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PRISCILLA AHN: 20somethin Blues

Priscilla Ahn is a singer/songwriter who has lived to see the other side of a quarter-life crisis.

Words: Anna Graizbord
Images: Cedric Bihr

Priscilla Ahn says that when she was writing her new album When You Grow Up—released May 3, 2011, she had to dig a little deeper beyond the “wells of melancholy” that characterized her college years and the early half of her 20s. Though Ahn has an alt-folk sensibility and approach, her sound is certainly accessible enough for anyone, regardless of genre preference, to get into—especially great for reflecting on how you made it past 25.

Ahn did in her early college career what we all fantasize about—risking the rest to pursue a career she was passionate about, but had no guarantee of it actually panning out. It was a music professor at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania, whom she was auditioning for in order to matriculate there, that gave her the initial push, telling her “… not to go to school and that [she] should try pursuing the singer/songwriter thing now [and] later on down the road, [she] could always go to college…” That was the first time anybody had ever offered that as an option to her. And bravely, Ahn took his advice and began working at a recording studio, which led to a chance internship with Blue Note Records and Amos Lee, who happened to be recording in the very same studio.

The producer on the Amos Lee project took Ahn under his wing and brought her out to LA. After a few years of playing coffee houses and waiting tables there in customary LA fashion, Ahn understandably became a little anxious about the risky decision she had made to pursue this career path. This sort of anxiety, however, helped fuel a lot of her songwriting­­—as she says, “… up until a couple of years ago, all my songs were about being a wallflower or misfit and wanting to find my place or home and where it is and what it would be like.” With the help of friends like fellow singer/songwriter Joshua Radin, Ahn was able to pull herself out and channel this energy into continuing to write and create songs and above all, to stick with her career decision. Once she got a manager and Blue Note listened to her EP, the rest— a hit song, landing on a few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, and performing on various late night shows—happened quite fast.

Sonically, Ahn is inspired most by Neil Young (whom she dreams of touring and performing with), Chet Baker (whom she feels a kinship in singing style with), Radiohead, and Andrew Bird. It was actually Bird’s looping violins that inspired her to layer her own vocal sound such that, at least in my view, it’s a bit reminiscent of the former The Softies guitar player/singer Rose Melberg’s solo work. Though Ahn’s voice and perspective are clearly hers throughout the new album, every now and then you can catch a glimpse of the people she’s collaborated with, like Sia Furler and Inara George (of The Bird and The Bee).

Perhaps the reason she has so many co-written songs on this album is because she’s found a lot of her strength in collaborating with friends and fellow songwriters. This time around, however, she struggled with finding inspiration from healthier places and writing happier songs. I mentioned a conversation to her that I had with a couple of friends that stemmed from listening to a Dum Dum Girls cover of a Smith’s song—whether they preferred songs that were sad but sung happily, or happy songs that were sung sad. Ahn said she preferred sad songs sung with just the right amount of lightheartedness—a fine choice, I say, and quite a healthy and mature approach to life this side of 25.

Ahn remarked that a lot of this album required self-reflection on where she’s been and where she is now, in “seeing things with bigger, clearer eyes,” why things turned out the way they did in her life, and understanding where she came from and who she has become. At 27, she’s finally found a home and a career that she made for herself, and with her husband, whom she married just last year. I agreed with her that it can be a treat when in a new relationship stage to be able to play house in one’s spare time, either cooking with your partner or sewing, and doing quiet craft projects, and the likes. Ahn’s other more independent hobbies include photography and even making a travel ‘zine, which she hopes to sell at her shows when she’s on tour this summer. Other things in the works for Ahn that are definitely worth putting on one’s radar include a potential duets album with singer/songwriter Charlie Wadhams, as well as a slew of upcoming music videos for the new album.

Images by Cedric Bihr.

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