The Statue of Liberty is the universal symbol of freedom and democracy, or so says the National Park Service. She's also a SHE -- which is why it made all the sense in the world to take music's newest independent badass, HANA, to see Lady Liberty while we talked about her new music, reinvention and her mission to show girls that they don't need dudes when it comes to turning buttons and knobs.
"She's a lot smaller in real life," HANA told me as we stood at the railing of the ferry, leaning over the side to see Lady Liberty gazing across the water in the distance at New York City, as tourists clutched selfie sticks like so many glinting golden torches. "I guess she's kind of slouching, though," HANA added. "Or walking." We prefer to imagine the latter -- a massive lady barreling off of Liberty Island to take New York by proverbial storm, like in "Ghostbusters."
HANA is no stranger to strong women like LL -- she's been on tour these past few weeks with Lana Del Rey and Grimes, singing with the latter while riding the wave of her own burgeoning career, the next ripple of which hit when she released her debut single, "Clay" the other week, a song about "saying goodbye to my meek self and the start of this more assertive woman," HANA explained.
When that song dropped in May, it seemed as if HANA had emerged from nowhere, self-releasing the Blood Diamonds-co-produced track to praise from every major media outlet, as well as famous friends and her new biggest fan, Lorde.
"After she tweeted it, I got all these followers and, like, these tweets like, 'Yeah, slay queen!'" HANA said, as we jockeyed for room on a bench crowded with tourists, watching Lady Liberty loom on the horizon. "I was like, 'Oh, God it’s begun.' Like, ‘Thank you, Ella, teenage whisperer.’" Soon after, the record labels came knocking.
What seems like overnight success was actually more of a rebirth, however, as HANA has been making music since age 13 -- when she was still a singer/songwriter named Hana Pestle. After graduating high school, HANA left her home state of Montana to pursue music in L.A. -- to no small amount of success.
"It was always just me and my guitar, and I was touring the country in a band by myself for literally six years," she said. "I probably did, like, 600 shows or something. And I loved it. But at the same time I never really stopped and assessed if my music was what I actually wanted it to be."
If you're wondering just how different her music could be now: In 2008, she toured with Collective Soul, Live and Blues Traveler. A far cry from Lana and Grimes.
In 2013, HANA said, she decided to take control of her music. She took down most of her old songs -- because they made her "cringe" -- and she learned how to produce, with help from boyfriend Michael Diamond (a.k.a. Blood Diamonds).
"He was able to take me under his wing and not tell me how to do things but just like, 'Here, sit with this for a year and experiment,'" HANA said of Diamond, whom she met during a vocal session. "That was all I needed to learn how to make my own music as far as recording and producing it. I had always just written and recorded me and my guitar or me and a piano, and so being able to understand how to make music with a computer really was something that was incredibly exhilarating and freeing."
It was through Diamond that HANA met Grimes, who further ushered her into the DIY world. "She didn’t even know that I made music and then one day I sent her something and she was so supportive," HANA said. "Before in my life, I had people around me and a team around me, but when I think about it now, they really just wanted to squash my individuality."
HANA wanted purple hair? A manager told her to dye it brown. She acted too goofy onstage? Someone told her, quite enigmatically, to be more enigmatic. "My old project was always me kind of just floundering and not understanding -- like working hard but not ever really getting like this is me," she said, twisting her (now-purple) ponytail around her finger and squinting into the sun. "Now I’m at the point where I’m like, 'Oh my God, I like listening to my own music.’ I kind of knew my music was just not translating and now I’m so empowered."
And it was that control, that ability to work on all facets of her music, that really gave HANA the confidence to write the songs that she wanted to -- rather than what the industry told her to pump out.
"I just want to hammer into so many people’s brains that women can produce and we’re good producers," HANA said. "I think it’s very imperative for girls to see that so that there’s more girls experimenting and getting computers and buying Ableton or Pro Tools just because we need it."
All of HANA's tourmates -- and famous fans -- know what it's like to be doubted or belittled because of their gender. Men often doubt Grimes' ability to produce, offering to help her when she's already a professional. Lana Dey Rey is called an industry construct because she chose to shuck off "Lizzy Grant." The fact that Lorde is basically a prodigy is often eclipsed by jokes about her "real age." Even HANA's hero, Bjork, said in a recent interview that she has to constantly remind people that she alone is responsible for her music.
These women are fighting stereotypes in the face of sexist derision -- and HANA is right there alongside them, not only when it comes to making her own music, but also what she's talking about in that music.
"A lot of my music is about overcoming controlling relationships," HANA said. "I feel like that’s really important for girls [to hear that kind of message], because so many men are very quick to tell you what to do with your life. That’s what I want my music to do, is to hammer into their minds that you are your own person and you have a lot of power just as a woman to take advantage of that."
In short: Don't be the slouching Statue of Liberty -- be the imposing badass lurching off her pedestal to take on the city. Or, you know, be like HANA.