Born in Malmo, Sweden, Z.Woods was raised in a small town where musical diversity was hard to come by. The singer/songwriter’s sultry sound stems from his compassion for R&B music. He caught my ear the other week with his new EP and I knew I just had to add his talent to the Creative Spotlight. It’s an infectious mix of R&B, Soul and a splash of Hip-Hop style and the best part is — it was written, produced and mixed by Z.Woods himself and it ranges from vocally driven songs like “Sunday’s Best” to soulful head-rockers like “You” and “Undo.” Songs About You is his first original studio-recorded project. We sat down and discussed his musical impact on the world, his career choices, films and more! Read below for the full Q&A…
Most Asian musicians have a hard time just breaking into the industry let alone trying to become a sex symbol. What particular challenges have you had being a crooning R&B vocalist?
On a superficial level, I may not look like your typical R&B artist. One of the bigger challenges I’ve had has been getting people to look past the ethnicity aspect and give my music, my art, the same consideration without any pre-concieved notions or un-justified scrutiny. I believe that music transcends boundaries of all kinds, including ethnical/racial.
Your new video, of course can be compared to D’Angelo’s infamous video. What was the creative mindset behind the lyrics and how did this idea come to fruition?
The song ‘Undo’ was one of the first songs I wrote for my debut EP ‘Songs About You’. The song revolves around a situation that happened where my actions lead to the downfall of a relationship. It was written with an apologetic spirit, regretting and wishing that I could just undo my actions that lead to the heartbreak in the first place. The idea for the video I came up with from random experiences I’ve had with people expecting me to be/look one way as an R&B artist, but instead I’m quite contrary to what they might expect. This video doubles as an homage to D’Angelo but also as a commentary on some people’s expectations.
As someone who is in a position to carve out a fresh niche for himself, how will you ensure you music doesn’t get lost in the highly disposable mainstream r&b that is on radio? What will set you apart?
I’m big on the concept of being genuine and true to who you are. I am a lover of music and I highly respect and appreciate all the current artists that are out there, and even if I were to attempt to re-create the trending sounds, it will always carry a stamp that is unique to me only because my past experiences and influences have naturally shaped me to be creatively different. That’s whats so magical about music, all of our individual backgrounds shapes our creativity. When I create music, I put a lot of emphasis on communicating emotion. I believe that music has the ability to touch people in places that no other art forms can. I also prefer to work either in smaller team settings or by myself, this helps maintain the heart behind whatever it is that is being created.
I’m an 80s baby, so I grew up with Jodeci, Usher, and the like. Your music really brings me back to that time period. Are you trying to find a way to bridge the gap between what was and what is?
Not intentionally. Those artists (and music from that era) are some of my biggest influences so naturally my music may contain elements that remind people of that older style of R&B. I’m not ashamed of that though, that was probably some of the best music to have ever been made. I always take that comparison as a compliment.
What are some of your favorite Asian films?
‘Ip Man’, ‘Old Boy’ and pretty much Jackie Chan’s entire body of work. Love that guy.
Is there a place for R&B in a singles-driven music industry and a society that has been hypnotized by EDM music, trap and ratchet music?
Absolutely. I believe so. Just because their might be a particular genre or style of music that is trending doesn’t deter people away from music that they like or can connect with. Now, getting the industry on board is a different question…
How does ‘Songs About You EP’ fit into the overall puzzle? After this, do you intend on putting out a full record? Any timeline for that?
This is just the beginning. ‘Songs About You’ was an opportunity for me to share my true musical identity with my current fans as well as new audiences. This was an opportunity to share my heart and soul, anchor my presence and pave way for the future. I am currently working on both English and Swedish projects that are scheduled for the not too distant future.
You lent your vocals to MC Jin’s new album. It seems to be a comeback of sorts. What was it like hitting the studio and stage with what some might consider a pioneer for Asian artists?
That was a great experience. I only knew of Jin for his BET Freestyle Friday success prior to this, but after this project it feels like I’ve known him for decades. He is one of the most humble and loving people I know and seeing the success of his latest 14:59 album brings me a lot of joy.
What advice do you have for anyone trying to get into the music game?
Hang in there and be strong. The road is dark and filled with holes, but maintain your focus and identity and you’ll make it out just fine.
You’ve also posted up a few covers. What is the thought process that goes into covering a song and how do you keep the integrity of the original source material while putting your own unique spin on it?
