The Pigalle Club is a curious little basement venue in Piccadilly Circus, decked out in green velvet and soft, coloured lighting, where patrons can have the pleasure of eating a three course meal while enjoying live music on the intimate, spotlit stage, the artists having to rise above the constant scrape of knives and forks on crockery, clinking of glasses and the ceaseless bustle of the overzealous waiting staff. As I arrive, though, the room remains blissfully uncluttered. The soundcheck has been brought forward, and up on stage dressed in casual denims, looking even sweeter and more fey than I had expected, Priscilla is already testing out the backline, her pitch-perfect vocals sounding hauntingly wholesome over the PA. The change to the schedule is cutting into our interview time, but I patiently enjoy watching her set everything up with a confidence I really hadn’t expected from listening to her debut album.
The modestly titled A Good Day, released on this side of the Atlantic back in late June, offers an enjoyable but ultimately rather disappointing listening experience. The songs seem just an inch away from really tapping into something, veering off at impact with a balmy quality that blurs her narratives away to mere daydreams, and the subtle thread of melancholy running through her feelgood tunes inspire a curiosity that’s never quite sated. This sense of Priscilla as being anxious or whimsical is not only to be found in her music, but also in transcripts of previous interviews. She’s far from stoic, but her narratives always seem rather superficial, unwilling to give away anything more than she has to. Maybe this is because no one ever pushes for more than easy answers. Perhaps it’s simply projection on my part, but I sense stronger emotions at work behind her careful, aesthetic arrangements, and so I have a vague desire to dip through the still waters and get to the messier stuff, coaxing some fire and grit from this tranquil artist.
Soundcheck over, we move up to her small, kitchen-like dressing room and settle down in front of a small, whirring fan, our only defence against the heatwave that’s settled over London for the past few days. Priscilla is instantly bright eyed, animated and super friendly. Born to a white father and South Korean mother, her early childhood years were spent in an Army town in southwest Georgia, followed by a move to Reading, Pennsylvania – a small, once prosperous city – and latterly to a nearby countryside village in her early teens. I ask about the impact of this remote environment on her and her music. “Well, I had a lot of solitude,” she nods. “For my first nine years I was an only child, so I was used to playing by myself and having imaginary friends.
“I was glad to move out to the country. I love the outdoors and nature, so I spent a lot time playing in the woods. I didn’t have much of a social life, because if you wanted to hang out with friends it was a 15 minute drive, and I was too young. So I did a lot of extracurricular activities, like sports, softball and acting in plays, musicals.” She laughs when I ask if the smalltown environment brought out her inner rebel. “I wasn’t crazy, but my parents would give me insane curfews, or keep me indoors, so I would rebel in my own way. I wrote a lot of songs from that angst, and I wrote a lot in my journal. I was quite sassy.”
Though it may not be particularly obvious from her music, Priscilla has mentioned Ani DiFranco as a major early influence. The first DiFranco album that came into her possession was 1997′s live compilation Living In Clip, but it was a chance encounter at a coffee house gig that first introduced Priscilla to the powerful words of the original Righteous Babe. “There was a girl just reading Ani’s lyrics aloud, and the older people were sort of scandalised about it, because they were controversial, but I loved them. So initially it was her words that I admired. But her guitar playing, and just her whole sense of self was so empowering, and I just breathed it all in.” She grows visibly passionate about this, using her hands to shape her feelings as she talks, and it’s obvious that she’s reconnecting with those early experiences. “She spoke about things that meant something, things that people weren’t speaking about. It was important.”
