Hannah Houser with Son Lux (Photo courtesy of Hannah Houser)
Knoxville has a connection to the Academy Awards and to Big Ears that might not readily be apparent. Seymour native and Knoxville resident Hannah Houser, who worked her way up in the music industry while based here, co-manages (with Michael Kaufmann) Son Lux, a trio with two Oscar nominations among them for their work on the film “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” In addition to their nominations, the film has nominations in nine other categories, including Best Picture
The group is nominated for Best Original Score for the soundtrack to the movie, the first band to ever be nominated for an entire score. The group includes Ryan Lott, Rafiq Bhatia, and Ian Chang, with Lott nominated for the song, “This is a Life,” performed by Lott, David Byrne and Mitski, all of whom collaborated in its writing. The group will perform the song at the Academy Awards (Sunday night, 8:00 pm Eastern) with David Byrne and Stephanie Hsu (nominated for best supporting actress in the film) stepping in for Mitski. Son Lux will also perform at Big Ears (March 30 – April 1) as a band, Rafiq will perform as a solo artist, and David Byrne will be in the neighborhood.
I caught up with Hannah by phone while she was California, where she and the band prepared for the big night. I asked Hannah to talk about the journey that has led her to this point in her career.
She said it started in college, at Carson Newman, when she booked shows to come to campus. She said she began to understand, “what it takes to book an artist and to have them feel comfortable,” and found that she really enjoyed it. She followed that passion, going to work for AC Entertainment directly out of college. She worked with artist management there, collaborating with Carissa Stolting. “I was really taken with the part of the industry that had direct contact with an artist, serving as a buffer, an advocate. I always wanted to get back to that.”
She first saw Son Lux at Big Ears 2014 while working for AC, as they performed in the Square Room. She was so taken with them that she sent an email to Michael “fawning over their performance.” She kept up with them, worked with them at another festival, and watched them grow. After a period of being a project of rotating members led by Ryan, the group settled into their current three-person line-up in 2015, officially becoming a band. Hannah said she “sensed they were entering a new era and felt I could be helpful.”
She reached out to Michael and said they both “took a leap of faith”. She left AC Entertainment at the end of 2016 to work with Son Lux as a project manager, helping with album and single releases. Her relationship with the band and with Michael grew to the point that she became the band’s co-manager.
“I knew that I wanted to expand into an artist management role and Michael really guided me in that process. It was a gradual learning process and a mutual trust that I had the skill set and passion and care for them that they deserved.” He now manages Ryan’s solo projects, while she manages the solo work of the other members, and is also primary manager for three other artists (Hanna Benn, Lara Somogyi, and Emily Wells).
Throughout, she has continued to work from Knoxville and said that any obstacles to that process faded through the pandemic as people become more comfortable and adept at remote connections. “Being in Knoxville, being in my hometown, gives me a healthy buffer and a helpful perspective for my artists. I feel happy to be doing what I am doing from my hometown.” Of course, when your band performs on the Academy Awards, you travel.
As for the band’s work on the movie score, she said that while they had no idea how big it would become, they were excited from the beginning, saying it was a “special opportunity to collaborate with each other and also with the Daniels (Directors and Producers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert). We knew from the beginning it was a special project. It was the first time that they, as a band, had scored a film.” The Daniels, who were fans, approached the band with an offer to bring their genre-bending sounds to a collaborative effort with the movie makers. The soundtrack was developed with the movie, not added after it was shot, as is typically the case.
“It premiered at SXSW about a year ago and it was amazing. It felt like the project was complete in a sense. It really connected with people. The themes around immigrant life, mother daughter relationships, queer life. That may have surprised people who went into the film based on its wild premise and came out feeling like they had watched something profound.” While the film has lots of action and travel between multi-verses, it is anchored in these larger, existential questions.
She said they learned in December that the band had been short-listed for their nominations, along with about fifteen nominees in each category. “Just being short listed, we were really blown away.” The final nominee lists were issued on January 24, which also happened to be Ryan’s birthday. “It was the best birthday present.” They soon learned they would also perform at the televised event.
She said the Big Ears appearance is a unique experience and opportunity to present her artists at the festival where she used to work. She said she still treasures the opportunity to experience “that kind of music in my favorite town.” Of her artists coming to Knoxville she said, “Knoxville is a hidden gem. It feels like a retreat for them and reminds me that this is a special place. Knoxville and East Tennessee are part of my identity. My heart will always be tethered to this place.”
The movie is now streaming on Showtime and is available for purchase on Amazon Prime and Apple TV, among other services.