I knew nothing about Hana Vu before listening to How Many Times Have You Driven By. I didn’t know that she’d barely graduated high school before touring the nation in support of the EP. I didn’t know that she’d been writing songs since the age of 12. I didn’t know that NME had picked her as one of 2019’s essential new artists. And I didn’t know that she’d recorded a song with Willow Smith (of “Whip My Hair” fame).
Rather, what drew me to the EP was its cover art, a picture of grapes and blackberries that was utterly mundane in subject matter, but immediately eye-catching with its rich, vibrant colors. As visual metaphors go, it’s a pretty fitting one for Hana Vu’s music, which is a beguiling mix of mundanity and ambivalence, and lush, dreamy sonics.
Vu’s lyrics convey relationship woes, introversion, alienation, and social anxiety. Sometimes, her messages are clear. Album highlight “Crying on the Subway” remembers a former relationship: “Crying on the subway/Cos I remember on that Thursday/How everything was different/Oh I’m always gonna miss it.” Later, “Afternoon” finds Vu waxing a bit angst-ridden: “I’ve been thinkin’ ’bout you lately/Tryna see if maybe/I’m living how I should be/I don’t wanna be ignored.”
But other songs, not so much. What, exactly, is Vu singing about on “Shallow” when she sings “Days are days and days and days away/I run along the fall and fall to fade/Don’t forget me don’t forget my name/Everyday are days and days the same”? Or on the title track, with “And I heard, I heard what you said/And I fell, I fell so far/And I tried, I tried so hard/Yea I tried, Didn’t get me very far”?
In any case, what’s so striking about Vu’s lyrics is their plainspokenness. There are no attempts at grand profundity here; her lyrics often feel like they could’ve been cribbed from text exchanges. With dreampop, though, the actual words themselves aren’t necessarily what’s important, but rather, the mood they create. And for all of their quotidian ambiguity, Vu’s lyrics cast a beguiling spell that conjures up feelings of malaise and directionlessness — the sort felt in your late teens and early twenties when you’re on the cusp of adulthood and the whole world seems ahead of you, but all you really want to do is continue hanging with your friends until the wee hours of the morning with no goals or responsibilities.
Further adding to the beguilement is Vu’s voice, which is far deeper, dreamier, and more soulful than her age suggests; I was quite blown away when I first heard it on “Crying on the Subway” and it practically soars on “Shallow.” One moment, she’s reminiscent of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval, the next Paula Frazer or Lana Del Rey. The rich tones of her voice alone add layers of emotion and yearning to the lyrics beyond the words themselves.
Finally, there’s the music, which is filled with shimmery, chiming guitars, soft synth washes, swaggering basslines, and shuffling beats (electronic or otherwise) — and all of it smothered in gauzy, lo-fi production (also courtesy of Vu) that gives the EP an extra layer of dreaminess. “Shallow,” “Breakfast Square,” and “One” are perfect examples of this. They’re incredible earworms, all of them, and delivered with insouciance to spare.
One of the bad things about year-end lists is that you inevitably hear music after the fact that you would’ve included had you known about it at the time. How Many Times Have You Driven By is just such a release. Had I discovered it closer to its June 2018 release, I’m fairly certain that a song like “Crying on the Subway” or “Shallow” would’ve made my list. Better late than never, I suppose.