1. What is your name and your profession(s)? My name is Joy Ngiaw and I am a film composer.
2. What is your ethnic background and what is your citizenship (US native or naturalized etc.)? I was born in Malaysia and brought up in China.
3. Are either/both of your parents musicians or somehow involved in the music industry? My parents are both not musicians, but are huge music lovers.
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. I was born in a small kampung (‘village’) called Kemayan in Pahang, Malaysia. With a population of less than 5000, the locals in Kemayan had a strong sense of community. Generations grew up together and mine was no different. Growing up with a big family, my father has 9 siblings and my mother has 14. There’s a huge emphasis on genuine camaraderie. However, I had to break out of my comfort zone when my immediate family moved to Shanghai, China when I was 6, in hopes that my sibling and I could have a better education. Adjusting to the new environment was a hard time for me. I remember always feeling “in between” the two different cultures - not quite fitting into China, but also not extremely immersed in the Malaysian culture. I was also bullied a lot in school for having a thick Malaysian-Chinese accent and an unconventional last name that sounds like ‘urinate’ in Mandarian. I slowly closed myself off. My only relief was the one hour lunch break, where I would sneak into the auditorium to play the Yamaha Grand Piano. I found myself improvising on the piano, playing whatever I felt like that accompanied my emotions, and I felt comforted and less alone. It was during those moments of relief that taught me music had the power to heal and connect with one’s emotions, it had became my emotional outlet. It inspired me to pursue music composition full time, in hopes to write music that can make someone feel understood and heard. To bridge a connection with the listener.
5. How connected do you feel to your heritage/culture(s)? As I’ve gotten older, I have learnt to embrace that my story was unique to me, and being “in between” the Malaysian and Chinese culture makes up who I am. I am so proud to call myself a Chinese-Malaysian, and being able to proudly bring our beautiful culture to America.
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)? 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? Even though my parents did not have the means to study music, they were both music and art lovers. My siblings and I were very fortunate that our parents wanted us to try out different ways to be creative (such as allowing us to take painting lessons, dance lessons, voice lessons etc), and what stuck with me was learning classical piano. As a child, I always found myself improvising on the piano, playing whatever I felt like that accompanied my emotions. I was always told I was an emotional child, and the time spent composing soon became my own personal sanctuary to express myself. It was my way of connecting with people, and that inspired me to pursue a career in film scoring. Thankfully, my parents were very supportive of my decision to pursue this path. They knew music was an outlet for me to express my emotions, and that it made me fully accept myself. I then attended Berklee College of Music and majored in Film Scoring, and minored in Video Game Scoring. Through music, I’ve come to realize that my empathetic nature was my asset, and I feel so fortunate that I am able to be in this field where music, life and humanity could beautifully merge and go hand-in-hand. It exhilarates me when I get to form a connection with other people, and I find it so beautiful and soulful that we could share our unique experiences and perspective through music. Now, even though my parents still get worried sometimes about my career path, they have full faith that I am able to make a life for myself through passion and dedication. I definitely credit my parents for being so open-minded and trusting - without them valuing creativity and expression, and their wholehearted support, I would not be where I am today.
7. What are a few of your (music) projects of which you are the proudest? What were your roles on those projects? Beyond those projects, please feel free to name some of your other credits as well as any brands/companies you officially endorse. My goal as an artist is to help contribute to meaningful and culturally relevant content that celebrates diversity, and one of my proudest projects so far is scoring Walt Disney Animation Studio’s ‘Jing Hua’ (which can be seen on Disney+ as a part of the Short Circuit Experimental Films series: https://www.disneyplus.com/video/ca1ab21b-f03d-4840-aab5-8aeb961b9170). The director Jerry Huynh and I bonded very well over our Chinese background, and I was so inspired by how he infused our culture into the storytelling. From the meaning behind the our film title ‘Flower In The Mirror’ (a Chinese proverb that means something that is so beautiful yet unattainable), to showcasing Chinese martial arts and watercolor paintings - it made it so meaningful to score for a film that represents our cultures and history so beautifully. I also recently scored Netflix’s original film ‘June and Kopi’ (https://www.netflix.com/title/81347579) directed by Noviandra Santosa. June and Kopi is the first film in Indonesia to tell the relationship between dogs and their owners, so it meant a lot to me to work with Noviandra on this heartfelt project. Another memorable project was scoring for Walt Disney Animation Studio’s VR-animated film ‘a kite’s tale’, directed by the very talented Bruce Wright. ‘a kite’s tale’ is actually Disney’s second VR short which combines hand-drawn animation with virtual technology, so to be able to see the behind the scenes of what goes into this experimental and innovative film was truly inspiring.
