1. What is your name and your profession(s)? My name is Elise Solberg. I am a keyboardist, songwriter, film composer, actress, and producer.
2. What is your ethnic background and what is your citizenship (US native or naturalized etc.)? I am half Japanese, half caucasian (of Norwegian, German and English descent). I am a dual citizen of the United States and Japan. I was born and lived on a US Air Force base in Tokyo until I moved to the States when I was eight.
3. Are either/both of your parents musicians or somehow involved in the music industry? My parents are both professional musicians. My father was in the US Air Force band as a saxophonist and wind player. Through the Air Force band, he was able to travel around the world, playing for dignitaries of many countries (kings, prime ministers, presidents). He played for 4 US presidents! With the Air Force band, they backed artists like Frank Sinatra, Hootie and the Blowfish, and more. His work with the AF band was also very meaningful because they functioned as a unit improving relations between the US military and the citizens of Japan. They performed for and interacted with Japanese citizens. They performed for Japanese school children, cultural festivals, worn-down barns, and venues like Suntory Hall. My mother is a vocalist and pianist. She was classically trained in both voice and piano, and graduated from Kunitachi College of Music in Tokyo. She has been teaching piano and voice for over three decades now. Her students have won piano competitions in the Denver area.
4. Please tell us a little bit about your experience, either growing up as an AAPI in America, or as a person of Asian descent who immigrated to America, whichever applies. My experience as an Asian American as well as a Japanese immigrant has put me in a unique position, I feel. Being both an American and a Japanese citizen, I belong in both countries. However, at times I didn't feel like I belonged anywhere - mainly after moving to the States. In the States, I often felt like I was too “Japanese.” Throughout middle and high school, I was treated differently because of this. I was teased for having “slanted eyes.” I was questioned why I wasn’t taking Chinese when I was taking French. As if every person of Asian descent was expected to speak Chinese. Some classmates thought I was stupid for an “Asian person” because I was in “regular” and not “advanced” math. I can’t count how many times someone asked me “No - where are you really from?” My automatic instinct when asked where I’m from is to say Denver. I lived there the longest so far. It’s the disregard for my answer, asking where I’m really from that bothers me. As if Asian Americans can’t truly belong in America… On the flip side, in Japan, I kind of feel too American. So, at times I didn’t feel like I truly belonged anywhere. Many people don’t really understand what an imprint growing up in Japan and interacting with Japanese relatives consistently had on my formative years. I was just having this discussion with a friend… being multi-ethnic, she understood what it’s like having this type of “identity.” Still to this day, I have cultural traits that are Japanese, that I subconsciously picked up in those formative years. And it’s not like picking up those traits stopped after I moved to the States. I still picked up some of these traits from my mother and subsequent trips back to Japan. Over the years, I realized the importance of surrounding yourself with people that accept you- your whole self! And surrounding yourself with communities that understand the challenges you may face. Working for Asian Pacific American Student Services at USC definitely made me feel more connected and seen. My peers and mentors at APASS understood the challenges the AAPI community faces, and related to me on a level I’ve never thought possible!
5. How connected do you feel to your heritage/culture(s)? Through my mother, I still feel connected to my Japanese heritage. We still speak in Japanese over FaceTime. Growing up in Colorado, she continued cooking Japanese dishes. I try to make Japanese dishes whenever I can now (Japanese curry, udon, soba, etc). Our family tries to go to Japan to visit our relatives as much as we can. Even if a long time passes between seeing each other, we basically pick up right where we left off with our Japanese relatives! We always have a good time together.
