Finding the Spaces: Love and Lessons from Hana Zara // Published in Thread Magazine // December 3, 2013
Great cities have always inspired great music, offering a physical backdrop for memory, longing or timely statements of culture and politics. There’s the defiant frenzy of “London Calling,” the snappy build of “L.A. Woman,” the strange pulse of “One Night in Bangkok.” Hundreds of ballads have been dedicated to New York and its sleepless streets.
You could be forgiven for omitting Hartford, Conn. from the list of timeless muses — that is, until you meet Hana Zara. After listening to her tribute to Connecticut’s capital, you just might find yourself wondering about its crumbling buildings and mossy sidewalks, which she finds so endearing. Zara has an aptitude for teasing out tactile details and placing them gingerly throughout her songs. They’re full of episodic lyrics and snapshots of life writ large, immediately placing you into her memories and experiences.
Zara is the recent winner of the annual Advance Music/The Point FM singer-songwriter contest, which she almost didn’t enter.
“I wasn’t gonna do the contest,” Zara says. “My boyfriend and my friend Laura were gonna do the contest and I was like ‘oh, I’ll do it too’ so we went to Advance Music and I found out it cost $45 to sign up!” She rolls her eyes. “And I was like oh I’m not going to do it, contests are dumb.”
But luckily, her crew convinced her, and Zara made her way through the preliminary rounds. Held every Tuesday for three weeks, these initial contests pitted fifteen artists against each other. Each got to play one song, and only three were chosen from the night’s lineup. After the preliminaries, the nine artists who were selected faced off at the final round, held at Higher Ground in South Burlington. Each musician was allotted fifteen minutes of stage time, and Zara walked away with the gold.
“And that was like ten days ago!” she exclaims, still seeming shocked to have won. She played a few songs from her recent album, Tatterhood, in addition to new work that hasn’t been recorded yet, such as “The North,” an ode to Burlington’s Old North End. Zara says she felt honored and thankful to have won, in addition to surprise.
"The music world just seems like this expansive, ambiguous thing that I don’t know how to navigate,” she confesses. “I think what this contest did was put me in the radar of some people who understand how to navigate it better, and they saw me and suddenly are sending me emails, talking about how to find a producer, and how to do this and that. It put me on the radar of people who are older and wiser than me and are like, ‘Oh, we see potential in this girl and we want to help her out.’”
For someone who is as easygoing about her craft and as gracious about her success as Zara, you’d expect her to have been at this for years. Yet again, she surprises. Her first album,Little Doll, was recorded in Brooklyn just last December, and her sophomore effort, Tatterhood, dropped in June.
She got her “real” start last year when she left her town of Lincoln, Neb., with a one-way ticket to New York City.
“Living in Nebraska, I kind of felt like I had just reached my limit as to how far I could go in the music scene, and so I made a Kickstarter to do a second album. I had already recorded a first album, and it got funded 180 percent. And I was kind of shocked at the amount of support and fans that I had; that was like a vote of confidence for me. I kind of thought I should be taking music a little bit more seriously.”
She bought her plane ticket and left for the Big Apple, but like many dreamers who make their way to the cultural capital of the world, she did not find instant success.
“I ran out of money super fast, and I was trying to get by busking in the subway,” she recalls.
One day she left her subway station perch to use a café bathroom.
“There was this guy there and I had my guitar with me, and he asked me about my guitar, and if I was a musician, and I was like, ‘Yeah, you should come to one of my shows!’”
He did, appearing at one of her gigs in Brooklyn. It was right around the time her sublet was set to expire, and Zara had nowhere to go. The mystery man from the café offered her a place to stay. On “a whim and faith in people” Zara stayed with him and his Russian immigrant family in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn for two months.
During that time she took the train into Bushwick four or five times in one month to record Little Doll.She spent two full days recording and one day mastering the record.
“It was not ideal for recording an album, because I was stifled by this strict Russian culture of the house I was living in,” she remembers. “There was not really respect for pursuit of music and art. My friend’s mother was everyday like, ‘When are you going to go back to school?’”
Zara was itching to move on. “So I finished the album and I immediately was like ‘I have to get out of Brooklyn’, and I took a bus to Burlington this April,” she recalls.
The shift from Brooklyn to Burlington has an explanation — Zara lived here until she was 13, when the family moved out to Nebraska. When she returned to Vermont, Zara stayed with an old babysitter for a month while she got her bearings, and then started to break into the Burlington music scene, which she describes as, “Really accommodating.”
You can hear the rustic rambling of all these travels and experiences on Tatterhood. With ten quick tracks, it comes in just shy of 45 minutes.
