Priscilla Ahn is a singer-songwriter who earlier this year released her second full length album, When You Grow Up, on Blue Note Records.
Many will remember her from the hit song “Dream” of her 2008 debut album, A Good Day, that was featured in many TV shows and feature films.
She is currently performing on her Fall North American tour with dates running through mid-October. We were able to catch up with Priscilla right before she began the tour to discuss her background, music and much more.
We are pleased to present this interview with Priscilla Ahn.
Please note that HalfKorean.com comments/questions are in BOLD.
Background: The Basics on Priscilla
Where were you born, raised and currently reside?
I’m in Los Angeles now. I was born in Fort Stewart, Georgia because my dad was in the Army and there is a military base there. I have no memories of that place because my dad is from Pennsylvania and after he got out of the army we went back to Pennsylvania. That is where I grew up and lived until I was 19 and then I moved out here.
How did your parents meet?
My dad was stationed in South Korea. I think it was a special holiday or something because my mom and her friends were dressed in hanboks (한복) and they went to a minsokchun (민속촌) right outside of Seoul. There they met these Army guys and one of them was my dad. They were talking a bit and had made plans to go back and meet in two weeks. But, the only ones who showed up were my mom and dad. My mom was actually looking forward to the other guy coming because he was taller. After that they would meet together every two weeks and my dad would teach my mom English and my mom would teach my dad Korean. I don’t know how long they dated but they ended up getting married in Korea.
Do you have any brothers and/or sisters?
I have a younger brother. We are nine years apart and he is 18 now.
How is your Korean?
Child-like or beginner. It is too bad because my mom didn’t teach me that much because she was just trying to get better with her English. Her English is very good now. All the stuff she taught me when I was younger was stuff I remember like “I’m hungry, I’m full, Goodnight, Hello, Thank You.” I find that when I go to Korea I can understand a lot of what people are saying but with my pronunciation I just find it so difficult. I don’t know why.
What is your favorite Korean food?
I love all Korean food. I stopped eating meat when I was around 18 and the only thing I miss is Korean BBQ when others are eating it. One of my favorite dishes is jjampong (짬뽕), which is Korean/Chinese. I love doenjang jjigae (된장찌개) or any kind of fish that is fried up.
I love all Asian foods and I can go to Japan or Thailand but after awhile I sort of get bored. But, when I am in Korea, I can eat it three times a day.
Did you grow up around other mixed Koreans?
My mom had some Korean friends, full Korean families and there was one other half family but I wasn’t really close to them. But, when we moved out to the country, my mom saw her friends less. My school was predominantly white and there were four other Korean girls but they were all adoptees. My access to other Korean people was pretty limited.
Did you ever experience any identity issues while growing up?
Yes, especially when I was really little. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and not understanding because my mom looked one way and my dad looked one way. And at school, like in kindergarten/first grade, kids didn’t really understand what I was. So, I thought that my parents had bought me from a store. And then, growing up, especially when we moved to the country – even though I loved living there and being beside nature and stuff – it was a little hard just to feel like I could fit in with a bunch of other white kids.
When was the last time you have been to Korea?
Before my recent show, I was there about a year ago to celebrate the Lunar New Year. All my life I’ve gone about every other year. In the past five or six years it has been kind of hard for me due to my work. But luckily my work has now been bringing me there to play shows. I’ve been able to go the past three years.
Being that you reside in LA, do you go to Koreatown?
Yes, totally. I hit up the grocery stores and restaurants that we like. I’ll even go to the Korean spas and stuff. I don’t really do the clubbing thing though.
What do people who meet/see you think your ethnicity is?
It is weird. I think that other people can tell that I’m some sort of Asian. If I go into a nail salon and there are a bunch of Thai ladies there, they’ll think that I’m Thai. Whereas if I go into a Korean place, they don’t think I’m Korean. When I was younger and went to Korea, everybody could tell that I was Korean but said I was different and would give me all this attention. But now, I go over there and I don’t think anybody thinks that I’m Korean until I say something and then they are like, “Oh, you are Korean?” It has sort of changed over the years.
Music: Singer & Songwriter
When did you take an interest in and begin playing instruments, singing, and songwriting?
