Priscilla Ahn: I've always known this career to be fickle

Known for her acoustic pieces, California artist Priscilla Ahn is branching out and moving into synth-driven territory on her new album, This is Where We Are. Read as a declaration to mark where she is in her life, the record tells of a young woman reinventing what she knows in indie-rock and pouring it into a new mold of danceable indie-pop.

Gimme Noise caught up with Ahn in her California home before she left for tour, which hits the stage at the Cedar on Saturday evening. In the conversation, Ahn reveals that underneath the exterior of a seasoned musician lies the fragile character of an artist still trying to make it. We also discussed her new sound and Andrew Bird
Gimme Noise: The new record just came out about a month ago. How do you feel people have been receiving the album so far?

Priscilla Ahn: As far as I know, it's been good. I've been pleasantly surprised, because one of my biggest fears was that some of my older fans wouldn't like it as much, since it was a departure from my older sound. I've gotten a lot of feedback from people saying it's a nice change or growth, but people can still tell that it's me. It's not like I was trying to change my image as an artist. I'm glad that didn't come across that way. I haven't toured the U.S. in a while, so hopefully this will stir things along.

Does it scare you when you haven't been active for a few years that people will forget about you?

Oh, yeah. Definitely. I just assume that's what happens. [laughs] I don't let it dictate how my stuff comes out, because I don't want to force out a record before it's ready. For all of my albums, there has been a 2-3 year gap in between each -- which isn't always ideal, It's just how I've done it. I feel if people really like a band, they'll follow them no matter what.

You said this album is a departure from your older sound. Did you feel you got pigeonholed into a certain sound?

Here and there. It was more in the beginning that it happened. When I was trying to find a record label, I would play my one pop song called "Red Cape" for the executives, and they wanted me to write more pop songs. It got to the point where I was seen in the wrong light. Those are not the kind of songs I really write. You have to make the decision as you go. "Do I want to be a pop star, or do I want to be an artist?" That's how I look at it.

You've been writing and performing for a long time now. Do you feel there are some songs that you never want to play again, or do you feel you can still connect to those pieces?

For the most part, I don't mind playing any of my songs. The one song I have started to cringe at is "The Boob Song." I only play it live; I don't have it on any of my albums. It has a funny story that goes with it. No matter what, at every show, someone's like, "Play 'The Boob Song'!" The song is fine, but I feel like I can't play the song without the story -- 'cause that's the funny element behind it. I think I'm just sick of telling the story.

So taken out of context, it's not as clever.

Yeah, those that don't know the story might not see what's so special about the song. [laughs] Other than that, no, a lot of people love my songs. "Dream" was a big hit for me, and I don't mind playing it, because I know that for so many people, they tell me how it's helped or moved them, so it reinspires me to love the song.

Do you feel "Dream" is a bridge to the kind of music you're making now?

Yes, very much. When I started making music, I had always wanted to incorporate quirky instruments or elements in it somehow. This new album is definitely a much bigger step forward into that -- synthesizers and stuff like that. I'd always loved this kind of music like Lykki Li and Little Dragon and that kind of stuff. I just never knew how to write that kind of music, because I had never played my songs on anything but guitar, so they came out acoustically. I finally got a keyboard and a bunch of samples. It was like, "Oh, my god. This is how you do it. That's sort of wild."
When you were creating, did you collaborate with someone who already knew, or was it trial and error?

It was totally trial and error. It was windows opening everywhere. It was, "Oh, my god, you can do this!" I watched a lot of YouTube videos. [laughs] When you learn by the book, you can get boxed in. I love working by myself, so I can try all sorts of weird stuff and not feel self-conscious about it. I recorded a lot of this new album at my own home by myself. It allowed me to do something a thousand times, and no one was in the control room thinking, "This is boring." Or I can try to sing a different way and not have people be like, "What was that?"

Or else wasting studio money.

Yeah, exactly. I'm just at home telling my husband to be quiet. [laughs]

Are you on a label for this record?

I am with a label. It's a smaller one called SQE music. They're based out of Canada; I really like them because they're a young label and smaller, and they have lots of creative smaller ideas. It's not always better to be on a larger label. If you have smart people at the label who are creative and willing to think outside the box, that is enough. That's something you need these days, because things have changed so much. The danger of the bigger label is that you can get totally lost in the shuffle. There's also a weird money aspect to it all. I would rather save money, so I can actually make money on my album.

I paid for my album out of pocket, so I think, "God, I hope I make my money back." Other than that, I don't know why, I've always had a defeatist mentality, but I've always known this career to be so fickle. It's hard to rely on; it's so up and down, but that's what feed you to be so much more creative. I want to ride the wave until it's done.

I look at it as: maybe I'm not going to be making music for the rest of my life in this capacity. I'll do it in other ways, and I have so many other interests in life -- which is always good to have. I try not to put pressure on the art that I make where it has to make me money, because then it ends up coming from the wrong place. I don't want to sully it with that.

You mentioned other interests outside of music. What else do you do?

[laughs] On one of my social media accounts, where you put a line to describe what you do, I have "I'm a girl who likes to sing and write songs and do other things, too." I don't want to spend 24 hours of my day just thinking about music. I want to cook, I want to plant in my garden, and paint. I'm a shitty painter, but I like to do it. I feel like all of that stuff is important, because it all comes back to your writing somehow. I think it's good to take some of the focus away from music and do something else creatively. There has to be a balance. Sometimes it gets too precious; it's not freeing in the end.

I don't mean to go off topic, but I wanted to ask you about the Cass McCombs song you and Andrew Bird dueted on a few years ago.

Oh, my gosh. I love him, but I felt like such a failure that day.


Because I had only found out I was gonna do it the day before, and I didn't know Cass McCombs at the time -- now I'm a huge fan. But I was practicing along to Cass McCombs' version, and of course, Andrew did it his own way. He was probably thinking, "Why am I stuck with this girl?"

Well, for the record, I really liked it. Cass adds such a sad air to it, but your version was a lot more hopeful. I guess people can interpret music differently, depending on where they are at in their lives.

That's why I love cover songs. I like seeing how people interpret things.

What's the setup going to be like when you come through Minneapolis?

This time I'm coming through as a duo with my best friend Wendy Wang, who plays with me a bunch. We'll be on keys and guitar, and we'll have a drum track, because the drum beats are so important for a lot of the songs. To not have that, it would be a completely different show. I'm also gonna do some acoustic pieces. It should be interesting and intimate, because of the duo. I'm hoping that will come across.

Priscilla Ahn will perform at the Cedar Cultural Center on Saturday, May 10, 2014 with Communist Daughter.
AA, $15, 7 pm
Purchase tickets here.

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