Jazz pianist and composer Connie Han released her latest album, Secrets of Inanna, this past September. Inspired by the Sumerian goddess of love and war, the 12-track album takes the listener on a journey through tribulations, death, and rebirth, a story that, in many ways, mirrors Han’s own artistic journey. APA spoke with Han about her latest album, artistic philosophy, and how jazz can be pretty epic.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
APA: Congratulations on your new album! “Secrets of Inanna” is based on a very interesting mythological story. Can you give tell us what it’s about and how it became the inspiration for this album?
Han: Not many people are aware of Inanna’s existence since she is not portrayed in popular culture. Most people recognize her iteration as Venus or Aphrodite in Greek and Roman mythology, respectively, but essentially, Inanna is the proto goddess of love, beauty, femininity, and war. But what makes her so multifaceted and brilliant as a character and person is that she is both the muse and the masterpiece. She is not merely a source of inspiration for someone else, rather, she is her full agency. She retains her hyper femininity and poise, yet she also has this insatiable lust for power, conquest, and dominion, qualities that not many people associate with a goddess.
She goes through an incredibly arduous journey where she dies and resurrects at the hands of her sister. She has a lot of darkness in her arc, and she goes through an epic hero’s adventure. She is very well-rounded–and feisty–and I wanted to share her story because she’s an incredible source of inspiration.
APA: She is definitely a very unique character and a fascinating source of inspiration. How did you come across her story? And more generally, how do you find inspiration and direct it into something cohesive?
Han: I originally discovered the story through my long-time collaborator, producer, and visionary, Bill Wysaske, who also co-wrote half the music on the album. He’s very well-read and is quite interested in mythology and lore, and he brought this story to me. I was immediately taken by her depth, and I started going down this rabbit hole, learning about how ancient mythologies are relevant to modern life. And, I see these myths as blueprints for our own spiritual journeys.
Inanna goes through her own iteration of the hero’s adventure and experiences the death and resurrection arc, two enduring archetypes commonly found in mythology across very diverse cultures. These archetypes are enduring because they are the blueprints, the lessons, the pieces of wisdom that cultures have developed to address the philosophical questions of life. When Inanna suffers through the Sumerican version of hell, that is a metaphor for overcoming the impossible and going through a spiritual transformation. She starts off as a young, humble girl who needs to undergo a rite of passage to learn the wisdom to have the right to become the queen.
I would say the mythology metaphor is applicable to artists in that there’s a certain level of sacrifice–spiritually, mentally, and physically–required to achieve what you have the potential to be, but I think it applies to any endeavor that an ambitious person would want to go through. I am very ambitious and always want to raise the bar.
In jazz, we deal with so many planes of abstraction, and it can be very arduous and tumultuous, but also very joyous when you get to something you’re very happy with. Inanna’s journey is similarly tumultuous and involves massive sacrifices. She goes through the seven gates of hell, takes off her royal regalia, and forfeits the right to her kingdom to gain an audience with Ereshkigal, the queen of the underworld. Yet, despite all that, she still dies. This difficult journey through death and resurrection is a perfect metaphor for the hardship, tunnel vision, and pure spiritual bliss that artists experience. For me, discovering her story has been very transformative and inspiring, both spiritually and philosophically.
APA: Were there any specific spots in Inanna’s story that you thought mirrored moments in your life?
Han: No specific anecdotes, but some of my hurdles were overcoming musical or creative deficiencies and finding my own voice as an artist. I’ve always felt that, okay, I’ve transcribed and studied all of these great pianists, but how can I make a statement that is uniquely mine rather than regurgitating or recontextualizing music and art that has already been done? Finding your own identity is a very essential part of being a jazz musician.
I put all of my self worth into my art, and that is both a vice and a virtue because it motivates me to keep striving. The spiritual fracture of being unable to express what I really wanted to on my instrument was very depressing. I would practice for hours on end and experienced a lot of anguish and anxiety, sacrificing my social life, health, and sleep for all those little musical things. Eventually, I was able to create something that wasn’t a derivative of something else, which was, to me, true creative freedom. In short, it’s this journey into achieving creative freedom, and it is as much a physical test as it is a mental one.
I was very fortunate to be pretty proficient at my instrument from a young age, but it’s kind of crazy how much time musicians have to put in to not only cultivate that creative soul and the creative message, but also the fine motor skills to execute that creative vision. During the pandemic, I pushed my technique to my absolute limit. I literally had a heating pad just for my fingers.
I’ve been told before by interviewers that I sound like I’m miserable, and they ask, “doesn’t music make you happy?” I hate that concept of getting that instant dopamine hit. I think finding deeper bliss and spiritual balance is more important than just feeling superficial happiness. I can be misunderstood as being super dark and hating everything, but that’s not the case. My process involves going through a lot of pain to achieve what I truly want, and that ultimately does make me happy.
APA: I really respect that, and it reminds me of Stoicism and other ancient philosophies that require going through hardship to achieve Nirvana or enlightenment.
Han: Yes, and while I wouldn’t say I am a Stoic, I am aware of the teachings of philosophies like Stoicism and Buddhism that consider suffering as inseparable from the rapture of being alive and the ability to feel something. I think creating art is a way of processing suffering in something beautiful.
I mean, life is absurd, there are so many uncontrollable circumstances. I see mythology, spirituality, religion as ways for humans to deal with absurdity and suffering and to make meaning out of it. Again, Inanna experiences all of those things, the highest points and the lowest points of living. You can’t have one without the other. I firmly believe that a strong foundation of philosophy will make you a more enriched artist and human being.
Artists are like the modern shamans, spiritual spokespeople who communicate complex emotions through images, abstraction, and sound.in ways that words cannot. This orientation towards art can also help address mental health issues, which I see as a result of spiritual fracturing.