“It’s not even produced,” she explains. “It’s a single track. It’s basically live.”
The word tatterhood is drawn from the title of a common Icelandic and Nordic fairytale about a young, rag-tag girl whom Zara identifies with.
“I feel like musicians or artists of a kind who are representing themselves in their art will often archetype themselves to a certain degree,” she explains. “If I had any archetype that I identify with it would be sort of like a rag doll.”
While her voice is longing and ethereal, almost akin to The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan, Zara’s songs do not feel overly soft. Tatterhood’s opener, “Drop Out Generation,” is a punch to what she calls the “drop out, hop trains, live under bridges movement.” She lists Johnny Hobo and the Freight Trains as influences.
“[They’re] kind of representative of that culture, or counter culture. They have a song that’s like, ‘We are not revolutionaries but this is the revolution,’” Zara says.
She, too, was part of that scene, but she changed her tune. She was frustrated by the apathy and misplaced efforts at exiting a system, rather than working within one.
“That’s another theme on my second album, is sort of a critique of that lifestyle. My first song is like, ‘No this is not really a revolution, it’s sort of a movement, because a revolution is a call to action and this is a call to inaction.’”
That kind of perception resonates throughout the album. Her lofty voice and barely perceptible guitar strums are supported by intricate lyrics. Her songs are about the universe and her place in it, but they never feel narrow or inaccessible. In particular, the quiet moments in “You Burnt The Toast” are some of Zara’s best:
While all the streets and people lost their concrete and their minds
and we were lying there, only scraps of us
We almost disappeared into the green-gray granite and dust
and we never made it down to Greenwich Village
I keep having these dark dark dreams about Times Square
but we stayed up singing love songs in the kitchen and you undid my hair
And while her songs have lovely turns of phrases, they can also be remarkably direct:
And I learned then what love is
Love lets you be yourself
Love honestly has want for nothing else.
“Lithuania” displays Zara’s use of physical senses and geography to extrapolate emotion.
Till I started thinking I was born with a curse
Because I loved the living version of St. Petersburg
And when I’m landlocked and alone
I still fine myself aching for your city made of stone.
Listening to the album start to finish, you’re left a little short of breath, as if you’d just sprinted across foreign lands, through time and distance, and back to a familiar lover’s hands.
The album sold a few hundred copies, but Zara’s real success has been through live performances. Since the album was released in June, she’s played around 60 shows.
As successful as Tatterhood has been, Zara already has new wheels in motion. Her voice is noticeably more energized when she describes her new venture.
“The first is one that is called Where Amanda Is King,” Zara says. “It’s a concept album, and I’m pairing up with local artists who are going to do some animation. Ideally it will be like a story album that will have a picture book that goes with it.” She pauses, only to rush into the full context of the album. “It will be really fun because it will be a dystopian world where the people are sick because the world is kind of ravaged, and they all pray to a female god called Amanda — so the god has shifted from being really embedded in the patriarchy to being representative of the matriarchy and Mother Earth.”
It is easy to see why Zara has always, as she says, “been a little bored with the folk genre.” She imagines that if she could invent a genre it would be “slightly musical prose — just prose music.” Her influences are mostly writers and novelists, which lends her music the literary, readable quality she strives for.
“People are like ‘who are your best inspirations’ and I’m like Miranda July, Kurt Vonnegut, Gabriella Garcia Marquez,” Zara says. “I love mystical realism. Tom Robbins.”
In terms of actual musical acts, she lists Symphony of Science, Neutral Milk Hotel and Burlington folk duo Quiet Lion as her top picks. But Zara’s mission is bigger than mere imitation of her literary and musical idols.
“I just want to keep writing albums that break down the distance between people, make people feel like I understand them or they understand me in a way that we don’t often get to experience in an everyday interaction,” Zara says. “I think that music is my medium, and writing, but my main goal is just to break down barriers between individuals and to keep dissolving the space between people who are brought up in a world that’s ‘us and them,’ ‘me and you’.”
Zara’s charge to the world is daunting, but she delivers it with such earnestness that her vision is entirely believable. She’s not an indie ingénue spinning dreams for the sake of pretty words and images, nor is she a cynic thumbing her nose at the real world. Zara stands as the antithesis of the dropout generation, and if Tatterhood is any indication of her talents, then she will continue to climb higher and break down the divisions between people.
“I think love can’t get through in those spaces, not in the way everyone needs it too,” Zara says. So, she tries to inject the world with a shot of love. “I usually make an idiot of myself trying to do that everyday,” she laughs. “But I think it is more important to be foolish than to be guarded.”