Hannah Jadagu: New York University student’s debut album aims for emotions and ear-worms

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By Jon Pareles for The New York Times

UNITED STATES: What does it mean to be a pop songwriter in 2023? Part of the job is what it has always been: coming up with catchy melodies, terse lyrics and instrumental hooks; creating crisply defined verses and choruses; capturing short attention spans while tapping into broadly shared experiences.

“Pop structure is always happening in my songs,” said Hannah Jadagu, 20, whose debut album, “Aperture,” will be released on Friday. In a video chat from her dorm room at New York University, she added, “I love a good hook or a good chorus. I love a good banger. I love a pop hit.”

Jadagu’s dorm room is spartan. One otherwise bare wall is decorated with a poster of a fierce-looking woman’s face, origin unknown; Jadagu rescued it from a discard pile. Another displays a few posters and passes from her recent tours; Jadagu paused her college education in 2022 to tour and write her album. Her room is now primarily a musician’s work space, with her computer, a MIDI keyboard and three guitars close at hand. When she came to N.Y.U., where she’s now in her third year, she contemplated becoming a music supervisor and leaned into studies of music as a business, but soon she began to focus on her own songs.

Jadagu has a distinct visual presence — a cascade of long, blond braids frames her face — and a contagious smile, particularly noticeable when she’s citing musicians she’s learned from, famous and less so. She mentioned Charli XCX, Frank Ocean, SZA, Haim, Billie Eilish, Tame Impala, the Beatles, Ellie Goulding, CeeLo Green, Clairo, beabadoobee, Vampire Weekend, Steve Lacy, Snail Mail, M.I.A., Grouplove, Winnetka Bowling League, Ritt Momney, the Japanese House, Kevin Abstract and more. Many of them, she freely admits, have had an immediate influence on whatever song she was working on when she heard them.

Most of the songs on “Aperture” lean into pop’s eternal subject: uncertain romance. She sings about being scared to get serious in the folk-to-grunge “Lose”; about trying to get someone to forget an ex in the lurching, psychedelia-tinged “Six Months”; and about trying to figure out where she stands in a relationship in “Say It Now,” which expands from a winsome plaint into a stomping pop chorus.

“I’m not a dramatic person in my everyday life,” she said. “But when I sit down to write something, I’m like, How can I explain how this feels big to me, even though I might not show it on the outside?”

Jadagu sits on a sofa in front of a standing lamp and a two-panel screen consisting of fabric circles stacked atop each other featuring brown, yellow, black and brown weaving.

“I owe everything to SoundCloud because it helped me build a little bit of confidence,” Jadagu said of the platform where she first released her music.Credit…Makeda Sandford for The New York Times

She added, “When you’re a songwriter, it could be that even the smallest thing happens and then you’re like, ‘That’s going to be a big song.’ There’s a way of taking something in your life, even if it’s just a small moment, and then making it into this big experience for people to listen in on.”

Throughout her album, Jadagu’s music keeps shifting styles, veering from indie rock to electronic to warped R&B. “I told my manager I want to be able to make an album where it feels like there are no borders,” she said. “I wanted each song to be different.”

Jadagu has a singular sense of melody. Her phrases hopscotch around, full of angular leaps that also feel easy and conversational. Those melodies turn out to be equally effective whether they’re leaping across distorted guitar chords, suave keyboards or abstract soundscapes.

Greta Kline, who records as Frankie Cosmos, became one of Jadagu’s early admirers and mentors. “She’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of all the different ways that music can go,” Kline said in an interview. “And she can picture all those parts before even laying them down. She’s got an amazing producer’s mind. And she knows everything cool that’s going on.”

Kline added, “She’s going to be a star. I just hope someday I get to open for her.”

Jadagu has always been absorbed in music. She grew up in Mesquite, Texas, the Dallas suburb where her parents settled after immigrating from Zimbabwe in the 1990s. She soaked up pop, hip-hop and indie rock from the radio and from the albums of her older sister, Tymie. She attended church regularly — along with youth groups and church camp — and sang in the choir, where she learned to love building vocal harmonies.

Jadagu turned away from the church when she was in high school. “I know the Bible,” she said. “But it just got to a point where I was like, ‘I don’t know if this is something I’m really fully believing in with my heart.’”

Two songs that frame the album, “Explanation” and “Letter to Myself,” sympathetically explore how believers seek answers to fundamental questions. “Everyone is looking for an explanation/Put your faith and hope in something,” Jadagu sings as the album begins. Then she starts to wonder: “How do you know?”

In high school, Jadagu studied classical percussion and joined the school’s drum line. She also picked up electric guitar at 16, learning her favorite songs on her own. But as early as elementary school, she had already started recording her own music on computers.

“I’ve always just had a knack for wanting to be on some electronic device, making some sounds,” she said. When she was told to play math games on the computer, she would secretly open up GarageBand and just start making beats. “Or I’d go to, and they had an ‘Arthur’ game where Arthur could help me make a song.”

In high school, her songwriting grew more serious, and Jadagu started uploading her music to SoundCloud, cannily using hashtags like #indie, #electronic and #relaxing that drew her first listeners to a song she has now taken down, “Night Drive Boy.”

“I woke up the next day and it had 2,000 plays,” she said. “I was, like, ‘Oh, people like my music.’ And even though it was an algorithmic thing that happened, I still felt like maybe I could keep doing this and keep posting them, not just for myself. I owe everything to SoundCloud because it helped me build a little bit of confidence.”


Jadagu stands in a building doorway holding a pale green umbrella with white polka dots.

“I love a good hook or a good chorus,” Jadagu said. “I love a good banger. I love a pop hit.”Credit…Makeda Sandford for The New York Time

Jadagu’s self-released music somehow reached the Sub Pop label, which signed her in her senior year of high school. She recorded “What Is Going On?,” a five-song EP released in 2021, entirely on her iPhone, using GarageBand with a guitar and an outboard microphone. “People are always like, ‘Wow, you made your EP on an iPhone, how incredible!’ And I’m like, ‘I just didn’t have money,’” she said with a smile and a shrug.

With “Aperture,” Jadagu had a budget for a studio and a producer. After constructing her new songs on her own, she worked with the French producer Max Robert Baby, selecting him as a collaborator after he sent her his own version of “Say It Now.” Via video interview from France, Max recalled that Jadagu sent back “a Google document detailing every second of the track, every teeny bit of the production I made,” adding, “She’s so precise. She’s a brilliant woman, really.”

Working remotely and then together — in a historic French studio, Greasy Records — they turned Jadagu’s new songs into ever more surreal studio concoctions, toying with textures and spatial effects, coming up with whimsical countermelodies and head-spinning cross-rhythms.

“I’ve never seen such maturity and determination — to make something that’s really her but also really OK with her influences,” Max said. “She had an idea, coming into the studio, how she wanted each song to sound, and that vision was crystal clear.

“Aperture” is absolutely 21st-century pop: personal and technical, candid and knowing, physical and virtual, shrewdly engineered. “Ever since I started making music, I’ve always had dreams of at least being heard by people,” Jadagu said. “Pop songs are supposed to be able to connect to almost anyone, and they’re supposed to be an earworm.

“I think there’s nothing better than hearing something catchy,” she added. “You’re walking on the street later and you’re like, ‘Oh no!’ That’s when you’re doing your job — where you’ve made something that is just so infectious that it’s burrowed itself into someone’s subconscious. So they start singing it when they’re cooking, later. You know?”