I started singing at a very young age. My mom sang and she played piano and guitar. We used to go to church all the time and I did one of my first performances at church when I was around 7 or 8. Singing was kind of my thing and then I picked up piano when I was around 9 or 10. My mom taught me the basics but she gave up teaching me because I got all bratty with her. So, I’m not amazing at the piano but I’m a pretty good sight reader. To this day I’ll sit down and play pieces. But then my dad was always pushing me to play the guitar but, again, I was that bratty kid and didn’t like to be told what to do. It wasn’t until high school when I met a guy who was really cute and played the guitar that I thought I had to learn this. Again, it was a self taught thing. In order for me to learn chords and practice the changes I just started writing songs. Writing was always something I did with journals and creative writing, so it sort of came naturally to me to put it to music.
At what point did you decide to become a recording artist and make music for a living?
I never really had that intention, even though all throughout high school I was playing at coffee houses, bars and restaurants and trying to do as much as I could. For me it was more to just practice performing guitar and singing. I never ever thought I would make a career out of it, I was determined to go to college and do all that stuff. But, when I finally chose the college to go to I was sort of depressed. I couldn’t understand why because I loved school and studying. The music professor that I had auditioned for and sang classical pieces for to get into the program I had also sang a song that I had wrote on my guitar. He called me up at home and told me that he didn’t think I should be in college and that I should pursue songwriting while I’m still young and that college will always be here and who knows what my life would be like four years later. As soon as he said that, a light when off in my head, and that was what I should do. It was then that I started taking it seriously and moved to LA a year later.
How supportive have your parents been?
My dad was understanding in the beginning that I wasn’t going to college. He didn’t go to college either as he went to the army and straight into the workforce. My mom was really upset. I think it was a typical Korean mom thing; she worries and wants me to have an education. But, once they saw that I was really serious and working hard at and moved to LA, they have been very supportive of me. They are my number one fans.
As far as your stage name, is Ahn your mom’s maiden name and do you use it to pay homage to your mom?
Yes, it is. My real last name was this Germanic, weird spelling name, Hartranft. I was like it is too confusing and it doesn’t really sound great. I didn’t want to just go by Priscilla or make up a last name and so I thought of Ahn and thought it sounded pretty and just loved the way it sounds. My mom told me that it actually means peace. Also, my haraboji (할아버지) would always sing to me when I was younger and had a great voice. So, I used it as a way to pay homage to my Korean side.
How has the feedback been for When You Grow Up?
I don’t really check up on what the critics say but I think in Korea, Japan and Asia it has done really well. Japan has been there even before I had a record deal and had ordered my EPs that I had made myself, which was surprising and really cool. Korea has came up this year after this album and have wanted to do more stuff. There was more interest there and I was really happy about that.
As far as the US, I don’t think that this album has done as well. It is not a pop album. I was lucky with my first album because “Dream” was such a big hit with TV and film, which was great and I think a lot of people connected to that song. I’m not sure that this album had a song like that for people. A response I’ve gotten a lot from people is that on the first listen, it doesn’t grab them. It’s sort of one of those albums that slowly sinks into your system. Hopefully it is an album that will stay around, a slow burning one. We’ll see. I can’t really foresee how people will react or even worry about it. I know that I’m really proud of it and the way we recorded it.
How long did you work on the album?
I think it was a total of about five weeks. We were sort of on a time limit because we were recording in London and I had to fly home at some point. But, it was awesome, because it really made us focus on it and be very efficient to get it done.
Was there much difference in the making of this album in comparison to your first full length album?
Definitely. This process was a lot more organic. I mean both processes were organic in a way. The first one was just like let’s see what happens and throw this and that on there with no plan really. And, just the way we performed; we would do two or three takes and take the best takes and best parts of the takes and paste them together.
This album was a little more planned of what instruments I wanted on each song and having parts mapped out. We would play the song maybe 30 times and we were recording to tape and it was all analog. We would listen back to every take and would find that magic take that way which was more of an old school approach which I like.
I understand that you had a tour in Asia this past July. How did it go and where did you perform?
I went to Korea, Japan and Singapore. All were awesome. The fans in Korea are so awesome because they are so rowdy and animated and a part of the show. You just feed off their energy. I played at the Jisan Rock Festival there, which was really fun and very upbeat.
The show in Singapore was awesome as well and I had never played there before so a lot of people were hearing me for the first time. Their culture is very westernized and they all speak English so it almost felt like I was playing a show in America.
Japan, of course, was great. I did six shows in Japan and they were all pretty well attended. I think that they were just really thankful and appreciative to have people come over after the whole earthquake, tsunami and radiation scare.
It’s funny because that audience and the Korean audience are completely different. Korea was so rowdy and animated whereas Japan was real quiet and respectful in that Japanese way.
