Blues singer/pianist Hanna PK wasn't always a songwriter and performer. At one point, she was just a regular person with a good job, living in frigid Rochester, New York, not considering a life in music, someone who had written songs when she was younger, but who no longer practiced the craft.
"What sparked my songwriting once again, after putting it aside because of jobs and all that for many, many years, was actually my best friend telling me a story that I really wanted to write a song about," she says. "And I wrote that song in the shower. And then I myself really liked the song like, 'Oh, that's a song' [laughs]. And it kind of sparked that, 'Oh, yeah. Writing songs can be very fun.'"
Performing came together just as quickly, but perhaps with less shampoo and conditioner. "I just walked into a hole-in-the-wall dive bar near my house at that time," she says. "And they were having an open jam, and luckily...like a lot of open jams, keyboards are not always available. It's a big deal to have a keyboard, and they had it, and so I played at the open jam. And it was fun. I just really forgot about how [much] fun it is to play music. That's when I started just joining them at a jam and then one after one, somehow I started gigging."
The songwriting and performing led to 2021's Blues All Over My Shoes, produced by guitarist Kenny Neal. It's a piano-driven album—"It's not like a rocking guitar record," PK dryly observes about it—that showcases an international artist fluent in Chicago blues, from her boogie woogie piano to her smoky voice. And no, it doesn't feature that early song based upon her friend's tale.
She recorded the album in three days, meeting her studio band for the first time on day one. Everything was done in two or three takes with PK giving the band a quick rundown before each tune: "I just explained to them briefly, 'Okay, this song is key of what and groove like this, and just watch out for this part. And please start playing.'"
While the blues might be a bit of a curveball, given PK was born in Korea and came to the United States as a young adult, the musical path shouldn't be that surprising, since her father was a classic rock-loving guitarist who played weddings and parties, eventually doing some classical work, even though he's not classically trained. "He's a full-time musician," she says. "Definitely for him, our entire life is music."
PK came to the blues later in life, after she had come to the United States, but her commitment to the genre is impressive. She doesn't just know the artists and the styles, but she's able to make it personal. Parroting blues sounds is one thing, but PK has her own take that's instantly identifiable and credible.
In this interview, PK talks about her journey to the blues, and some of the common cultural concepts that bridge being a Korean-born woman in upstate New York and a classic American musical style (Koreans have a term to describe their own unique, cultural, non-musical blues). She also talks about the challenges of running a blues band in a smaller city and how those limitations create possibilities. PK is an example of the ever-widening lens of the blues which allows people from all over the world to take well-known sounds and structures and make them their own.
Working Mojo: What was your writing process for Blues All Over My Shoes?
Hanna PK: To me, songwriting is just the extent of writing a diary, except I don't do it as often. Personally, I don't sit down to actually like, 'Oh, I'm gonna write a song today,' you know, with that kind of thing in mind. Although I make a lot of little notes, when I think of a little idea, per se. So when I get an idea that's strong enough, sometimes I'll get started on it.
But more often, I would start with a story or something lyrical that I want to say [something] about. And I will put the music to it that seems like it'll go with it. Once in a while, in my style, with music, rather than the words. And once in a while, there might be no words at all, obviously. But mostly, what worked out really good for me is always that I have something I feel strongly about that I have to say or share.
WM: And do you write your lyrics in English or Korean? How are you thinking?
PK: I accidentally became a Korean musician really, later in my life [laughs]. I did write some songs in Korea, but not a whole lot. So naturally, because I started writing more songs after I moved to America, I would think of people that I want to communicate to and because I'm living in an English-speaking country, I ended up writing a whole lot more songs in English than Korean. So far, at least, so far,
WM: Do you think you would ever do the type of music you've been doing sung in Korean?
PK: [I've lived] in America for about a dozen or more years. And I left Korea as a young adult. But I really didn't know a lot of blues there at the time at all. But it actually seems like there's a nice, [small] community. I have to do the music that speaks to me anyhow. So even if I ever want to do music in Korea, I wouldn't be able to just pick a genre that works [in Korea].
Not that they would allow me. I mean, I'm certainly [not] cut out to be one of those Korean pop singer girls. They wouldn't want me to be but yeah, I would like to [sing in Korean].
WM: Your songs spotlight your piano playing. Would you ever work on music that has the piano more in the background, like a lot of traditional Chicago blues?
PK: For me, a lot of musicians that I look up to, even when it comes to Chicago blues, there have been quite a lot of good piano albums as well. That was actually, at some point, a big part of the scene, at least from my understanding, although obviously it has been just so beloved an instrument for so long now. We hear these blues singers like Bessie Smith and such, accompanied by sometimes a piano alone.
