There’s something you can’t quite shake while listening to NoSo’s soothing dream pop; That somnambulist sense of being in-between wake and sleep, perhaps? A quiet discontent? A heartfelt catharsis? Maybe all of those. Perhaps something more.
Emerging artist Abby Hwong debuted as NoSo (an abbreviation of North/South) in 2018, the name defiantly tackling the ignorant questions they faced as someone with Korean heritage living in predominantly a white suburban town. Hwong has become known in the LA scene for creating self-aware anthems laced with queer longing and touching explorations of the struggles and triumphs surrounding identity, as well as their prodigal guitar skills.
Their debut LP ‘Stay Proud Of Me’ sees a vast shift in Hwong’s musical prowess and fullness, while many of us rotted in our houses through lockdown, NoSo was teaching themself how to produce their uniquely tender sound and put together an album saturated with emotional honesty.
A quiet confidence presents itself in between sunshine synths and tangling guitar, no doubt gained in part through years of feeling out of place and having to carve out a space uniquely for themself. After moving from quiet suburbia to sunny LA, Hwong studied guitar and songwriting, graduating from USC in the same department as King Princess and MUNA and joining the forces of queer dream pop sweeping over the airwaves and into our eager ears.
An artist truly rooted in versatility, NoSo writes, sings, plays guitar, produces, acts and directs, making their mark as a powerhouse among their peers.
Clash caught NoSo for a catch-up and quick get-to-know in the final week before the highly anticipated ‘Stay Proud Of Me’ is set to release.
Congratulations on the album, it’s an inspiring work. We’d love to know if you’ve encountered anything that inspired you so far this week?
I saw my friend play at a show at a small venue in LA. I hadn’t been there since the pandemic started so it brought back a lot of memories and I got to see a lot of people from school who I hadn’t seen in a long time. In general I’m always really inspired after I see my friends play, especially in more intimate settings.
We caught your submission for Tiny Desk and your guitar playing is crazy! I’m wondering what inspired the change from a more singer-songwriter vibe, to the fuller dream-pop tunes you’re creating currently?
It’s kind of funny; me and my manager initially sent a link with a massively eclectic bunch of demos we made with all different producers and in the end it was the songs I produced myself like ‘Suburbia’ and ‘Sorry That I Laughed’ that Partisan (my current label) said caught their attention. The tracks were a bit experimental because I was just learning how to produce so it definitely boosted my confidence and made me feel like, oh, I can do this. So the rest of the album was kind of shaped by those two songs. I feel like at my core I’m very much still a singer-songwriter, it’s just the experimenting with production that’s pushed me out of that box a little.
Coming from a singer-songwriter background definitely seems to give people an edge when writing and expanding their style.
Yeah for sure, I still write songs that are just me and a guitar and I think something I learned at music school that was comforting to me was that no matter how you categorise the music you’re making, it’s still you. You can write a song for someone else, you can change your sound completely but it’s still gonna have your stamp on it.
Completely! ‘Parasites’ – obviously a standout track – covers the struggles and beauty of identity so tenderly, could you walk me through how that song was conceived?
Yeah, it was towards the end of my album, I think one of the last songs I made and I made the instrumental first and it sat in my DAW in Logic for a really long time. It was during peak COVID regulation times so I couldn’t see anyone and I wasn’t experiencing life in the way that I was when I would usually write, a lot of my songs tend to be around romantic prospects so… lockdown wasn’t the best time for that. I had top surgery coming up and I was really anxious about that. After surgery I wasn’t allowed to play music for six weeks while I healed and in that time I really grew a newfound appreciation for music. When I returned to my DAW I decided to write to my younger self about surgery instead of some romantic song.
It almost touches on self-romance, particularly the lyrics “so lovely to meet you again, so lovely to be born again…” Is that theme of re-birth something that you feel has carried over to your music?
I think so! Pretty much every year that I’m alive I look back at my younger self and I’m like woah I can’t believe I was content with where I was sometimes cos there was so much to come. I’ve constantly been evolving as a person and I think that definitely reflects in my songs. Even since the album was finished until now I think I’ve changed immensely, especially in terms of accepting my identity. I think a lot about being reborn through different chapters in my life.
The visuals of the video also echoes the song so well while also creating a clear storyline – was it important for you to direct the video yourself?
Yeah for sure. It was my first time directing and editing a music video, with all the other videos I was very open to just being like yeah let’s just get a director and see what they do with it. With those I didn’t have a clear vision for what I wanted them to look like but with Parasites I was like no I know exactly what I want. It’s such a personal song and I didn’t want to just give it to anyone. I also just thought it would be cool not to be featured in a video for once and I thought would have more of an impact as the final single for me to not appear in it, because it’s very much addressing my younger self.
Speaking of your younger self… you’ve discussed your childhood in the suburbs of Chicago, can you tell me how music found you in that environment?
