“We’re all pioneers”: Interview with Korean-American musician Christian Kang
Hellokpop recently had the opportunity to chat with Christian Kang, a Korean-American singer-songwriter based in Seattle. Mr. Kang was a finalist in Kollaboration Seattle, part of an annual Asian-American talent competition held in cities across America, in 2013. Christian writes and records music for his YouTube channel, and is preparing to release his debut EP. He spoke to us about his musical philosophy, Kollaboration, his thoughts on being an Asian-American musician, and more.
HKP: Could you introduce yourself to our readers?
CK: “My name is Christian Kang, and I’m a singer-songwriter from Seattle, Washington!”
How did you get into music? What sparked your passion for it?
“I’d always grown up with music around me. My parents always had music playing in the house. My dad had what I consider to be very unique musical tastes for someone from his cultural background. I grew up listening to everything from Vivaldi to Led Zepplin to Miles Davis to B.B. King. I think the artist that really sparked my interest in particular was James Taylor though. We had a cassette of James Taylor’s Greatest Hits Volume 1, and I knew all the songs on that. So I never grew up listening to modern pop music and I think that really shaped how I view music now. But the thing that really got me started playing and writing music was the movie School of Rock.”
“Ten years ago there was a movie called School of Rock, starring Jack Black. In that movie there are all these ten-year-olds that learn to play rock and roll and at the end, Jack Black takes them on stage to perform. I was around the same age as those kids when I saw that and I was like, if these kids can rock out like this, why can’t I? So I was very inspired and that’s when I picked up the guitar and started playing.”
So that movie kind of did what it was supposed to. Serve as an inspiration.
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On your website, you describe your music as having “the nuance of jazz, the soul of blues, and the storytelling of folk”. I definitely hear a lot of the blues and a lot of the folk and those influences. With the jazz, I’m having a harder time tracing how it manifests into your music. Could you talk about how that comes in?
“I have a lot of songs that haven’t been released to the public yet. So there are songs that are a lot more of a blend between jazz and pop that aren’t out there yet. I think maybe that’s some of the, “Oh, where’s the jazz element to it?” But I think the jazz background manifests itself in more subtle ways too, even if I’m not playing jazz itself. There are a lot of little subtleties in note choice, phrasing. I released a cover of “Stay With Me” recently. I didn’t really like how ubiquitous and unadventurous the stereotypical Asian-American cover scene was—you use acoustic guitar and it’s more R&B-like. I wanted to do something a little bit more unique with it, so I approached it from a pop/funk/jazz side. There are a lot of jazz chords in there and a lot of the vocal/melodic lines that I’m using have some jazz influence. I use chord tones and different modes as opposed to singing it within the key. So all those things manifest themselves in my music, in subtle ways. Also, I think my music has a free, improvisational aspect to it. Sometimes you’ll hear a solo in my song or I might sing a part a little differently. Although that’s not exclusive to jazz, there is a certain freedom in jazz that allows you and even encourages you to do that.”
Do you perform all of your arrangement/instrumentation/mixing by yourself?
“Most of the stuff I release over YouTube is just my voice and guitar. For me, I feel like any arrangement should stand on its own, at that stripped-down level as well. So I have no problems just doing guitar and vocals. But when I do want to multi-track and have a lot of different instruments on one song it depends on who is available to play. Sometimes I’ll play bass or arrange a drum track by arranging some pre-recorded loops or play a keyboard part. But generally I arrange everything myself, I write everything by myself. And I record and mix everything by myself as well. Not the best at recording and mixing – I’m still learning that, but that’s definitely fun too.”
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That leads into another question: I’ve heard purely acoustic songs as well as ones with more expansive arrangement, like “Pour, Pour, Pour” and “Wandering”. Do you lean one way or the other in preference?
“I’m going to revise my statement from before: a song doesn’t necessarily have to stand on its own at that stripped-down level, but what I will say is that the most impressive songs, performances and arrangements are those that have wowed me even when it’s just a guitar and vocals, or piano and vocals. As far as my preferences, it’s hard to say. I listened to a lot of James Taylor and Bob Dylan growing up, B.B. King, Robert Johnson, Son House, and all these really old, old artists. They don’t really rely too heavily on production. They rely purely on their expression and skill. So for me, I definitely don’t mind if my music is well-produced, if I have great arrangements, a lot of instrumentation. But I tend to think of that as just something that’s nice to have, but not essential. The core of it is the song, your lyrics, melodies, arrangement… your skill. If you have all of that and it doesn’t translate into expression, it’s meaningless.”
It sounds like that’s also your song writing philosophy as well. You strive for the songs that can stand on their own, even without the frills.
