Thursday, October 27, 2022

NoSo’s music found me first.

It was late March of 2021, and the pandemic had me virtually attending Iowa from my hometown two hours away. I remember working away at whatever biostatistics problem was in front of me, mindlessly listening to a playlist of recommended songs for me - and by some fortunate twist of Spotify algorithm, their single “Allie” snuck its way into the queue.

Five notes from the song’s intro and I was pulled completely away from my work. I was hooked by, and simultaneously envious of, the way that someone could make their acoustic guitar sing this way, harmonics effortlessly interwoven with careful fingerpicking and rhythmic hits on the strings. I switched my computer tab over to where the music was playing, because who on earth was this person and how had I not discovered them yet, and hovered over the single’s album art. I got a giddy kind of rush from the musician in the photo.

They looked like me.

I thought it was criminal that they only had the one single out on Spotify at the time, but I played it to death to offer my support.

After that, they just kept finding me - showing up on my For You Page, now with their hair cropped short, to show off that iconic riff; popping new releases into that recommended playlist when I least expected it. I listened to their debut album Stay Proud of Me the day it dropped, cruising down the interstate in the middle of a rainstorm. They ended up a staple in my personal playlists before I realized it.

I, as well as my colleagues Nikki Chang and Kayla Nguyen from the Asian Pacific American Cultural Center, were fortunate to have the chance to interview NoSo this past Tuesday. Read on to hear their thoughts about putting out their first record, musical inspirations, and the intersectionality of queerness and Asian identity in their artistry.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Myles: First, I just want to say congratulations on releasing your debut album Stay Proud of Me this past July. I’ve been listening to it very often, I enjoy it. Can you walk us through the process of getting your album out into the world?

NoSo: I had signed with a label with only two songs done for the record, and that was back in 2019. The next few years were a process of me writing and recording the rest of the record, and that was quite a long process just because it was my first time ever making an album. There were a lot of songs made and then I cut it all down to the ten tracks that appear on the record. I think, because it was my first time, I put pressure on myself to not make any filler tracks. I wanted them all to be songs I felt confident in, so it took longer than I anticipated. But I’m glad that I took the time to do it just so I know that I put everything into it and didn’t just take shortcuts.

Myles: I’ve seen on your Spotify bio and also in interviews that your music has been described as being “a balm for the alienated.” Can you talk a little bit about that and what that means to you?

NoSo: The person who wrote my bio - I thought that was a really sweet component - Noah [Yoo], who wrote it, is also Asian-American. It was important for me to find someone who was of a similar background to me in that regard to write my bio. I felt like they would be able to encapsulate my experiences. Generally speaking, I would hope that anybody who listens to the record can relate to it, but I think specifically Asian-Americans can find more undertones than the average listener. “Balm for the alienated” - for me, I grew up in a very much predominantly white environment, and so I felt very isolated, even though I had my friends who were really sweet. Pretty much any environment I’m in that’s predominantly white or that I don’t feel like I can fully be myself is very isolating to me. Hearing musicians like Mitski and Japanese Breakfast and all these artists who I felt represented by felt like, finally, someone was speaking to me. I think that’s my message. I hope to make music that makes people feel a little less alone in their environment and they can escape.

Nikki: Bouncing off of what Myles was talking about with your debut album, if you could give that album a color palette, which four colors would you choose and why?

NoSo: Oh, I love that question! I would like to think it’s kind of warm. I think the colors would be a light blue, and a dark purple? Maybe a burnt orange, and a really light gray. In general, I think the visuals for the album are really soft, too. For the next record, I might lean toward a different aesthetic - different sounds are a bit more mechanical or grating, but for this record, it’s all very soft for the most part. That’s typically what I lean toward.

Kayla: What would you say to inspire the current or next generation of queer, Asian musicians in the indie music scene?

NoSo: I would say not to listen to people who say it would be too much. When I was growing up, people were trying to steer me away from pursuing music just because the landscape was very white. And it still is, but I think it was disheartening for me to hear that as a kid. I would say just don’t listen, because people don’t know what they’re talking about most of the time. I think the more that I reach people - I have a pretty small reach right now, but even with the reach I have now, people will tell me their own experiences with their identity and it’s so eye-opening that there are so many people like me out there that I wasn’t even aware. Just keep going and keep your head down.

Myles: I know you already touched on this in some of your previous answers, but I’m also just curious about how the intersection of Asian and queer identity specifically has played into the way you write music and the way you present your artistry.

NoSo: I’ve talked a lot about this with my sibling, who’s also queer. I think the culture, at least that I’m aware of from my experiences, is rooted in a lot of shame - not just about queer identity, but in general about emotions and mental health. I feel like the generations above me are very repelled against therapy and even talking about their emotions. Our generation, specifically older and younger Gen Z, are trying to break the cycle of generational trauma. I think being queer is another layer that is, to my knowledge, even less accepted over in Korea as opposed to the western states, and I think that plays into shame and repression. There’s probably so many people in older generations who are queer and never had the opportunity to express themselves. There are themes of a lot of shame in my music, and I think that’s just from my upbringing, but also being compassionate and empathetic towards my younger self, and realizing the shame that I feel is not my fault - it’s just ingrained in the culture. Trying to push back against that.