I actually had a lot of qualms with my town, there was a lot of stuff I didn’t like, but one thing I’ll give it credit for is that it had a really great arts program. So starting from when I was really young I had very inspiring music teachers at elementary school so introduced us to like Arethra Franklin and all these other artists. My mom also worked at a local music venue called Ravinia Festival which is like my favourite venue ever. Every summer I would go and see BB King, Bonnie Ray, Sting, Arethra Franklin and all these legends starting from when I was 8 years old. Whenever I would watch these concerts I would be nervous for them and just like how do they do this, how are they so comfortable. I would watch the drummer and think how crazy it was that they all relied on each other to make it all happen. In my head I knew I wanted to do that one day but I was also terrified of the prospect. So yeah I was really always immersed in music from a really young age thankfully.
Can you tell me about an artist or band that makes you feel seen when you listen to them?
I’d say Mitski has been someone where I was like oh god, finally, here is someone who’s speaking to me. Christine from Christine and the Queens is another where I was just blown away by their artistry and having that kind of representation is so important. I guess just when I see little bits of myself in someone else, those artists are obviously the ones where I’m like wow that’s a breath of fresh air.
Expanding on that are there specific artists that you feel have informed your work in some way?
Yeah! I think Sufjan Stevens has always had the kind of trajectory that I dream of, where he can put out an album like ‘The Age Of Adz’ which is electronic orchestra, to the next album being ‘Carrie And Lowell’ which was just him and a guitar, sometimes recorded on an iPhone and no one bats an eye because that’s just the kind of artist he is. I think that’s the career I would like, where I could put out an album that was completely different to my last and no ones gonna be like what the hell?! They would just trust that, you know… this is an artist that takes risks.
Lockdown was a formative point in you creating this album, involving a return to your family home. Could you tell me about that process of creating the album back home – was it painful, or perhaps cathartic?
I had graduated from school and moved back home. I didn’t anticipate being there very long but then the pandemic hit. I was on a time-crunch with the album so I had to make it at home while everyone else was also working from home. I was in a very small condo with my family so there was little to no privacy and I felt a bit claustrophobic in that I didn’t have free reign to just sing at the top of my lungs or be loud at all really. When they went to the grocery store I would be okay it’s time to record vocals, I have 20 minutes to get this down. Having to adhere to everyone else’s schedule was stressful and definitely made me a little burnt out but also showed me that regardless of the circumstances I can make an album. I definitely carry a lot of imposter syndrome, the whole time beating myself up like who am I kidding, I’m not a producer so when it all came together in the end it gave me a lot of confidence.
Your lyrics take very personal routes and you’ve said it’s been hard to perform some of your material for fear of coming across over-emotional. Have you found anything that helps you deal with that fear/move past it?
Honestly I think therapy! I have a general fear of being over-dramatic when I react to things and my therapist questioned me saying ‘why do you think you’re so over-dramatic because you actually seem quite benign?’
I think it’s conditioning, at some point in my life someone told me I was too sensitive and I clearly internalised it. When I perform songs especially in my head I’m thinking this is too much, but I can now reframe it a little and think, this is exactly how I was feeling word for word. Even if I wrote about this person who I have absolutely no feelings for anymore, there’ll be a new situation in my life that I can relate it to
For sure, and often the most emotional songs will be what an audience responds to most. I see you’re supporting Lucy Dacus this summer! What are you looking forward to most about the tour?
Aw man, I’m just excited to get back up there and meet her, I’ve heard such wonderful things about her as a person. Plus I’ve never seen her live so I’m so excited to witness that. I’ve been on two tours this year with Yumi Zouma and Molly Birch and it was like a summer camp so I’m excited to just have another summer camp really!
Is there a song from the new album that you’re particularly looking forward to playing live?
Probably some of the B-sides because I haven’t played a lot of them live yet, I think ‘Sorry I Laughed’ because it’s a dreamy slow dance with your partner type song but the lyrics are really cheeky so I think that one will be a really fun one to play.
And some quickfire bonus questions…
What sign are you and do you have a favourite sign?
I’m a Taurus! And honestly I always vibe really well with Earth and Air signs so any of those.
What’s your dog’s name?
Do any of your guitars have names
Actually my guitar that I got in college, I also named Oliver.
Have you had any weird dreams recently
Usually I have really absurd fantasy dreams but recently it’s just been weird snippets of life that I think are real but then I wake up… which is kind of weirder!
What’s your favourite piece of musical kit, besides guitar?
I have a mini mellotron synth which I love and a prophet, I’m still learning how to navigate synths but both of those are very fun and I didn’t have them for the first album so they’re new toys for the second album!
Are you a sentimental person?
Soo sentimental. I’m not a hoarder but I do have a drawer of memories dating back to when I was 14, little keepsakes and flyers from talent shows I’ve performed in you know that kind of stuff.
If you were a plant what plant would you be…?
I’d be a succulent!
What would you be focusing on if not music?
I still really want to act at some point, cos I was a theatre kid, so I’m still waiting to fulfill that dream.
‘Stay Proud Of Me’ is out on July 8th.
Words: Oshen Douglas McCormick