Your lyrics draw from everyday lives, but they often speak from the viewpoint of a seasoned wisdom. (Talking about “Travelers”, “Fable”, “Pour, Pour, Pour”.) Again seeing the influence of folk music there. Is there a story behind your lyrics? How do they come about?
“Behind every song, there’s a story, for sure. And I think those are the most powerful songs – the ones that do come from real places. But although I’m mainly a confessional songwriter, recently I’ve been trying to just tell stories, even if they’re not mine. Because I think stories reveal a lot about who we are, whether they’re true or fabricated. If I release a song about a story or an idea, your reaction to it is revealing of what the song means to you or how you perceive it. So it’s been a kind of song writing exercise for me. I’ve been trying to expand as a songwriter and grow in that way, so I’ve been trying to write songs that aren’t purely about my own life or experiences. “Travelers” is an example of that, actually. It’s a song about how we all eventually end up in the same place, whether you’re a king or a pauper. That’s an idea, not an experience, obviously. So that’s a long answer to a short question. (Laughs)”
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What is your own favorite song of yours?
“A song that I’m going to release in the next couple weeks, called “Summertime and Baseball”. It’s kind of a jazzy pop song, and it’s a bit of neo-soul. I like it because it’s rhythmically interesting and my arrangement is interesting. Lyrically it’s strong, melodically it’s complex yet accessible. It makes you feel good, and it makes you dance. I tend to like the songs that I haven’t yet recorded but am about to because it’s my most recent song. It’s still kind of fresh, I haven’t spent hours recording and mixing it so that I’m tired of it. It’s also one of my newer songs so it feels like it’s my best effort that I’ve put out so far. So that’s my newest song, and it’s one that I also think is my strongest in all aspects.”
What are some ways you get to perform and practice music in your daily life?
“I perform at least once a week to my parents—my toughest critics. Every time I write a song, I perform it to them. I generally write a song every week or two; it varies depending on how busy I am with work outside of music. So I always feel like I’m performing – not necessarily to a crowd of strangers, but to my parents, to friends. As far as practice goes – I’m trying to be a lot more intentional about how I practice, because the older I get, the less time I have. So I really need to compartmentalize my day and divide it up to make sure I get my practice time in. The place that I’m at as a musician [is one where] the musicianship I feel like I have far exceeds the technical skill that I have. I have all these ideas and things I wish I could do as a musician and songwriter, but I can’t execute it quite as well as I want to. So I’ve been practicing my song writing – just writing a ton of songs – but I think I’m going to shift more towards the instrumental side. Vocals and guitar chops, things like that. I’m looking forward to it. Because by doing that, I’ve gotten a ton of ideas for song writing as well, which is my primary focus. So I practice every day – there’s never been a moment in my life where music hasn’t been a part of it.”
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You were a finalist at Kollaboration 2013. How was that experience and what did that mean for you?
“Kollaboration was a very significant experience for me. Kollaboration is obviously a huge platform for artists, and you get a lot of exposure through it. As an organization, it also supports you very well throughout the process as well as after the show is done. So it was significant for me as an opportunity, but I think the two biggest things that I came away with from Kollaboration were: one, it reinforced why I was doing what I was doing. I want to express myself, and I want to connect with people by expressing myself as well as I can. I experienced that in the amount of support I received from the people that came out to Kollaboration and all the feedback I received. Seeing what a difference it actually does make in peoples’ lives, and understanding that music can be entertainment as well as therapy, it can be a lot of different things for people. So it’s an honorable path to take in a lot of ways. That was a paradigm shift I had through Kollaboration.”
“The second thing I came away with was [seeing] an opportunity for impact that I have as an Asian-American in the arts. That was eye-opening for me. I always kind of understood that, but it wasn’t until Kollaboration that I understood how unique I was and what that means for Asian-Americans everywhere. For those who don’t know, I think in America, Asians are very under-represented in the arts – especially in pop music. So seeing how there’s a whole movement behind that, empowering Asian-Americans to step forward and have a platform to express themselves and find some level of success and have that support, that’s huge. It was certainly big for me. Even more, seeing what has influenced me as a musician and my musical style is so different from what you see stereotypically with Asian-Americans in the arts. So that was a big takeaway. I have something very different and meaningful and significant to offer. It was humbling, life-giving, and inspiring all at the same time.”
As a Korean-American and Asian-American, how does that play into your identity as an artist? What are some unique advantages or challenges?
“Through YouTube, you see a lot of Asian-American artists – obviously many of the most popular YouTube entertainers have been Asian-American, which is fantastic. And through Kollaboration and organizations like it, Asian-American film festivals… there are a lot of groups that really support and empower Asian-Americans. I think it’s through that that Asian-Americans in the arts [has become] something that’s not ridiculous any more. That’s a huge stride that we’ve made as a group, and I think we should really appreciate and be excited about that, but continue to strive for more.”