What is the plan for the fall tour, mainly playing new album tracks?
I’m definitely going to be playing a mix of new and old, probably a bit more of the new. But I will be playing some of the hits from the last album.
Are there plans to add any additional dates for this tour or have another tour afterwards?
No plans to add dates to this US tour, since I’ll be leaving 3 days after to do some dates in Germany and France. I will have some shows in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Barbara when I get back from all of that though, in December. I’m looking to go back to Korea, Japan, and some other Asian countries in February/March of 2012.
You were on Dancing With The Stars earlier this year. How was that experience and did you get to meet Hines Ward?
Dancing With The Stars was so much fun! Very surreal… and very moving, mostly because I was playing while Patricia Zhou was dancing… and her performance was so moving, I almost wanted to cry at the end. I did get to meet Hines Ward. He was the nicest person I’ve ever met! My mom is a huge football fan. She was too shy to ask for a picture, so he actually offered it! So nice.
Now you also appeared on Jay Leno around the same time. How was that and was that your first time on Jay Leno?
That was my second time. But it was still nerve-wracking. I don’t know why I was more nervous to perform there than on DWTS. I think because this time, all of the attention was on me.
You touched on it earlier, but how has the reception been for you and your music in Korea?
I think my first album has done really well over there. And every time I’ve gone to perform, I’m always surprised by how many people turn up, and how excited they are about the show!
Do you listen to Korean music at all and/or follow the industry or artists?
I don’t really keep up with Korean music, although I know that K-POP is huge right now! I am now a fan of Chang Giha, and of course, I love Sung Si Kyung’s voice very much. I covered his song, “Du Saram.” Also I had the pleasure of meeting Jang Jae-In, whose music I like a lot too!
Any plans to collaborate with artists in Korea?
I would love to collaborate with any of them!
What do you think of the recent rise of Asian American artists and have you connected with any?
I think it’s amazing! Asians are getting more and more recognition in America, and I love that! Any recognition that goes to anyone who’s not just white, I think is pretty awesome. I’ve met the Angry Asian Man, who is very cool, and actually not so angry in person. I met Sandra Oh and Daniel Henney at a big KoreAm event. They were so nice, and supportive. And I think Sandra Oh is the bees’ knees! I saw her speak at the end of a march for the writers’ strike some years back, and she was so strong, and smart. It was beautiful and inspiring to watch and be a part of.
Which album and song are you most proud of?
I am so equally proud of both of these albums. The “Dream” song is what gave me the most recognition, so I’m very thankful for that unexpected surprise. I love “Morning Song” on my first album, and “Empty House” on this one.
When do you plan to start working on a new album, if haven’t already?
I’ve already started writing and demo-ing for the next album. I plan to start recording as soon as I can!
What are some goals that you’d like to achieve that you haven’t already?
I would love to write a whole children’s album that adults can listen to. I’m already working on that. I’m also working on a duets album with my friend and fellow singer/songwriter, Charlie Wadhams. I’d love to one day do a record of classic standards with a full orchestra! That one’s a dream..
Congrats on your marriage last year. In the past, did you ever have any preferences towards dating?
Thank you! I was never a big “dater.” I never did a blind date. For me, I always met someone and just knew I wanted to hang out with them. I was more of a hanger-outer than a dater. But with my husband, it was more like, “let’s live together and get married!”
Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of music?
I love to make crafts, cook soups, garden, draw, read and write.
Do you like soju?
Yes… but not too much!
Do you get on the Internet often and, if so, what are some of your favorite websites?
I do get online a lot, to check emails mostly and then catch up on blogs for fun. I love Garance Dore’s blog… Candy Castle, Hello Sandwich, just to name a few. I find them all entertaining and inspiring.
Any thoughts on HalfKorean.com?
I love it! I love that there is a site dedicated to halfies like me! We’re a special breed, hehe. I really think we are though. Because we get to grow up in a bi-cultural house, which I think is rad.
Any words that you would like to pass on to the community?
Thank you to all of you who support my music, or music in general. Yield to pedestrians, and be good to yourself, your loved ones, strangers and the earth.
We want to thank Priscilla for taking the time to do this interview with us! We would also like to thank Cem Kurosman and Bryan Kehn of EMI Music North America Publicity for helping coordinate this interview.
You can find out more about Priscilla via her official website, Blogspot, Facebook, Twitter and MySpace.
Interview by: David Lee Sanders