Priscilla’s father introduced her to another of her biggest influences, Neil Young, and she grins when I tell her my dad did the same for me. “Maybe it’s a weird dad tradition or something,” she laughs. “I remember him telling me really gruffly, ‘Listen to the words. He’s really saying something.’ That was when I realised the power of words in songs. That’s why it’s important for me to be genuine with my words. Both Ani and Neil are both really genuine; that’s really what I love about them.” Another one of Priscilla’s inspirations came into her life by way of an Ani DiFranco gig, where she first saw Andrew Bird using a loop pedal to create layers of violin. “It was beautiful,” she says. “I had tried to loop my guitar before but it just wasn’t working. I used to sing in choirs and I really missed harmonising, so I used the loop for my vocals instead of my guitar and it worked.”
Has she ever met any of her idols, I wonder. “Willie Nelson, really briefly,” she smiles. “He’s on Blue Note Records with me, so I’ve been able to open for him a few times. I’ve seen Neil Young play live recently at Hyde Park, but didn’t actually meet him. I stood at the side of the stage with a bunch of other people, and when he walked by everyone fell silent. It was like the President had walked past and we were all just in awe. But I really don’t know what I’d say if I ever met him!”
With avid social commentators like Young and DiFranco as her chief inspirations, it’s perhaps surprising that A Good Day is so focused on personal reflection. I wonder if the recent Bush Administration, which did a lot to inspire so many American and European artists to address politics through their music, had any impact on her while she was writing the songs for the album. That insecure quality surfaces again and she seems to worry I’ll be disappointed when she replies, “Sometimes. In my earlier work, yeah. Especially when I first started writing. I wrote a song called ‘Revolution Please’ around the time the Bush presidency started. It was on my first ever demo.” Does she still have copies? Somewhere!” she laughs, reminiscing. “I think they’re on my laptop somewhere.”
She seems a little confused by the question of politics, possibly seeing it as a criticism or failure, which is not what I had meant to imply. Her petite shoulders tense up a little, and her liquid mahogany eyes crease with worry. “There is another song called ‘Are We Different?’ [from her 2006 self-titled EP] which was related to politics,” she offers. “It was sort of based on when I went on a protest march in Washington at the beginning of the Iraq war. There were thousands of people there, but it just didn’t seem like it made a difference, and so I wrote about it. But now,” she timidly affirms, “I’m more concerned with personal issues then political ones.”
Speaking of personal issues, we touch briefly on her experiences as a woman in the music industry. “It hasn’t deterred me in anyway. But you do sometimes feel discriminated against. It’s a tangible fact. The guys who work at Guitar Centre [a US chain of guitar shops] are very patronising. They assume you know nothing about the equipment, and explain how each part works, as if I’m just a clueless little girl. They often ask if you’re buying them for home recording – they have no idea I’m a signed artist – and I’m like, ‘Fuck you!’”
She bursts out laughing at the thought, and it’s the first time in the interview that she seems really comfortable asserting herself and her opinions. I press on, asking if she’s had the same treatment from record labels. The bold feminist that I was hoping to find behind this gentle chanteuse was getting into her stride. “When I was 17 and first starting out, this entertainment lawyer I knew took me on visits to record labels, but he tried to prime me into something I wasn’t. He tried to get me to change my clothes and take dance lessons; and I actually went to a class, but the whole time I was there I knew it was crazy. I never went back. Even friends of mine, mostly older men, still try to give me directions, and it mostly involves restricting the way I write. I refuse to do be told what to do with my music.”
In the glow of this empowerment, I ask about her racial heritage and its impact on her identity. I wonder if this, too, is an aspect of her identity that has given her a sense of strength and pride. She grows thoughtful, and perhaps a little less sure. “It is important. Growing up in a multiracial house has taught me to be more open to other cultures and ways of life, and to be nonjudgemental. But I grew up not really seeing colour differences. When I look at myself, I sometimes forget that I’m even Asian.”
On paper, this may sound a little disconcerting, but Priscilla means this in the best sense. She has been lucky enough to grow without being taught that her skin colour should be her defining characteristic, or an area for self-consciousness. Turning my focus towards her music as a means of digging deeper, I ask if she would describe herself as introverted. Songs like ‘Wallflower’ seem to focus on a struggle with shyness, and there seems to be an element of escapism in her work.
