Songwriter recalls lonely, idyllic childhood, & feeling ‘different’

By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly

The half Korean singer/songwriter Priscilla Ahn, coming to the Columbia City Theater on May 13, remembers her childhood in Pennsylvania as idyllic. “I started singing when I was 6,” she said. “One of the first songs I learned to sing was ‘If We Hold on Together’ from ‘The Land Before Time.’ My first public performance was when I was 7, singing ‘Away in a Manger’ in church.”

Priscilla Ahn (Courtesy of Priscilla Ahn)

Ahn says she was “pretty aware” of her Korean heritage growing up. “My mom raised me on Korean food, and had many Korean friends, whose kids I played with,” she recalled. “We also visited Korea every other year. I think it subconsciously affected my life in a way that maybe I felt a little lonelier growing up. I grew up in a small city that was predominantly white and Latino.

“Then my family moved further out into the country, where the only ethnicity other than Caucasian was the four other Korean girls who happened to be adopted. So I always felt different in the way that I looked different from everyone else around me. But who knows, I may have felt lonely no matter what race I was! On the other hand, growing up in a multiracial, multicultural family really opened my eyes to how we as human beings are really no different from each other, no matter where or how we grew up. For the most part, we all have the same struggles, the same dreams.”

She took her mother’s maiden name, Ahn, for her professional surname, because her original last name, Hartranft, “is really too difficult to spell and pronounce. Ahn is so much prettier and simpler. It’s also an ode to my Korean background, which is where I get my musical genes from.”

She knows her mother’s home country fairly well. “I used to visit Korea many times growing up because my grandmother, uncles, and cousins all live there. I love Korea so much. When I go, it’s mostly to see my family, who live outside of Seoul. The few times I spent in Seoul were so much fun. So many creative artists, in music, fashion, and design. I have a very warm fan base in Korea, but unfortunately, it’s not so big. I actually struggled with this fact, because Korea holds such a special and personal place in my heart. I wish that I had more opportunities to go there to perform.”

Her records are also released in Japan, and she’s just returned from her 12th visit there. “I feel that Japan is more welcoming to Western culture, so I’ve been lucky to be invited back many times to promote my music, as well as work on new projects exclusively for Japan,” Ahn said. “I’ve released three albums exclusively for Japan so far, so it’s definitely one of my larger fan bases.”

Her new album, “This Is Where We Are,” marks a turn toward an electronic sound for Ahn. “Whenever I make an album,” she muses, “I really have no preconceived idea or concept. I like to let things naturally flow out when I’m writing, and be whatever they’ll be. I think the biggest reason why this album ended up sounding so different from my previous two is because I wrote most of these songs on a keyboard, instead of my guitar. I bought a keyboard, learned how to use Logic Pro, and used their basic audio samples as a songwriting tool. It opened up a whole new world to me sonically, and all these new songs just came pouring out.”

Asked about previous trips to Seattle, she recalls, “The only venue I’ve ever played at before was The Triple Door, which I love. I’ve performed there three or four times now. The audience has always been so warm and supportive. I absolutely love playing in Seattle.”

After the conclusion of her tour, she’ll go back to Japan, where she landed a plum gig singing the ending theme song to the new Studio Ghibli movie, “When Marnie Was There.”

“As a huge Ghibli fan, this really is a dream come true, so I’m really really, really looking forward to it!” (end)

Ahn’s performance, with Matt Bishop, at Columbia City Theater (4916 Rainier Ave. S.) on May 13 is at 9 p.m. Tickets are $15–$18. For information, call 206-722-3009.

Andrew Hamlin can be reached at

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