Carlie Hanson captures the feeling of being 21 in AltPress issue #402 cover story


If turning 21 was a feeling, it would be Carlie Hanson’s debut album. While coming of age, the artist has been plagued by the uncertainty of not knowing what path to take (and if it’s the right one), and figuring out what it is she really wants (and then changing her mind again). It’s a 12-track experience of being in limbo. “Each song is a temporary feeling that I was [experiencing] that day and a lot of self-questioning,” Hanson says over Zoom of her debut album, Tough Boy.

While the alt-pop-leaning record is often rooted in some of the more serious emotions that surface with impending adulthood, Hanson’s personality is the polar opposite. From her apartment in Silver Lake, where she moved last February, the rising singer-songwriter — currently sporting a FIDLAR tee and a bleach blond crew cut — is bouncing off the walls with the energy of someone who has been cooped up at home too long. One second she’ll be quipping that she’ll be throwing up black tar at a photo shoot (her Los Angeles place has a mold problem), and the next she’ll seamlessly transition into her own hype man. 

And Hanson is here to make noise. 

[Photo by Ryan Allan]

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Born and raised in Wisconsin, growing up the 21-year-old musician was a self-proclaimed “rock head.” She credits her sisters for making her a fan of bands such as Evanescence, Lacuna Coil, Avril Lavigne and Third Eye Blind. Her first concert was Disturbed. But Hanson was equally shaped by pop music, and Justin Bieber in particular. “I feel like I learned how to sing from Justin Bieber, just watching him on his YouTube videos,” she recalls. At 10, she began posting her own covers to the site.

Nothing took off until she was 16, when iHeartRadio ended up reposting one of her covers — “PILLOWTALK” by ZAYN — on Instagram. That garnered the attention of Hanson’s former talent agent, who introduced her to a slew of producers. “My mom and I went to Canada to work with these producers when I was 16, still in high school, working at McDonald’s and didn’t have any idea what a real writing session was or anything,” she recalls. 

While there, she made her first proper recordings and met some of the producers with whom she continues to work now. By 2017, Hanson’s popularity skyrocketed when Taylor Swift featured Hanson’s second single, “Only One,” on one of her signature “favorite songs” playlists. Nearly a year later, she’d be touring with Troye Sivan and Kim Petras, and by 2019, she had signed to Warner. Two EPs have followed since — 2019’s Junk and 2020’s DestroyDestroyDestroyDestroy. And, as she says, “the rest is history.” It’s what has led to her transformative debut full-length.

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[Photo by Ryan Allan]

The process for making her inaugural LP really began during the pandemic. Hanson only had one or two songs pre-COVID-19 — those helped start the process — but, for her, it’s “a mess of a timeline.” “The majority of the beginning of COVID, I was learning how to produce on my own and trying to get better at that,” she recalls. Hanson found herself largely counting her blessings — she was fortunate enough to be able to stay inside and not stress about finances. “I’m very fortunate to have a major label [behind me], and that helped me out,” she sighs.

But still, it was a lot for her. She found herself constantly writing in her journal and going for drives. She was also “alone with her sober self” for most of it. “I couldn’t smoke weed for the longest time,” she recalls. “It would give me anxiety.” Collaboration, too, proved to be a challenge, thanks to the limitations imposed by the pandemic. For Hanson, Zoom sessions were troublesome, lacking the “organic” feel of being in the same room as other people. “That is not how you make music,” she declares, almost accidentally breaking her desk mic. “You don’t just get on a screen.” It was harder and slower — something that ultimately challenged her and forced her to learn a lot more.

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When in-person sessions became accessible once more, Hanson felt at home again. She enlisted a number of different collaborators, including Zach Fogarty (she loved the work he did with Jean Dawson) and Goldfinger bandleader John Feldmann. “I feel like I got to touch this different alternative side,” she says of their work together. The process was “chaotic,” like trying to piece together a puzzle, but ultimately, it paid off — it transformed her work into a genre-bending project, each song taking on a singular sound.

[Photo by Ryan Allan]

[Photo by Ryan Allan]

For Tough Boy, Hanson’s palette was largely influenced by rap and rock. She found herself listening to a lot of Lil Peep (and she still is). “I definitely think that his melodies played a part in my melodies, for sure,” she notes. He also influenced her latest look. Back in September, Hanson decided to shave her head and get a tattoo — something she initially wanted to film as a video for the title track of her album (and which since become the video for “Snot” feat. Deb Never).

“[Peep] had a bunch on his head, and I always was looking at pictures of him and was like, ‘That shit is fucking dope,’” she explains. She ultimately went with a tattoo of her mom’s name, now shrouded by her short mane. “My mom was like, ‘Are you sure you really want to get it on your head? You don’t want to get it on your neck?’” she says in a high-pitched voice, with her skull pressed against the camera. Her mom was not a fan.

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Another factor in making Tough Boy was Dawson, whom she had the opportunity to write with on the record. “He has such a cool album called Pixel Bath,” she explains. At the same time, she found herself drawn to Dominic Fike, and toward the end of the process, Willow Smith

Hanson was, admittedly, angry throughout the process of making the album. She quickly says she doesn’t know why she was, before admitting she does. The album’s slow-burning pop-punk opener “Off My Neck” is emblematic of that rage. “Can’t get you off my mind/You said we’d be friends till the day we die,” she explodes over a downtempo drumbeat.

