Updated: Sep 30, 2021
(Unlike the majority of interviews which were conducted by e-mail, I both self-interviewed and had my husband pose my questions to me).
1. What is your name and your profession(s)? My name is Summer Swee-Singh and my Chinese name is 星 宝 愛. I am a composer, orchestral arranger, and studio + touring pianist / keyboardist, music director, string contractor, backing vocalist, and music educator.
2. What is your ethnic background and what is your citizenship (US native or naturalized etc.)? I am half-Singaporean-Chinese (mom) and half-Indian (dad)—which explains my hyphenated last name—and I am a US citizen, born and raised in California. My parents are Singaporean immigrants who have lived and worked in the US for many decades; they are both naturalized US citizens.
3. Are either/both of your parents musicians or somehow involved in the music industry? Neither of my parents are musicians, amateur or professional, and neither is involved in the music industry in any capacity. My mother is a flight attendant and my father is now retired (former law enforcement). Years ago, my mom mentioned once or twice about how she would like to learn piano or guitar once she retires; she's currently still working, so we'll have to wait and see.
My parents do have non-music, non-work passions though--my father also used to be a semi-professional soccer player back in the day and my mother is a pretty great visual artist (I was always impressed by her sketches though she doesn’t draw often), calligrapher, and interior decorator.
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 parents definitely tried to assimilate as much as possible after they moved to America. I always joke about this and say that my parents naming me Summer is proof of this. However, initially my mother wanted me to learn Mandarin, so she enrolled me in an after-school Chinese school and then later privately at home for about a year and a half... probably around second or third grade. I was "the brown, half-Chinese kid" at Chinese school and--I don't know if I just joined at a random time in the year, but--I was immediately behind everyone in terms of the curriculum as soon as I started there, and remember feeling lost and confused. At Chinese school, after the language studies, they offered Chinese ballet classes to the girls and Kung Fu classes to the boys. I was stuck in Chinese ballet for two days absolutely hating it and would sit alone in the corner during class; I told the teachers there that I wanted to switch to Kung Fu, which they did not allow and told me "girls must learn Chinese ballet; Kung Fu is for boys". My mother eventually intervened and told them I was going to take Kung Fu classes with the boys... the school finally caved, probably after she threatened to pull me out. I absolutely hated attending Chinese school aside from Kung Fu classes because I was constantly made fun of for not being Chinese "enough" there; I probably was there for less than half a year before my mom pulled me out and hired a private Chinese teacher, Tu Laoshi, to teach me at home instead. That didn't last long either, maybe a year or so, as my mom decided to stop my private Mandarin lessons so that I would have more time to focus on academics and piano. Whatever I learned didn't really stick, so I never really ended up learning Mandarin.
I grew up in a small predominantly Asian neighborhood; my parents always kept to themselves and they never spoke much to their neighbors. Instead of sending me to the local public school, for whatever reason I attended a private Christian school, a few cities over, from 1st til 8th grade; it was a predominantly white school. I was one of maybe five or six AAPIs in my class of about 110 kids. During my time there, I was pretty unpopular and was considered to be one of the smart, nerdy kids... I participated in the ACSI Spelling Bee, Math Olympics, and Speech Meet every year and always received good grades (it wasn't hard to do so back then). To top it off, I had braces for over three years and glasses for about a year. Plus, we all had to wear uniforms to school and my mother was oddly obsessed about making me wearing clothes at least two sizes too large for me, so I was always wearing baggy clothing and couldn't do anything about why my uniform was so massive on me, even when I heard kids whispering about it by the lockers. Yeah, I was the tall, brown, skinny, nerdy girl and I was also incredibly shy and soft-spoken. Most kids were nice to me, at least to my face, while others mostly ignored me, so it wasn't all terrible; I wasn't ever overtly bullied at least. In elementary school, I had a small core group of friends which changed a little over time--two of my closest friends then were both Latina; in junior high my best friend at school was a hapa girl who was half-Filipina and half-white... needless to say, I tended to gravitate to the other few minority kids. I remember distinctly never getting invited to any big parties hosted by any of the popular kids and wanting so badly to fit in so I could get an invite to this one popular girl's Halloween party (I never got the invite, unsurprisingly). My parents were very strict with me / very controlling until high school which didn't help with my unpopularity; I never was allowed to have sleepovers at my house and I was only ever allowed to listen to classical music, with the only exceptions being the Space Jam theme song I had on a cassette tape and a Spice Girls CD which I begged my mom for weeks to let me have, so I could fit in more with the white kids at school.
