Vista – A large number of things that may be possible in the future
She is aptly named.
It is the core of her being and the thrust of her music; both openly inspire while scanning new ground, what artistic expression can accomplish without artifice or image or pandering or marketing—a singular movement, a vision cleared.
She rejects “normal” labels and even implored her management and her publicity people to simply call what she writes and what she sings and what she reveals to the world with reckless and fervent abandon, Power Pop Punk. It is the sound of her spirit; sometimes dark, sometimes playful, always painfully honest. Five spectacular examples of these appear on her brand new debut EP, Prevail, the sincerity and bravado of which is only eclipsed by the driving rhythms and insatiable hooks that act as fuel for her voice; a feminine growl that at once beckons and seduces.
In person, away from the music—as much she can pull herself from it—Hope comes on as a raw nerve, unadorned by pretense. Her manner of polite expression, a rare display of rapid-fire contemplation, reveals a wisdom belying her years. At 22, she is beyond Millennial; a child molded by the horrors of 9/11, the trauma of divorce, and the survivor of bullying and isolation.
“I was always really…really independent,” she says, pushing hard on the two-syllables of “really,” as if conjuring up the parts of her that smolder beneath the music. “That’s when the bullies started coming at me. My high school was a shark tank; and both my parents were in different relationships at that point and I started to fall into a really bad depression at a young age. It was at 13 when I started asking myself, ‘Why am I writing these incredibly dark songs?’”
However dark, the songs would pull her through, because she discovered a love and aptitude to create music through her father, Gary, years before. A music instructor to a community, he became a mentor to his daughter in every possible way. He began by teaching her guitar at the age of seven, and as she pursued it as a career he would eventually become the guiding spirit that breathlessly endured her every stage move, relentlessly grilled her soon-to-be manager, and whom she would come to call best friend.
“When I was 10 my dad was giving me a classical guitar lesson,” Hope fondly recalls. “And I was like, ‘I don’t want to play this!’ And he got mad. So he asked me, ‘What do you want to play, then?’ And little ole 10-year-old me said, ‘I want to play the blue Fender Strat that you have in your closet!’ I was 10, like fifth grade, and I still play that guitar to this day. I play it every single show. I’m never going to switch it. I’m always going to take care of it. It is my signature guitar.”
It was June of 2014 when the blue Stratocaster from the closet became more than a favorite instrument, the symbol of her musical awakening, and the moment she became “really independent.” It was when she found out her beloved father and mentor had stage four brain and lung cancer. He called to tell her when she was alone beginning a summer session in college. “I just completely collapsed against my dressers,” she recounts with a twitter in her voice. “Everything in my body just gave out. I knew exactly what he was telling me.”
He died only a few months later, and now the music he taught her to use as an expression from the darkness to the light became a refuge from and a reflection of the grief; a place to face fears and obliterate barriers; a genuine catharsis. It is a roadmap to the places a new generation may go, if that generation dares.
“There are a lot of kids who come from broken homes or who have had to overcome a lot,” Hope says, echoing her own experience. “Most of the people that I know have divorced parents, and a lot of my fans are 15, 16, high school age, and I know a lot of them don’t like talking about it, and I think if I can help someone, give them a voice, then I’m okay with that kind of honesty.”
Hope speaks and writes candidly about her life; her parents’ divorce and her father’s death, composing a tenderly intense tribute “To Daddy” two days before he passed and releasing it only a few weeks later. It is hard to imagine sharing a more naked form of expression: “Weak bones, no hair/Thoughts are unclear, Hard to watch it all/Hands moving slow, Please just come home/I’m here for the long haul.”
“I don’t hold back at all,” she says with a smile. “I don’t ever think, ‘Well, I can’t say this’…I just go.”
Perhaps not holding back shouldn’t be a surprise for Hope, as that part of her creative psyche awakened at the tender age of eight when she wrote her first song about her generation’s greatest national tragedy from a personal perspective. “My mom worked in Tower Two on Floor 48, and when I was kid the World Trade Center was my favorite place,” she says in almost a whisper. “She would bring me to work with her and when you were up there you feel like you’re on the top of the world. There is something so inspiring about just looking out and seeing forever…and when that went away…well, now what? What happens when my favorite place in the world is gone?”
Hope was on the phone with her mother when the first airplane hit Tower One. The ensuing moments of heroism, as her mom led her entire office out of the building, including her own mother, is something out of a Hollywood movie. But the trauma of the event meant her mom could never be the same, and the experience led to her pulling away from her family and leaving a mother and daughter forever estranged.
“I was having a really difficult time understanding why things happened and handling my emotions, so I started writing,” she says. “I figured out that that was the best way to get it out, and that’s when I started to write.”
Fourteen years later, she would confront it all again on “Back Against The Wall,” the very first song Hope recorded for her debut EP Prevail during intense but rewarding 11-day sessions in Atlanta with producers Zack Odom and Ken Mount of ZK Productions. She sings in its haunting bridge, “Maybe one day peace will come/Mom I can’t find you/Mom I can’t find you.”