“That being said, specifically in terms of music, I think there’s an unfortunate – or maybe fortunate depending on how you look at it – stereotype that has come up for what it means to be an Asian-American musician. When you think of an Asian-American musician, the first thing that pops into your head is the YouTube star type. For better or for worse; I would say there are many more good things about that than bad things. But for an artist like me, who has a lot of roots in jazz and blues and singer-songwriters who shaped mainstream American music, I think it’s difficult because I constantly have to prove myself, and I feel like I constantly have to work against that stereotype – to break out of that in people’s minds. So I think that’s one of the challenges of being an Asian-American musician – that you’re thought to exist within a certain genre and certain type of music.”
“One of the good things about being Asian-American in music is that, in a lot of ways, you’re a pioneer and you’re really blazing the trail for other Asian-Americans. Not only Asian Americans, but other minorities as well. Even though it’s not uncommon to hear about Asian-Americans being in the arts and in music, I think it’s still very new and there’s a lot of ground that hasn’t been explored. That’s one of the really cool things: we’re all pioneers, and we’re blazing trails for a lot of different people.”
Unrelated question: do you have a favorite K-pop artist?
“Kim Bum-soo! I love him. First of all, he’s an incredible vocalist. Just top notch. I love that he draws a ton of influence from Stevie Wonder, whom I also listened to a lot. And I love his story. It’s a huge underdog story, and he’s just an incredibly humble dude, and a very, very good person.”
You’ve told us your first EP is coming up and will be crowd funded. What can you tell us about that?
[On crowd funding] “With streaming music and declining music sales, there’s been a lot less revenue for musicians. Obviously you have the 1%, and they’re making a fine living doing what they’re doing. But for the average musician, there aren’t enough ways for them to make a decent living doing music nowadays. It’s very hard to do that. That’s partially due to the Internet, but one of the great things about the Internet is that now we are taking the power and control away from the traditional model of going to the record companies and [giving them] control over what your music is. They no longer have that much power over managing and distributing your music; you can do that online through a number of platforms. Recording equipment is now accessible. So there’s a lot of good and bad that comes with it, but one of the bad that I think the whole music industry is still working through – it’s not the final form, I think, but right now – it’s hard for the musician to make a living.”
“So take Kickstarter: that’s one of the coolest things that could ever happen for a musician. To organize a tour, to record, mix and promote – all those things requires a lot of money. And a lot of musicians aren’t able to fund that through their profession, unfortunately. Music is a very expensive vocation and a lot of time goes into it as well. So Kickstarter is really cool – it’s a really cool way that changes the game in the music industry. It used to be that someone releases an album once a year, and that’s the only connection you have with the artist. Other than radio and album release, maybe if you’re really lucky they come to a city near you, you can see them live. Nowadays, you have a direct say and direct way to support your artist. You have a direct influence in whether an artist you support succeeds or not. So Kickstarter is something a lot of musicians are doing, and it’s one of the many things that are giving serious musicians a way to finance their music and a way for them to continue doing what they are doing. So yes, I will be crowdfunding my debut EP, and we’ll see how that goes. Please support me! (Laughs)”
[On the EP] “I have a lot of songs that I want to put on it. And unfortunately, I don’t have an identity for it yet. So I’m trying to still craft that. I’m still writing for it. It’s in process – it’s like a small child growing up. We’ll see how it turns out.”
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Where would you like to take your career?
“I realized two things. The first: music will never not be a part of my life. Whether I do it as a career or not. It’s too big a part of my life for me to drop it. It’s the way that I process a lot of things, the way that I wind down… I perceive the world through music. So to lose music would be to lose, as cliché as it is, a part of myself, honestly. That leads to the second thing: I’m not actually sure where my music career will lead. I just know that right now, as a young person, I have an opportunity to do it without a lot of other obligations. I know that I love it, I have a chance to do it, so I’m going to try as best as I can. But I wouldn’t be broken if I couldn’t make a living out of music, just because I don’t necessarily do it to make money. I’m starting to realize that I value freedom musically more than advancing my career. Because there are a lot of compromises you have to make, unfortunately, if you want to make a solid living doing music. At this point, I’m not sure that I’m willing to make those compromises. There may be a point where I say “I need to get bills paid,” and am forced to make compromises or maybe find a different path, but for now, I have the luxury of not having to really consider those possibilities. So I’m not exactly sure where my career’s going to go, or where I see myself. I just know that I really love making music.”
Sources: All quotes obtained directly; videos from christiankangmusic on YouTube