Hannah Lew was best known as one of the three ladies of Grass Widow, a principled, inventive Bay Area art-punk band whose lithe songs and embroidered harmonies attracted national attention. Starting last year, however, Lew turned her energies to a new project, Cold Beat. The new music is more personal and more straightforward: Some Cold Beat songs, like "Mirror," showcase a classic pop sensibility, while others use synthesizers and Lew's ethereal voice to evoke darker themes. Lew, 33, also started her own record label, Crime on the Moon, which on July 8 releases Cold Beat's full-length debut, the excellent Over Me. (Stream the whole thing on NPR.) Crime on the Moon has also put out San Francisco Is Doomed, a compilation of songs by local bands about the tech industry's remaking of San Francisco, and how it's affecting the city's artists. Several of the bands on the comp perform tonight, Tuesday, July 1, at Brick and Mortar as a release party for the project. And on Friday, July 5, at the Chapel, Cold Beat celebrates the release of Over Me with the Fresh and Onlys, who are also marking the arrival of their latest LP House of Spirits. We sat down with Lew at the Mill on Divisadero Street -- home of the infamous $4 toast -- about becoming a bandleader and her issues with the ways tech money is changing San Francisco.
Cold Beat - Mirror from Renny McCauley on Vimeo.
So how did you move from Grass Widow to Cold Beat, the new band you lead?
I had written exclusively for that band for like six years, and at a certain point I was like kinda stockpiling songs that didn't really feel like Grass Widow. But I'd never done a band where I was the lead singer, and the politics of Grass Widow were so egalitarian, so about three people coming together. I just had no experience singing alone and completing songs on my own. So putting the record together was really a big testament to "Wow, I can really do this," and exploring how it is that I write by myself and how I sing when I'm singing without a lot harmonies.
It sounds darker than Grass Widow -- more challenging, but also more immediate
It's more straightforward, I feel. I'm just kind of saying things more how they are, and there's is a lot of dark subject matter on the record and a lot of places that I kind of let myself go. It's interesting, because we're about to record a new 7-inch in a couple weeks and all the songs are really poppy and happy. And with Over Me
, I just needed to get a lot of stuff out of my system. It felt good, it was very cathartic. Once I started, I couldn't stop. I would write about three terrible things, and I was like, "Well, if I'm going to write about some terrible things I might as well write about all the terrible things."
Do you start with musical ideas or lyrics?
All the songs are written on the bass. If a song comes out easily it comes out with lyrics and vocals and bass all at once. And if it's a tougher song to write, I usually just write the bass part and then I'll hum ideas. Some of the vocal ideas will turn into guitar parts, or get delegated out melodically.
What do you like about writing on the bass?
It's just simple. There's endless possibility from a bass line, because a chord can get carried out so many ways over one bass note. There's an interesting dynamic between vocals and bass, where it's two pretty integral parts of a song and then everything else can just get fleshed out around those. There's just too many strings on a guitar.
So you live in this neighborhood, and you've been able to hang on?
Me and my husband live five blocks away from here [the Mill on Divisadero]. We have a rent-controlled situation, but if we get kicked out we will have to leave S.F. There's no question about it. And it sucks, 'cause I live 15 blocks away from my mom, and I would like to live here while she's getting older. All my friends are moving away, including bandmates of mine. It just really sucks. It feels like it's getting harder and harder to make stuff here.
Where are your bandmates moving?
To L.A. Half my bandmates live in the East Bay already. Grass Widow, part of the reason we broke up is 'cause Lily [Maring] moved away. It's really hard to live here doing music and not feeling stepped on by the society at large, because it's just not really accommodating toward that. It's become a really big money town. It's weird to me the amount of foodie culture that's here. The reason it offends me is because there's people starving in the world. There's people dying -- dying! -- of starvation and not having access to clean water, and meanwhile there's this culture around the most crazy delicacy and the most local, insanely curated and foraged just for you [foods].
You don't feel a camaraderie with the upstart chefs who are trying to serve up something new and interesting that's also affordable?
I think that's cool, I just think that to me, food is food. It's a necessity for survival and the fact that there's some people that are not surviving and the fact that there are some people in the big picture of S.F. that are making so much money and buying everything out, it feels like a serious imbalance. Sure, cooking is an art form and I get that, but I think the amount of foodie culture that's sort of taking over the city feels like a response to the fact that people have tons of money to spend. I like going out to eat sometimes, and I'm not against eating in restaurants, but the emphasis on it seems a little grotesque to me.
Walking down Valencia, or a lot of other places, it does feel like restaurants have crowded other businesses out.
For me, growing up here, I never felt like the city was made for me. I just felt like someone that lived here. And it's really interesting that all those restaurants seem to have this kind of subtext: This is all made for a certain class, a certain type of people. It's just overwhelming how things are catered towards a certain age and class bracket here, and I think that part is a little weird.
Do you do Cold Beat and Crime on the Moon full-time then?
I have a couple of other little businesses, but it's mostly a hustle-based lifestyle. I was working at Lost Weekend Video for about seven years, it was this really depressing end game that I couldn't deal with after a while. I just couldn't bear to be there at the very end, which I think is coming up. [See: "Lost Weekend Video Fights for Life"
] It's a combination of a lot of things that keep me sort of afloat. Sometimes i'm just afloat on a credit card for a little bit.
I feel like in a place in my life where I can't really afford not to take risks. So I was just like, I'm going to take a risk and do exactly what I mean and make exactly the record I mean to make, and be really intentional, and have a label and put stuff out that I care about, even if i'm in the broke house for a while. Which I have been. I just needed to. I couldn't half do it.
What inspired you to put out the S.F. Is Doomed compilation?
I'm so sick of the dull apathy of everyone talking about how everything sucks and how how priced out we're getting. You can only talk about that for so long and watch all your friends move away for so long. I wanted to have an outlet for people to talk about what is going on. We're not going to make the rent go down or anything, but at least we can be part of the conversation. It was sort of a snapshot of what has this past year been about. A third of the bands don't exist anymore, 'cause people moved away. Every single band [in S.F.] is dealing with it now, unless it's like people that are millionaires and they have music as a hobby, but I just don't know any of those people. Most of the people that I know that are like me: They're making music for their emotional survival, and they're trying to have an outlet to discuss things they need to so they can be sane.
There's some definite bitterness to these songs.
Definitely. It's hard for people to hear "San Francisco is doomed" as a statement. It's partially an homage as a title [to the Crime song], but it's hard to not feel that doom, especially when all your friends are moving away and no artists or musicians want to live here, or can live here. There's certain friends of mine that have been uprooted from other cities for different reasons, and they're like, "Where should I move?" And I'm like, "I wish I could say you should move to S.F., but I don't see it being accessible anytime soon." It feels weird to live in a place where you wouldn't recommend everyone move to.