If you happened to catch Grimes on tour with Lana Del Rey this year, you probably noticed the recent FADER cover star dancing around on stage with a purple-haired back-up singer named HANA. At two of those shows, Claire Boucher invited out in front of the stage to sing a very cavernous-sounding single of her own, "Clay." The homegrown video for that song—cobbled together by Boucher and her partner James Brooks after tour—cuts between shots of HANA singing for the first time in front of a stadium crammed with people and footage of her rehearsing in front of a horizon of empty seats.
The scenario seems like a recipe for first-time jitters, but HANA is no stranger to the stage: née Hana Pestle, she's an Atlanta-born, Los Angeles-based singer and producer who got her start singing acoustic covers at the farmer's market in Billings, the small Montana city where she grew up. The two singles she's released thus far this year—"Clay" and "Avalanche," recorded in collaboration with boyfriend Mike Tucker, aka Blood Diamonds—represent something of a fresh start for HANA. Two years ago, following a five-year career touring the college coffee-house circuit as a folky singer-songwriter, she decided that her powerful, gymnastic soprano was better suited to a backdrop of sparse electronics, and set to work learning how to produce them herself.
Grimes, she says, has been a big inspiration, but according to Boucher, HANA has also been an inspiration on Grimes. As Boucher put it herself during her recent interview with The FADER, “Her vocals are so loud and upfront, and she's so confident in what she says. Since the Lana tour, just being around Hana—I think I learned about singing.”
How did you get into making music?
I was constantly singing—ever since I could talk, basically. And my parents got me a guitar and a piano when I was pretty young, like first grade or so. The guitar took a bit longer—just because it hurt my hands when I was that little—but once I got callouses and stuff like that, I started playing around town. I think my first show was at a Border's bookstore, which I also don't think exists anymore. I used to go around town and ask different coffee shops if I could set up and play. At the beginning, I probably just had three songs of my own that I'd written and felt okay about. But mostly I'd go out and just play covers of, like, Radiohead and Bright Eyes.
I basically just made music my living from kind of a young age. On weekends, I would set up at the farmer's market and play for, like, five hours. Because of that, I never had to get a real job; I would just set out my tip jar and that was my income, and by the time I got to high school, I would teach little kids guitar. By the end of high school I had a big catalog of my own music and I was ready to just take it to the next level. So I got in my car and moved to L.A.
Did you have any formal training, or did you teach yourself to sing just by listening to songs?
I would say it's a mix of both. I took lessons my last two years of high school, and it was a great thing for me to do. But at the same time, it's just practice, practice, practice. Getting started playing in coffee shops and farmer's markets, you have to project for people to hear you. I would practice different ways to get people to pay attention to me. I'd get really, really quiet and people would feel really awkward about talking. And then I would project in the louder situations to make people be like, "What is going on over there? I guess I should pay attention."
Tell me a little bit about your early career.
So I moved to L.A. when I was 17. There were a couple of producers that had seen a video of me playing in Billings, just randomly, and they called me and wanted me to come to L.A. and work with them. Being so young, I really didn't know how to assert what I wanted my music to sound like, really. I thought that they knew what they were doing, and just let them take over. So all my earlier stuff has this certain sound that was very "them," and not very me. I had a couple opening gigs that I got through random people, and then I got into the college circuit and was basically just in a band by myself for five years. Going from campus to campus playing shows, having the time of my life.
I’ve played somewhere close to 600 shows. So as far as the live aspect, I’m never nervous before I go on a stage.”
What did you learn from that time of non-stop touring?
I've played somewhere close to 600 shows. It's hard work, and it can be a humbling experience—especially when you're playing campuses in the middle of nowhere, and there's just never gonna be that many people at the show. So as far as the live aspect, I'm never nervous before I go on a stage. I've seen so much and I've worked really hard and I feel like I'm never gonna be really surprised by much, as far as the touring aspect of things.
What made you decide to close that chapter of your career and start recording your songs yourself?
About two years ago, I met Mike [Blood Diamonds], and he kind of made me stop and think about everything. He was like, "So you just go out on the road, endlessly? Do you want to do this forever? Is your music where you want it to be?" And it got me thinking, Well, no. It's not. I would never sit and listen to my own music, which I think is kind of a sad point to be at. So I took a break, sold my van, and basically my goal was to learn how to produce. To get my music to the point where it feels like me, recorded. That's kind of the point where I'm at right now: I'm making music that I really, really love. It's completely my own writing, no other co-writes. And I think that's why this stuff is so special to me: because it's 100% mine. I'm singing exactly what I want to sing on top of music that I made that I'm super proud of.
