Last week, I woke up Carlie Hanson at 11 AM Pacific time in her Los Angeles apartment. She started our conversation with a yawn on an unusually chill day for her. We're talking about Junk, her buzzy debut EP, and the winding road that led to it. While she gets her morning coffee, I ask if she likes junk food. Hanson prefers spicy and savory treats to sweet ones: Flamin' Hot Cheetos over Takis, thank you very much.
It can be argued that Hanson's preference for the spice of life, and the inevitable heat-inducing rush it provides, has colored much of the 19-year-old pop artist's meteoric year. Following a string of viral hits capturing the everyday modern teen experience, including 2017's "Why Did You Lie?" and "Only One," and last year's "Mood," Hanson has been operating on all cylinders, and likely, not much sleep.
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She inked a deal with Warner Records in 2019, which uprooted her from ordinary suburban life in Wisconsin — McDonald's gig and all — and planted her inside LA's glittery sprawl of dreams. From when she released her first songs until now, a transformation has taken root. It's easy to forget that Hanson is still quite young and naturally in flux.
"I love those songs because they really were me at the time," she says. "But I'm in such a different place now than I was even six months ago, just continuously growing and changing and whatnot, but it's all super weird. I love that fans remember how it all started for me though."
Upon moving to LA, Hanson connected with fellow singer-songwriters, from Jesse Saint John to Julia Michaels, who quickly became co-writers and confidantes. She hit the road internationally with Yungblud, and came out as queer. This all happened amidst a flurry of test single releases, including her brooding trap-pop banger "Numb" and sunny pop-rock hybrid, "Toxins," while Hanson steadfastly recorded the angsty pop songs that would ultimately form Junk. The thesis of Hanson's debut is easy to relate to: "Everybody's got their junk, so here's mine."
Explaining her EP's title, Hanson says she "wanted something really simple because I don't like long-ass titles, and the whole EP is basically like I vomited out my diary."
"I'm just a teenager trying to figure out who the fuck I am."
On Junk, Hanson definitely lets it all hang out, doubling down on what it means for her to be young, in love, booked and busy, and tied to her past. Whereas her previous singles flirted with moody variations of fizzy electro-pop, Junk's sound is an enticing mash-up of current radio pop trends and '90s rock's confessional, raw edges. Hanson says that while forming the record, she listened to male musical idols, from Kevin Abstract to Nirvana. Their influence is clear, in her adoption of BDE swagger and emo's tendency toward melodrama.
Still, Hanson creates her own style on Junk. "Bored With You" is a heart-eyed stunner about the simple, fuck-it-all pleasure of long and lazy days spent with a lover. (Stay for the beatboxing, which kicks off a playful streak running throughout the EP.) "Back In My Arms" is like your favorite late-'90s, early-2000s pop-punk band's anthems of longing. Hanson even cops an emo croon for the lyrics: "All we have is on the phone/ All we have is all I know/ When you hang up, don't let go." That kicks into "WYA," a spirited message in a bottle from Hanson now to her future, world-famous rock star self. "Did the money go straight to your head, girl? Did you grow up a little too fast, girl?" she sings. "Cause if you did, you can always go back, girl." It isn't until "Cigarettes" and "Hazel," the EP's most emotional tracks, that Hanson takes a breather, despite the tough subject matter. "Hazel," for example, is about a friend of Hanson's who was struggling with depression and mental health scares.
While Hanson's empathy is something to aspire to, the writing sessions for that song were among her toughest. "I really wanted to write about it and you have to be so vulnerable with these strangers sometimes, but I think that produces the best stuff," Hanson says. "It was kind of difficult for me to be so open and then talk about how serious the situation was with my close friend. Since then, I go into sessions way more honest and willing to open up about what's on my mind and heart. It's the only way to make something I can look back on later and be proud of."
Nevertheless, the resplendent hooks and Hanson's spirit throughout Junk are unstoppable, much like the rock icons she idolizess. Part of her confidence has come from performing live. "My first couple shows were so anxiety-filled and nerve wracking, just because I didn't know what to do, and all these people are just staring at you, which is such a weird thing if you really think about it," Hanson says. "At first, it was scary for me to be so raw and open with fans, but now, deadass I could just like walk out on stage naked and be totally fine."
"I'm willing to open up about what's on my mind and heart. It's the only way to make something I can look back on later and be proud of."
Hanson also acknowledges the 360 whirlwind that has become her life today. "I'm so excited about where I'm at, but damn, things are moving so fast," she says. "I can honestly say that, though the songs on this record really mean a lot to me, so I hope they just help people the way that they've helped me and all that bullshit, you know?"
Hanson's excitement about her new music yielded a tattoo on her left calf, rendered in the Junk album art's typeface, as an homage to '90s rock cassette tapes. It's also catapulting her into a canon of young, proudly out and queer artists from Troye Sivan to Hayley Kiyoko, who are each in their own ways, transforming and expanding the look and feel of mainstream pop music.
"I never really thought I would be considered part of the pack of proud LGBTQ artists or be seen that way," Hanson says. "I'm just a teenager trying to figure out who the fuck I am, and so when I first dated a girl and realized, Holy shit, I really do have feelings for this girl, I didn't want to hold anything back. I didn't want to have this weight on my shoulders from hiding who I was from people, especially my family, so I just had to free myself. That's when I went on Twitter and told the world. There was so much support that I got back and it was so weird at first, because it was like, This is my life now. Since then, I've gotten messages from people telling me how I've helped them up out their parents or their best friends. It's amazing, truly something I never thought I would be a part of, but I'm so grateful to be."
To ground her growing public profile, Hanson always aims to deliver the unexpected in her art. The split between her songs and how they sound (sugary, but honest confections) differs from the videos they eventually become. Visually, Hanson aims to do the opposite of what one of her lovelorn, compassionate anthems might suggest. For the "Back In My Arms" video, she helped come up with the treatment for a video that was equal parts American heist fantasy and wasted youth nostalgia. In "Numb," Hanson gets macabre with an ominous video that sees her ultimately murdering unsuspecting male prey.
"I feel like a bad bitch most of the time like, 'Yeah I fucking did this.'"
Additionally, Hanson says she goes home to Wisconsin as often as possible. She hums a few lines from Jennifer Lopez's "Jenny From the Block," which mentions the importance of staying real. She lovingly compares her close relationship with her mother and two younger sisters to that of the Gilmore Girls. It's weird being on her own in LA, which is something she's always longed for, but it's gradually becoming her new, formative normal.
"I've settled down and now I have my own place and I'm like an adult now or whatever the hell that means," Hanson says. "I go grocery shopping on my own now, get decorations for my place. It's only strange because I've been living in the same house since I was born with my mom, my two sisters, my dad and our dog. And then I was working at McDonald's and going to school, but I graduated early and now I live out here and I get to write every day."
Hanson says she "remembers a time when I was really young and being like, 'Can we take a road trip to LA one day?' It's very surreal, but it's what I've always wanted. Now it's just my life, so I feel like a bad bitch most of the time like, 'Yeah I fucking did this.'"
Stream Carlie Hanson's Junk, below, and follow her on Instagram (@carliehanson).
Photography: Leeor Wild