She answers slowly, earnestly, “I would definitely say I have an aspect of that. But being on stage is different.” I interject here, agreeing. The shyness I’d expected was nowhere to be found during soundcheck, when she seemed calm, in control, and not afraid to give the soundman politely stated directions. “Yes, that was Priscilla the businesswoman,” she laughs, happy that I had noticed and approving of it. “But there was definitely a part of me that was very introverted growing up,” she admits, sobering up. “I spent a lot of time feeling not pretty and not liked, and not accepted. I think it had a lot to do with my childhood and how I was raised…”
She trails off here, and it’s hard to tell whether this is because she needs some encouragement to continue, or whether she’s trying to draw back from this line of thought. I ask gently if she is thinking of her family. Ever so subtly, I see her barriers go back up. “Yeah. I guess everyone has their issues, and every family has their difficulties.” There is a sad air of refusal in her tone, as if she is determined not to be drawn in to self-pity or confession. “It’s taken me a few years, but I finally feel okay about myself. I am pretty, my body is fine the way it is, and I’m a good person. But yes, when I was younger, I spent a lot of time by myself, and even preferred it that way.”
These personal truths are what I’d hoped to uncover, but it’s obvious from these hints that they are hurts she has worked hard to overcome, and I get the sense that pushing any further would be disrespectful. Steering our conversation in a more positive direction, I ask if it was through music that she has overcome her doubts. Survival in this industry is surely entirely dependent on having a voice and using it. “Yeah, being able to pursue my career, and to take care of myself as a businesswoman is empowering. Because it’s not just about making the music. It’s about having control over what happens to it. I’ve definitely learnt to take care of myself and make my own decisions,” she says with a sense of pride.
Priscilla is often described as a multi instrumentalist and I’m curious as to which ones she has mastered. She’s charmingly humble when she mentions the guitar, some banjo and the harmonica. I crack a joke, asking if that’s another Neil Young influence at work, and she breaks into peals of laughter. “Totally! Everyone thinks of Dylan, but for me the harmonica is Neil Young. I’m so glad you said that. Most people really don’t remember just how much he uses the harmonica. I also play piano, ukulele and bass. I’m learning some bass songs at the moment. Once you can play those, you can play anything.” Even the sitar? “No,” she giggles. “I can’t play the sitar. They are cool though, I love that Eastern sound.” She seems to daydream a little at the thought. Perhaps it will make a cameo on future albums.
Her manager enters with a nudge to wrap things up, so we quickly peer into the future. A festival tour through Europe and Asia was her most pressing engagement, coming off the back of a Japan-only EP, followed by a raft of US dates. “By the end of the year, I should be writing material for the next album,” she hurriedly adds as her manager interjects kindly enough with a query about equipment. Then she flashes me a full, wholesome smile and shakes my hand as we say our rather hasty goodbyes.
Reflecting back, Priscilla was what I’d expected: fragile yet friendly, beautiful yet delicate, and the dreamy, introverted girl she’d been in childhood definitely peered out from time to time. But she was also more than that. The pain which I had guessed to be at the root of her placid music was certainly real, but the tiniest pinpricks that had made their way through her answers were obviously painful, and very much private. The fire that I had been hoping to find beneath the surface was also there, but it wasn’t the loud Buffalo stance of her early idol Ani DiFranco or the political heartiness of hero Neil Young; it was a subtle, grounded strength that she had obviously laboured towards for a long time. And beneath that spritely, eager exterior was a vivacious resilience I found endearing. Whether we will ever truly know her through her music is hard to gauge, but it may just be that withholding, tempered quality that draws people to her in the first place.
Charlotte Richardson Andrews
Photos by Henry Ditz. To keep up with the latest on Priscilla’s adventures, read her regular blogs over on Myspace.
‘Are We Different?’ [live]
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