I remember being in third or fourth grade on a school field trip (to who knows where) and playing MASH with some of the girls on the bus ride. I think I still thought boys had cooties back then (lol), so I didn't know what boys' names to list, but one of my classmates told me I should write the name of the one Indian boy in the class down for the game and all the other girls in the group besides me voiced their agreement; one of them grabbed my paper and wrote his name down as my only option and circled it for me. It was obviously a silly game, but even at that age, I was confused as to why the only boy I should be matched with would be the only other brown kid in my entire grade. Around that same time, I became one of the first girls in my class to start shaving my legs because one of my female classmates told me that my legs were "disgusting" and looked like "boys' legs"; let's be real, I'm naturally hairy as fuck, thanks to those half-Indian genes (also why I have a head full of naturally dark, thick hair), so yeah my legs were super hairy, but I was never self-conscious about my leg hair until that girl pointed it out. I also remember beginning to hate my skin color around that same time (3rd/4th grade); since I was religious back then (*cough* Christian school *cough*), I would literally pray every night that I'd wake up the next morning and God would have miraculously have given me my mother's skin tone instead of my father's. Looking back, I feel bad for my dad, because I remember complaining at home about how ugly my brown skin was... which was partially because my mom (and some other family members) would often say things like, "Make sure you stay indoors as much as possible and wear sunscreen every time you go out. You are already dark and you don't want to look black". I didn't know what was wrong with looking black, or having dark brown skin, but I knew it was something I didn't want, so I tried to pray it away. This was all reinforced when one of the girls in my seventh grade P.E. class told me that I "could be pretty" if I got contacts (instead of glasses) and if I "wasn't so dark". I wasn't allowed to spend much time with friends and my mom would only allow three or four kids whose parents my mother trusted to come over, individually, to work homework from time to time... so I remained the tall, brown, skinny, nerdy, quiet girl who focused on academics primarily and secondarily focused on music and sports outside of school. My parents were extremely competitive about my academics, and I remember being so excited about how proud they were of me when I was deemed the female recipient of the Triple Crown Award of my graduating class, which was essentially the valedictorian award (they didn't use the valedictorian title in name). After graduating, once social media became a thing (MySpace and Facebook) in high school, I remember trying to add some of the kids from my elementary school and junior high as "friends" and at least four or five of the popular white kids not only declining my friend request, but also taking the time to message me to tell me, "Fuck off. You're ugly and we aren't friends". Needless to say, I don't keep in touch with almost anyone from that time in my life; the vast majority of them (again, the student body was mainly white and evangelical Christian) turned out to be right-wing, evangelical, MAGA supporters, so I don't feel like I'm particularly missing out.
My parents were dead set on me attending a highly-ranked university for college, "ideally an Ivy League", so instead of attending the Christian high school that most of the kids from my Christian junior high went on to attend, I instead applied for and enrolled in a non-religious, private, college prep school for high school ...and my entire life immediately started to change for the better. There were a ton of smart kids at this school (unlike at my elementary school where there were only really two other kids I was competing with academically), and a handful of them were significantly smarter than I was. More importantly, our class was incredibly diverse, and overall, everyone was so friendly; the environment was much more conducive to learning and I also began to have much more of a social life than I had before, spending the vast majority of my waking hours on campus, hanging with friends, and slowly started coming out of my quiet shell. My best friends in high school were my first real brown friends, Samina and Deboki, and I admired them both immensely and wanted to be just like them. It was because of them and some of my other high school friends and classmates who weren't white (whose names I thought were the coolest, such as Saira, Archana, Eshaana, Aarti, Ravnyssa, and also Asaama, Zakiya, etc.) that I no longer cared that I wasn't white... and while I didn't love my skin color yet, I no longer hated it either; all of those girls were "cool" in my eyes and the fact that my skin tone was close to theirs made me a bit proud for once. Deboki and Samina were both incredibly smart, sarcastic, and hilarious. For the first time in my life, I was close friends with people who looked kind of like me who also took academics very seriously; they were both smarter than I was and I loved learning from them just by being in classes with them and hanging out with them after school. I went to my first concerts with the two of them, and we saw bands like Hoobastank and Ratatat together. My parents actually didn't mind me hanging out with them either which probably was because their parents were also pretty strict and they were both "smart, good girls".
For college, I attended a public school for the first time in my life. I was very middle of the pack academically there... EVERYONE was insanely smart and I learned so much from my professors and my classmates; it opened my eyes to so much more and my time there ended up being some of the most transformative years of my life for which I am incredibly grateful. In sum, I never really saw diversity, nor was I ever truly academically challenged, until my high school and college years; for that, I am eternally grateful to those institutions (and their admissions officers) for creating environments for me to truly grow, evolve, and explore as both a student and as a young adult in general.
5. How connected do you feel to your heritage/culture(s)? I feel somewhat connected. Honestly, launching this blog is part of what I'm doing to learn more about my own cultures and myself in general ... just learning the stories of others who may have similar heritages and experiences and taking some time away from music to really reflect about my own identity has been great in expanding my own perspective and helping me better understand myself.
Like many others, I wanted to kind of run away from my Asian-ness as a child, when I was surrounded by mostly white kids; as I grew and met more AAPIs and learned to love myself and my skin, I am now much more intrigued by my heritages and want to learn more about my family and where they came from.
