"Everybody has their own junk," the 19-year-old Wisconsin native explains of her new voice memos-inspired EP.
Carlie Hanson, a lover of astrology, asks me my sign the moment we meet. (Leo.) More importantly, as I quickly learn over lunch at a vegetarian restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, she is very much a Taurus. First: she’s down to earth. "So good,” she says between mouthfuls of truffle fries, which she is trying for the first time. “They don't have these in Wisconsin." A beat. "What even is a truffle?"
She’s also independent, having moved to Los Angeles by herself at seventeen ("I'm responsible!") upon starting her career. And she’s persistent: At 19 years old, Hanson has already racked up a record deal, several tours with artists like Troye Sivan and Yungblud, and multiple co-signs from Taylor Swift -- who added Hanson’s breakout track "Only One" to her Apple Music playlist in 2017, and did the same with the infectious “Back in My Arms” just a few weeks ago.
Yet the alt-pop singer is merely getting started. Hanson has been gradually introducing herself by releasing singles and one-off tracks over the past few years, drawing in listeners without giving away too much at once. Her melodies are undeniably bubbly, but her lyrics are deeply expressive, a combination that’s a vital piece of the pop star puzzle in 2019. Friday (June 7) finally marks the release date of her debut EP Junk, which serves as her first major project since signing with Warner Records in February.
In fact, the title comes from how Hanson would randomly record voice memos when inspiration struck. Eventually, she brought them out during writing sessions, when ideas were needed. "I thought it was just, like, trash or junk,” she says of the memos, which she saw as useless -- until they were very useful indeed. Wisely, she adds: “Everybody has their own junk.”
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Hanson hails from a small town in “very farm-y” Wisconsin called Onalaska. She grew up in a middle class family with three siblings; her older brother used to make beats and rap, and he was Hanson’s introduction to hip-hop greats like Biggie and Tupac. But that’s not what got her into music -- rather, she’s a diehard Justin Bieber fan, and credits him for sparking her initial interest in it.
“When I was nine or ten, I heard ‘One Time’ on the radio,” Hanson remembers. She went online and watched every one of his cover videos. “That's when I was like, 'This is what I want to do.'"
Hanson asked for a guitar for Christmas, and by the time she was 14, began uploading videos to YouTube “from a shitty webcam on the family computer,” trying to replicate Bieber’s methods. But becoming a YouTube star with millions of views wasn’t as easy as Hanson had thought it would be, and it would be a little while longer before she got that big break.
In May 2016, Hanson was at the mall with a friend when she learned about a contest hosted by iHeartRadio, where one could win tickets to see a newly-post-One Direction Zayn in concert by submitting a cover of one of his songs. Hanson ran to her friend’s car, and uploaded a clip of her singing Zayn's Hot 100-topping solo debut single “Pillowtalk.” She didn’t win the contest, but a talent agent did see the video, and Hanson was invited to audition and record for two Canadian producers known as House of Wolf. Hanson got her first passport, drove up North with her mother ("she's been supportive since day one"), and made five songs which she now calls "bad."
Nevertheless, she knew it was finally happening. "I really discovered my sound with those guys, and I knew they were going to be a part of my project for a long time," she says. Next was a trip to Los Angeles, where she met Dale Anthoni, who executive-produces her music, and Brett McLaughlin (aka Leland), who introduced her to Dani Russin, her now-manager and "sister, mom, everything rolled into one."
Hanson is young. (5 Seconds of Summer was one of her first concerts as a tween). But she was old enough at 16 to get a job at McDonald’s in 2016, where she learned how to become more confident in talking to strangers, and her natural friendliness meant she meshed well with the other employees. Music sort of just began to happen at the same time. “I remember coming back after my first time in L.A., and telling my manager and people I worked with, 'I think I'm going to sign a record deal,'” she giggles. “They were like, 'Yeah, sure.' I think everyone was and still is shocked that I'm doing this.”
Hanson says her career turn wasn’t something even her friends expected, as she’d never been a show-off in school. “I was never about [starring in musicals] or anything. I did choir, but I never enjoyed singing that stuff,” she shrugs, before affecting a cheesy tone and singing a line of what is, presumably, a chorus song. “I was like, ‘I'm not trying to sing opera, I'm trying to dance and sing hip-hop,’ or whatever.”
Some moments, like press stops at adored outlets like MTV and occasionally driving around in chauffeured cars, still fill Hanson with wonder. Certainly, it was a lot to take in on that first trip to Canada. “I was like, ‘I can't believe I'm doing this right now. 'This isn't real, I'm not singing to this mic right now.' It was very surreal." Shortly after, at seventeen, Hanson moved to L.A., and as she settled in, Russin, who also manages Troye Sivan, introduced Hanson to him and his boyfriend Jacob Bixenman. (Hanson, for the record, isn’t sure how she identifies at the moment, though the word "flowy" applies, and she came out to her mom, then her fans, in 2018.)
