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Cultural Capital

Hank Is Making Country Hyperpop

A former jazz guitarist channels Lucinda Williams and Justin Bieber.

Hank at Baby’s All Right (Hell Gate)

On stage at Baby's All Right last Tuesday night, 25-year-old Hank was a dead ringer for the 2014 version of Justin Bieber, dressed as they were in a trucker hat, a button-down shirt open over a tank top, and boxers peeking out over their jeans. But that's where any casual comparison ends; Bieber would probably not have been able to play the guitar like Hank did—a spidery, chicken-picked lick that opened Hank's country pop banger, "Call Me Hank." 

Hank grew up in Cold Spring, an hour and a half north of New York City, and used to be a kid coming down to the city to play swing jazz classics by artists like Django Reinhardt in rooms full of adults with drinks in their hands, along with their childhood friend (and now their band's guitar player) Max O'Rourke. They played Carnegie Hall at eighteen, under a different name. Now, Hank makes hyperpop-inflected country.

It's all kind of funny—streaming Hank's new single would be "mighty helpful," they drawled that night, while chuckling through a mouth full of autotune. The audience laughed along. But the wounded face they make when they're yelling "I think about you still" in their new single "BUGS" is not a joke. And neither is the dusty, Patsy Cline-inflected, slowdance-at-the-end-of-the-night coda of their ballad "One True Dear."

On the phone the next day, I asked Hank how they became Hank; the deluxe edition of their EP, "Call Me Hank," drops on June 30. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Hell Gate: You've been a musician for most of your life, right?

Hank Fisherman: Yeah, I was more of an instrumentalist for a lot of my life until I started doing Hank. I grew up playing this kind of French swing music from the 1930s on the guitar. After graduating high school, I moved to the city to do that full time. Just being a young person in New York, I got connected with my friends now, who are in indie bands, and started playing guitar for them.

Did you go to music school? 

I didn't, I just decided to start playing gigs.

Were you playing solo or in an ensemble?

I played jazz gigs. I would be playing in bars or little listening clubs. You'd just show up and play with whoever was in the band that night, a quartet or quintet or whatever.

Did you have friends here already, or were you going off on your own, renting an apartment and playing swing jazz?

When I moved here, I didn't know that many people. I look back on it like, I would not have the balls to do that today. I think I was just young and kind of had no fear. I had some friends who were going to college. 

But I sort of laid the groundwork when I was in high school—I would go down to the city and connect with people and go to sessions. So when I moved here, it wasn't that daunting. 

In high school, would your parents come with you or was it just like, by yourself, little kid in the big city?

[Laughs] By myself, kid in the big city. They were like, have fun! They were into it, they were like, play enough gigs to support yourself. Don't sound bad. My parents are musicians too, and it wasn't really a big thing if I wanted to be a musician. So when I started putting a lot of time towards it, it was like, are you gonna go to music school, or what are you going to do? I had a teacher that showed me the swing music. He told me I shouldn't go to school, just go out and play gigs. And that was the skill I learned.

So you're dropping in on these jazz gigs in the city. How did you end up playing indie bands? I imagine an indie band was booked after you, and they were like, whoa, this kid's pretty good.

I was dating someone who was playing upright bass, and they lived in New York their whole life and were way up in the DIY scene. I started going to shows with them. We would go to The Glove all the time and see amazing bands that are doing super well now, like Water From Your Eyes. Also, I got connected to Samia [Finnerty, an indie rock singer] through a mutual friend, and I played with Samia for three years, and met a lot of people that I work with now.

Okay, where does Hank come from?

I was talking with Samia and our other friend Raffaela, and we decided to start a band called Peach Fuzz, with our other friend who goes by Ryann. I found more of a voice in that project with songwriting, and then our producer Jake Lupin said I should come to Minneapolis and write "my stuff." And I was like, what do you mean, "my stuff?" I don't really have "my stuff." And we, along with Raffaela, just started Hank.

It seems like a well-defined persona. When I saw you perform, you looked like Justin Bieber, with the trucker hat and auto-tune. It reminded me of Florida Georgia Line. What inspired that?

It's a character, but also something that I just feel like I can really lean into. I feel like when I started writing music, it was coming from classic country voicings and chord progressions. And I grew up upstate by the Hudson River, just fishing and hanging out. That was what I knew how to do, and it's something I can lean into and explore. I also think it's hilarious, but also something I can use as a channel to say what I need to say. Hank just came about because I knew I wanted to be gender-neutral presenting in this project, and since my voice is pretty high, I wanted to contrast it with a very stereotypical manly name to keep the scale in the middle.

What do you think it is you need to say by being Hank?

My own growth as a person, or exploring my own insecurities and tapping into that. But also giving the experience from a neutral perspective. Sometimes I feel like I'm writing in a way that a lot of male songwriters write from, and sometimes I feel like I have such a classic female perspective. I wanted to be all of that in one.

Country music in particular is so gendered in the way that artists express themselves. The Hank lyrics remind me of the classic country persona of the guy who keeps fucking up even though he means well.

Exactly. That's where I write most of my songs from. Exploring how I could have done things better, or why I am the way I am. And I really think it's funny because it's this kind of non-binary person explaining it for people. 

And instead of the saloon, you're at Baby's All Right.

Yeah, and then I also want to have drum machine sounds.

You had a vocal processor that you were using.

Yeah, I love hyperpop and all that stuff, so I still want to add that stuff in, auto-tune and all that, because I think it's part of music moving forward. I really like it.

With hyperpop, there's this sensibility of, "It's funny but it's not a joke." I feel like that's the way a lot of outsiders approach country as an idiom, too. Because it's funny, but it's also so deeply rooted in peoples' spirits. 

Yeah. I grew up with country and a lot of folk music. I grew up with a lot of Lucinda Williams, which I guess they call "alternative country," that kind of stuff. And then just a lot of Neil Young. It's important to me to keep new, modern ideas on top of really classic progressions and melodies.

You have a song where you say, "A couple people still hate me." Who hates you?

[Laughs] It's not like I have actual enemies, I think that's an exaggeration of something. It's about being super insecure about past relationships, or anything, and thinking really intensely about that, like, "They probably hate me so much," and it affects you.

I'm working on a record right now, and it's more on the terms of looking into that insecurity, but it's coming from the place of someone with a gambling addiction. That's what's next.

What inspired that?

It's kind of my personal experience, not that I have a gambling addiction mostly, but I'm really interested in how people give all of something to something, and then eventually everything ends with loss. And how you can bet on everything in your life, and you can put everything on one thing, and then end up super disappointed in the future.

It also feels like in the last five years, it went from gambling is this niche thing to gambling being everywhere to Drake being like, "Everyone come gamble! This is something we all do now!"

I know, and sometimes I feel as a young person that this is my only way, to just take these risks to make it right now.

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