Hannah Larson, the singer-pianist who will be appearing at Indie Music Night at its outdoor venue, Griggstown Pavilion, on Saturday, July 16, remembers the first time she played the venue, almost exactly one year ago.
“I remember last year, there was probably about 45 to 60 people there, and I was just amazed, because I had never seen this place before. It’s tucked away in a neighborhood, outdoors, and so much fun. I’m just so excited about doing this again. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Indie Music Night, presented monthly by singer-songwriter Sarah Donner, performs in Griggstown in the warmer months and at the Arts Council of Princeton in the winter. The July 16 concert also includes Kelly Carvin of Hamilton, Sheli Arden of Asbury Park, and Kettle Pot Black of Philadelphia
The audiences at Indie Music Night, says Larson, “are just amazing. They’re very much into it; they sit in their chairs and take it all in and are just really silent. I’ve played a lot of open mike nights and cafes, and I get the same reaction there but at the same time there are other things going on — people are having conversations, drinking coffee. (At Indie Music Night) the crowds are just different. They’re just freakishly into it.”
Larson, 19, grew up moving from state to state, and the peripatetic nature of her childhood gave her some insights into the differences between places and cultures.
She was born near Mitchell, SD. Her father is the Rev. Dr. Mark Larson, a pastor and theologian in the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination. He has also been a teacher. The family moved frequently, first to Wisconsin, Michigan, Washington, and North and South Carolina before settling in Fair Lawn, Bergen County when she was 16. “It was the biggest culture shock of my life,” she says. “People here are so crazy. They are. The New York accent is so funny to me. And people here are so fast-paced, all the time. I remember the first time I went to New York City. All I did was look up at the buildings, even though I have always heard that’s not what you’re supposed to be doing.”
‘I was born on a farm,” Larson says of her earliest years. “We had a little tiny house and there was a little tiny church next door. Other than that, there was nothing but fields — fields as far as you could see. I think the closest store was 20 miles away.”
Larson didn’t spend much time in South Dakota, and she doesn’t have any strong memories of the place, but she returned when she was much older. “It was beautiful, with cows, and really pretty flowers, and empty spaces, but I’m so glad I don’t live there. There is really not much opportunity in that area.”
After her family lived in Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina, the family spent a “10-month vacation” in Washington state. “That was the craziest year of my life,” she says. “We drove cross-country in this 1987 station wagon. It was kind of a culture shock.”
She arrived in Fair Lawn before her junior year in high school. “Of all the moves we made, I was most upset about this one,” says Larson. “I didn’t know what New Jersey was, what the big deal was about this place. I had never been anywhere near New Jersey before; I just knew it was a tiny state.” Her father has been pastor of the Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Fair Lawn, Bergen County, since 2007. Hannah’s mother, Cynthia Larson, was a stay-at-home mother to Larson, her older sister, Lydia, and her older brothers, Benjamin and Daniel.
The adjustment to New Jersey life was very different for this Midwesterner, but now, Larson, a Princeton resident, says she really likes it here. “There are so many more opportunities and so many more connections that are possible with people. I can’t even imagine going back (to the south or midwest).” Larson is currently a rising junior at Westminster Choir College who also works part-time as a nanny for a Princeton family. “I’m studying music education,” she says, and has plans to teach. “I didn’t want to sing opera, that is not really me. I just wanted to write songs. But I have really grown to love it here, and I can really see myself teaching.”
She is particularly happy that Westminster is a small school, so she has lots of direct access to the professors. “There are about 70 people in my class, maybe 500 people in the entire school, including grad students. Sometimes there are only 10 people in a class. I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Larson began writing music at 15, but began playing the piano when she was 6. “Like every little girl, I wanted to be a ballerina,” she says. “I asked my mom if I could take dance lessons, and for some reason she told me no. I don’t know why, but she wouldn’t let me take dance. But I thank her for that now, because I know I wouldn’t have been a very good dancer. It’s like she knew better, that she knew I would be a better musician. So she encouraged me to take piano lessons.”
Like many artists, Larson says her church background greatly influenced her music. “Yes, it makes all the difference. When I first started writing music, I thought I really wanted to be a Christian artist, writing contemporary Christian songs. But in my life I have experienced not only God but other things. (On my EP) the songs were very much influenced by the thought that I had been traveling a lot, trying to find my place in the world. But now, I think after about four years of writing music, I have learned to be more honest. When I sit down and write music now, I think if I’m just honest about things, people will relate to what I have to say.”
Upon graduating from Fair Lawn High, she knew she had inherited some of her dad’s passion for teaching, but she didn’t know anything about Westminster. She had visited a friend’s voice teacher, who had asked Larson to play and sing for her. While Larson had thought of applying to other schools she says, “after the teacher heard me, she told me I needed to go to Westminster.” By that time, Larson had one day to apply, which she did — quickly — and was accepted.
Larson says she wants to incorporate songwriting into her teaching. “I think anybody — anybody — can write songs, and it’s very good for you mentally and spiritually. It’s a great form of therapy.”
Indie Music Night, Griggstown Pavilion, 373 Bunkerhill Road, Princeton. Saturday, July 16, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Guest singer-songwriter artists include Hannah Larson and Kelly Carvin. Sarah Donner hosts. $5. 609-672-1813 or www.facebook.com/indiemusicnight.