Similar to how you slowed down the melody on ‘Get Lucky’…I thought that was genius. – Hehe thanks! I always want to explore the songs that I intend to re-arrange and find areas where my interpretation would and could make sense. I’d hate to ‘just cover’ a song as that process seems pretty arbitrary. I feel like doing regular covers would not challenge me artistically enough and re-working songs from the ground-up would be the only logical way for me to go about it. That’s why I don’t refer to my renditions as ‘covers’ but instead as remixes. I seek to give my audience a new experience with songs they might already be familiar with.
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Photography provided by Anne Park:
Raised In New York City’s Chinatown, AnRong Xu is an early 20’s documentary photographer, and filmmaker. His projects have garnered much attention including a successful Kickstarter and an ongoing photography project, which documents Chinese-American life, which was a way for him to process his dual identity. While attending the School of Visual Arts, he really found himself and his projects kept getting better and better. I wanted to learn more about this artist so for episode 370, we talk about said projects, Chinatown in the 90’s, documentary photography, and more. Read below for the full Q&A…
For those unfamiliar, do documentary photographers use different or uniquely particular gear then say, a normal photographer would use?
Every photographer is different, it really depends on the photographer what kind of gear they prefer. From my experience, documentary photographers prefer lightweight and more easily transportable cameras that are ergonomically built and get amazing image quality.
I myself shoot with a Leica M4, a Mamiya 7, and a Canon 5d Mark II.
I was mostly struck by the Miss Model Angel event. The event itself has an underlying statement where they believe Asian immigrants’ talents get buried without a proper platform and support from the community. As a result they are obliged to take 9-5 jobs and give up on pursuing their dreams. Is the problem really this bad? Any insight?
I think as many immigrant children and immigrants themselves realize, in America the possibilities are endless, you just have to be afforded the right opportunity, and at the right time, which often doesn’t happen within the first generation, and many sacrifices need to be made in order to achieve dreams.
Moving along to another theme you have captured, ‘Grandpa’, obviously taken beautifully and well-composed, its evident that the elderly conduct themselves in a different way then then Generation Y. What about this era makes for an interesting theme for photography?
Right now, my generation is at a point where it’s actually cool to be Asian now. All the past previous generations have dealt with heightened levels of racism, tokenism, and prejudice for being Asian. We currently have more Asians in the media, and more of a physical presence. With the advent of Youtube, it’s really streamlined a Asian American subculture that pushes a play for a bigger presence of Asians in the media.
In terms of photography, it provides subjects to be that previously I wouldn’t have heard of so easily. Also, it allows for other Asian Americans to connects to each other. To be able to be like oh yea, I saw that video too by the Fung Bros, and I liked it and totally made sense, is a really cool thing to be able to do. Youtube also introduced me to poets like Ishle Yi Park, Beau Sia, Giles Li, Bao Phi, Denizen Kane, and many others who made me more conscious of my identity, and helped push my conscious into a better place to make my work.
Did Manhattan’s Chinatown in the late 80s and early 90’s have anything to do with this as well?
I’ve only spent the 90s in Chinatown, but in my upbringing, influenced me in understanding the immigrant struggle. I often would go to school, get picked up by my grandpa, and then go to the park till it was dark, go home, and wait for my mother to come home from the sweatshops. And sometimes I spent after school in the sweatshops next to my mother, as she sewed for our future, and I worked on my homework for mine. The 90s was a changing time for Chinatown with constant flux of new Chinese immigrants into the neighborhood, it really changed the social dynamics and created political tensions between the old KMT backed Chinatown and this new group of Mainland population.
What are some of your favorite Hong Kong gangster flicks?
My favorite Hong Kong gangster flick would have to be, Young and Dangerous, and also Young and Dangerous 2. Other notable ones would be, Fallen Angels, Infernal Affairs, and Election.
Asian Americans have emerged as the nation’s fastest growing racial group, and yet we still have a hard time understanding the Chinese-American. What specifically can your photographs do that cement your legacy to your kids and grandkids? How can you relate your culture to them through film?
I think through films and photography, and through just telling our stories, we can really preserve our stories and our legacies. How do white kids learn about their cultures and histories? Through books, movies, pop culture. We have to do as we always have, tell our stories, and now that we have more available platforms to tell them on, we can share them, and have future generations still be able to see them, and learn about the story of our people.
David Choe kind of touched on it a bit where he said like Jackie Chan or Jet Li never get the girl in the movies. Going back to your fashion show shoot — it speaks to the way fashion doesn’t concern themselves with social issues these days. Have you used your work to at all combat the pervasive stereotypes that continue to shape how many people perceive Asian Americans, and how Asian Americans often view themselves?
I think my work is statement of existence. A proof that we exist. Now in terms of combating stereotypes, I photograph that which draws my attention in Chinese Americans, which is often individuals who go against the stereotype of what mainstream media has painted of Asians. I hope my work allows Asian Americans to look at themselves, and further reflect on who they are in this racial spectrum of America, and also give them a stronger sense of identity.
