When Keshi began making frequent trips to New York City, where he’d sign with Island Records in 2019, he was surprised by how much he disliked it. For the former oncology nurse, who made his name on SoundCloud with heartbreaking lo-fi pop filtered by way of chillwave, trap and hip-hop, the city’s frenetic pace and noise was too much.
He’s still happiest in his little home studio in Houston, Texas, a space occupied by an upright piano, a few keyboards and half a dozen guitars (none of which are named because he can’t remember names after a while), the minty green walls bearing floating shelves upon which he’s propped vinyls: Brockhampton’s ‘Ginger’ and ‘iridescence’ (“They’re my most favourite artist!” he enthuses), Daniel Caesar’s ‘Freudian’ and ‘Battle Studies’ by his musical hero John Mayer.
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It’s from here that Keshi (real name, Casey Luong) is promoting his new EP ‘always’, the final, eclectic piece of an intimate trilogy exploring relationships, his own and others. He’d never intended it to be trilogical but the desire to explore as a writer and producer (“to come into my own, finally”) and a penchant for self-referencing previous work lent itself to a loose narrative flow, with each EP “its own diary chapter of my life”.
By his own admission, it’s also a linear show of artistic growth; prior to being signed he'd solely written and mixed ‘skeletons’ (2019), but ‘bandaids’, released in March, marked his first record worked on with outsiders. “I was very nervous, uneasy and worried that I wouldn’t be able to deliver,” Keshi says of the experience.
His initial response had been to mire himself in wondering what songs would please his new label. In amongst the work he was passionate about, he’d been “writing songs that tried to cater to someone else's ideas and they didn’t land,” he recalls. “My A&R manager approached me one day – ‘Hey, it’s been a while, have you decided on those songs yet?’ And I was like, ‘Um, I need to find the ones that are it’. And they said, ‘Well, how much more time do you need?’”
They were, he realised, telling him to stop second-guessing himself. “The songs I thought they weren’t going to enjoy were the ones they enjoyed most, the ones that I wrote close to my heart, that didn’t try to cater to anyone.” The EP’s five tracks pushed the etherealness of Keshi’s early lo-fi work into a more complex space, where his vocals displayed new strength and his myriad of influences, from blues to hip hop, were more pronounced. And in a direct response to the fear around making ‘bandaids’, he says, the third EP “is about confidence.”
Surmising his latest work, for all its solidity, is a slippery exercise. At its heart, Keshi insists, ‘always’ is “love letter to blues-pop-singer-songwriter guitar driven music”, yet he also leads the ear to a dozen different, but masterfully intertwined, references through scratched vinyl and UK garage beats, the R&B cadence of his lyrics coloured with an indie poet’s sensibility, and vocals that evoke a raw, shivery melancholy. It’s a crystalline example of boundaryless 21st century pop, forged from his years in the “sonic mania” of the SoundCloud community.
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When writing, he often tries to find a line that personifies the song, then builds upon it. The closing track on ‘always’, the piano and string-lead ‘us’, was already a unique experience for him – “It’d been a long time since I’d sat at an instrument and written organically from top to bottom. The process has generally been record cool guitar thing, put inside computer, make it bang, find some awesome samples, make it really killer” – but, he adds, “I think it’s special to the EP cos it’s that one moment of really articulate vulnerability that wraps up the whole record.”
He pulls up the song’s lyrics on his computer, his recording headphones holding back long, thick hair. “I remember choking up a bit writing this,” Keshi smiles. “It’s not my story, it’s vicariously lived but true nonetheless. ‘Ups and downs, going steady when you’re not around, go figure/ As if you always knew this was never right in the first place but you tried to make it work’. It’s about battle scars and compromise.”
Compromise for Keshi isn’t a natural instinct. He turned 26 on November 4th – a Scorpio, a fixed sign ruled by water, personified by stubbornness and an intensely emotional side, both of which he possesses, pouring the latter into his lyrics. “All my life, if there’s been something I don’t want to do, I will absolutely not do it,” he laughs. “I’m obsessive in that sense.”