APA: If your current self is Inanna in her fully realized state, what would you say to your younger self who is still getting started and figuring things out? And were you always interested in music from a young age?
Han: Honestly, I’m pretty proud of my younger self for going along the path. I would advise myself to not be so negative. I was crazy hard on myself for everything, and it was really good for my art because it motivated me to improve, but after a certain point, it got to be excessive. I was trained in classical piano and had a musical upbringing, but jazz definitely called to me at the age of 14. I like to call 14 the age when a person finally reaches sentience and has their first existential crisis. At that age, I had that existential crisis, and jazz fulfilled every void that I felt in myself. I was so enthralled by the idea of being able to create something truly original in a social environment.
It was never a question of finding myself or figuring out what I wanted to do–I knew that it was music. It was also the only thing that I was exceptional at, and even if people around me had doubts, I had tunnel vision and would’ve gone down this path anyway. I’ve talked to many musicians who went into other fields in pursuit of social status, and I thought that was really unfortunate. For me, any gift or talent should be honed and nurtured and not squandered because I hate having regrets. I am grateful to have had the time to work out any issues, musically, as a kid, before I was expected to be good.
The question that I grappled with was not whether I was good enough, it was how my artistry and jazz could contribute to society. That was always the question: is this a purely selfish pursuit? I found my answer through my spiritual philosophical foundation, in which I believe artists are the shamans, and artists with something to say are willing to work through the growing pains to share that message. I think the shamanistic role that artists inhabit is just as important to life and living as those who work to keep society functioning.
APA: Did you face any challenges as a young Asian American woman in the jazz space?
Han: Honestly, I have to say that my identity as an Asian American woman has been a boon to my career. I experienced a sort of “positive discrimination,” where they lower the bar because you’re not expected to be good. When people see me, they think, “oh, this Asian girl is probably just a virtuosic classical prodigy who doesn’t understand the soul of jazz.” So when I defy these expectations, people are impressed. However, there are some pretty annoying comparisons to other women who play the piano and look like me but have a completely different musical interpretation–I call it “listening with your eyes.” There’s a weird fetishization of Asian women who play jazz piano, but honestly, overall, I would say that I’ve been really, really lucky.
And I enjoy the fact that I’m able to be more creative with my image because of my identity. I can braid my hair like this and be that fun, weird, rocker chick who likes to play jazz. I love the fact that I’m different.
APA: That’s great, thank you for sharing your experience. Our magazine covers a whole host of genres, but acoustic jazz has been one we haven’t explored as much. What would you say to listeners who are just exploring the genre and might find it intimidating?
Han: I would say listen to the epic classics as well as modern releases. I’m personally partial to A Love Supreme by John Coltrane, which is an excellent starting point. It’s a concept album that has permeated into popular culture, and it explores spirituality and religion. It’s also a great example of epic acoustic jazz and a good exposure to the philosophy of how jazz musicians play together, so you can definitely start there. Also, listen to my new album!
Jazz is complex and often misunderstood. The way popular culture in America portrays jazz is kind of inaccurate to the creative heart of jazz, which is ironic because jazz is an American art form. Even Japan and Europe are more into American jazz than Americans.
APA: What other misconceptions about jazz would you want to clear up?
Han: That it’s just cocktail music or elevator music to drink wine to. Jazz is not just a piece of furniture in the background to enjoy dinner to. It’s far more destructive, and it has the capacity to be extremely epic and high energy. Jazz is a really deep art form with so many layers and so many compelling and diverse artists.
There’s also a social element to jazz and a way to listen to it. People often don’t realize that accompanying a solo is an art form in itself. There’s melodicism, musicality, and identity in accompaniment, which is pretty unique to jazz because of its social, improvisational nature. There are pianists in the history of jazz like Hank Jones and McCoy Tyner who are known as expert accompanists, and you can recognize them instantly by the way they support other musicians. That’s mind blowing because you don’t get that in other genres. Yet, most people have a very limited view of jazz.
APA: I hope that through additional exposure through our magazine and your albums will help render a greater appreciation of the social and creative processes in jazz.
Han: I also want to say that the jazz industry and jazz musicians have been terrible at convincing people to invest in jazz and demonstrating how jazz can make people’s lives better. I think it’s important to make jazz hip again, and while I don’t necessarily think of that as my mission as an artist, I want to show that you don’t have to look or dress a certain way to play well and to respect the art form. The “jazz police” mentality leads to the squashing of individuality and individual expression because it pressures musicians to confirm as a jazz artist, and this also makes people uninterested because it makes jazz an isolated bubble.
I want to create an audiovisual experience that is exciting and charismatic because that helps communicate my narrative. I drew upon Inanna’s various and connected stories because they allow my album to be more cohesive and have more grounding–otherwise music can be extremely abstract. Musicians will get really into technical details because it tickles their musical fancy, but that in itself doesn’t communicate anything meaningful. I want to consolidate all these ideas and turn it into a story that addresses my audience. To be an artist is to be a storyteller, and the greatest improvisers have narratives and craft journeys so that listeners can get immersed in their universe.
APA: One last question, what’s on the horizon for you? What are you looking forward to next?
Han: This album release is really exciting. We’re also going to be touring. In a month, we’ll be going to Denver, Colorado and Davis, California, and in November, we will be going to Europe. We’ll be in Paris, France, Munich, Bern, and we’re really excited because the Europeans love jazz. Aside from that, I’ll continue to double down on the artistic vision I’ve shared during this interview. There are so many ideas that I want to organize in a systematic way, and they’ll be further developed in the following album, which is currently in the works.