Since I don't really speak Mandarin, aside from a few words and phrases, and I speak absolutely no Punjabi, there exists a language barrier that prevents me from feeling more connected to both heritages. I'm planning on picking up a few words and phrases from both languages every year and am making it a goal to learn more about Chinese, Singaporean, and Indian history (if anyone else wants to do this with me or wants to volunteer to help me learn, please let me know!).
I now enjoy surrounding myself with friends from whom I can learn more about my cultures and as well as cultures that are different from mine. For instance, I love always grabbing dim sum with my friend Jeff Young and learning a little bit about traditional Chinese cuisine when he's in town. I love talking about how ridiculous Chinese moms can be with my friends Yvette, Miren, Tim, and Dan. I enjoy perusing the posts on SAT (Subtle Asian Traits) every few days and joining Clubhouse rooms to listen to what other AAPIs have to say about their experiences. I LOVE rewatching Shit Asian Moms Say or hilarious TwoSet Violin videos that refer to having Asian parents with my AAPI friends, discussing how accurate those videos are. I love exclaiming "Ai Ya" to convey exasperation (lol) and I love chatting with my cousin Sarah about Singlish (Singaporean English). I remember being very proud that my extremely limited Mandarin knowledge allowed me to understand the main chorus of the wedding reception song in Crazy Rich Asians "Wo Yao Ni De Ai" (that might be a solid 25% of my entire Mandarin vocabulary, haha). I hope that over the years, I will grow closer to and embrace my Asian heritages (both Singaporean-Chinese and Indian).
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)? When I was really young, during a parent-teacher meeting with my 1st grade school teacher, my teacher told my parents that I was very shy and never spoke up in class; she supposedly suggested that they sign me up for some group activity to help me emerge from my shell a little. My parents decided to sign me up for group keyboard classes at the local Yamaha Music School where I joined a group of (primarily Asian) kids around my age to learn piano performance, ear training, and some theory. I didn't initially take to it, I actually specifically recall coming back from a lesson really confused and so upset about a homework assignment one week that I started crying, haha. I was always very average and middle of the pack for technique and performance (classical), but I really took to the ear training and theory and became one of the best in the group in those aspects, which is when I started enjoying it. I excelled so much in theory and ear training that my mom signed me up to take extra private lessons to get my classical chops up to par. My new additional private piano teacher, Mr. Ronald, then convinced me to take Yamaha's Level 5 Music Examination; the level 5 exam is the exam you must pass to be allowed to teach piano for any Yamaha Music School. I was warned that many fail on their first or second exam attempt. Still, I ended up taking that grueling, five-hour, three-part (performance and sight-reading, dictation, and theory) exam at age 12, and passed on my first try, so, I became the youngest person (at the time) to pass the Yamaha Level 5 Music Examination.
I also ended up taking a few years of violin lessons and a little over a year of flute lessons before quitting both instruments to focus on academics, the National Spelling Bee, piano, soccer, and volleyball. Back then, I was only allowed to listen to this massive box set of classical music and Richard Clayderman's piano music, so until the start of high school, the only non-classical CD my mother allowed me to have was a Spice Girls CD (which I definitely got because they were very popular back then and I just wanted to fit in with the kids at school). I remember my mom loved listening to Richard Clayderman and very clearly remember figuring out "Ballade Pour Adeline" on the piano by ear as the first song I ever figured out by ear. Fast forward to my freshman year of high school, my friend Thomas burned me a copy of Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory. I remember listening to it on my Walkman and having my mind blown--it was NOT classical music and I loved it. I then learned about other artists (I still listen to many of them, to this day) from other friends, like Thrice, Circa Survive, Beirut, Sufjan Stevens, Brand New, Jack Johnson, Ratatat, Albert Hammond Jr. and those artists became my introduction to the music outside of the classical world. I still was very immersed in classical music though, as I had re-picked up the violin so that I could play both violin (crappily) and piano (decently) in orchestra and the Honors String Sinfonia. However, my heart was much more excited about discovering rock than it was about the classical I continued to play and love; rock was exciting and badass, and for the first time in my life, I realized I truly loved playing piano. I remember sitting at the upright in Hooper (our student center) figuring out Thrice and Linkin Park by ear and thinking how cool it was to play such kickass songs versus Bach Inventions and Sinfonias which just made my brain and fingers hurt.
