"Oh, it’s totally perverse. " -Hannah Epperson on competition in music. It is with this in mind that I have decided to forgo the traditional "Best Of" list to end the year. Instead I will bring an ongoing series of updates on the most memorable musical experiences of the year, be they concerts, records or even just songs. Today I bring you adopted Canadian Hannah Epperson, violin champion.
I first saw (And was slightly mesmerized by) Hannah Epperson open for and play with Morlove in April this past year. I missed her set at Rifflandia (Though I don't remember off the top of my head why) but got to talk to her in anticipation of that set that I missed. It was a big year for Epperson, who seems to be gaining all kind of momentum. This interview was one of my favourites from the many I conducted this year and, importantly, contains the quote that has guided this end-of-year series.
Rags Music: Hey Hannah. This is Blake or Rags or whatever people call me these days.
Hannah Epperson: Hey! At long last! How the hell are ya?
RM: I’m great. How are you?
HE: I’m, I’m buzzing.
RM: Great. So you’re in Vancouver?
HE: Yes, I’m in Vancouver for a limited time only.
RM: Yeah, what’s this boot camp you’re doing?
HE: Have you heard of the Peak Performance Project?
RM: I have not.
HE: Okay. Peak Performance Project…There’s this radio station in Vancouver, 102.7 the Peak, they paired up with Music BC and a whack-load of money from Jim Pattison to create a 7 yearly installments of an artist development program-slash-competition. This is the fifth year this is happening. Each year 20 artists are selected from a slew of artists that apply. Then they compete…They’re involved in the project for five months doing various tasks, this that and the other. Included in this program is a 7 day boot camp where you have seminars with industry specialists and you pair up with another artist or band to record a track on site. It’s crazy. I went last year as a supporting artist, playing backup violin for a friend, so I got a glimpse into that world but this year I’m just going as Hannah Epperson. That starts tomorrow.
RM: That sounds like a pretty intense week.
HE: Yeah it is going to be intense. The next two months are going to be pretty wild too, ‘cause I have to complete all the tasks. There’s a $100,000 prize for whoever performs the best. That’s the light at the end of the tunnel, I guess.
RM: What’s it like to have art and competition so close together?
HE: Oh, it’s totally perverse. I’ll tell you, honestly, I’ve always been pretty heavily involved in competitive sports. I hate competition but I love it. I played ultimate Frisbee for my whole university career. This probably sounds like a total tangent, but I played for UBC and the really cool underlying principal of Frisbee is that it’s all self-governed. So there are no referees. People make their own calls and are responsible for negotiating fair play. Which I love because watching soccer for an example can be such a drag because you have people putting on such ridiculous spectacles trying to appeal to an official. There’s just no room for that bullshit in Frisbee and people play really hard and you respect the people you’re playing against because everyone’s putting it out there. Whoever plays the best wins, and you know that. I went into that whole preamble because with music it’s kind of the same. It’s really, really invigorating to be around people making such amazing music. You can either say, “Fuck it, I’m throwing in the towel,” or you can be totally motivated and inspired and use that as leverage to play and perform better. It’s funny that I’m always drawing parallels between the sports world and the music world.
RM: I think it’s an easy thing to do. They’re both extremely important facets of our society and have vast personal implications for a lot of people. What are your first memories with music?
HE: I grew up with brothers in a pretty musical family. It’s probably listening to HMS Pinafore on vinyl. That’s early, early. Maybe when I started adopting music as a identifier, like the first album I ever bought was the Cranberries, “No Need to Argue.” I was obsessed with the singer. I remember cutting my hair really short in elementary school. I just thought she was such a badass!
RM: She was.
HE: She just had a really powerful and unsexy voice and I thought that was rad.
RM: The Cranberries were great. That music still holds up pretty well.
HE: <laughs> Yeah, I think so.
RM: When did you get into music in a more serious, “I’m going to play this,” kind of way?
HE: That’s a tricky question. I started playing violin when I was 5. The classic, started in Suzuki and around age 9 I was getting in other extra-curriculars…I met this cowgirl. She was also an amazing fiddler and she started teaching me fiddle songs by ear one day of the week and the other day of the week I’d go out and take care of horses with her. That world was so interesting to me because all of the songs she taught me came with stories and history and folklore. That was very invigorating and exciting for me. So that’s the second stage. Third stage – Adolescence, trying to chase boys up trees. I ended up playing in this kind of crappy boy-band in high school. Pretty classic, right? Then to be totally honest, the solo thing has really taken off in a very organic way since I graduated from UBC last year. I’d just been playing a lot of solo gigs at local cafes and stuff. Slowly my name kept getting passed around and I feel like it’s happened very slowly, calling myself a musician. And I’m still a little uncomfortable admitting it, but I haven’t had a full-time job since I graduated. I think it’s time for me to take ownership and responsibility for that title.
RM: Seems like you’re doing it. You don’t have a job, you’re going to boot-camp. I think you’re a musician.
HE: <laughs> I’m going to music boot-camp! How much more severe does it get, right?
RM: Straight up. You’ve been playing a lot of music this summer. Do any particular experiences or shows stand out to you? Or has it all just been a blurry whirlwind of joy?
