - 9 p.m. at The Parish
- Sigils Of Summoning, Minutes to Midnight, Like A Villain, A Fall To Break, Evasion, Sorrows Ruin - 6:30 p.m. at the Rialto Theatre (Downtown)
Saturday, February 10
- Second Saturdays Downtown, Main Stage: Mik & Scott, Miss Olivia and the Interlopers, Juju Fontaine - 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. (Downtown)
- Mark Slaughter, Push, Drop D - 7 p.m. at Club XS (Central)
- Eric Schaffer & The Other Troublemakers - 7 p.m. at La Cocina (Downtown)
- Legion of Mario - 8 p.m. at Crooked Tooth Brewing (Downtown)
- Beneath The Fallen Sons, Exit Dream - 8 p.m. at The Loudhouse (North)'
- Damage Inc., The Jack - 8 p.m. at Rialto Theatre (Downtown)
- Texas T Trash, Bordertown Devils - 9 p.m. at Sky Bar (Downtown)
Sunday, February 11
- Mariachi Luz de Luna - 11 am at Playground (Downtown)
- Mik and the Funky Brunch - 12:30 p.m. at La Cocina (Downtown)
- Eb Eberlein - 5 p.m. at House of Bards (Central)
- Loveland - 6 p.m. at Che's Lounge (Downtown)
- Black Sabbitch, Sugar Stains - 8 p.m. at 191 Toole (Downtown)
Monday, February 12
- Bruce Cockburn - 7 p.m. at Rialto Theater (Downtown)
- Dawson Rutledge - 9 p.m. at Flycatcher (Downtown)
- Carnivaleros - 6 p.m. at Hotel Congress (Downtown)
- Tom Walbank - 6 30 p.m. at Sky Bar (Downtown)
- Tiki Boots - 7 p.m. at Flycatcher
- Mammoth Grinder, Gatecreeper, Bloodtrail - 7 p.m. at Hotel Congress (Downtown)
- Steff Koeppen - 8:30 p.m. at Sky Bar (Downtown)
Wednesday, February 14
- Gabrielle Pietrangelo - 5pm at The Coronet (Downtown)
- Miss Lana Rebel & Kevin Michael Mayfield - 6 p.m. La Cocina (Downtown)
- Mike Kanne - 7 p.m. at Crooked Tooth Brewing Company (Downtown)
- Sweethearts of The Rodeo: Arizona Women Duet Better - 8 p.m. Exo Bar (Downtown)
- Daikaiju Valentine's Day Attack - 8 p.m. at Saint Charles Tavern (S of Downtown)
Thursday, February 15
- Tribal Seeds, Roots Party, The Original Wailers, The Expanders - 7 p.m. at Rialto Theatre (Downtown)
- Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen - 7:30 p.m. at The Fox Theatre (Downtown)
- Mitzi Cowell - 8 p.m. at La Cocina (Downtown)
- Johnny Hootrock, The Shivers, AJ's Rockabilly Ruckus - 8 p.m. at The Loudhouse (North)
- Al Perry & Loren Dircks - 8:30 p.m. at Tap and Bottle (Downtown)
- Black Ginger, TWGS, Sweaty Palm Trees - 9 p.m. at Flycatcher (Downtown)
- Eric Schaffer and The Other Troublemakers - 9 p.m. at Sky Bar (Downtown)