I attended UC Berkeley for college and graduated with a B.A. in Legal Studies and a Music Minor. Even though my high school orchestra conductor tried to convince my parents to have me apply to music programs for college, my parents were adamant that majoring in music wasn't an option for me. My orchestra conductor (and current music mentor) managed to convince my parents to let me enter into a local classical competition though--my first and only competition--and I ended up winning first prize at the local chapter competition having performed Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu. I went on to the SoCal regional and placed second there, and therefore was named the alternate for the national competition. While my piano competition journey ended there, it was an overall great experience to get excited about performing as a soloist. However, to my parents, it did not matter how well I did in any competition; I was going to be a lawyer, and that was decided. Music was just supposed to be an extracurricular I participated in that would look good on my college application, according to them. Ultimately, I went to UC Berkeley (A.K.A. Cal) and declared Legal Studies during my sophomore year. I took a couple music classes to fulfill some other requirements, and found them to be incredibly easy and fun and wished I could take more, so I convinced my parents to let me pursue a Music as just a minor, under the guise of using it to up my GPA (because, damn, Legal Studies classes were hard and everyone was smart and competitive; it was at Cal that I first experienced a curve that decreased my grade instead of improving it). My parents figured a Music Minor wouldn't hurt as long as I continued to focus on my major primarily, so I ended up minoring in music. My music classes at Cal were easily my favorite classes I took there--especially Beethoven with Prof. Nicholas Mathew. That class was the shit and he was the coolest professor. While minors weren't allowed to take any of the advanced piano performance classes in which I wished to enroll--they were reserved for music majors only)--I got to take one semester of chamber orchestra for which I played both piano and percussion for the first time in my life (woo! it was the first time I ever played a timpani) and I also took multiple semesters of African Drumming, which was also an incredibly fun class that I thoroughly enjoyed. However, those few music classes weren't enough for me, because I truly missed playing piano. Since I wasn't allowed to take piano performance classes, I searched for friends to play with outside of class and would also visit my friends at their fraternities, sororities, co-ops, and the soccer guys' house to play their communal pianos. Of course, from time to time, I would additionally reserve a small practice room in the music building to attempt to learn some new EDM or rock songs by ear. I ended up playing in few different bands for fun throughout my time in college, only really playing around at frat and co-op parties and a couple local open mics... but I loved it. Sometime during my junior year spring, I even had the opportunity to record at a local studio for free with my drummer ex-boyfriend (when we were a band together). While we broke up and never did anything with those recordings, I never forgot about the excitement I felt the first time I stepped foot into that studio, seeing the audio engineers set up the microphones and admiring the fancy sound treatment of the room while hearing our takes played back to us through our headphones. It took me a while to get over that breakup, mostly because I loved playing music with him so much, and knew that if I didn't find another band to play with on the side, I wouldn't be able to play music for much longer, as my attention would soon be focused on finding a full-time job and studying for the LSAT.
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? There wasn't one particular instance that drove me to pursue music professionally... it was a combination of a few distinct moments:
First, I had randomly stumbled upon a new artist at the time named Skrillex and his music was unlike any other music I'd heard at the time. So, spring 2011, I decided to write a piano and string medley arrangement of a few of his songs, rounded up a few of my string-playing college friends to play and record it live straight to my digital camera with me, and posted it to my little YouTube channel. Three days later, Skrillex reposted it! I basically lost my shit, I was so excited; I was on a group text thread with the other girls in the video and everyone was texting on the thread about getting reposted, so we literally ditched whatever we were doing and met up to drink margaritas and celebrate. It was the first time I received any validation for my musicianship from a professional musician... and it was the first formal piano and string arrangement I'd ever written (I never took any classes on arranging), so I knew I had to do more. Miren and I started putting out a series of Skrillex covers whenever we would get together and I looked forward to whenever I would get to record videos with her.
Second, I remember meeting my now-husband, who was then just an acquaintance, and us standing on the balcony of our friend Tony's spot, looking out at the city. He asked me if I could see and point out the building (of the law office) where I worked. I pointed it out (it was the second tallest building in SF at the time) and he said, "Oh, it looks like a battery..." and then paused. "You don't seem like a girl who would work in a battery". He obviously had no idea how impactful the statement was to me at the time, but I was spending all of my lunch breaks at work writing piano and violin Skrillex arrangements instead of solving LSAT logic questions and was already fantasizing about becoming a professional musician.
Third, people at the law office found out I also played piano for fun and that I had a small music YouTube channel, so the HR Manager and Office Administrator asked me to bring in my keyboard to perform for one of our monthly office happy hour... so I did. Within five minutes of me playing, one of the partners who I was friends with (who's a hobby musician) came up to me and asked me to take a quick break so he could talk to me; he told me, "Hey, while I'm glad I know you and we're friends because we both work here, if have to tell you that I was half as good as you at music, I would not be a lawyer right now. You shouldn't be working in an office, you should be doing music. Law school is for people who really love the law or smart people who don't know what to do with their lives."
