A musician who found her sound in the desert
Priscilla AhnHighline Ballroom (431 West 16th Street, New York, NY 10011) Map it $15
Like many artists before her, Priscilla Ahn went to the desert seeking transformation. After several albums with a team who'd paired her with co-writers not quite her style, Ahn was free. But after those years of pop contortion, she began to doubt her own ability to express her true self in song. Ahn went to the desert as a dare--to see what songs still lived in her, to prove just what kind of record she could make on her own.
"I had to book a trip out to the desert and spend time by myself with a guitar and a keyboard. No pressure, no guidelines, no ‘we need you to write this kind of song.’ It was so liberating," explains Ahn. "It was scary at first--I wondered if I could even write songs anymore." She took off from L.A. and holed up in a hotel room outside Palm Springs (a 1920's getaway for Hollywood stars) to apply herself to her craft. The songs came immediately, sometimes fully formed. Within the week Ahn had an album.
"For me,” says Ahn, “this album was about finally finding my voice again as a songwriter and a singer. This Is Where We Are portrays who I am now and another side of myself that I’d never really been able to show in other albums." The lyrics are deeper and much more personal with Priscilla evidencing herself as a woman confident in her power and sexuality on tracks like the devotional "Home" and big-beat album opener "Diana," which was inspired by the myth of the goddess Artemis. "That definitely a part of who I am that I’ve never had the courage—I’ve always been afraid to show sexuality for fear that it would be taken the wrong way."
Since her teen years, Ahn had always written from a place of heartsickness, but on This Is Where We Are, her situation was different. At 29, the singer was newly married and contented in love and found herself distant from that dark-mood muse-- and rarely reaching for her guitar. Now, situated in seclusion at the foot of the Santa Rosa Mountains, Ahn found immediate inspiration. "There was something about the starkness of the desert that felt right to me," says Ahn. "I wanted that feeling on this album. I wanted that space, in the production and also in the songs." She also found inspiration in films she watched when she would get stuck on a song--I Am Love and Scent of Green Papaya--two films about women being reborn in love. "I pulled inspiration from losing myself in the passion and tension of those movies."
The irony of it all is that the beautiful album Ahn returned with is a finer work of pure popcraft than she ever made under those (major) label structures. Luscious electro-pop defines This Is Where We but it's Ahn's sensuous, airy vocals and Everly-grade harmonies that drive the record. Produced by Keefus Ciancia (Kimbra, Me'Shell Ndegéocello, T Bone Burnett) in weekly spurts, the sporadic schedule helped Ahn continue to develop and finesse songs past their hotel room-borne state. "Keefus was working on scoring music for Nashville, so his schedule was pretty tight. We could only get together once or twice a week, then have a week off--it was the best rhythm for me," says Ahn. "I would do stuff on my own at home or just have time to regurgitate it and figure out what worked and add in new ideas." The two decided to keep almost all of the vocal tracks Ahn had recorded in the desert for their visceral qualities.
The tearjerking break-up ballad "Remember How I Broke Your Heart," appears in its unaltered desert-demo glory. Ahn was stewing on how, years before, she'd messily dumped an ex over the phone while she was on tour. "The memory came up and I picked up my guitar and started playing. Words came out immediately. It was one of those things where the length of the song was how long it took me to write it. I demoed it right away, because emotions were so strong as I was singing it. There was no replicating that."
Though Ahn has a gorgeous album to show from her time in desert, the experience birthed her into her truest self as a songwriter and an artist. "It was liberating--the haze that was over me was lifted. My confidence was regained, again."