Of Sound and Vision: An Interview with Hannah Lew of Grass Widow

Posted by Kells, September 26, 2012 12:25pm | Post a Comment
A few years back I fell for San Francisco trio Grass Widow pretty hard. Charmed by the inviting warmth of the "cosy practice space" image on the cover of their debut album I was primed to plunge headfirst into the rabbithole of Grass Widow's homespun, post-punk wonderland. Digging deeper I found bassist/vocalist Hannah Lew's contribution to the band to be greater than merely a sewing of sonic lines and hemmed-in harmonies. A true visionary, Hannah is dishes a triple threat of aesthetic ingenuity evident in her work as a a filmmaker, visual artist, and musician, whether playing solo or with an ensemble. She's just the coolest!

Hannah was gracious enough to answer some of my questions recently, for the interview read on below.

How did you come to be a musician, filmmaker, and visual artist? Did you naturally lean one way before the other? 

Hannah Lew: I have many useless talents and envy people that have the tunnel vision to be excellent at one or two things. I lean many ways and consider myself mediocre at many things. I came to these specific three mediums in very different ways. I always drew and painted as a child and actually went to college for fine art. I always felt frustrated with visual art because its very culturally exclusive whereas music and film are assessable to everyone and I've always felt like I can express myself better through these mediums. I actually lived in New York during 9/11 and totally freaked out about what I was doing with creative energy. It sounds cheesy, but those events had a profound effect on how I decided to spend my energy. Two days before 9/11 I had dresses on a runway at NY Fashion Week and was on my way to pursuing a career as a visual artist. 9/11 just kind of made me reassess what really mattered to me and I decided to find a more satisfying way to reach people with my ideas. The fashion and art world just suddenly felt very superficial and meaningless.

Later that year I moved to Philadelphia and started a band, but I just jumped around and sang and played Moog. Then, in 2003, I moved back to SF and my friend Frankie and I decided to start a band even though we didn't know how to play any instruments. We basically got in a room with our friends Wu and Raven and everyone casually picked an instrument. Our band was called Shitstorm mostly because we all thought is was a joke band. But then we ended up playing for five years and touring a lot and though we tried to change our name we just couldn't shake it. We really sucked at first, but it was in that band that we all learned how to play the instruments that we would go on to play for the next decade. I feel like I came into my style as a musician through the bass. 

Given that your vision seems to permeate your personal work as well as that of your band would you say that one comes before the other? How do you make it all work?

HL: Grass Widow is very much about the three of us. Our identities as artists have very much been shaped by our roles in the band, but we take care to have outside outlets where we can have more singular voices. I think being strong as an individual is very important when wanting to truly surrender your ego within a group. It involves a lot of communication and hard work-but the payoff is that all three of us are equally invested in every song. We naturally take on different responsibilities. 

Your work seems to reflect a very consistent visual style, was this always so? Can you trace it back to a single influence?

I really love Dada and Surrealism and I've always been inspired by those movements, but not really in any sort of overt way. There is an Italo Calvino short story from Cosmicomics that has become sort of a personal myth for me that has somehow been present in most songs I have written on my own. I also love Sci-Fi.

How long have you been using that font? I love it!

I wrote out the titles on our first record back cover and then we just decided to have all our album art be consistent so I kept it going. We've always been very intentional about the visual aspects of our band.

Can you remember the first time you wanted to make a film or a video? Can you pinpoint the genesis of your visual style?

I got a Super 8 camera when I was 18 that I would take random footage on, but it wasn't until I was 23 that I completed my first film The Ghostyards (which would have been 15 minutes shorter if I made it now). It was kind of an exercise in really expressing my own personal vision and seeing something through. I think I learned a lot about myself while making that film and, once I had that epic project under my belt, I felt empowered to make more films.

Of all your short films I personally find Sea Change to be particularly gripping. Could you share about the making of that film? How did it come about? How long did it take? What is your connection to New Orleans? By all means share anything you please.

Between the ages of 15 and 23 I lived in many places and traveled a lot. I spent a couple of months in New Orleans at a very formative time in my young life and returned there several times. Two weeks after hurricane Katrina I returned to film Sea Change with my friend and collaborator Lisa Van Wambeck. I think it was our way of mourning the city and somehow synthesizing the event. We did many ritualistic things like built an entire dollhouse from scratch and drown it. I didn't really know what I was setting out to make when I went to New Orleans, I just knew I wanted to help my friends there cope with what had just happened and maybe capture the intense feelings somehow.

Watching your latest video for your band Grass Widow, "Goldilocks Zone", is reminiscent of sketchy Sci-Fi flicks and MST3K -- which I adore! What are some of the things that influence your filmmaking? Are you a cinema nerd?

