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Badass Babes: Henson Popa on Making the Move from Oahu to New York City and Overcoming Self-Doubt

“It’s really nice to reflect on the things I have done and have been capable of doing and just knowing if I can do that, that I am capable of, or can learn, to do whatever I want to do.”

From performing her first show at Arlene’s Grocery, to releasing her first single, Perpetual, which already has garnered over 60,000 Spotify plays, Henson Popa has come a long way in a short amount of time. Henson recorded, produced, mixed, and mastered, all the tracks on her debut EP “Basket Case in Lucid State” herself—in a dorm room. If that’s not impressive enough, her mesmerizing debut music video for “Perpetual” she also did herself with the help of a childhood friend. I chatted with Henson about taking her music career into her own hands and her creative process.

When did you start playing music?

I guess my family is pretty musical; my Dad and my older sister used to always jam out on the guitar and piano. So, I started classical piano when I was six, but I like to say that when I first got into really doing music was when I wrote my song in the fourth grade. And I did it because I wanted to be like my sister who used to do music, and she hated the song, so I started writing more just to spite her. But that led to me making music for myself, so it was a funny turn of events.

henson popa

Did you guys ever think of doing a family band?

Not really. My sister and I used to do covers together, but nothing bigger than that.

I saw you had a YouTube cover channel; are you still doing that?

I started that last year, but I haven’t been doing any covers consistently. Now I use that channel to put up my music videos. I just released a music video on it yesterday!

I did it because I wanted to be like my sister who used to do music, and she hated the song, so I started writing more just to spite her. But that led to me making music for myself, so it was a funny turn of events.”

It’s a fantastic music video! What was the inspiration behind it?

I used to be a film student in high school and one of my best friends is a film major, and we knew we wanted to do a video together over break, and it made sense to do a video since I was releasing a single. We went back home to Hawaii over break and we knew from the start we wanted to challenge ourselves. We knew we wanted it to be conceptual and less story-driven, and that we wanted to play with mood lighting, and so everything followed soon after. One of the biggest themes in the video is hands. Our idea was we wanted two characters in the video: one being me, and one being my hands, so it kind of goes in line with the theme of self-deprecation. It was just the two of us filming and my friend helping us with the lights.

henson popa

You were a film student, not a music student?

Yeah, I started off as a film student in high school and I only applied to two colleges, one for music and one for film—it was a dumb idea, but yeah, I’m glad I went with music.

So, if you had gotten into the film school would you have just gone with film instead of music?

I think I would have felt that it was the wrong decision.

How has it been, being surrounded by musicians at Clive Davis?

It really made me feel like doing it more. Like, when I was in high school, I liked doing music and thought oh yeah maybe I’ll do it as a career someday. But actually going to college for music and being surrounded by people who do it, it really instills a sense of urgency and the first thing we learned from orientation is that amateurs wait for inspiration and professionals get to work.

Have you met anyone there, or taken any classes, that really inspired you?

My music history class last semester I think really shaped me as a musician since it showed me where my roots are as a musician. Also, my professor, who is also my academic advisor, was just the most nurturing person I’ve met here.

I only applied to two colleges, one for music and one for film—it was a dumb idea, but yeah, I’m glad I went with music.”

How did you figure out the sound you wanted to go for?

I struggled a lot with sound so after a certain point I just stopped thinking about it entirely. If it feels right, it feels right.

What instruments do you play?

Piano and ukulele.

I love the track Perpetual. What was the process of writing it like?

I wrote it over the span of three years actually. So, I began when I was 16 and I just wrote the chorus and the pre-chorus, and when I was 17, I wrote the verses, and when I was 18, I wrote the bridge. And so, the only common theme between those times was I made sure to write them all after staying up past 2 am because I couldn’t sleep, and I think it’s just the sounds of the nights I stayed up and was alone with my thoughts.

What was the process of turning that track from a piano song into the full-fledged track it is now?

I actually didn’t start that song on piano like all my other songs. It was the first song I started with production. I think I started it with the vocal samples in the bridge and everything followed after.

the first thing we learned from orientation is that amateurs wait for inspiration and professionals get to work.”

Have you been producing for a long time?

I just started more consistently last semester.

Did you do all the song writing alone?

I did, and all the production myself. Much of the recording was done in my dorm. I’m trying to figure out mixing, playing

So, you wrote, recorded, mixed, and mastered everything yourself?

I’m trying to be as self-sufficient as I can. I want to be able to hold my own weight if people want to work with me as well.

How do you fit all that equipment in your dorm?

My dorm set up is really minimal; it’s just my computer and my mic. And then, I just play on my computer keyboard since I don’t have mine with me.

I struggled a lot with sound so after a certain point I just stopped thinking about it entirely. If it feels right, it feels right.”

henson popa

That’s so impressive I’m blown away! How do you think growing up in Hawaii shaped you as an artist?

There is such a rich art culture and there’s this art movement called Pow Wow Hawaii that had a music program I took part in which showed me what kind of music is out there, since I didn’t know.

I made sure to write them all after staying up past 2 am because I couldn’t sleep, and I think it’s just the sounds of the nights I stayed up and was alone with my thoughts.”

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve encountered so far since becoming your own artist?

I think the biggest challenge has been really believing in myself. It is so easy to diminish yourself when talking to other people about what you do. Like when someone asks, “Oh you’re into music,” I’m like, “yeah, kind of, trying to learn it.” Like yeah, I am into music. And it’s something I’m still working on, trying to be more confident in what I do.

henson popa

How do you deal with self-doubt?

It’s really nice to reflect on the things I have done and have been capable of doing and just knowing if I can do that, that I am capable of, or can learn, to do whatever I want to do. And also, since I am a female artist, it’s incentive for me to exude more confidence since a lot of female artists feel like they have to down themselves, or prove themselves.

I think the biggest challenge has been really believing in myself. It is so easy to diminish yourself when talking to other people about what you do.”

Do you ever get stage fright?

Very much so, but I have realized I can’t really escape it, so I just have to embrace it.

Have you had a moment in your music career that really stuck out to you?

I just think it’s so cool when people tell me they listened to my song and showed it to the people in their lives. And someone I don’t know recently commented on my YouTube video saying I can tell you put a lot of love into this song which meant the world to me.

What does feminism mean to you?

In its simplest terms, it’s equality. It can be as simple as that. But I feel like feminism gets a bad rap but it’s just a movement of such support. And it’s also like accountability: holding yourselves and other people accountable against their poor beliefs against women.

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Tigerlily is a writer and musician living in London. She has released two...