“It is the most brutally and blatantly honest thing that I’ve ever written,” she admits. “I have never been that upfront about it. It’s not that I don’t like talking about it, but, I mean, who really likes to talk about not really having a mother figure in your life? So it’s the first time in this song that I’ve talked about it, but it’s important for me to be a voice for anyone who doesn’t have one.”
I experienced this firsthand the very night Hope released Prevail and played a gig with several bands in a vast complex for gaming and other activities in Freehold, NJ. I decided to bring my 12-year-old nieces, Claire and Sydney Carlson, along to see their reaction to this young woman sharing pieces of herself through her art. Her band (drummer, Wolf Reiter, Okan Kazdal and Louie Malpeli on guitars) was hot, and Hope a jangle of nervous energy, dressed in her trademark blacks and whites, boots, ripped pants and metallic blue lipstick, her blonde hair flailing about her sweat-beaded face, was alive with fluidity of motion. She stalked the stage as if possessed, but never intimidating. The crowd responded with hoots and hollers, as she chirped out the occasional tribute to her home state and to the people who make her feel connected to family; her dad’s girlfriend and her brother, and even my nieces, whom she embraced for a photo afterwards. “She is so nice,” Claire told me. It was easy to see that the connection was real.
“I’m not ever going to follow an image,” she told me weeks before when we sat for a nearly two-hour conversation that even for a grizzled reporter kept me captivated. “I’ve had the same look for my entire life—dark clothes, boots, anyone can tell you. Clothes are very important to me, because I like to express myself creatively in all ways. But I’m not going to try to fit into one thing here or another thing over there. If I like it…I wear it.”
Although Hope quite obviously enjoys playing with her image and revels in photo shoots and taking candid shots posing with vastly different outfits and hair colors, it is merely a sidelight to the music. It is in each song that she gives her greatest attention; from its composition, arrangements to lyrics to guitar sounds. Despite just starting to make a name for herself and her penchant to go with a gut feeling on many things, this girl ain’t winging it.
Hope spent months perfecting the first single off Prevail, “Dominance,” which is accompanied by an eerily set, sexually empowering video that you can check out on YouTube. She sees it as a defining song and lasting statement for her career, as opposed last summer’s pre-EP release, “Wild Girl,” mainly due to the plain fact that “Dominance” was written entirely by her with no compromise to co-writers or creative intervention; all that “really independent” stuff again.
“’Dominance’ is my baby,” she says with pride. “I spent two months perfecting that song. We wrote and recorded the demo for ‘Wild Girl’ in eight hours. It was all a very different process, and it’s nice to hear both songs and that balance. “Wild Girl’ is still me, I love singing it and I love performing it. I worked with some really great people on it. I am proud of it. But I needed to introduce some of the darkness with ‘Dominance’.”
“Dominance,” as do all the songs on Prevail, displays an acute sense of dynamics. It begins in a creeping, almost stalking manner; Hope practically recites the words as if a poem, and then as it kicks into the power-chord laden chorus, she propels the vocals forward as a clarion. Even the EP’s rockers tend to surprise at the bridge or display an interesting musical change that keeps the listener engaged. It is obvious from the first pass that Prevail’s songs are well crafted and provide Hope with a declarative voice both in recording and on stage.
“I don’t think…I write,” she says matter-of-factly. “And even though each song is different, I have a strong sense of who I am as a person and the songs still have that vibe of me as an artist; the really gritty vocals and making sure my lyrics are strong and create a visual for the mind. It’s very hard to explain, but it’s always going to sound like…Hope.”
She is so young, but she has certainly lived many novels already; maybe that’s why she promised her father she would get her degree in creative writing. With all that she has overcome, even as a child, she always seemed to know that she could best capture it in a song. Maybe it was then, at the crucial moments that could have crushed any of us, that Hope Vista knew that expressing herself through music may not salve the wounds, but it could damn well act as an emotional doorway to connecting the pain and fear and joy and triumph to others. It’s what she sings in the title track, “I Prevail”: “From bad years/To true fears, It ends here/They’re dangerous, Life works in funny ways, but somehow I am stronger than yesterday.”
“I think it’s important for people to see me in my music,” she told me, as we parted ways. “We live in a very modern, technological era, where much of the music is electronic. It’s rarely organic anymore. I think it’s important for people to give these songs a try. I want people to listen to what I have to offer. I think there isn’t a lot out there like me. I think it’s time for something completely different. I know it sounds like I’m putting a lot of pressure on myself, but I really believe in my music. I think there are messages in my songs that need to be heard. If it doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t work, but I’m doing something I can be proud of.”
She is aptly named.
Hope Vista will be playing at the Stanhope House in Stanhope, NJ on Jan. 17, and the Revolution Bar & Music Hall in Amityville, NY on Feb. 17. For more information, go to twitter.com/thisisvista and facebook.com/hopevista.