Q&A with Hanna Benn

After playing in the band Pollens and composing and arranging for the choirs at St. Mark’s Cathedral and Plymouth Congregational Church, Hanna Benn performed under her own name for the first time in early August. We spoke with her the day after her show at Columbia City Theater.

You seem like a restless artist. You were all over the stage last night—piano, guitar, vocals, conducting a string quartet…
We’re all dynamic people. I have so many influences and I’ve never done a solo show because of that. What could I possibly do? I have to put these influences back-to-back and see how it goes.

What’s the common thread?
I think I keep trying to find this home. The music that I feel indebted to is my experience in the church and it ends up being the music that comes out of me. I might not be a Christian, but it’s my expression. Like some of the ideology and the spiritual stuff will move into other parts of my work. If I am vulnerable, which is scary, and I just announce where I’m at, then maybe I would find home.

The church was infused at a young age, so it might be hard to pull away from.
At some point in my life, I wanted to escape that and try to push for something more experimental. But I’m learning that I want to make honest music. Honest music is the jam. That’s the only way for things to be beautiful or to progress. To be experimental is to be honest. I feel like the whole thing is an experiment anyway: I’m trying to notate things I hear in my head. It’s a laborsome thing to try to communicate, and that’s my experiment.

Your dad’s a jazz musician, and I’ve heard that you sang jazz standards at Cornish. Is that a part of what you’re doing now?
That’s mostly improv—and it’s romantic. It’s people in a room communicating. That’s sexy to me. Going to see jazz is incredible because you’re in a room and you’re watching people have this spiritual experience and you’re there to listen to it. I’m really sensitive when I’m writing music with new people because I have this over-eroticized idea of writing music with somebody. I imagine this ineffable delight in the air and we’re communicating in this place and that’s incredible that we’re doing that together. Like, you’re sure you’re ready to jam? Look at me first. OK, let’s go.

You’ve studied sacred music as well, the Sufi tradition of musical trance, for instance.
Yes. It’s my dream to further this interest in trance music. I think that’s why I like watching experimental or improv music—it’s like meditation in that it’s present, and that doesn’t happen anywhere else. It seems almost medicine-like. Medicinal music.

Photo by Nate Watters