Discussing the work of Hannah Lew can lead to sheer exhaustion, or possibly envy — besides making haunting, catchy, jarring music, Lew is also a filmmaker, and has directed videos for several of her contemporaries. She is probably best-known for her work in Grass Widow; her new band, Cold Beat, occupies a similar position, blending decades’ worth of pop know-how with a deeply punk urgency. They recently released their debut single, and it was with this that our conversation began before turning to her work in film and video.
As someone with a fondness for science fiction (and its imagery), the title of “Year 5772” immediately jumped out to me. What was the inspiration for this song?
Hannah: Most of the lyrics for “Year 5772” are based on a series of post-apocalyptic dreams I was having . I find that sci fi offers a wider language to describe hope and doom in a way that isn’t limited by the rules of our earth. In designing a weird glam sci fi dystopia in the lyrics to this song I was thinking a lot about the way our place in time is relative to how we are counting time. (the Jewish calendar is now in 5774). Thinking about the future inevitable always brings me back to the fact that we are living in a future of the past.
What’s your process like for writing a Cold Beat song, as opposed to a Grass Widow song?
The process is very different. With Grass Widow we would all give ideas to the group and write lyrics together. So I would write pieces alone , but not finish them so that we could finish songs together. In Cold Beat — I just demo all the songs in full before bringing them to the group. So I’ll usually write a bass part ,guitar part and a few vocal parts laid over a drum machine and then I’ll bring the demo to Kyle and we figure out together which parts are guitar parts and which parts are vocal parts. Then we bring it to practice and the band fills it out. I write all the lyrics by myself in this band — which is very different from Grass Widow.
You’ve directed a number of music videos. Are there things you’ve learned about pacing, editing, etc. from approaching others’ music from this perspective that you might not have picked up otherwise?
Timing in film editing and song structure is very much from the same part of the mind. The two modalities are very similar. I think my music making informs my video making more than the other way around. A music video is basically a visual song with the same kind of attention span built in. I really enjoy visually synthesizing other peoples’ songs. I know I always have a visual attached to a song. Usually it’s something outside of the literal meaning of a song. Like a song will just sound blue to me for no literal reason. I think melody and visual art share a language that is a non verbal and slippery. It’s a realm with it’s own logic and reason. Most of my videos are abstractions of a song-much like my approach to the use of language when I write lyrics.
Is there a single work — a song or album or film or video — of which you’re most proud?
I recently made a POW! video which is premiering next month and I think it might be the best video I’ve ever made. Looking forward to unleashing that one! I am proud of the recent Cold Beat EP. It took me a long time to finally release it and it’s been fun starting my own label.
Do you find that your work as a songwriter and as a filmmaker are complementary — often addressing some of the same images and themes — or do you use each to explore very different things?
Part of the reason I like making music videos for other bands is that it gives me a chance to visit other people’s world building. I know I have my own mythology that informs a lot of visual art attached to the music I make-but recognizing and representing other bands visually is a cool process because I get to tell them what I see when I hear a song and sometimes re-enact their hallucination they are having while writing that song. it’s really song portraiture.