The couple ended up shooting photos for Hanson (two were used as artwork for her songs "Only One" and "Why Did You Lie?") before she’d put any music out, and she opened for Sivan his Bloom Tour in September 2018, playing venues like New York City's Radio City Music Hall and the Greek Theater in L.A. Hanson was inspired watching his show each night -- "He’s just so who he is, his own individual" -- and began mapping her own path. By the time she met Warner Records CEO and co-chairman Aaron Bay-Schuck, there was no questioning her dedication.
Russin introduced Bay-Schuck, then-president of A&R at Interscope Geffen A&M, and Hanson about a year before any real label conversations, and they hit it off. Bay-Schuck remembers their first dinner. “She wasn’t fazed at all by the fact that she was sitting with the head of a label,” he says. “She spoke her mind, you could tell that she was very confident in her abilities and the vision for her artist project -- but at the same time, so excited and willing to learn and just enjoy the process.”
Once Bay-Schuck began at Warner in October 2018, Hanson became a mission of his, and by February, pen was put to paper. He recounts Hanson's swift progress since then, citing growth across ticket sales and streams. Next is more music, and hopefully a debut headlining tour in early 2020. After all, Hanson is more than game -- she is determined to play Madison Square Garden one day -- and she, too, saw Warner Records as an immediate fit. “He understood me,” she says of Bay-Schuck. “You know when you just feel something is right? That's how I felt when I met with Warner."
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Since leaving Wisconsin, Hanson has been constantly writing, figuring out what she wants to show people first while trying to avoid being pigeonholed into a single genre. "I can't just do straight-down-the-middle pop,” she says. “There are so many more sides to me.” Hanson made sure that Junk has rock elements, as with the sharp guitar melody on “WYA,” and she plays bass on the grungy “Hazel.” Hanson mentions that the latter has resonated more with fans than any of her other songs, which is about a friend in Wisconsin: “She was going through a really tough time, doing drugs and hanging out with the wrong people.” Has she heard the song? “Yeah, and she's much better now. She cries every time she hears it."
Hanson began scribbling in notebooks when she was little, and got into poetry in high school. Now, her songwriting is really inspired by other musicians -- bands like The 1975 and Nirvana. “I really aspire to write as emotionally and honestly as those guys do,” she says. “If you're talking about shit you haven't gone through or aren't truthful about -- I think me being honest is what appeals to people.” She pauses, considering. “This EP is like if I threw up my diary onto a project."
Many of the creative collaborators on Junk have been with Hanson since the start, resulting in a cluster of songs that won’t sound completely disparate to longtime fans. Steph Jones, Skylar Mones and Big Taste have credits on "WYA" (“People think that song is about me talking to a girl, but it's really me talking to my future self, which I think is pretty dope”), and Hanson’s current favorite track is EP opener "Bored With You," which literally starts out as a voice memo of her beatboxing, and sees production from aforementioned House of Wolf. ("Gotta have those Canadians,” she jokes. “Gotta nice it up.")
Hanson found her core management team early, too, locking in a foundation that would be vital to her development as an artist. "But it's also important to know who you are as an artist, to know yourself and what you want to do,” she points out. “There are some artists who don't really know themselves, and it's hard for them to find their place, because they haven't figured out who they are yet.” She also considers herself lucky to be in control both creatively and when it comes to say, living on her own at a young age. "Some people don't have that freedom, just like some people don't have supportive-ass moms like I do,” she says. “Sometimes they get mixed up with the wrong people, and that fucks with you for the rest of your career."
Hanson has been honing her live show, and she’s proud of how it’s evolved since her first-ever gig, which took place barely a year ago, in May 2018. These days, Hanson has a band -- drummer Tosh Peterson, “who only plays shirtless,” and guitarist Ryan Kern -- and began playing bass herself on her most recent tour, too. "When I turn around and go pick the guitar up, everyone's like...” she says, making an excited face.
Hanson is an entirely different kind of energetic when she’s on stage, commanding rooms regardless of their size. When Hanson first started playing shows, her audience mainly consisted of young women like herself, but after touring with varied acts like Jeremy Zucker, Gnash, Bad Suns, Yungblud and Sivan, she finds the crowds are diversifying. This is a great development, as Hanson intends to reach “literally everyone” with her music.
“I feel like I can, with what my music sounds like. It's not just one genre,” she says. “I want to be able to reach everyone in the room -- from straight to gay, moms, dads, the grandmas, even. I'm trying to reach some old ladies. Even...” She mouths the word “God” and jokingly genuflects.
And if music doesn't work out? “Maybe I'll become an astrologer," she answers, only half-kidding.