Priscilla Ahn on her Hong Kong debut and how wedded bliss killed her songwriting
Korean-American folk singer says many of the songs she will perform in Hong Kong were inspired by the loneliness she felt growing up and before she married actor Michael Weston
The singer and songwriter has enjoyed a remarkable career since the 2008 launch of her debut album A Good Day and now has seven albums under her belt, as well as many songs for television shows and films – most recently a voice to music in this year’s multiple-Oscar winning film La La Land.
“I’m really looking forward to coming. As it’s my first time playing for Hong Kong fans I’m going to do a mix of everything – it’ll be the best of the albums I’ve made in the last 10 years,” Ahn says by Skype from her home in Los Angeles.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Ahn was an only child until the age of nine and spent a lot of time playing by herself. Much of her creativity draws on that time she spent in her imaginary world, playing pretend.
“There were times I would feel alone and I feel like that comes out in my music. There’s just a little hint of loneliness or a tinge of melancholy or nostalgia to a lot of my songs,” said Ahn.
She started playing the piano aged seven and picked up the guitar and harmonica at 14 and performed in her high school choir and musical productions. After graduating, she began playing open-mic nights in Philadelphia and eventually moved to Los Angeles. Just at the point when she says she was about to give up, she met her manager who helped make her first EP, which led to being signed by Blue Note Records. And then she started touring.
“I love playing live. It’s so fun because rather that sitting at home alone and playing songs by yourself you get to play for people and you get to feel the reaction of your songs immediately and it fills you up, it’s really motivating,” Ahn says.
In 2006 she began dating actor Michael Weston (House, Six Feet Under) and they married in 2010. The only downside to a happy marriage is the lack of loneliness that had inspired her songwriting.
“I had a huge writer’s block, felt pressured to write hit songs and was at a place in my life where I no longer had those lonely feelings which a lot of my music was inspired by,” says Ahn.
So she headed into the desert and holed up in a remote hotel for a week to see if she could tap back into those feelings – and perhaps dig a little deeper. She switched off her phone and didn’t check her email or social media – cutting off things that she says clutter the mind.
“I was like, ‘OK, even if I get one song idea that’s a success to me’. That took all the pressure off. And immediately all this music came pouring out of me, it was just what I needed,” she says.
The result of that self-imposed isolation in the desert was This is Where We Are, widely acclaimed as revealing a more mature, powerful and sensual voice. She says the music wasn’t just coming from her sad place – “which is so easy for me to reach, it’s just scratching the surface” – but going deeper and revealing more.
She released her first children’s album, La La La in 2015, something she says she’d been thinking about since her first album when many friends told her their children loved listening to her song Dream. When she learned she was pregnant, she knew it was the right time to work on a kids’ album.
Her son was born in November 2015 and while she says she spent the first year “figuring out how to be a mum”, she’s now able to focus more on her music.
“I’m super happy – I’m so stoked to have this little guy in my life. My husband and I both work from home so we get to hang out with him pretty much constantly and watch him grow every day,” she says.
Her husband, son and mother will all come with her to Hong Kong and other gigs she’s playing in mainland China and Japan. They will also go to South Korea so Ahn can introduce her son to his grandparents and cousins.
Although Ahn has never lived in South Korea, she tries to visit every few years and feels an affinity to songs sung by traditional Korean folk singers.
“Every time I hear those songs they immediately make me start crying – they have this sadness. I don’t even know what they are singing about, but they move me so much. Korean people in general are very emotional, dramatic people which I love and appreciate. I have some of that and it feeds into my creativity,” she said.
Priscilla Ahn, May 11, 7pm, Music Zone, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$420, Ticketflap