6. 6a.) How did you get into music? Did you major in music in college? Where did you attend college/university (and grad school(s), if applicable) and in what subjects did you get your degree(s)? 1. Having professional musicians as parents, music was around me all the time. My older brother started on piano, and I wanted to play just like him. Not quite ready for the piano yet, my mother put me in eurythmics at two years old. Then at four years old, I started piano. At seven, my mother had me audition for Yamaha Advanced Academy. I studied piano performance and composition there for a year before moving to Colorado. There, I continued studying classical piano with various teachers. I ended up studying classical piano performance at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California under Dr. Stewart Gordon. I graduated from USC in 2018 with a BA in Piano Performance. However, through the wonderful Patrice Rushen, I was able to join Thornton’s legendary Popular Music program for a year. I studied with Patrice (piano, songwriting, arranging, music direction) and she encouraged me to pursue my newfound passions professionally. So, that’s what I did! I also studied jazz with Russell Ferrante. I’m eternally grateful for their instruction and guidance!
6b.) When and how did you decide you were going to pursue music professionally? What were your parents’ reactions to you deciding to pursue music? Do they support your music career now? I don’t think I recall ever declaring my path as a professional musician to my parents. I think I just knew that I was going to pursue music for the rest of my life. I’m very lucky that my parents always have supported me in whatever direction I went. They never questioned my desire to pursue music professionally. I’m very fortunate they still support me!
7. What are a few of your (music) projects of which you are the proudest? What were your roles on those projects? One of the projects I’m proudest of is performing (keys) in Chloe x Halle’s Tiny Desk Concert. The band consisted of a nine piece, badass all-female band. We only had two days of intense rehearsals to pull it together (with a larger ensemble, nevertheless), with elaborate arrangements. The performance was the result of women supporting each other and putting in 150% to the cause. Many thanks to Derek Dixie the legendary Music Director/maestro for supporting us and for his musical genius. https://youtu.be/KTNZR82fVHw
Another project I’m proud of is performing/arranging a Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project 20th Anniversary celebration performance. For this project, I not only got to perform piano, but also talk about and honor my father - a veteran of the US Air Force. This project was also special because I got to work with a friend of mine, Emmy-nominated songwriting legend Roxanne Seeman (Earth Wind & Fire, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler), and legendary Grammy award-winning composer Charles Fox (“Killing Me Softly” by Roberta Flack, the Fugees). Alongside vocalist Hannah Goldblatt, we got to perform Roxanne and Charles’ song “In Love and War,” to honor veterans everywhere. It was very meaningful to be a part of. https://youtu.be/8itzkAi3rxo
I’m also very proud to have been a part of recording (piano) for Derek Dixie’s arrangement for Chloe x Halle’s rendition of “Lift Every Voice,” for BET’s televised HBCU Homecoming celebration. In the aftermath of summer 2020 and the Black Lives Movement, I was honored to be a part of something this special to honor the legacy of HBCUs. It was also an honor to record alongside some of my musical heroes - Omar Edwards (organ - MD+keys for Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, etc), Courtney Leonard (bass - Beyoncé, Lalah Hathaway, Pharell, etc), and Rod Castro (guitar - Beyoncé, Bootsy Collins, Ellie Goulding, etc.). It’s always very humbling to play with those better and more experienced than me. https://youtu.be/bxRtYunIlSE
Beyond those projects, please feel free to name some of your other credits as well as any brands/companies you officially endorse. Most of my performance credits come from being a keyboardist for Chloe x Halle. Some other performances I’ve been a part of with them is the MTV Movie & TV Awards, the Late Late Show with James Corden, Pepsi’s “Unmute Your Voice Concert,” the Spotify Pre-Grammy party for Best New Artist Nominees, and various other live performances. As a songwriter, I was a winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest in 2018 for an original song I wrote. Recently, I started writing songs for film/sync placement. I just finished a song with fellow Asian American composer George Shaw for the animated feature film “Cinderella and the Spellbinder.” It was performed by the incredible Golden Globe-nominated vocalist/actress Cathy Ang. I also have done some sideline piano work for shows like the Kids Are Alright on ABC and the Unicorn on CBS. I endorse Ultimate Ears in-ear monitors. I use the UE 7’s!