How would you describe the production aesthetic you’re going for?
I'm almost trying to take away the production. My previous stuff was very, very produced. Because I have been writing songs that mean a lot to me, I want the lyrics and the melody to be what shine. And I've definitely not mastered production, but at the same time, I feel really confident in what I can do. I used to write with my guitar, which I still do sometimes. But now I'm writing more with piano and over tracks I've done in Ableton.
Is there a particular period in your life that a lot of the material is drawing from?
Most of it now is coming from a relationship that I was in for five years that ended pretty ugly a couple years ago. That gave me endless inspiration, just because it was a very nasty breakup. I'm loyal and I try to stick with things, so a part of me felt like I could've been in that relationship forever. But I feel so lucky and happy that I was strong and got out of it, basically. Most of the songs are drawing from that experience. But it's moving away from there; I think I've written enough songs about that so it's kind of waning.
“Clay,” where you sing about molding clay, always struck me as being about building anew.
Yeah, absolutely. Just because being in a relationship from that age—it was like, 17 to 23. I feel very lucky that I'm not pretty fucked up, because your brain is still developing at that age. Being in a pretty manipulative, controlling relationship for that long, I felt when I got out of it that I had to completely rebuild who I was, all my values. You get used to being treated a certain way, and that's not really okay if you're being treated horribly. So that's what that song is about: going away and starting over and becoming a bigger and better person.
What’s "Avalanche," the second single, about?
I have a hard time saying no. I'm a people-pleaser to a fault. But in the last couple years I've been learning to be a more assertive person. You really have to be if you're gonna be in any kind of business—especially the music business. I just want to be nice to everyone, but sometimes people don't really deserve for you to be nice to them. That song is also kind of about psyching myself out, and becoming an avalanche—someone who can basically roll over whatever comes in their way.
How did you meet Mike?
We met in a session, actually. I do a lot of writing and singing on stuff randomly, so we got hooked up by a mutual friend to work together. We hit it off right away, and really never stopped hanging out after that first day, just creating. He's really been a huge mentor for me in the production realm. He sat me down and gave me the bare-bones instructor's workshop of Ableton and basically gave me the tools to produce myself. He's been a huge guiding light in my life. We inspire each other, and like to work together and make music together. He's been an amazing person to have in my life. He's been a huge part of rebuilding who I am.
What was it like going on tour and singing backup with Grimes?
I just learned so much from being able to see her setup from behind the scenes and see how hard she works. I've only really toured by myself, so being on a bus with my friends—it was like ten girls, two guys—was just the best time. Really, just having her as a friend is amazing. She's incredibly supportive. Letting me sing "Clay" on the tour was just over the top. I couldn't believe that she let me do that.
How did it feel getting up and singing in front of that many people?
I kind of blacked out the first time [laughs]. The first show, it was just so many people, and my family was there. It was at the venue where I saw my first concert, which was The Spice Girls in Atlanta. The second time I did it, in Florida, I was able to kind of live in the moment a little bit more. I saw a couple people singing along, and that blew me away. The whole time I was on the edge of tears, just 'cause it was such an amazing moment.
I heard you guys stayed at a hotel that was haunted.
Well, it was a hotel in Wisconsin, in Milwaukee. Jeffrey Dahmer killed someone in that hotel, which of course one of our sound people had to tell us right when we were walking in. I normally don't get spooked that easily, but the lights weren't working and the elevator wouldn't take us down. Our sound guy was in the next room mixing something and it sounded so terrifying through the walls. Everything had an explanation, but at the same time it was kind of scary.
Claire Boucher and her partner James Brooks cut together the clip for “Clay” from footage from the Lana tour. What’s the personal significance of that video to you?
The song is pretty serious—it's about rebuilding yourself, and starting a new chapter of life. When I watch it I just see how much life can change, and how priceless good friends are, and how amazing it is to be doing what you love. When I wrote "Clay," I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, because I had written exactly what I wanted to write. The video just makes me so happy, because it reflects all of that. I think it's just a diary of that time in my life.