Throughout the past year, she cut ties with one of her best friends. “We worked really closely together, and then we ended up having a falling out, which really hurt,” she admits. That coupled with the isolation of living in Los Angeles was inarguably challenging for her. Despite its undertones of pain, Hanson had the opportunity to collaborate with the artist MOD SUN, which helped set a more energetic tone for the record. “He’s just very honest, and it was very fun to bounce back and forth with him,” she says. “And he fucking rips it on the drums.”

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[Photo by Ryan Allan]

The acoustic guitar-flanked “Love U Anyway” channels more of her emotions about the friendship breakup. When it came to writing the song, Hanson found herself reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids memoir, and drawn to her on-off relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. “It’s a toxic relationship-type feeling where no matter what this person puts you through or how much bullshit you go through with this person, you still always find yourself falling back to them,” she explains. It’s how she felt about that friend. To this day, she confesses, she “would probably do anything for this person.”

The title track, however, is the ethos of the album. On “Tough Boy,” Hanson looks inward through an anxious swirl of vocals that echo a stream of consciousness, as she’s unable to confront her real emotions. Does she really want to be an artist? Does she want to hang out with the people she’s with? “You’re hot, but really deep down, you have no idea who you are,” she explains. “And you put on this mask every day.”

The track also relates back to the lost friendship that has plagued her. Initially, it was supposed to be from the perspective of a boy who always wears a mask — one who parallels her friend. What it surfaces as is a general sentiment of toxic masculinity, “where men feel the need to wear this mask and shelter themselves because being soft is shown as weakness.” Of course, the idea of challenging gender roles came later.

Don’t box me because I’m a million things. I can be who I want. I just go with the flow of the river

“Fuck Your Labels” continues that sentiment for Hanson. The artist, who chooses not to define her sexuality, makes a bold statement about how dynamic she is without any kind of label. For her, it’s about sexuality, how she dresses, even assumptions made in YouTube comments. “Just don’t box me because I’m a million things,” she says. “I can be who I want, I can say what I want; I just go with the flow of the river.”

On the stripped-down “Minnesota,” Hanson returns to her roots and recalls how far she’s come. “I just really wanted to make a song that felt like how I felt when I was in Minnesota,” she says of the song. For her, that meant crafting a track that romanticized the feeling of winter depression that also showed off her strength as a vocalist. “I really wanted to go off a little bit like Ariana [Grande]-type shit and whistle tone that ho,” she says, laughing.

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Of course, it’s impossible to deny the influence of the pandemic on the record. On the wistful party anthem “Girls In Line For The Bathroom,” Hanson recalls the liberating feeling of going out to bars and clubs. “Why can’t everybody be as nice as girls in line for the bathroom?” she pleads on the song. It surfaced during a writing session in Nashville with Lauren LaRue, where she and Hanson were lamenting simpler times and scenarios they perhaps took for granted. “We were just missing little things, like how empowering it is to be in a bathroom full of women that are drunk and hyping you up,” she recalls. It’s a specific feeling that Hanson doesn’t feel like she’s encountered aside from a throwaway line in a song. She plans to make “a dope music video” for that one featuring “a bunch of bad bitches.”

[AltPress issue #402.1]

One of the most alluring tracks (and song titles) on the record is “Gucci Knife,” though Hanson can only credit external collaborators for it. “I was like, ‘This is me. How did you guys write a song that I thought that I ghostwrote?’” she says, laughing. At the time, Hanson was “very happily” in a relationship, so she needed to channel her own past breakups and trauma in its delivery. “She took my heart with a Gucci knife,” Hanson wails, evoking the sharpness of Maggie Lindemann. Hanson identified with the track so much that she got a knife tattooed on the inside of her lip.

I hope [listeners] rock out and cry and throw up all at the same time

Similarly, with the angsty “Nice To Know Ya,” the burgeoning singer-songwriter had to imagine a relationship had gone sideways even though she was content with her girlfriend: “What would have happened if my girlfriend didn’t reciprocate the love that I gave her?” In reality, they got together after Hanson confessed her love for her over the phone. “Thankfully, she reciprocated the feeling,” Hanson says. “But I wanted to write the song [as] if she didn’t reciprocate the feelings.”

With Tough Boy, Hanson wants listeners to revel in her pop aesthetic while they can. She’s already gravitating toward a new sound. “I feel like I’m going to take a little break from writing in the very pop box after this one,” she reveals. “So I want that to really sink in.” Her “new” one is admittedly a lot more experimental than fans might be used to. “It’s not so ‘pop top-line,’” she says. She hopes to do some interesting collaborations, too: maybe one with her “childhood fantasy” Bieber, Fike or 070 Shake. Hanson thinks she and Olivia Rodrigo could make “a hot bop together.” Regardless of what happens, her goal for listeners is the same: “I hope they rock out and cry and throw up all at the same time.”

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Hanson has a few dreams for herself, too. For one, she just wants to “blow the fuck up already.” She wants to meet more fans and inspire people, especially kids who feel like they have no resources growing up in smaller cities. “I felt like I had no way out of [my] town, and I made it out,” she says. And beyond music, she sees a life beyond L.A. “I want to move to a cottage in Portland, be with my girlfriend and our cat and eat grilled cheese and tomato soup all the time,” she says excitedly. But she’d also take an apartment without mold.

This interview first appeared in issue #402 (22 for ’22), available here.

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