8. Describe to me your dream project. My dream project would to be able to score a full-length animated feature film about a story that celebrates our beautiful culture; Asian kids watching would be able to say, "That’s me, that’s my story”.
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? “Oh I’m sorry! I just didn’t think a composer could look like you!” - That was what a producer said to me when we first met for a commercial pitch in LA. I was fresh out of Berklee and he was impressed by my demo. Till this day that comment still baffles me. There’s always been a certain “expectation” of what a film composer should “look” like, because opportunities always went to the same group of people. As an Asian woman, I also felt that there are always certain “expectations” on what we can/should be or do, and we are often overlooked and sidelined. To be able to be at the same table, I feel that as Asians we have to work extra hard to prove our worth. Though it does motivate us to always put our best foot forward, I’m hoping there will be more equal opportunities presented to everyone all across. Hopefully one day we can all be considered as Film Composers, as opposed to the “minority” of AAPI/POC/women composers.
10. 10a.) Who are some AAPI musicians/composers/producers who have previously inspired and currently inspire you (if any)? Why? Joe Hisaishi’s music has always been a huge inspiration to me. Hearing his music always brings you back to the heart of the movie, and is deeply connected to their characters and relationships. His music is like an image album that is so closely intertwined with Miyazaki’s story - and as both music and story lives parallel to one another, it perfectly translates to a masterful piece of art. I always strive for that amount of sensitivity and soul in my craft.
10b.) What are your hopes for the AAPI music community and your hopes for AAPIs in general? My hope is that I can hear more Asian composers music in Hollywood films, and the AAPI music community can come together and let our voices be heard. I hope Hollywood would be ready to hear the perspectives and ideas from new and fresh voices, and more momentum will build towards a better industry that celebrates inclusive and equitable culture that values and respects individuality.
11. If you could give advice now to your younger teenage self, what would you tell her/him/they? If I could give advice to my younger teenage self, I would tell her that it’s ok to just be. It’s ok to be emotional. It’s ok to be yourself. Embrace your empathetic nature as it will soon become the color palette to your music.
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? I had the pleasure of scoring Apple Original Films and Skydance Animation's first ever short film, Blush. The film will premiere at Tribeca Film Festival 2021 and I'm so excited for the audience to experience this moving, beautiful film!
13. Name one or two non-music-related things/subjects about which you are also passionate. As someone who has anxiety, I’m constantly searching for ways to center myself. Since the pandemic, I’ve picked up the habit of waking up at 5AM every morning to meditate, journal and take myself out on a stroll to watch the sunrise. Being in nature, hearing the birds, and breathing the early morning fresh air always sets me up for a hopeful day ahead. I’m a huge advocate for taking care of your mental health in this day and age.
14. Any final thoughts? (non-self-promotional). Alternatively, do you have any questions for me and/or the greater AAPI music community? I’m so grateful for this community that came together during this difficult time to support and uplift one another. It’s been so inspiring to see the initiative and immediate action taken in this community, to highlight each other’s unique stories and perspectives. It definitely gives me hope that as an Asians, we too have a voice that is important. We too have unique stories to tell.
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Photos provided by Joy Ngiaw