In the middle of bemoaning the current state of San Francisco, Hannah Lew cuts herself off: “Something that inspires me about the Futurist movement is that they were sort of against nostalgia and all about moving forward.” In order to stave off depression, Lew has to force herself not to think about the lost Bay of her past; the city where she grew up and cofounded the beloved post-punk trio Grass Widow isn’t hospitable anymore in the Valleywag era. Most of her friends have moved away, her art scene is disappearing, and she’s worried about getting evicted. “I really try not to pay attention to the ghosts that I find myself interacting with as I walk around SF.”
Lew’s isolation and despair with her city are the fuel for her current project, Cold Beat. With Grass Widow on an unofficial hiatus for the past couple of years, Lew’s mind kept turning to the tracks she had sketched out and stashed away during the band’s run — material that “didn’t feel like Grass Widow songs” — and, after a prolonged internal struggle, she decided the tunes would only keep gnawing at her if not released. She launched Cold Beat on her own label, Crime on the Moon, and dove into the unfamiliar experience of writing alone. For Lew, a lifelong insomniac, that meant late nights writing at home, watching a lot of Twin Peaks and Cosmos, and demoing tracks at sunrise. (“If you ever can’t sleep, just write an album,” she says.)
While Lew readily admits that Cold Beat’s upcoming debut album, Over Me, shares some stylistic elements with her previous band (e.g. the surf-rock riffs on “Out of Time”), she says the songs that she writes alone are more “straightforward.” On Grass Widow recordings, Lew plays bass and shares vocal duties equally with guitarist Raven Mahon and drummer Lillian Maring — her voice is inextricable, tangled with its sisters in spacey harmonies. As Cold Beat, she harmonizes with herself, projecting a distilled sadness as she carves out her own identity. On the album’s lead single, “Mirror,” Lew’s vocals (“Can’t see anything at all / Yeah, there’s nothing”) ride alone, racing guitarist Kyle King’s brisk pop onslaught to the end of the track; as Lew explains, the song is about “not getting stuck in thinking too much about your own self. You’d think humans could just look at themselves once in the mirror and then never have to look again, because we know what we look like. We’re constantly interfacing and being like, ‘Who is that?'”
For Lew, battling depression requires stepping outside of her body and situation. “It’s easy when writing by yourself to just write about your own perspective and be self-absorbed,” she says. “That’s pretty limiting for me.” She finds solace in ideas that trivialize human drama — concepts like the “Goldilocks zone” of alien-habitable space — and radical outward thinking. One of her favorite artists, Alan Wilson of Canned Heat, committed suicide “because of personal reasons but also because he was obsessed with the idea that humans were going to go to the moon and blow it up and do bad things.” (The story inspired the name of Lew’s Crime on the Moon imprint.) When dealing with Lew’s personal experience, Cold Beat’s music takes a very literal, “straightforward-without-analogy” approach that allows her to transcend grief; on last year’s single “Worms” (where she imagines the worms eating her father’s corpse) or on “Falling Skyline” (a blunt vision of her experience in New York on 9/11), Lew seems like an outsider observing the mechanics of her own traumas.
Recently, Lew helmed San Francisco Is Doomed, a compilation of songs from local bands intended to “give form to the conversation that’s always going on.” Many of the participating musicians were priced out of the city before it was released. On Cold Beat’s fast-approaching album (Over Me drops on July 8 via Crime on the Moon), Lew both zooms in on the crisis — “Tinted Glass” is about the class war microcosm of private Google buses — and zooms all the way out — “Rain” is a metaphor for capitalism at large. Despite her future-leaning imagination, she finds San Francisco’s innovation culture utterly banal. “This tech boom doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere,” she says. “I wish I had that excitement towards technology that they all seem to have — I wish it felt creative and inspiring to me.”
Just as Lew begins to explain how she escapes depressing realities by imagining alternate worlds (“Writing songs is an opportunity for universe building,” she says), someone comes into her apartment complex and starts taking pictures. She loses her train of thought for a moment. “Sorry, I have this fear that they’re going to sell my building.”