In the age of extreme connectivity, it's not unusual for musicians to reach across the digital void and into the screens of fans through livestreaming. As Los Angeles-based electro-pop musician HANA (born: Hana Pestle) proved by broadcasting the creation of her new album, HANADRIEL, online over an intense four-week span on Twitch, livestreaming platforms also afford a rare opportunity to eliminate traditional boundaries between artist and listener.
Launched in 2011, Twitch is a streaming platform used largely by gamers to broadcast their gameplay, from RPGs (role playing games) like Final Fantasy to first-person games like Overwatch. At any given moment an estimated 1.3 million viewers watch streams on Twitch, which also includes non-gaming content like Q&As, performances, and special recording sessions from artists like Brendon Urie and Deadmau5. HANA believes that HANADRIEL, however, is the first album created fully live and in real time on Twitch.
Prior to the making of HANADRIEL, a portmanteau of HANA and the Elven Lady Galadriel from Lord of the Rings, the artist's typical album creation process had been a mostly solitary affair; she'd hole up in her home studio and get to work, steering her musical spaceship through dark, vast cosmos, so to speak.
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However, HANA now admits that working on music alone had become overwhelming. "I was getting so in my head about every single decision," she says. "I had hundreds of unfinished songs on my computers. Last year, I finally started feeling a renewed sense of excitement about music. I'd been experimenting with writing more upbeat songs. I got a few new synths and after [the release of Grimes'] 'We Appreciate Power,' I had this revitalized obsession with playing my guitars."
Re-energized and ready to dive into a new body of work, she decided to invite listeners along for the ride. Aside from "a few days of writing lyrics and mixing and mastering," HANA livestreamed nearly every unedited, uninhibited moment in the studio, from conceptualizing songs to producing and laying down vocals.
Offering fans unrestricted access to her creative process on Twitch proved liberating. Plus, the experience pushed HANA into thrilling new territory as an artist. "A couple months ago, I started making music here and there on the stream," HANA says. "People were asking questions as I worked, and seemed to be genuinely entertained by the process. It got me thinking about how far I could push that idea. The timeline was its own sort of experimental challenge, too — I just knew if I set a goal for myself, I'd meet it."
Revealing her process on Twitch also helped HANA set the record straight on misconceptions surrounding the creation of her music. "It was fun because I noticed that a lot of people didn't realize that I produce music as well as write and sing," she says. "It really pounded into people's heads that I do a lot of work by myself. I don't think this is that big of a deal really, but I do find it interesting that people don't believe that I produce, or they assume my collaborators have done most of the work."
HANADRIEL, which the self-proclaimed "night-elf songstress" describes as "100% me," combines many of the artist's influences and characteristics, from anime and video games to fantasy and cybergoth aesthetics. The resulting record, with its neon-hued, neoclassical-techno flourishes, conjures images of a rave on the space station from Space Channel 5 if it were hosted by The Fifth Element's diva Plavalaguna and featured performances by Enya and Evanescence.
The cybernetic album artwork for HANADRIEL — by HANA's "creative bestie," photographer Bryan Huynh, and 3D visual designer Rodolfo Hernandez — visually represents the project's futuristic sound. HANA, wearing a glistening lavender mecha suit straight out of an anime, is here to transport pop to a fantastical future. "When the first designs of the suit came back to me, I was dead," HANA says. "At the same time, this Twitch album was brewing in my mind. It seemed to make so much sense that this would be the cover for whatever the album became."
Below, HANA opens up to PAPER about streaming the making of her new album on Twitch, her perhaps surprising vocal influences, and what it was like playing a nude corpse in Grimes' "Violence" music video. (Spoiler: It was very cold.)
What is your relationship to Twitch? How do you typically use the platform?