It was the combination of those three events paired with my acknowledgement that I wouldn’t ever be any younger than I was then and the fact that law school / graduate school would always be there to attend if music didn’t work out (there’s no age cap to attend grad school) that led me to attempt a career in music. I had no music network, but I knew that if I put myself out there and didn’t give up, I’d be able to make it work. I cold-called myself into a handful of weekly residencies at different wineries, wine bars and upscale restaurants and started doing wedding gigs and teaching piano; it wasn’t easy, and I had to be very proactive about it, but that’s how I started out. When I lived abroad from 2013-2014, I also started composing for the first time in my life. I never took a composition class or an arranging class in my life, but I finally was able to tap into my internal creative ear and take a chance on myself to start composing on my own. It was also during that time my then-boyfriend, now-husband showed me YouTube footage of Metallica performing S&M with the SF Symphony. I saw that and right away knew I wanted to do exactly that, but with my favorite bands… melding rock music and a traditional symphony orchestra was so badass, but I had no idea how to make the artists I loved aware of me. I didn’t even consider doing any sort of studio/touring work until seeing that video, and didn’t really take that seriously until after reading Mindy Kaling’s book “Why Not Me?”; it was reading about Mindy’s story and career trajectory that I decided I needed to take charge of my musical destiny and that I was going to show people what I could do on YouTube, since I had zero connections to the studio/touring world. YouTube had come through for me once before (Skrillex), so I figured it was worth a shot. Luckily, I was right and Circa Survive found me on YouTube and took me on as a keyboardist, string arranger, and string contractor for my very first tour ever… it was literally a dream come true. Major shoutouts to Circa Survive (especially Anthony Green and Colin Frangicetto) and KSHMR (who found me through an e-mail audition) for taking a chance on me when I had no credits to my name… because of them I was able to make my studio and touring/live performance career a reality. The Chon guys (especially Mar) also deserve a ton of credit for taking a chance on me and planning a whole ass tour with me that revolved around their album Homey and me and my piano and string arrangements. It wasn’t really until my work with Circa Survive, KSHMR, and Chon that I realized I could truly be a studio and touring musician.
When I told my parents I had quit the law firm, no longer wanted to apply to law school, and instead was going to try to pursue music—“I have a few weekly residencies lined up”—they were furious. They did not get on board at all and I would get angry, weekly calls telling me I was screwing up my future and that they’d wasted thousands of dollars sending me to UC Berkeley for me to throw it all away to pursue a fake career. So I worked hard, really fucking hard to land as many gigs as I could… but initially, I was only playing those small residency gigs, weddings, and teaching, and while I was able to rack up enough gigs so that I was making almost a comparable amount to what I was making as the Recruiting & HR Assistant at the law firm, it wasn’t a “legitimate” enough of a career to them, and they complained that I needed a job with a 401k and health and dental benefits.
I continued to believe in myself and work hard though, slowly expanding my musician network, and finally started landing more gigs and started doing studio/touring work. Every time I saw or spoke to my mother she would ask me,“So when are you going to go to law school or get a real job?”. It wasn’t until I played piano for Bebe Rexha on The Ellen Show that my mom stopped nagging me, and she even reached out to her friends our extended family members to tune in to watch that show. I think my parents mostly recognize at this point that I’m going to continue doing music, because I’m stubborn and am passionate about music, so have learned to be more supportive about my career since that Ellen gig. I think at the end of day, they just want to ensure that I wouldn’t have to deal with any financial struggles that they had to deal with when they were growing up; plus, no one in their families had any sort of creative or artistic career or any sort of career in entertainment, so it just seemed like a ridiculous vocation to them. They don’t find my music career to be practical or particularly prestigious, but as I gain more success and work with more prominent artists, they are slowly coming around.
7. What are a few of your (music) projects of which you are the proudest? What were your roles on those projects?
1. I am proud of my (new-ish) band grp and our four single releases so far, especially "Storm", which is one of the favorite things I’ve ever composed. I composed, co-produced, contracted the session musicians for, and recorded piano on "Storm". I love being fully in charge of determining the vision for the band and crafting our sound. I'm so grateful and lucky to have (drummer) Jessica Burdeaux as the other creative force in the band--we're just a duo. I love how she writes and I just have a blast working with her and am constantly inspired by her.
2. I'm proud of the collaborative album I put out with my friend Anthony Green in 2019 called "Would You Still Be With Strings (ft. Summer Swee-Singh)". He asked me if I'd be down to reimagine his album WYSBIL and gave me full creative freedom, so I just took his vocal stems and composed new instrumentals to accompany his vocals. I recorded piano and contracted the session musicians to play the parts I wrote for them; I got to work with so many amazing musician friends on this album as well as the amazing AAPI producer and engineer Will Yip who mixed and mastered everything and I am eternally grateful to Anthony for that opportunity. Working with Anthony on anything music related is always such a thrill for me and I hope to continue to get to create with him. He's a truly one-of-a-kind singer-songwriter with such an incredible voice and brilliant mind; I just want to create music with him until I die.
3. I'm incredibly proud of the Splice beat pack I co-composed with KSHMR, "Chords of KSHMR - Vol. 1: Summer Swee-Singh". Niles (KSHMR) has to be one of the kindest people I've ever met in the music industry, and I had a blast working with him on that project. It was also just really cool to get to work with someone else who is half-Indian like I am; he truly appreciates his Indian heritage and I enjoy and admire all he does to learn more about his heritage and culture.
