Were you always musical growing up?
I was not raised in a musical family. My parents don’t really know much about music, but I’ve had classical piano lessons when I was younger. I hated it because I was lazy. [Laughs] Instead I would always try to compose my own tunes for fun. That’s when I realized that composing/writing wasn’t just a hobby. It was something I wanted to go deeper into, to develop and master as a craft.
You grew up in Hong Kong. What effect did living in Hong Kong have on you as a musician?
I’d say that the culture of the Hong Kong music industry did not have that significant of an impact on me as a musician. Hong Kong is a hub for many things. It is very westernized, so I grew up listening to a lot of Western pop music. Avril Lavigne and the soundtrack of the Phantom of the Opera were always on repeat. The primary influence of Hong Kong on me is the energy of the cultural mix between traditional Chinese culture and Western culture. I’m a product of that mix, but not necessarily musically.
What else did you listen to growing up?
A lot of ABBA, Nat King Cole, Alicia Keys. Then a lot of folk-pop. I also had a John Mayer phase.
Have you ever been into the electronic-EDM scene that dominates a majority of our generation?
Not really, I was the opposite of that. I was more into the mellow acoustic stuff before. I’m into electronic music, but I never got into “EDM”.
What producer is on your radar at the moment?
Sampha from London. He’s under the label Young Turks. I’m intrigued by his sound; his tracks are very electronic and densely programmed, but they still retain his identity as an acoustic singer-songwriter behind the programming. It’s a private and intimate sound that is at once reclusive and dance-y and outgoing. I feel like most people associate electronic as crowd-informing and public, but he’s inspired me by making me realize that electronic dance-type music can be tasteful and touching.
What are the greatest stereotypes that you’ve faced as a musician?
Having a music career is my biggest aspiration in life, but growing up in Hong Kong today has been difficult.
Why is that?
In Asia especially, there is a misconception that the arts are illegitimate, invalid and not worthwhile. Choosing to go into the arts is choosing to fail. It was frustrating for me because before I had even started to attempt to “make it”, whatever that means, I was already bombarded constantly with discouragement and disappointment. On one hand, that’s understandable because any parent would want their children to have a sustainable lifestyle. But going to music school also means getting judgment from society and from peers who are going to colleges with more academically focused degrees.
That’s incredibly frustrating that people today still perceive a career in the arts as inferior to a more academic path.
Some people might think music school is like Camp Rock and everyone’s just flaunting themselves and having a good time, but that’s not the case. If your priorities are right, music school is tough. It’s unfair because going to music school means that you have different goals from other people, so there shouldn’t be a comparison. I think what counts the most is what you do outside of class. It’s not even about balance, it’s about application and putting what you learned in class to your own projects. That’s the goal. Music school is vocational. It’s not about the grades at all. It’s what you try to squeeze out of your education.
Talk us through your songwriting process.
It’s different with each song. Sometimes I don’t feel inspired to write, but if someone sends me a beat, I’ll sit down and get to work. There are three ways I write. First, I can write without inspiration; it is a task, like writing creative fiction for a class. Second, I can write when I’m compelled by a melody or a lyric or a musical idea; I might feel compelled to write if I think of a melody in my head in the shower. Then sometimes I write when I feel the emotional need to. The words come very quickly to me then.
How did you come to name your new EP ‘Delusions’?
I worked on Delusions for about one to two months. I wrote all the songs and realized that thematically, they all have an element that describes a sense of not wanting to believe something that is bad. I named it Delusions because it describes the notion that ignorance is bliss, the notion of suspending reality.
In the future, who would you love to collaborate with?
Amidst the hype, I’d say Frank Ocean. I’m deep in the rabbit hole. I think he is one of the most creative and original writers and storytellers of our generation.
You must have freaked out when his new album dropped then.
I freaked out every time there were rumors about when it was dropping. [Laughs]
What are your favorite Frank Ocean songs?
As of today, White Ferrari and Self Control. Channel Orange is amazing too, but I’m not going to go there.
On a rainy day, what musicians will you be listening to?
Chet Baker, Amy Winehouse, Phil Collins, Mazzy Star, The Smiths. The same the music I listen to on sunny days.
What if you’re getting ready to go out and turn up?
Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye. Fleetwood Mac.
Do you ever draw inspiration from films?
Yes! Films are my first and foremost influence. I am a very visual person. The way I absorb the world is very visual.
What are your favorite films?
In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar Wai. He’s from Hong Kong so he makes me proud to be from there. Aesthetically, that movie is perfect. With films, it’s more than what is on the screen. I take such great inspiration from films because of the mood they evoke. That puts me in the best spot for writing anything: lyrics, melodies. When I’m in a mood, the process is so natural.
Who would you love to see perform live, dead or alive?
Prince, Chet Baker. Many others.
At a bar, what’s your drink of choice?
I love Bailey’s and Rose. Girl drinks. [Laughs] I do like beer though. I hate tequila.
Where do you dream of traveling next?
I’d love to go to Tokyo, Spain, Greece, and Europe in general.
In your own words, how do you define beauty?
Beauty is about wonder. When you are always looking out to appreciate things and seeing beauty in other people, then you absorb that beauty in your attitude. I think passion, curiosity, and taking interest things. That’s beauty.
For more of Cheryl’s work, check out her music.