I am extremely bad with names and titles which prohibits me from being a true cinema nerd. I have worked at Lost Weekend Video for the past five or so years and am constantly going on movie kicks. I am very inspired by science and science fiction. I just like imagining things that may or may not exist. It gives me hope. 

Were you influenced much by growing up during MTV's golden years? If so, what are some of your best loved music videos/programs?

I grew up with a 13" TV but would sometimes go to my Bubbie's house on weekends and watch MTV. I was really into Madonna. My mom would always be playing Madonna cassettes in the car. I did like her videos a lot and also Aerosmith and Guns N' Roses videos. 

Your music videos are amazing! Do you have a dream band/artist you would love to make a video for? Have you ever seen a music video/film and thought, "shit! I should've made that!"?

Thanks! Well, I really like Michel Gondry. I like how he uses real special effects and not computer BS. I also really love Norman Maclaren. He is my favorite animator. It's hard to say who I would love to make a video for. I approach music videos like portraits so I guess it'd have to be an artist with a nice budget who knows who they are and I can have a good dialogue with. I make my best work when I feel trusted.

Speaking of music and television, I couldn't help but notice you in Portlandia's "Small Hatchback" sketch with Joanna Newsom, whatever was that like? 

I'm much more comfortable behind the camera but It was fun. Those guys are so funny!

Grass Widow has to be one of the most singular band's around right now -- no one else really sounds like you. How did you all come together?

Raven and I have been playing together for over ten years. She was in Shitstorm with Frankie and Wu and I. Then after that we played quieter music where I played crappy upright bass and she played acoustic guitar. At that time I was in four bands including one called Ghost Family that had toured up to the Northwest where I played a show with Lily's band. Lily came down to play as Frankie's replacement in Shitstorm and then when Wu moved away the three of us had this one day when we just jammed on a harmony thing I wrote and we realized we could do some cool stuff together. Lily returned to the Northwest, but I started feeling urgent about us really starting a band so I climbed on top of a mountain and called her (on a phone) and somehow convinced her to move down to SF. I guess the rest is history.

Did you all have a similar vision of the music you wanted to make? How did you discover your sound?

We knew we could harmonize together, but we didn't want to make mellow music. Raven and I had been making mellow music together, and Lily on her own as well. But we wanted to play loud and fast and mix that with our harmonies. We never had a real design about our sound besides that we didn't want to sound twee. 

Was there anything in particular that inspired you all to sing/play in the style that you do?

Our band really is an honest product of the three of us bouncing of of each other. We're very inspired by each other and have just been trying to utilize each of our individual skills as much as possible in this band.

When did you write your first song? Do the same things that inspire your visual works also inspire you as a musician?

We wrote our first song, "To Where",  in the fall of 2007. I would say that there is a landscape that is sort of like a shared hallucination that we three share and are constantly describing in our songs and album imagery.

What influence would you say San Francisco has on your music? 

My family is here and I have a very specific relationship to the city. Sometimes I feel like there are ghosts on every corner and it can feel very heavy with memories and associations. Its hard to make ends meet here and maybe that struggle ties into our vibe. I wish it didn't though. We've been fantasizing about moving to Portland as a band. Is that a cop out?

What are some of your favorite local bands?

Scrapers, Rank/Xerox, The Mallard, Bad Backs to name a few...

What have you been working on lately? Is there anything in particular you've been into?

I've been working on some solo songs (check them out here), but in a very non-serious way. I have tons of unfinished songs that aren't really GW material that I'm letting rot in Garageband. I'm also working on some photography ideas. I have some music video projects on the horizon too. I recently went to see the Man Ray exhibit and the Cindy Sherman exhibit and felt very inspired. I'm synthesizing a lot of stuff like that. I also watched a Martha Graham movie that I love. Grass Widow will be doing a live DJ set to some silent films at Public Works October 9th so we've been working on that.

Grass Widow toured a bit this summer in support of your latest album Internal Logic, how was being out there on the road?

I just can't tell what kind of band we are sometimes. We do really well in some towns and then kinda crappy in others. I know we have some real fans, but its hard to tell.

What are your plans for the immediate future? New album? More touring?

We are touring the East Coast in November with some Northwest dates coming up in the winter. We're also going to start working on new songs soon. We've been on a sort of creative hiatus lately, but we have a couple writing retreats coming up.

And lastly, three questions I really like to ask everyone I interview: what song best describes your life right now?

"I Have Known Love" by the Silver Apples.

What are your thoughts on karaoke?

I know the world is divided on this, but I really dislike karaoke.

And lastly, what are some of your best record store finds ever?

My boyfriend found Neo Boys' Crumbling Myths for me. I thought I would never see the actual vinyl.

Thank you so much for your time Hannah!

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Interview (341), Hannah Lew (1), Grass Widow (15)