I've had Twitch for a while, but only used it for watching other streamers for a long time. My boyfriend went to game design school and in 2017, I worked on a video game for about a year, so video game culture is very present in our house all the time — and so is Twitch. I streamed a few times last year, but didn't really dive into my channel until February 2019. Our home studio was being rewired and I had pretty much nothing to do for about two weeks. I figured that was a good time to focus on my stream. I streamed almost every day for those two weeks and that was when it really caught me. I was having so much fun connecting with people as I played games, I became a little bit obsessed with my stream. I think I just like talking to people! Plus, it was so cool to reconnect with lots of different people all over the world that I had met over the years, whether it was at a show in Amsterdam or when I performed at their college a decade ago.
Were there any moments during the process that you felt self-conscious about being live? If so, how did you navigate that?
That happened pretty rarely, but when it did, it was usually when I was working on drums. That's the part of the process that takes the longest for me, and usually along the way it can sound pretty trash. If I ever felt uncomfortable or self-conscious, I would just drag another window over the chat so I couldn't see it. That was my technique any time the chat was overwhelming me. Usually, just hiding it from my view was enough to get me back in the zone. I hid the chat from my view when I wrote the lyrics, too, mainly to not get distracted.
Did you have any studio rituals you incorporated into your streams? I noticed you'd apply a ton of highlighter at night, which is iconic.
The highlighter ritual was a completely new thing for the album stream. I have no idea why that started; the palette just happened to be on my desk that first day. But I guess after hour 10 on camera, sometimes you just need to change it up! Touching up my makeup isn't something I normally do that much while I'm in the studio, I was just doing it because I was on camera, but it was actually really relaxing for some reason. Other rituals: face sprays, drinking matcha tea, having some slippery elm close by, and lighting incense.
What was the greatest challenge you encountered during the live stream?
Honestly, I loved the experience so much, I can't think of a challenge other than barely seeing my friends or boyfriend for those four weeks. I think mixing and mastering was the biggest challenge, which I expected. I knew that I wanted to get this album out ASAP after the final stream, because I wanted it to still be fresh in the minds of the viewers. It's also just been an exercise for me in overcoming fear, setting deadlines, making decisions, and putting myself out there. I have had moments where putting something out was so anxiety-inducing, just because I'm such a perfectionist, so this was an exercise to get into the flow of releasing more music more often because I'm going to be making music for the rest of my life. It's better that it's out in the world rather than sitting stagnant on a dusty hard drive.
How much did viewer participation influence the album?
Viewers were super helpful with decisions. [They inspired me to] keep working on songs that I would have abandoned, which became some of my favorite songs. Like "Black Orchid" — it was a mess for a while but a few people kept saying it was their favorite, so I pushed through and kept working and now it's one of my favorites, too. They also helped a lot with themes. The first day we had a huge brainstorming session where they told me what they wanted to hear from me and gave me so many keywords and ideas. They were also super helpful with track listing — and so opinionated [Laughs].
Your studio looks like a little cyber oasis — the Murakami pillows, Pokemon plushies, neon-hued lighting, and of course your dog, Eevee. Does surrounding yourself with things you love help to create a comfortable environment for creative expression?
Definitely. I think the most important thing for me is the lighting when I'm making music. It doesn't necessarily have to be purple or pink, but bad lighting really dampers my ability to get in the creative zone. [During the stream,] Eevee and the plushies helped me to not feel lonely while being in a room for 12 hours a day for four weeks.
You have an incredibly dynamic vocal style — powerful and operatic, but also delicate and ethereal. Who were your vocal influences growing up?
I've been obsessed with singing and singing along to music since before I can remember. I remember being really obsessed with C+C Music Factory when I was in the first grade, I used to play their CD on loop and sing and dance around my room for hours. Those big, boomy vocals caught my attention, I guess. Sarah McLachlan and Alanis [Morissette] were huge influences very early on, as well. Then I saw Gladiator and heard Lisa Gerrard's voice for the first time, which I think inspired me more than I realized at the time.