4. I'm very proud of my work with Chon on their Holiday Tour in 2018. I wore so many hats (both figuratively and literally, lol) on that tour--arranger/composer, keyboardist, backing vocalist, string contractor, and music director + conductor. I arranged and composed parts for keys, two violins, and cello to accompany their set that tour (which was mostly their album Homey from front to back) and that had to be the most challenging gig I've ever had, especially writing strings for math rock (I remember going nuts even just figuring out the time signatures for "No Signal" and all the timing of the hits I wanted to write for "Wave Bounce"). Those boys are now like extended family to me and I feel so grateful for having the opportunity to share the stage with them. They're absolutely legendary and brilliant at what they do. They make such beautiful, badass, melodic, math prog and sometimes I can't believe I got to work with them. Everything that I did for that tour definitely helped elevate me as a musician.
5. Still proud of the piece I wrote for my husband, "JFN". It was one of the first things I composed once I decided I was going to try my hand at composing. Also proud of coordinating everything--from contracting string players to hiring a director to wardrobe to finding the location--for its music video.
Beyond those projects, please feel free to name some of your other credits as well as any brands/companies you officially endorse.
Other notable credits
Until the Ribbon Breaks - featured collaborator, pianist, string arranger, string contractor: "Here Comes the Feeling (Reimagination)"
Bebe Rexha - pianist: "You Can't Stop the Girl" on Ellen
Naia Izumi - keyboardist / Rhodes
Chief Keef - Trap Symphony pianist
Roddy Ricch - Trap Symphony pianist
Polyphia - pianist, flautist, string arranger, string contractor: "New Levels New Devils Medley"
Anthony Green - keyboardist, string arranger, string contractor: select stops on the Avalon 10yr Tour
Psychic Barber - keyboardist/co-composer "Something You Can't Run From"
Thunder Jackson - string arranger "Caroline"
Dayseeker - keyboardist (charity show)
Alexandra Shipp - keyboardist (NAMM and some other one-offs)
Alex Siegel - string composer/arranger (unreleased)
Summer Swee-Singh - arranger/composer/pianist (covers and originals released under my own name)
Endorsements: Nord Keyboards and Stealthsonics (IEMs)
8. Describe to me your dream project. grp will hopefully turn out to be my dream project... just the idea of being able to write original music and have people excited to consume it is a dream. I love backing other artists, but I especially love being able to creatively direct a music project, which I obviously get to do with my band.
In my dream world I'd also get to collaborate with Thrice, Muse, Polyphia, Sufjan Stevens, Deftones, Billie Eilish, J. Cole, Albert Hammond Jr., to compose/arrange for chamber orchestra to accompany any/all of those acts in studio and also get to perform with them live. Also, just because I am (*cough* hella *cough*) obsessed with hyphy music, thanks to the time I spent living in the Bay, it would just be so dope to get to get to collaborate on beats with or play live keys for E-40 :)
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)?
Early on, before my first tour I decided to participate in some backing band auditions. I can think of three separate occasions for which I was turned down because of my appearance (note: these were all specifically pop gigs for very small pop artists who I have yet to hear of since)—one time, the audition manager told me I was the “best keys player who auditioned today”, but I "didn’t have the right look" for that role; I later found out they chose an all white backing band. Another time, it wasn’t publicized on the audition blurb, but an all-black band was selected (this made more sense to me, since it was backing up a black artist, but why not just ask for only black musicians on the audition flyer? Why waste everyone else’s time?). Another time, I was told they were looking for a “white, blonde female keyboardist with big boobs”, basically someone who looks nothing like me… and while I understood the entertainment industry is focused on aesthetics, I was so depressed when I realized I was never going to have the right look. What artist was going to look for a brown, Asian girl to play keys in her band? Maybe M.I.A.? Except that she never tours with live keys... *sigh*
I remember being so stoked and shocked when Circa Survive asked me to perform with them at the Shrine—my first thought beyond my initial excitement was “I can’t believe they don’t care that I’m brown!” or that they at least didn’t mind what I looked like.
Something else to note is that I’ll sometimes get comments on my videos saying things like “OF COURSE SHE’S GOOD, SHE’S ASIAN” as if I’m somehow predisposed to being better than a non-Asian at my instrument. Sure, it’s a positive stereotype (and I am glad that it's at least a positive association), but it’s annoying that it also dismisses all the time, hard work, and effort I spent practicing and equates my ability to my Asian-ness. Since I’m an ambiguously brown Asian, I’ve also gotten other strange racist comments on the internet, having even been called the n word a few times. A lot of assholes hide behind their anonymity on the internet though, so the racism and sexism really shine through.