HE: There’s always the speed-blur factor. One thing that really stood out was playing with Shane Coysan at the TED conference. It wasn’t a Hannah Epperson gig but it was a really, really unique experience being surrounded by some of the most formidable innovators in science, politics, culture, in the world, all in one place for a whole week. So that was a really, really important experience. I played up in Dawson City at the Dawson City Music Festival. It was the first time I’d gone to play at a festival without any connections. I didn’t know anyone there and Dawson City is far from home. It’s pretty alien up there and I think I had the most intensely visceral performance of my life in the Place Grande. It’s this incredible old building, old theatre, in Dawson City. It’s probably the coolest venue I’ve ever played in. I had an insane physical and emotional experience playing that show. I felt like everything that’s informed my music, for the first time in my life I felt like I was attached to my music and that I wasn’t just a vessel, this passing through point, which is often how I feel. After that show I went backstage and just started sobbing. I felt like I was puking. I have no idea why. It was crazy. It was a really, really incredible experience. So that’s definitely a stand-out. I toured with We Are The City as well and all of those shows were incredible too. Not because of my performance but because I got to watch We Are The City every night. It was amazing.
RM: I notice in the couple songs where you do have lyrics you seem to be quite aware of your surroundings in a political and social sense. Do you think it’s important for musicians to always acknowledge that or is there a time for musicians to not think about or address that stuff?
HE: I think if you’re going to release something and expect for people to engage with it it should have substance. I don’t really buy the value based wholly on aesthetics perspective, no offence to you or anyone. Movies that are purely violent and have no compelling plot but are arguably visually beautiful, I don’t get moved by that. I don’t think…I’m opening a can of worms here. I’ll backpeddle for a second. If you expect people to engage and be moved by the things that you’re producing and offering up, I think it should be a finished product at the end of a very long process of brainstorming, editing, re-imagining, editing again. I think it is really important, if you want people to listen to what you have to say, to actually have something to say. To offer a kernel for people to think about, I think that’s the point of any art.
RM: I agree, fully. On a less serious note, what made you laugh the last time you belly-laughed?
HE: I don’t know if I can tell you! Well, I will. I was hanging out with my best friends, which I never get to do these days because I’m always on the road, and we were recalling the time one of my best friends cut off her dreadlocks when she was competing in Frisbee nationals in Florida, her dreadlocks got really heavy so she cut them off, put them in a bag, brought them through customs and then attached them to a bandana for Halloween and dressed up as her past self. We were recalling this story and I may have peed my pants. I was dying. I just love that story so much. My friends are weird. That’s why I like them.
RM: I decided the other day that the term ‘normal’ doesn’t apply to anyone because everyone is so weird.
HE: It’s like that quote from the movie “The Incredibles” when the little kid’s mom is like, “Bolt, everyone is special.” And he goes, “That’s the same as saying nobody’s special.” It’s kind of the same thing. Everybody’s weird but at the same time that means nobody’s normal.
RM: It makes perfect sense. What’s your guilty pleasure listening? What’s something people might be surprised you listen to?
HE: Hmm, that’s a really good question. I think my boyfriend was most surprised to see how much folk music, classic old fiddle music was on my…well, maybe that’s not surprising. But I hate when people call me a fiddler and expect me to play fiddle music because that’s not my style at all. Despite that I have so much Celtic and Appalachian fiddle tunes in my iTunes.
RM: I hate iTunes so much. I can’t deal with it. I put it on the computer once and it ruined all my organization. It just made me mad.
HE: The worst thing too is that all of my fiddle tunes, I’ve imported them off of burned CDs, so I don’t have any information. I just have “Track 1,” “Track 2,” and have none of the titles. It’s the worst.
RM: I guess with a lot of instrumental stuff it’s even harder to identify. Oh no.
HE: Yeah. Then I don’t know who wrote it, what the song’s called and the folklore is lost.
RM: You just have to make up your own folk-lore.
HE: Yeah. That’s what folk-lore is really.
RM: See you can do it. Burn them, write new stories about them and send them out into the world.
HE: We’re on to something here.
RM: I think it would be an interesting experiment to see how far you could get that to go out there. What’s a piece of advice you can pass along that you’ve picked up in your time on this Earth?
HE: Don’t lie. Don’t lie. It’s really bad. Here we go, I can’t ever answer a question simply. It’s hard to talk to me because I just keep on talking. I think that the most stress and anxiety and destruction in my life has come from not being honest about things that matter. I really think that with kids, friends or anyone you develop a relationship with, I think the premise has to be you always have to offer a safe pass for anyone to feel like they can be honest. Because without honest communication there’s no way to truly connect with something or someone outside of yourself.
RM: I dig it. Do you have any recording or anything coming up? Is there a full-length album coming?
HE: I’m getting there. I’ve literally been on the road since the beginning of March so everything I want to do just keeps getting differed. Right now I’m hoping to release a 7 inch just in time for my Peak Performance Project showcase. It’s just going to feature these two tracks I did with my buddy A.J. He does a lot of dark, minimal electronic stuff. We had plans to do a bunch more but he moved to LA and got really big. I really like the tracks but they’re not really going to belong with the next slew of songs I’m cooking up and I really want them to exist in a physical form and I just love vinyl so much. So that’s a mini-but-massive undertaking that I’m in the middle of right now. That’s associated with this video I just wrote and directed. It’s a little tiny short film to mysteriously promote all the tentacles that will lead people towards the reveal of the 7 inch.
RM: Wow, that’s a lot of thought into a 7 inch.
HE: Yeah! Well, what’s the point if you’re not going to put all your love and creativity into what you do? I mean, there’s kind of no point because we’re all going to die in the end anyway which makes it just that much more important to revel in the mundane, the trivial minutia.
RM: More simply, little things are what make it all worthwhile. Gotta have a purpose, a goal. It sounds like your time is very precious and I appreciate you giving some of it up to get on the phone and talk some shit with me.
HE: Oh man, it’s fun! It’s been such a pleasure and hopefully I see you in Victoria! (We did not and have not seen each other in Victoria. Or Vancouver. Or anywhere else in the universe.)