Priscilla Ahn just finished touring the U.S. for her latest album, This is Where We Are (2014), on which her sound remains unique despite its more electronic progression from the bare, acoustic instrumentation of her earlier albums. We caught up with Ahn after her concert at Yoshi’s in San Francisco to talk about her current and future endeavors.
Which artists or people in your life influenced you growing up and how have they contributed to the kind of music you make now?
I listened to a lot of the music that my dad listened to growing up, like Neil Young, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Bob Dylan. It definitely influenced me a lot because my dad always stressed listening to the lyrics. “They’re saying something that’s important,” he’d say. When I write songs, I want to make sure the lyrics mean something, to me at least.
What is your writing process?
The music that I listen to now definitely influences my sound. I have a very lackadaisical way of writing that I’ve just learned as part of my personality. I do a lot of co-writing and I’ve picked up some things here and there from other people who I write with — tools and methods that they use. But all in all, I try to keep it very loose and kind of “in the moment”… if it comes, it comes, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
Do you normally write music or lyrics first?
I usually write the music first. I’ll be playing on my guitar or piano, and an emotion in me or a memory will stir, and the words just start coming out and I’ll form the song from there, as I go.
At what point did you realize or decide that you were going to have a career as a professional musician?
When I was 19, I moved to L.A. to give it a try, so that was the first time I decided I was going to really go for it and see what happens, not knowing yet if it was going to become a reality or not. It wasn’t until I was 22 and I got my first record deal that I was like, “Oh, this is for real!”
Were there people in your life who pushed you to become a musician, or was it a decision you made?
I naturally gravitated towards music. My mom sang and played piano, so she definitely inspired me in that performing way. No one really pushed me to become a musician, it was just something I wanted to do. I didn’t even know if I wanted to do it. I had wanted to be an English teacher my whole life. I was about to go to this state college in Pennsylvania for music, and I was doing it just to go along with the flow, basically. I auditioned for a vocal professor there – I sang a classical piece and also songs that I wrote on my guitar. He was a very eccentric, outside-of-the-box thinker and he called me to tell me, “You shouldn’t go to college!” He was the first person to say that that was even an option. He changed my life.
Did you ever regret your decision?
I’ve considered returning to college for sure. I love school, and there’s so many things I want to study. I’m very interested in child psychology, so maybe one day. I just haven’t had any time yet!
Where have you lived, and has each place that you’ve lived affected your style?
I wonder about that. I’m going to say it has. I’ve only lived in Pennsylvania and L.A. (where I am now), and I feel like maybe in L.A. I have more access to new, different kinds of music that I wouldn’t have living in Pennsylvania because the radio stations we have there are limited. Living in L.A., I’m surrounded by a community of friends who are musicians, so they turn me on to new things. It’s definitely affected me that way, but subconsciously I’m sure it has as well – the warm weather, and the organic food, maybe!
Have you noticed that your style changes as you tour different places?
Oh, definitely. Internationally, I choose my songs that I’m going to perform differently. But when I’m touring, I just don’t write. It’s really difficult to write, because my schedule is so crazy and I’m thinking about just being on time to everything and packing up my shit and all that stuff. But I’m sure that on a subconscious level, those travels lead the way into my psyche and come out in my songs.
Do you have a favorite place that you’ve toured?
I love touring in Asia, Southeast Asia especially. It’s very organized and it’s nice, because there are all these people that take care of you, because you’re a foreigner. There are always so many great places to eat and the fans there are very sweet. But there’s also something about being able to tell my stories in between songs, which I don’t really get to do in those other countries because of the language barrier. I feel like I really get to connect with my fans here and after the show and I can meet them all. It’s so inspiring to me — it helps me keep writing and I’m very grateful.
Are you excited to be writing the theme song for the next Studio Ghibli film? How did you come to take that opportunity?
It’s like a dream come true. They reached out to me. I think it’s well known that I’m a Ghibli fan in Japan because I made an album in Japanese and I did a bunch of their songs. They invited me to a performance at a museum in Japan, so I did this past Christmas and two weeks later I got an email asking if I would be interested in doing the theme song.
What inspired you to write that song?
It’s funny actually, I wrote a bunch of different songs for them to choose from. But after reading the book — the film is based on a British children’s novel — the story reminded me so much of this old song I wrote six or seven years ago. It was about my life and growing up feeling alone, and then moving away from home to find myself… and knowing that I was going to be okay. It paralleled the hairline of the story so exactly that I just sent the song to them. I told them I didn’t write the song for the film, but I just thought it was a perfect fit. They reacted really strongly to it and that’s the one they ended up going with.
“Don’t let other people’s opinions and ideas… get in the way of your art, because art is art — there’s no formula to it.”
Do you have any advice for college-age or up-and-coming artists?
I tell people just to stay true to who they are. Don’t let other people’s opinions and ideas of what you should be doing get in the way of your art, because art is art — there’s no formula to it. Also, work really hard, persevere, and don’t give up. If you really believe in it and it makes you happy, then find a way to do it.
Moving to L.A. has really helped your music career, but do you think you could have been as big in Pennsylvania?
I don’t think I could have been, I really don’t. It’s just too limited; there are so many more people in L.A. and New York that are in the entertainment business. Everyone you meet in L.A. is doing something with entertainment, pretty much. It’s definitely helped me. L.A. is so big with TV and film, which I feel has helped me get TV and film sync licenses. So much of being a successful artist and making a career out of it has to do with who you know, unfortunately. Meeting as many people as you can and getting your music out to as many people as you can is really beneficial. I wouldn’t say it’s completely necessary, but I would definitely encourage [new artists] to be in either New York or L.A.
Would you change that system if you could?
I think it is changing. It’s a lot different from when I first started out. Now people in the middle of Pennsylvania can make a whole album on their own using their laptop — recording it, putting it online, getting it to iTunes, and such. I think it’s exciting and so great that it gives more power to independent artists. I discovered so much cool music through Myspace, when that first came out. If I could change it, I would, but I think it’s already changing.
I first discovered your music through a Jeep commercial a couple years ago that played “In a Tree”. How important is it to get your music out on a commercial scale in order to build a career as a musician?
That’s a hard question… I feel like in an ideal world, you shouldn’t have to get your music out there in a commercial way. Even “In a Tree” is not commercial in any way; it’s crazy that they chose that song! It definitely helps pay the bills, but I would never put my song in a commercial for something horrible that I didn’t believe in. I’m always asking what it’s for, and what the commercial conveys. That one seemed nature-y in a way, even though it’s about a car! It’s a fine line to balance, you know? You don’t want to completely sell your soul to the devil.