Another instance that was not really race related, but was gender related, was when a former male F&B Manager told me that I couldn’t drink while I was playing "No drinks until after you're done"; since I was performing for Sunday brunch, the F&B Manager before him would always offer me one mimosa during my gig, and would encourage me to sip on it throughout my set. I also realized quickly that if I sipped my drink a little bit every 15-20 minutes with my right hand and continued playing with my left hand, people would stare at me in shock, and many would proceed to drop off some nice, fatty tips… so it was kind of a parlor trick too, haha. However, that new F&B Manager who wouldn’t let me sip on my mimosa (one in three hours, so I literally wasn’t even drunk by the end) had absolutely NOTHING but praise for the older, white, male jazz pianist who played with a trio and would slam five or six drinks down in three hours. The double standard pissed me the fuck off. I also found out from a bartender that that pianist would bring Starbucks to every gig and would toss the stirrer into the piano (and leave it there for me to find and throw away every time I sat down to play) and then would proceed to get drunk and perform; one time that jazz pianist supposedly even got so drunk he fell asleep at the piano during his gig… I was appalled. I don’t mind not drinking at all at gigs (I usually don’t drink at gigs, but if it’s offered to me, I usually prefer to drink after a gig instead of before or during one, especially if it has a challenging rep… unless I’m doing a lot of improvising solo), but I do mind the double standard. The aforementioned issue likely had nothing to do with me being an AAPI, but more likely had to do with me being a woman, as that F&B Manager was overtly sexist to some of the female waitresses and hostesses, so much so that they all transferred to a different location or quit. I’ve also been underestimated before playing SO many gigs. I’ve been told countless times, “Wow, you are so good for a girl” or “I didn’t expect you to be so good” that it doesn’t even really phase me when it happens anymore. While I find it incredibly annoying, I don't let it discourage me, and responses like that usually just fuel my fire to be better so that people who respond like that can feel stupid about judging me by my appearance.
Conversely, has being an AAPI ever helped you in the music industry?
Aside from bonding with other AAPIs in the industry, not really. Being mixed Asian, I’m often excluded from AAPI conversations, as some people see me as not “Chinese enough” or “Indian enough” to be included, so I wouldn’t say being AAPI has ever helped me in music.
10. 10a.) Who are some AAPI musicians/composers/producers who have previously inspired and currently inspire you (if any)? Why?
This one is easy for me--Teppei Teranishi (Thrice), Mike Shinoda, and Steve Aoki were my inspirations when I was growing up (high school/ college)... I didn't have any musical idols who looked like me, but Thrice was my favorite band in high school (and continue to be one of my favorite bands ever) and I thought it was so cool Teppei was Japanese and played both guitar and keys for them. It gave me hope that maybe I could play keys in a rock band someday. Seeing Mike Shinoda and Steve Aoki doing their thing and killing it was also incredibly inspirational. I also didn't know his name, I just knew of him as "that Asian dude in RX Bandits", but even though I didn't know much about him, seeing Steve Choi on stage back in high school and college was inspiring too. Even though she isn't American, M.I.A. was also pretty inspirational to me; she was the only person in the music industry who looked remotely like me when I was growing up. Also, not American, but absolutely badass Asian pianist Yuja Wang is my classical pianist idol--not only does she absolutely slay everything from Rachmaninoff to Gershwin to Ravel, her outfits are always absolutely KILLER.
Currently, AAPIs who inspire me are now mostly my friends-- notably, Yvette Young, Tim Henson, and Miren Edelstein. Yvette and Tim are not only virtuosos on their instruments and pioneers in their genres, but are also two of my favorite people on the planet and they truly deserve the world. Miren is my O.G. violinist and I admire how she not only is a killer violinist but also has a PhD in Experimental Psychology; I especially admire musicians who have various interests besides music and she takes that to the next level... plus I enjoy playing PokemonGo with her (she introduced me to it after the Chon tour we played together). Will Yip is another friend who inspires me and totally blew me away with our conversation during his interview. I also completely admire my internet friend Axel Mansoor and his music; in my opinion, he's a brown Sufjan Stevens and is totally underrated. He's someone I really want to see succeed. I'm also inspired by the pianist/composer/educator Nahre Sol who is the most incredible arranger and has the most interesting, analytical mind.
Also, shoutout to literally every single person who I interviewed and was featured during APAHM--all of you inspire me and it's amazing to learn your stories.
10b.) What are your hopes for the AAPI music community and your hopes for AAPIs in general?
I hope that we will learn to speak our truths and encourage the next generation of AAPI kids to pursue whatever they are passionate about--whether that is music, another creative field, or otherwise. Many of us know the struggle of having to fight our parents to pursue our dream of music, so maybe we can help make that less of a struggle for the next generation. As AAPIs in general, I hope we can learn to be more inclusive and listen to stories and perspectives from all of the Asian diaspora. This project has shown me so many different backgrounds, heritages, stories, and perspectives about what it means to be an AAPI (in general) and what it means to be an AAPI in the music industry. The term AAPI encompasses a large number of people that is incredibly varied, so I hope we can all make the time to learn about others within the AAPI community who have had different experiences than we have. I hope we truly listen to each other and become a better community because of it. Also, I hope our AAPI community learns to truly stand together with other minority communities (black, latino, and indigenous) once we truly work through and rid ourselves of the colorism that unfortunately still exists within our own community. I hope we can create progress together.
11. If you could give advice now to your younger teenage self, what would you tell her/him/they?
Don't date musicians, haha.
Keep practicing and maybe take violin (and/or flute) a little bit more seriously. Also, learn your modes.