Keshi’s also convivial and conversational, and listens intently with an unflinching gaze. When he plays guitar, his fingers – spidery and delicate – appear to press so hard on the strings that they might bleed. He took piano lessons at a young age but relied on his ability to “regurgitate” notes by ear rather than learn to read sheet music. He still struggles
“I can’t read the bass clef, I can only read treble and it's very rudimentary” – getting around it by simply recording everything he thinks of. Though Keshi relearned the piano in adulthood, as an adolescent he abandoned it in favour of the guitar, which “I picked up around 13 and fell in love. I found freedom, I hadn’t realised until then that I could take the reins [of making music] myself.”
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Originally, Keshi had envisioned himself being an artist for comics. “I never thought I’d be a songwriter, I never enjoyed poetry,” he says. “But it came to middle school and I came home and went, ‘Mom, I wanna be in orchestra’, and she said, ‘Why?’ I said, 'Because this pretty girl said I should be in orchestra and I wanna be in orchestra now'.” He grins. “I was very easily influenced.”
When he first began making music as Keshi (one of his earliest tracks, 2016’s languorous ‘go to waste’ samples Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’, chopping up the chorus in a way Chris Martin would never dream of), Casey already had a reluctant career. He’d gone to college and trained as a registered nurse. Music was something he worked on during his days off. Keshi describes himself at that point as miserable. “I grew to really despise work. I’d come home to my girlfriend at the time and talk to her about how unhappy I was, and I was like, ‘Does everyone feel this unhappy going to their job?’”
He continued releasing tracks – like the blues-tinged chill of ‘over u’, the haunting falsetto and simple refrain of ‘magnolia’, and fan favourite, 2018’s ‘2 soon’ – which garnered him an impressively hardcore fanbase. By the time labels were luring him towards Manhattan and he’d made a leap of faith by quitting his job, Keshi’s enviable streaming numbers meant he was a long way from the eager young singer who'd once tried emulating the likes of John Mayer and Ed Sheeran.
Perhaps, however, it’s not surprising he was struck down with imposter syndrome just as the future was beginning to gleam. “I’m an introspective person, trying to see things from an objective point, trying to get to the root of things: why I feel bad about something, why I’m upset.” Keshi, his emotional dial set to high, began overthinking, unable to fathom “why people wanted to see me in New York [because] they’re not going to get what they want. For the first few months of being signed, I’d dream I was being sent back to the nursing floor,” he laughs. He focused on writing EPs, worried the time needed for an album might kill the momentum he’d created.
“That fear hasn’t gone away,” Keshi points out. “If I’d stopped releasing stuff, I don’t think things would have been as amazing as they are now. But with this trilogy, I’ve established a modest enough footprint for my seat to be kept warm if I go off and write an album for a year.”
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From the outside, life now appears settled – he’s a homebody, either hanging out with his fiance or tucked into his studio – though 2020 has presented, alongside the pandemic, new challenges. Such as how to work with other people, something he hasn’t quite nailed yet. “It’s going to be a long process,” he laughs. “Engineering and recording is so interesting and I know that because I do it for myself and can take as long as I want. I don’t have to worry about making anyone listen to the same take 50 times for me to get the one I’m happy with! I’m very conscious because I’m still naive to it but I’m slowly warming up.”
One less visible change, however, is a substantial one. The tussle that for so long seemed to define Casey and fuel Keshi – between responsibility and fulfilling dreams, the creator and creation (in the early days he saw Keshi as a project and in the third-person) – has, at last, fallen into a peaceful symbiosis. As the years have gone by, he says, being Keshi has made Casey more confident and “a little bit more comfortable sharing. In hindsight, maybe Keshi has always been a safe space for me to be a more concentrated version of myself. I take it in my stride, I guess.”
In finishing the trilogy he’s found himself finally at ease – “I felt I’d accomplished something” – and, looking to make that feeling tangible, bought something other than equipment for the first time. Keshi holds up his wrist, grinning, the light gleaming on a tasteful Rolex Datejust. The purchase of the watch, just like the acceptance of his alter-ego, is a line in the sand.
Keshi isn’t entirely certain where his next step might land him, but he’s kind of okay with that. “There are some days I’m afraid to go into the studio,” he admits. “You're scared of not being able to create but you have to let yourself write shit songs sometimes. It’s not about looking back and going, ‘Oh gosh, how am I going to beat that one?’ You’re always growing and it’s just shifting your focus onto the next idea, to make the best art you can.”
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keshi's new EP 'Always' is out now.
Words: Taylor Glasby
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