Myles: What is the best experience you’ve had with a venue, or any show?

NoSo: My headline show in LA. It was my first one I’d ever done, and it was for my album release. There were a lot of trans people of color at the show, and my manager and people who had gone to see it said it was probably one of the most respectful crowds they had ever been a part of. That, to me, was really touching, because my goal is to have a space that feels really safe and comforting. I’ve gone to a lot of shows where I’m one of the only people of color - especially at a lot of indie shows where I don’t entirely feel safe and almost feel unwelcome. I hope that my music will gather a kind demographic that is nice and respectful. People were moving out of the way so others could see, there was a trans kid who was singing along and people were moving so they could be at the front. Stuff like that - general respect and comfort.

Nikki: Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

NoSo: I grew up in Chicago, and I went to public school, so we were really well-funded in the arts departments. I had really great music teachers. Specifically, I had a teacher who, through the curriculum, would teach about Aretha Franklin and the way that segregation affected jazz and how all music is rooted in Black culture and Black artists. It was at a white school, and I thought that was really cool and powerful. She very much motivated me because I was learning guitar at that time, and she would have me play for the class. She would say, “You should keep doing this because, clearly, you care about it.” It started there. Ever since then, I’ve had really great music teachers at every school I’ve been to. I think that’s been what’s kept me going.

Kayla: In the same realm, who would you like to collaborate with in the future?

NoSo: I’m a big fan of SASAMI, and Mitski, Japanese Breakfast…I think just working with another Asian-American artist would be a dream. I love Michelle Zauner as an artist and a literary writer - I felt very seen by her book and also by her music. What’s funny is that if I had been asked this question years ago, I would have picked them because they weren’t as prevalent at the time. Now, even with backing band members, I actively want to have diversity and representation. All of that is very important to me.

Myles: If you had to stay on a remote album for a month and only bring three albums with you, which albums would you choose and why?

NoSo: Man, that’s a really good question. I think I’d bring SAWAYAMA by Rina Sawayama, and then Hounds of Love by Kate Bush, and…I’ve been really obsessed with Nilüfer Yanya’s recent album, so probably that one too. I think that’s an eclectic group. I like SAWAYAMA because there’s so many different genres on that record, so I feel like I won’t get tired of it. I also just love Kate Bush so much; I think she’s a genius. And I love Nilüfer Yanya - that record is so incredible, and I just never get tired of her voice because it’s so interesting.

Myles: Kind of going off of that, what were some musical inspirations for the album, and do you have any musical inspirations in the back of your mind for any new music going forward?

NoSo: There are certain records I listened to a lot that influenced certain songs. I love Sufjan Stevens, I listened to him religiously throughout school and wrote a lot of ballads during that time. His confessional lyric style has really influenced me. Because I studied music in college, we learned a lot of different genres, so I love funk and pop music, so I think that influenced some of the tracks. It’s been a mix - I really like listening to everything. I love 90’s Korean music, I love 80’s ballads from Korea…it’s been a lot of stuff.

Nikki: Last week, I hosted an Asian and LGBTQ event to highlight people who are in the arts and people who do activist work, who are policymakers…and this is really random, but chefs as well! One question that I had asked in my discussion was, “How do you see your art and creativity as resistance to tradition?”

NoSo: For myself, it’s inherently not traditional. Not just in music, but in other spaces I’ve been in, I feel like I stick out in a way that I was resistant to while growing up as a kid but that now I feel like I’m embracing more. I feel like that applies to me creatively because I think indie music is very much white - [laughing] - it’s a very predominantly white genre. A lot of the gigs I play have a lot of white people, not just onstage, but also people who are handling the technical aspects behind the scenes. That used to intimidate me, and now I realize that any artist that’s intersectional is inherently going to come across these things. It’s powerful now that people are still stepping in those spaces regardless. Me writing songs that are queer and about my Asian-American identity are two things that typically do not cross, or just are not as talked about in discussion. It’s opening the door to discussion and also representing marginalized communities.

Kayla: I imagine that your journey with your career has been big and had many different obstacles. If you could give your younger self some advice, what would it be?

NoSo: Honestly, just keep my head down. Even to this day, I try to avoid social media too much because you can get into an unhealthy mindset of comparing yourself to other people’s careers. Everyone does it to each other, but especially when you’re marginalized, you’re running a different race than other people. I would tell my younger self that I can’t compare myself to people with different environmental upbringings and connections. Just focus on my songwriting and practice all the time instead of getting into that downward spiral.

Myles: To wrap everything up, we’re really stoked to have you kicking off the annual Homecoming concert in just a few days. Following from that - what do you want the audience to take away from listening to your music?

NoSo: I’ve never been to Iowa before, but I hope there are students with similar upbringings who feel seen by the music. When I was in school, and a band came - it was MUNA - I had never seen an act like that before, who were just confidently themselves. It instilled a lot of confidence in me in return. I hope that I would have a similar effect on any person - that I could just be myself, and that’s be enough to make someone else feel like they can, as well.

NoSo’s opening set of the Homecoming concert will begin at 8 P.M. on the Pentacrest this Friday night, followed by Sir Chloe’s headlining set at 9:15. Don't forget your costume – we'll be giving a prize away to the best one out there!

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