Don't dwell on how the kids from your elementary / junior high made you feel--they are not worth even an ounce of your energy.
It's okay to doubt your religion, lean into that.
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 am absolutely stoked about a few small collabs with friends I have coming up, but, unfortunately, I can't share about them until they're out. I am also very excited to write a ton more for grp so we can put out our debut album, hopefully by the end of 2021 or early 2022.
I also have a secret music project I will be releasing under an alias and I'm curious to see how that project evolves.
Not really a music project, but more of a music hobby that I occasionally get to use professionally, I've been practicing flute a ton during this pandemic and have improved a significant amount. I've gotten to record flute for a few different projects over the years and am enjoying making strides on a secondary instrument. I still need to improve my breath control, but I'm really enjoying the learning process. I'm hoping to play/record flute on more projects that can make do with an intermediate flautist (though I'm lucky I also know an amazing professional flautist on the East Coast if I ever really need a shredder flautist; she's really kind and gives me flute tips - Kathleen Kenny, you rock).
Non-music related, well, I started this blog. It's something I've wanted to do for some time now, and the timing finally seemed right. I'm glad I took a step back from music when I was feeling jaded about it to focus on something else I'm passionate about--my own identity and how this project might be able to help highlight representation in the industry and widen people's perspectives. I'm ready to prioritize music again though, and have this just be a side project I keep up instead of it consuming the majority of my attention as it has for the past 2+ months.
13. Name one or two non-music-related things/subjects about which you are also passionate.
Oooh, so many things--the law, criminal justice system reform, political philosophy, gender studies, sociology, fashion (I'd love to learn more and one day start my own clothing line), watching my friends who are professional athletes compete (soccer, volleyball, swimming), watching Laker games and USWNT and Manchester United matches, memes, epidemiology (though I know close to nothing about it... the little I have learned is fascinating), discovering more about myself as I evolve as a person and learning how to be a better human...
14. Any final thoughts? Alternatively, do you have any questions for me and/or the greater AAPI music community? I remember discussing how amazing Crazy Rich Asians was with Tim after it came out; we both adored the movie ... I think I've re-watched it maybe four or five times with my husband already. I more recently chatted with Miren about watching Bling Empire and how we both were surprised we really enjoyed that reality series. Just like on the big screen, representation truly matters in every realm... seeing Asian representation in that movie and reality series really moved me. I hope this project helps further AAPI representation in the music industry and helps people like me feel a little less alone, knowing there are many of us out there... with such varied stories and backgrounds... maybe it'll connect some of us too! Maybe it'll lead to collaborations, new friendships, more discussions, and events in the future. Maybe it might encourage some non-AAPI friends or fans of ours to broaden their perspective by reading a few different interviews and allowing them to empathize with us. Maybe those who are hapa / mixed AAPI can better understand the struggles of those of full Asian heritage, and that those of full Asian heritage can better understand the struggles of those of hapas / other mixed AAPIs... and come together to help each other. Maybe by sharing our collective AAPI music community voice, we can give the younger generations something to aspire to and make their conversations with their parents richer and more well informed about what it's really like to work in the music industry. Maybe we can be a positive, progressive, informed collective voice in the larger AAPI conversations and minority conversations in general. I have so much hope for what this community might evolve to become and am certain that this month of featured interviews was just the beginning for us all.
Please don't forget to include Southeast Asian, South Asian, West Asian, and Pacific Islanders in your conversations... you won't have a complete picture unless everyone is included and has a voice. (America is the only place I know of where the “Asian” conversation is often reduced solely to East Asian experiences; in the UK and Europe, they don’t have this problem.) Please don't try to solve our problems by "othering" other people, we all deserve a seat at the table. I hope AAPIs realize that there is space for all of us in the industry, and it doesn't have to be a competitive battlefield, unlike what many of us were raised to believe; we are stronger when we support each other.
Thank you to everyone who participated in these APAHM interviews; I wasn't expecting such an overwhelmingly positive response, and I learned so much from you all. Thank you for broadening my perspective, and I hope that maybe some of these stories helped broaden yours as well.
Additional thank yous to my friends who constantly inspire me: my husband (Jeff), Miren Edelstein, Yvette Young, Jessica Burdeaux, Brittaney De La Torre, Thitiwat Phromratanapongse, Chris Appleby, Anna Sentina, Tony Ervin, Tim Henson, Samina Lutfeali, Mario Camarena (+ entire Chon fam - Erick, Esiah, and Nathan), Anthony Green (+ Will Yip, + Circa fam), Niles Hollowell-Dhar, Alex Shipp, Jeff Young, Jack Piatt, Dan Loney, Sylvia Tangney, Ben Davis, Alec Sundly + Rachel Mercik, Amber Goboy Lee, Katie Stern, Clara Yoon, Alex Morgan, Linda Lou, and Justin Taillole.
Massive thanks also to my music mentor-friends: Dr. Mark Nelson, Jae Deal, and Eric Bazilian.
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