Music heals Hanna PK and the Blue Hearts
Hanna PK dabbled in music while growing up in South Korea. She wrote a couple of songs when she was a kid. She played keyboards in a high school rock band. The rehearsals were the bane of neighbors in the close quarters of city apartment life.
The dreams of playing music faded, but never went away — even after Hanna PK moved to the United States about 15 years ago to marry an American soldier she had met in South Korea. She followed him to Killeen, Texas. A city that basically exists for Fort Hood. A city of strip malls, pawn shops, prostitutes, and wide-open spaces suitable for U.S. Army troops to practice shooting cannons; I can fairly cast this judgment because I lived there myself for one-and-a-half years.
“Cigarettes were cheap and gas wasn’t too expensive then,” Hanna PK says. “I learned how to drive a stick shift in a field where the cows would go by and we had to stop for it.”
It was wide-open territory, and with it came a sense of freedom. “I was in a brand-new country, a brand-new place,” she says. “I should be scared, you know? And nervous. But I wanted to play music.”
She and her husband picked out a bar in Killeen that would have them. The equipment was a $20 microphone run through their home stereo. The speakers stopped working after five songs. Show’s over.
They were young then, in their early-20s. What did they know?
The years passed. Hanna PK is now 36. Her husband had been deployed to Iraq. When he came home, “he was pretty torn.”
Divorce followed. Just like her parents. When she saw her mother in South Korea, Hanna PK saw a woman being consumed by alcoholism. These were dark times. Hanna PK confesses to momentary thoughts of suicide.
But she has survived all of that. Hanna PK is now a prominent figure on the Rochester blues scene. One with a different feel -- a South Korean blues singer. Her third album, “Blues All Over My Shoes,” will be featured at a flurry of release parties that include Friday, Nov. 12, at The Little Café, a house concert the following day, Nov. 19 at Norton’s Pub, and Nov. 20 at Fanatics Pub in Lima.
Until this onset of the blues, her life did not seem to be following any particular course. Growing up in the South Korean town of Dongducheon, she was Han Na Park. Hanna PK is not so much a Westernization as it is a pronunciation, with PK two letter taken from Park.
There was music, “Piano lessons was a thing in the ’90s,” she says. “All my friends were getting piano lessons.”
She wrote a few songs in college. But mostly, she studied business, with a minor in what’s known in South Korea as “tourism English.” A degree in something that guarantees a good job, she says, would enable her to pay back her mother for sacrificing her own life’s dreams while raising her family. “A typical Asian child thing,” Hanna PK says.
From Texas, she followed her husband to Western New York, where he was attending classes at Monroe Community College and Syracuse University. She had a job at a Rochester law firm, filing and copying legal papers. Then the Red Cross, a nursing home and a tech company, but, “I couldn’t stand that corporate world.”
She and her husband had a house here, but Hanna PK says she had no interest in acquiring the standard appliances: stove, refrigerator, washing machine...
“The first thing I wanted was a piano.”
Music heals, right? But only if everyone’s in tune.
“When we were divorcing,” Hanna PK says, “I had just started playing music, which might have taken a role in our splitting up.”
Despite the divorce, she stayed here. “Somehow I had been feeling pretty comfortable in Rochester,” she says. Comfortable enough to cautiously resume her music career. But with equipment better than a $20 microphone and her home stereo. Someone else’s equipment. She began showing up at an open mic, at first just playing keyboards.
“It was your typical neighborhood dive bar in East Rochester,” Hanna PK says. “A whole bunch of unique characters hang out there every night. Including myself, I suppose.”
Hearing the late Rochester bluesman John Cole in 2014 gave her the musical direction she needed. The blues. And now she was writing songs. “Rearview Mirror,” about leaving home, and catching sight of her mother in the car’s rearview mirror. “I remember I wrote the song in the shower,” she says. “At least, the refrain part.”
Soon she’d taken enough showers to record a six-song EP, and then a full-length album of 13 songs. Her voice was getting bluesier, while retaining her South Korean accent. Her piano playing, she says, was growing “more assertive.”
She and guitarist Aleks Disljenkovic won the 2018 Western New York Blues Society’s Memphis Bound competition, earning a slot at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. They made it to the semifinals. She caught the ear of Louisiana blues guitarist Kenny Neal, and she joined him in New Orleans to record “Blues All Over My Shoes.”
Music has consumed Hanna PK’s life. Gian Carlo plays organ in her band, Hanna and the Blue Hearts. They share a small apartment in the city. But it is overwhelmed by his “crazy collection of vinyl.” Plus “two pianos, 15 to 20 keyboards, an organ, speakers, amps, guitars.” She has to crawl up a ladder to a bed in the cramped attic loft.
“That’s the compromise I have to make,” she says. “I have to give up on other parts of my life.”
Joe Beard, the Rochester blues icon, has also joined Hanna PK onstage. A few weeks ago at The Little Theatre, she did her first show since 2020. Beard was there, lending his blues gravitas to the night. Upbeat and chatty between songs, Hanna PK did a few songs from the new album. “Insomnia Blues” is about not being able to sleep, because COVID has shut down life itself. She sings about coping with this reality by drinking whiskey in bed.
Hanna PK has written a few politically-minded blues. What she calls “the extreme politics” of the day, which alarm her.
But “Love Keeps Walking In” is closer to home. “As clichéd as it may sound, I really believe in love,” she says. And not just romantic love. “Dirty Dishes” recalls time spent washing dishes with her mother.
“There are little pieces of her in so many of my songs that only I would know,” Hanna PK says. Her mother worked 15-hour days at her restaurant, which was more like a shipping container outfitted as a kitchen, delivering lunches to neighboring businesses and factories. “She drank because that was a way she could work hard,” Hanna PK says.
The long hours, a single mom supporting two kids, washing dishes, skipping dinner and instead drinking another beer, led to alcoholism and health complications, including liver failure. By 2017, Hanna PK’s mother had drunk herself to death.
“Sometimes, even when I see alcoholism on TV shows and movies, I see it being still kind of romanticized,” Hanna PK says. “Almost, and you never quite see what they actually could look like at the end of their life, because you see these beautiful actors and actresses who are supposedly alcoholic on shows. But I want to tell people in real life, it’s a lot nastier, more painful, and it’s a very, very, very awful, awful thing. It is not just somebody getting drunk. It’s a lot more than that.”
It was a lot of self destruction over many years. “I was already pretty worn out by it,” she says. And Hanna PK says, it led to her own breakdowns as well. Her own divorce was unfolding at the same time, and this ill timing was taking its toll.
“In my life, there were more than a few times I really just didn’t want to live anymore. And really thought about ending my life. But then there are different wisdoms that I learned over the years that that really helped me.”
When Hanna PK hit bottom, she found the inspiration to write “Love Keeps Walking In.”
“I was so just so broken,” she says. “But somehow there was a still a tiny bit of desire, that I didn’t want to quite stop my journey with music just yet.
“If I didn’t already experience what a thrill it is to perform and play music at that point, it would have been easier to give up on life.”
“So I can actually say, music saved me.”
The blues is real in that way.
“What I am supposed to do,” Hanna PK says, “is share what helped me.”
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.