Hanna PK tried her hand at music growing up in South Korea. She wrote a few songs when she was a child. She played keyboards in a high school rock band. Rehearsals were the bane of neighbors in neighborhoods close to city apartment living.
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 town that basically exists for Fort Hood. A city of shopping malls, pawn shops, prostitutes and wide open spaces suitable for US Army troops to practice gunfire; I can rightly make this judgment because I lived there myself for a year and a half.
âCigarettes were cheap and gasoline was not too expensive at the time,â says Hanna PK. “I learned to operate a gear lever in a field where cows were passing by and we had to stop for that.”
It was a wide open territory, and with it came a feeling of freedom. âI was in a whole new country, a whole new place,â she says. “I should be scared, you know?” And nervous. But I wanted to play music.
She and her husband chose a bar in Killeen that would have them. The equipment was a $ 20 microphone going through their stereo. The speakers stopped working after five songs. The show is over.
They were young then, in their early twenties. What did they know?
Years passed. Hanna PK is now 36 years old. Her husband had been deployed to Iraq. When he got home, “he was pretty torn,” she said.
Divorce followed. Just like his parents. When she saw her mother in South Korea, Hanna PK saw a woman consumed by alcoholism. These were dark times. Hanna PK confesses to having had thoughts of suicide for the moment.
But she survived it all. Hanna PK is now a prominent figure in the Rochester blues scene. One with a different feel – a South Korean blues singer. His third album, “Blues All Over My Shoes”, will be presented at a series of launch parties such as The Little CafÃ© on Friday November 12, a house concert the next day, Norton’s Pub on November 19 and Fanatics Pub in Lima on November 20.
Until she discovered the blues, her life didn’t seem to take any particular course. Growing up in the South Korean city of Dongducheon, she was Han Na Park. Hanna PK is not so much a westernization as a pronunciation.
âPiano lessons were a thing in the 90s,â she says of the role of music in her life at the time. âAll my friends were taking piano lessons.
“Life has arrived.”
She wrote a few songs in college. Most importantly, she studied business, with a minor in what in South Korea is called “English for tourism”. A degree in something that guarantees a good job, she says, would allow her to repay her mother for sacrificing her own life’s dreams while raising her family. âA typical Asian kid’s thing,â says Hanna PK.
From Texas, she followed her husband to western New York State, where he attended classes at Monroe Community College and Syracuse University. She worked in a Rochester law firm, filing and copying legal documents. Then the Red Cross, a retirement home and a tech company, but she didn’t like the corporate culture.
She and her husband had a house here, but Hanna PK says she had no interest in purchasing the standard appliances: stove, refrigerator, washing machine, etc.
âThe first thing I wanted was a piano,â she says.
Music heals, right? But only if everyone is listening.
âWhen we got divorced,â says Hanna PK, âI had just started playing music, which maybe played a role in our separation. ”
Despite the divorce, she stayed here. âSomehow I felt pretty comfortable in Rochester,â she says. Comfortable enough to cautiously resume his musical career. But with better equipment than a $ 20 microphone and stereo. Someone else’s equipment. She began to introduce herself to an open mic, at first just playing keyboards.
âIt was your typical neighborhood bar in East Rochester,â says Hanna PK. âA whole bunch of unique characters hang out there every night. Including myself, I guess.
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 the house and seeing your mother in the rearview mirror of the car. âI remember I wrote the song in the shower,â she says. “At least the chorus part.”
Soon she had taken enough showers to record a six-song EP, then a full 13-song album. Her voice was becoming bluesier, while retaining her South Korean accent. Her piano playing, she said, was becoming “more assertive.”
She and guitarist Aleks Disljenkovic won the 2018 Western New York Blues Society Memphis Bound competition, earning a spot at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. They reached the semi-finals. 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 consumed Hanna PK’s life. Gian Carlo Cervone plays the organ in his group, Hanna and the Blue Hearts. They share a small apartment in the city. But he is overwhelmed by a collection of vinyl records, two pianos, 15 to 20 keyboards, an organ, speakers, amps, guitars. Hanna PK has to climb a ladder to a bed in the cramped attic.
âThis is the compromise I have to make,â she said. “I have to let go of other parts of my life.”
Rochester blues icon Joe Beard also joined Hanna PK on stage. A few weeks ago at the Little Theater, 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. âInsomnia Bluesâ is about not being able to sleep because COVID has ended life itself. She sings to face this reality while drinking whiskey in bed.
Hanna PK wrote some politically minded blues. What she calls “the political extreme” of the time, which alarmed her.
But “Love Keeps Walking In” is closer to home. âAs clichÃ© as it sounds, I really believe in love,â she says. And not just romantic love. âDirty Dishesâ remembers spending time washing dishes with his mom.
âThere are little bits of her in so many of my songs that only I know,â says Hanna PK. Her mother worked 15 hours a day in her restaurant, which looked more like a shipping container set up as a kitchen, delivering lunches to nearby businesses and factories. âShe was drinking because it was a way for her to work hard,â says Hanna PK.
The long hours, a single mother supporting two children, washing dishes, skipping dinner, and drinking another beer instead – which led to alcoholism and health complications, including liver failure. In 2017, Hanna PK’s mother got drunk to death.
âSometimes even when I see alcoholism in TV shows and movies, I see it’s still a bit romanticized,â says Hanna PK. âAlmost, and you never really see what they might look like at the end of their life, because you see these beautiful actors and actresses who are supposed to be alcoholics on the shows. But I mean people in real life, that is. It’s a lot meaner, more painful, and it’s a very, very, very horrible, horrible thing. It’s not just someone who gets drunk. It’s much more than that.
It was a lot of self-destruction for many years. “I was tired enough from it already,” she said. And, says Hanna PK, it also led to her own breakdowns. Her own divorce was going on at the same time, and that bad timing was taking its toll.
âIn my life, there has been more than once that I really didn’t want to live anymore. And I really thought about ending my life, “she says.” But then there are different wisdoms that I have learned over the years that have really helped me. ”
When Hanna PK hit rock bottom, she found inspiration to write “Love Keeps Walking In”.
âI was so just so broken,â she said. âBut somehow there was still a tiny bit of desire, that I didn’t want to stop my journey with music altogether just yet.
“If I hadn’t already felt the pleasure of playing and playing music then, it would have been easier to give up on life.”
âSo I can say that the music saved me,â she says.
The blues are real that way.
“What I’m supposed to do,” says Hanna PK, “is share what has helped me.”
Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life Editor and Journalist. He can be contacted at [email protected]