8. Describe to me your dream project. My dream musical project would be working on a soundtrack for a feature film with AAPI artists, songwriters, producers, and engineers. Kind of in the style that Kendrick Lamar did with the Black Panther soundtrack. I think it would be cool to have a soundtrack featuring the many talents of Asian Americans!
9. What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) being an AAPI in the music world? What are some obstacles you have encountered (if any) as an AAPI in general (non-music)? Conversely, has being an AAPI ever helped you in the music industry? One of the obstacles that I’ve faced as an Asian American in the music industry is lack of community and representation. I’ve hardly met any Asian American musicians, composers, songwriters and producers in the popular music/film world. Thankfully, I’ve recently met/worked with a few Asian American musicians in the past few years. However, the representation just isn’t visible yet. Optics-wise, it’s hurtful for young Asian Americans to not see themselves in the musicians they see on stage and working behind the scenes.
10. 10a.) Who are some AAPI musicians/composers/producers who have previously inspired and currently inspire you (if any)? Why? I was extremely fortunate for Patrice Rushen to introduce me to her fellow student and keyboard/MD phenom Karina DePiano. This was before I went out into popular music professionally, so it meant a lot to me to be able to look up to an Asian American woman in the music industry. She is an excellent musician, and inspired me to go out and perform in pop music contexts! I was also fortunate as a young child to have been exposed to Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park. He’s a great songwriter and I basically inhaled Linkin Park’s music as a child. He wrote the theme song for the TV show “Into the Badlands,” which is so badass to me.
10b.) What are your hopes for the AAPI music community and your hopes for AAPIs in general? My hope for the AAPI music community is that we build a very strong community. That we connect on a deeper level and help uplift each other in our careers. That we talk about the issues facing us in the music industry, and in life. I hope that in the future, there are a lot more AAPI musicians for kids to look up to! In general, I hope that AAPI issues continue to garner support and recognition from society at large. There are so many stories and issues that still haven’t received much wide-spread recognition, such as the story of Vincent Chin.
11. If you could give advice now to your younger teenage self, what would you tell her/him/they? I would tell my teenage self to accept and uplift what makes her different. I wish I realized earlier that being different made me unique. Whether it’s looking different, having different cultural backgrounds, etc. Having different points of views, traits, and characteristics than the norm brings richness and depth to whatever room you are in.
12. Do you have any upcoming projects for which you are excited and about which you are allowed to share? Is there anything non-music-related on the horizon about which you would like to share? Right now, I am in the midst of scoring a feature film to be released later this year! I can’t disclose the title just yet, but it will be announced later. Also, I am in the middle of training for a TV show for Apple TV+ I will be co-starring in as a pianist and actor. It will be 5 months of intense training before 3 months of filming. I will also be co-scoring for this TV show. Unfortunately, I cannot share the name of this project either, but this will be announced shortly. Also, I recently started a non-profit called Turn Up Her Mic, which highlights the experiences of womxn working behind the scenes in the music industry. Through a series of online panels, we have included panelists - musicians, engineers, tour managers, music directors and more, to discuss the various issues surrounding womxn in music. Panelists have worked with artists like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Camila Cabello, Lizzo, BTS, and much more. There are more projects for Turn Up Her Mic brewing for 2022!
13. Name one or two non-music-related things/subjects about which you are also passionate. I have been passionate about gender equality and women’s rights - inspiring me to create Turn Up Her Mic. I love learning about figures that have advanced women’s rights such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Also, I took a Neuroscience class at USC, and have since been reading articles about how our brains work. Our brains have always fascinated me.
14. Any final thoughts? Alternatively, do you have any questions for me and/or the greater AAPI music community? I truly believe that talking about AAPI issues, specifically visibility in music, is what will truly drive change in the industry. Raising this awareness is key, because many people don’t consciously realize the lack of AAPI’s in the music industry. However, the impetus is also on the existing AAPI’s working in the music industry to make sure that we are mentoring the generation coming after us. There are AAPI professionals already doing this, but I think there could be an ever larger, more collective effort.
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