So piano used to be, I think a lot more prominent, the more important instrument and later, blues guitar just had become so popular. So, to your question, it's yes, but I will make a decision that I want a piano in the background. To me, arrangement, things just kind of happen more organically. I know a lot of artists go into studio recording an album with very specific concepts.
I actually personally love guitar myself. In fact, I've been trying to learn some myself and some songs feel like, [they] should be a guitar song to me. So I have a couple of songs I'd love to record on my next album, that's likely to really highlight the guitar. But this first album, with Kenny, we just wanted to introduce myself to the world. That part was important. So Kenny didn't want it to be a really big arrangement, where what I do is buried under a lot of different things, because it's the first time showing what I do.
Yeah, [there's] a lot I would like to explore for sure, though.
WM: What made you want to learn guitar?
PK: Guitar has been kind of always in my life, because my father is a guitarist. He's a musician, in fact. He plays some other instruments, too. So it was an instrument that was very close to me, always. But I always thought I better spend my life trying to be good at at least one thing before I spread too thin [laughs]. But that love affair with the guitar, it'll still come and go. So I'll pick up a guitar for a little while and then I get busy with other things. So it was always on and off.
But lately I got to know a musician named Johnny Burgin, and he's been really encouraging. And somehow I have this idea that I really want to get good at [guitar playing] to make him really happy someday, because I took some online lessons from him. It was really fun. But yeah, [with] guitar the expression's a little different.
I think music in a big sense, it's all the same. But it is fun. When I have three- and four-hour long gigs, I sit down and play the piano, but once in a while, if I get up with the guitar and rock out a little bit, it's also a nice thing to add to the show.
WM: How did you find the blues?
PK: It took me a very, very long time, I think and I have learned really little by little, until I really I feel like my eyes were really open to it. Only because [of] what was available to me growing up in Korea.
I am probably the last generation that graduated from high school without much internet. When I was in high school, that's when internet just started becoming a little more of a thing that people have access to. So saying that, you [would] only listen to music if you got records or CDs, and coming from a very small town, there was not even probably a CD store that would carry blues records.
And the word blues meant something very different. We pronounce it beulluseu, but that was not really the blues we say here. Similar, but not the same. So really, when I came to America, I just slowly kind of got thrown into it and one night, when I saw a local band playing the blues, it was kind of the moment where everything clicked, like, 'Aha! This is what that whole thing was.'
Because every time I got into some kind of music, or some kind of bands, [I'd] get into it and then, after a while you get, not really tired of it, but you want to move on to something else, right? But when I finally learned about the blues music, I can listen to the same record over and over again, and year after year, and it's always new to me. So that that was a big difference between other music and blues and jazz to me.
WM: Were you playing piano at that point?
PK: I have always played a piano, but more like at home for myself. Growing up, any stressful situation, or really heartbreaking situations, I'll just sit at home, play the piano and sing a song or whatever. That's just something I always loved. But see, when I was in my 20s I had different kind of jobs throughout, and moving from [one] small apartment to another, there were many years I didn't even have an instrument. And those years were hard [laughs].
WM: How is the blues perceived in Korea? Is there any kind of blues scene?
PK: Yes, so that's something I really would love to learn more, because I used to visit Korea almost annually. But with the Covid, it's been really hard. And again, I didn't really know a lot about music scenes when I lived there, except for the scene my dad was in.
When it comes to blues, I remember people would use the word blues more as some kind of dance. Like a slow dance. I remember that as a kid, because my dad would always work at a club. And it's funny, I had a really funky childhood where like, I was a baby and a waiter would babysit me in a room, while my mom and dad are working in a club, or something like that.
So it's like my childhood, looking back at it, I realized that it's a really different experience. But I remember we used the word blues more as a type of dance. And then I think, probably people listen a little more, in terms of they might think of it as sad music, which isn't true, though.
But there is a blues scene I got to know, because I was very pleasantly surprised when I [participated in the] IBC International Blues Challenge, when I saw a Korean team was coming, because at that point, I seriously didn't even know there was a blues scene in Korea. And then that led me to learn more about some musicians and scenes, and it's very exciting.
It's just so cool that this music is so powerful that all over the world, people want to play, be part of it. Like myself.
WM: I've read about a Korean term called han. My understanding of it is an inherent sadness that lives within Korean people and gets passed down through generations.
PK: I've been wanting to talk about that to a lot of people. It takes a lot of effort to go into that. So I haven't...
