Norman Kim Interview
1. What is your name and your profession(s)?
My name is Norman Kim, and I’m a composer/producer/singer-songwriter.
2. What is your ethnic background and what is your citizenship?
Korean parents. US citizen, born in New York.
3. Are either/both of your parents musicians or somehow involved in the music industry?
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.
Growing up as an AAPI in America, I always felt like an outsider. For the longest time, to me, being Asian meant being undesireable and less than. There weren’t really any Asian Americans on TV or in movies, and if there were, they’d be played by foreigners or be domestic actors playing foreigners. Maybe I always felt like I had a mission to change that, so I was always trying to think outside the box. I hated the stereotypes, but it was very difficult finding a role model. I suppose I had a lot of self-hatred.
Many of my Asian-American male friends have the same mentality that I have, and it’s twisted together with masculinity as a whole. I always wondered how I could possibly navigate the world as someone seen at the bottom of the barrel in terms of desirability, but maybe that idea pushed me even further to try to break out of the mold.
5. How connected do you feel to your heritage/culture(s)?
I love Korean food, but I go back and forth on the heritage thing. Deep down inside I crave more connection, but it’s been difficult to shake the conditioned beliefs about myself and where my roots are from. I always do try to think about how my culture might inform the music I create, and I often use Korean instruments in my work (though they never really sound “Korean” by the end; my gayageum has been used in many projects!).
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)?
I played piano and violin growing up, so I was always in orchestras. I started writing music when I picked up the guitar around 14 or so, and I was also doing composition programs around New York before attending Berklee College of Music after high school. Originally I wanted to study guitar performance so I could be a metal shredder, but I eventually fell into film scoring. Technically I don’t have a degree, but I pursued a dual major of film scoring and composition with a minor in conducting.
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 decided I wanted to do music professionally probably around the same time I started playing the guitar at 14 since I couldn’t imagine living a life without it. While in high school, I was hired by local pit orchestras to play violin, and I also taught guitar just so I could prove to my mom that I could do it as a career; I felt like anything less than a “professional job” like doctor or lawyer or office whatever would be met with hesitance. She supported me all the way, though, but I do believe that a lot of my direction in music has been dictated by what I thought she would think of me. I always wanted to make sure she would be proud because she gave up so much of her life so I could have a better one. In turn, I do feel as if I didn’t go all the way exactly in the way I wanted. Feels a little like I went into film music because it seemed to have the most job-like jobs compared to diving headfirst into the artist world. Figuring it all out now for myself though.
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.
It’s hard to say what I’m most proud of since I’ve sort of developed a hard shell about anything I do so I don’t get shut down by my own self crticism. I’ve worked on TV shows like Dexter and Helix, which are cool. I’ve also written music for ads from brands like Toyota, Nike, Apple, and Google including some big Superbowl spots, which are always fun.
I guess what I’m most proud of are the songs and personal music I do away from picture. It feels like I’m actually exploring my own identity and figuring out who I am, and finishing things without a deadline is incredibly rewarding. Connecting with people based purely on my music is also very nice, and I love receiving messages from people telling me how much my music means to them because it makes me feel like what I’m doing actually has a purpose in this world rather than just being attached to some other product. I’ve received messages from people telling me my music saved them, which puts a lot of pressure on me, but I feel like I’m actually making a difference in the world simply by outputting my art.
My role in projects ranges from composer to arranger/orchestrator to performer. I usually record all my own music unless it goes beyond the instruments I can actually play or if an orchestra is needed beyond samples. These days, I’m usually doing everything starting from composition to recording and producing to mixing and mastering since the turnaround is so tight.
8. 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 or in general?
Without being too explicit, I’ve had to deal with a significant amount of racism in Hollywood. There have been passive moments where people would use particular words to describe me, and it would be an unconscious slur. Lots of sideways “good… for an Asian” type of feelings. I’ve had opportunities given to significantly less qualified people maybe because they emotionally connected better with whoever was giving the opportunity. I guess they were more qualified in people skills, which is something I struggled with my whole life perhaps since Korean was the language and culture at home.
As an AAPI in general, I’ve had to deal with the feeling of being fundamentally different from others. My culture at home growing up was specifically Korean. Even though I grew up in a very Asian-heavy community, out in the “real world,” it didn’t really seem to matter. I had a difficult time connecting with people, and there would frequently be a disconnect even with basic conversation. I’ve learned to navigate this world, but it’s been difficult with a lot of self-criticism and anxiety.
However, I’d say there were probably situations in which being an AAPI helped. It’s not often, but being more of a “checkbox” (as I’ve been referred to several times in Hollywood and have had to laugh off) means I’m supposedly an expert at being Asian, so sometimes projects calling for Asian-y stuff comes to me purely for being Asian. Probably a somewhat good thing, but it’s also felt a little like casting an Asian actor to play a Chinese delivery person with a Chinese accent.
9. 9a.) Who are some AAPI musicians/composers/producers who have previously inspired and currently inspire you (if any)? Why?
To be completely honest, as a kid, I felt there were no AAPI musicians / composers / producers who inspired me. If anything, the ones who were big were always mixed and what I considered “white-passing” (which is offensive, but it’s just what I felt), so though inspiring, they weren’t really identifying figures for me. People like Mike Shinoda and Doug Robb come to mind—I thought they were great, but I just never identified with them since in my mind, they were being seen by the public as anything but Asian. The Asian-Americans in music I did see as identifying weren’t really “faces” for me, and they were always more behind the scenes or part of the “backing band” (ie. Joe Hahn and John Myung). I always resented the fact that I had to be relegated to someone quiet and behind the scenes. For some reason, it tied into the concept of being less than the frontman.
Of course, I don’t believe any of those ridiculous notions anymore, and I think every role in music is just as important as any other; also, I now believe that being an AAPI encompasses everyone with an Asian heritage. I feel like I’m mostly behind the scenes now anyway, and I don’t have any qualms about it. I look back at my thought process growing up, and it is unsettling to remember how diminishing I was towards other fellow AAPI people and also towards musicians as a whole…. I’ve had to unpack a lot as I grew up.
9b.) What are your hopes for the AAPI music community and your hopes for AAPIs in general?
I think the AAPI music community is growing rapidly, so as long as we all keep doing our thing and continue being proud of ourselves, we will continue to grow. I hope one day kids won’t feel the self-negativity I felt when I was growing up, and I want them to be proud of theirs and other AAPI’s identities. I also hope one day that America as a whole can see us as domestic artists rather than lumping us in with foreign entities. A long way to go though. Need to keep doing our thing and raising our voices to amplify Asian representation.
10. Name one or two non-music-related things/subjects about which you are also passionate.
I’m pretty obsessed with watches, haha. Also, I’m a Seinfeld nut.
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Spotify: Norman Kim