When I was in middle school, my aunt gave me her collection of Björk CDs, which was obviously life changing. The way that she pushes and pulls her vocals dynamically is endlessly inspiring. Some others are Fiona Apple and Christina Aguilera — I used to come home from school and sing along to Stripped, top to bottom. Then I listened to my dad's copy of [Radiohead's album] OK Computer and found Thom Yorke. His voice is one of my favorite of all time.
The album is titled after the name you usually give your video game characters. How much of your identity as an avid gamer plays into the record?
I think ultimately it plays into it a lot. There are moments like "Hanadriel's Theme" and "Moonwell" which really take me into her world.
The name "Hanadriel" was inspired by the Lord of the Rings character Galadriel. What is it about Lord of the Rings that resonates with you as a fan?
When I was about 13, I went camping with my family in Big Sur, California. I was reading the Lord of the Rings books for the first time and there was just something so real and intense about the combination of the book and my surroundings. I think it bonded to my soul. It's a huge part of the fabric of my being.
If HANADRIEL were to soundtrack a video game, what would that game look like?
I've been meandering between worlds... Maybe it'd be a Kingdom Hearts-meets-Ready Player One type game, but instead of Disney movies, the player can travel to worlds from movies like Star Wars, The Dark Crystal, Lord of the Rings, Blade Runner, and Akira.
There are no features or collaborations on the album; it's an insular work in that sense. Yet, it was also created with full transparency for — and participation from — your fans. How do you view that paradox?
I think this is the most fascinating part. It's still all my work, but it was influenced by little bits and pieces that my fans gave me. Those who were there with me every day saw the songs become what they are. I think anyone that was very involved or watched a lot will remember the experience for a long time. By the end, it felt like the last day of camp! Even though I will obviously continue to stream, that project is done [now] and it was really emotional. I cried a lot [of happy tears] the last few days.
Why isn't your 2019 single "Black Hole" included on the track list?
"Black Hole" will be on a three-song EP with two other songs that have been in the works for the last few years. That will come out in 2020.
You stated on social media that you've made some of your favorite songs during this process. Is there a particular track that you're proud of?
"Cowgirl Bebop" was the one I was talking about [when I said that]. I usually can't sing it without crying. I think I was possibly meant to do this project so that song would be written. It just feels like a really, really special one to me.
What inspired the song "Cowgirl Bebop"? Are you a fan of the anime?
It's basically about depression, suicide, anxiety... just the desperate feeling that comes from someone you love being in pain. It's been around me for a long time; depression runs in my family — my amazing grandma ended her own life before I could meet her. I have seen the ripples that it has caused in our family, and just more than anything want everyone that I know, friends and family, to know that I love them and need them because love is everything in this life.
"Cowgirl Bebop" was the working title the entire time I was writing it. And yes, I love Cowboy Bebop. As the song took shape and became this very emotional ballad, I just couldn't change the name for some reason. I think I love the paradox between the emotion and the lightness of the name.
What other anime do you like to watch?
Neon Genesis Evangelion, Akira... Everyone needs to see Promare. It may still be in theaters where you are and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It's one of my absolute new favorites. I saw it in the middle of making the album and it ended up inspiring me hugely.
You recently DJed at Lady Gaga's HAUS LABORATORIES event. Do you have a favorite HAUS LABS product?
That was so much fun! I now use the liquid eyeliner every day. It's seriously amazing.
Grimes inspires me always. She's family to me and we always have little things in the works. So, we'll see! [As for playing the corpse,] it was really cold but really fun. C [Claire] was like, "I'm sorry I asked you to do this, you don't have to!" I said, "No, I have taken the part of Nude Corpse and I'm going to do this." I also fully tried to play the part and held my breath for the takes even though literally no one asked me or even wanted me to.
Both aesthetically and sonically, your vibe teeters between super futuristic space alien cyber-princess and magical Middle Earth fairytale warrior elf — basically, a juxtaposition between sci-fi and fantasy. But if you had to pick just one, which do you lean towards?
I think I lean a bit more into fantasy. It's where my mind usually resides. Just the word makes me think of a forest, and that's where my heart lies.
Photography: Bryan Huynh