WM: Does the idea connect to the blues for you?
PK: Yes, definitely. It's really interesting. There are a lot of things that are very, very [similar] in both concepts. But the only thing about it is that han is not really used as a term to describe a type of music.
I had to read a lot of books about blues. And we say there's a feeling of the blues, music of the blues, and it can go into a lot of different things, but the han is this thing where it's in your soul, you know? And you might even have han, not only because [of] something that happened to you, [but] maybe to your people, to your great grandparents, or something.
And I think that's kind of similar to the blues. We're talking blues as black American music, yet that it reaches out and grabs everybody else now. Yeah, I see a lot of similarity.
A lot of people probably don't know, but it's weird, because in Korea, there were hundreds of years in Korean history, if not more actually, if you really think about it, where some people were born to be slaves. Which is really crazy. Just like it's crazy here. Yeah. Blues and han, there are a lot of things that are similar. It's a big thing to talk about. It's why I usually don't. Because it's hard [laughs].
WM: What does han mean to you?
PK: Oh, the blues are han. It's something that's in your heart, in your soul. I think of it as you feel for all living things, and all the injustice, all the misfortune, all the hardships that ever happened, not just to you personally, but perhaps even in general. And I think because of that, we can actually then go into compassion and love and all that. Han is something, I think very, very deep. It's not just something that happens, like your fate. It's a lot deeper than that.
Lots of keys
WM: Do you have your own band?
PK: Yes, I do. I actually have two different bands. I have a blues band. I also try out a swing trio type of thing, with like, acoustic upright bass, that kind of thing. But my blues band, we call it Hanna and the Blue Hearts And I have a guitarist, speaking of which, a guitarist and a drummer, and also an organ player. Even though I already play piano. It's more for the necessity. I haven't been settled with a bassist yet, so instead my organ player plays organ bass, also being able to add [regular] organ to it.
That's why it's fun to try out the guitar too, because it gives me the flexibility to do both, and I still have an additional guitar and a keyboard instrument, and I like it.
WM: Do you eventually want to have a bass player in your blues band? Or do you like how it sounds with you and the organ?
PK: Yeah, I would like to. Sometimes I might play with a bass player anyway, depending on kind of what kind of show it is, and what kind of thing I want to do. And that's why it's nice, once, as a professional musician, [you] get to the point where you can really work with anybody, and still make great music. It doesn't have to be set in stone in one way.
And so far, this is what I could work out with, and I've been happy with it. But I'm also someone that never can sit still. Like I always want better and better and better. So yeah, I always think of a way to improve what we do, because obviously, the goal is to be as good as we can be. So I cannot be just peaceful, like, 'Oh, this is good enough.'
Bass is actually one of my favorite instruments. Don't get me wrong, [I'm not saying] bass is not necessary or something; that's why my organist plays the bass parts. But because I love bass so much, I'm also very sensitive to that. I have to meet someone that really I click with. It doesn't even mean that I don't have a lot of good bass players that I can call, which I do, and I work with them.
It's tricky being in a small town, too, because I need someone that really has listened to these blues records, because a lot of times, as you know, some musicians might not be really understanding of the blues language, but they think they can play the blues. If I lived in Chicago or something, I know that a lot of people will have that tradition.
I'm kind of still searching, that's all. But again, I actually have a lot of bass player friends that are really good. But they're also in some bands already. Anyway. It's really hard to find a long term band member when you are in a town where the blues is not really a major thing [laughs].
Blues is where the heart Is
WM: What it's like working in the blues as an Asian woman?
PK: I personally find this fun, to be someone that doesn't just seem like a million other people. That part is kind of fun, to be honest with you. But it can also be challenging, because whether people intend to or not, they may put a different set of standards to judge me against. And that's just kind of part of the business, but that can be difficult. They might not even realizing they're doing that.
Also, I have to do a lot of soul searching and also just learning in general, to really find the way to continue to be truthful to myself, but also be respectful of this music's transition. So it's just kind of never-ending learning and self-reflecting
WM: And in that reflection, what's something that you've learned?
PK: When your heart is in the right place, it does stick to people regardless of their colors and backgrounds. But you cannot ever just be comfortable thinking you've got it, or something you know.
There were many times I was very, very grateful to be accepted by the very people that I admire and look up to, and that wasn't because I'm so great. That was, I believe, really only because my heart was in the right place. And I at least try to learn it. That's the main thing I've learned so far on this journey.
When I say that it was not because I was great, I'm not [saying I'm great], just to be clear [laughs]! People can read it all kind of ways.
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.