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Shark Toof ranks among street art’s most recognizable artists. Known for his murals, stencils and wheat pastes on streets across the US from NY to Miami to LA, Shark Toof is one of the rising stars in contemporary street art. Shark Toof possesses the technical skills of an Old Master and the spirit of an art-minded vandal, granting him the ability to move seamlessly between styles. Most recently he is trying to preserve his 100ft. mural in the Downtown Los Angeles Arts District. Due to natural deterioration, spray paint, bucket paint and other materials are needed in order to maintain this mural for future generations to enjoy. We sat down and talked to him about this project, his work, and films! Read below for the full Q&A…
Four years ago you had your first solo show. As you’ve grown since then, how do you approach publicly displaying your work? If the subjects haven’t change, have your techniques?
I have two bodies of public work, large scale murals and my other work which still remains true to my definition of street art and graffiti. For the murals it is all about environment: the culture, the people, and the history. For my street art and graffiti it is all about placement. My techniques fluctuate. I like to span the cache of techniques, Art Center traditional to street, so my work is never static.
It is my first mural in Downtown Los Angeles and my largest on the west coast. Being born and raised in Los Angeles, I’ve always been apart of Los Angeles’ transformation, and I want to remain in its art conversation. It is important to be represented in the city where you have a rich history and are connected to the changes. Los Angeles is my home town and I love it.
This piece also has strong ties within the art community of Los Angeles. Is there a decline in activity or interest in the Los Angeles Arts District that you want to focus on specifically?
I think there is an increased interest in its popularity, but I think it needs a balance. In the genre of mural making, there appears to be an uneven interest in L.A. native artists being represented, and it is vital for us to be a part of L.A.’s art history.
You are mostly known for a particular signature street aesthetic but you can also maintain a refined fine art aesthetic as well. What challenges present themselves when you blend the two together?
People are drawn towards repetition to the point where an image becomes so familiar it is likable. When you deviate, it becomes challenging and sometimes confusing for collectors and fans. The biggest challenge is to convince people to accept the changes, progression, and deviation from a specific image or style.
What are some of your favorite Asian films or Anime?
Bruce Lee and Godzilla.
Similar to Angry Woebots where the majority of his subjects are panda’s, do you think you will ever tire of your subject matter or is there so much more about Sharks that can be discovered/explored?
There is so much more to be explored and discovered. Each of my sharks has its own character, and each viewer sees their reflection when they look at them. The sharks make us address our own fears and stereotypes.
If you were to be involved in a Shark Attack how would you escape?
Shark attacks are rarer than winning the lotto. If that happened, it would would be like winning the lottery.
In your own words what is the purpose of graffiti art and its purpose. Does it resemble your own conquest for what your art stands for given the fearsome reputation you sometimes carry?
Graffiti in its truest form is screaming out to the community that you exist. The spirit of graffiti is something you grow up with. It is part of your personality. It is a culture, and a language that only those who know, really know. These are the people who truly see rebellion, love, whimsy, aggression, competitiveness, insatiability, joking, etc. just by looking at the line quality of a graffiti piece. That spirit is definitely in my work.
L.A. banned shark fin soup in 2011. Did you quit eating this dish before then?
Yes. Being of Chinese heritage I was brought up on shark fin soup, but after learning of its appalling killing practices at a young age, I quit. I work closely with a non profit organization Pangeaseed to help conserve shark and ocean environments.
In addition to multiple group shows, you also honor commission pieces. How does this process lend itself to the evolution of an artist and how you deal with clients and come to the final agreement?
No matter what, when the commission is presented, that is where you are at in your artistic career, so it is innate to put your best foot forward. I have two bodies of work, my fine art and my sharks, the client always knows which one they want.
Lastly, what advice do you have for the budding creative?
Work your ass off.
From Japanese artist Kaz Oomori comes the official New York Comic Con Big Hero 6 poster. This is what originally caught my attention as this talented designer made waves this year exhibiting his work around the world. I sit down with Kaz and offer up a variety of questions. Read below for the full Q&A…
When did you decide you wanted to be an artist? You must have soaked up a lot of TV, comics, and movies.
I began drawing Disney’s Pinocchio when I was in kindergarten. It was decided I [was] going to be an artist when I was in junior high school. I was able to see the wonderful anime and manga of many Japanese of that era.
- Dr.Slump by Akira Toriyama. Comics
- Star Blazers by Reiji Matsumoto_Animation/TV
- Lupin The Third by Monkey Punch_Animation/TV
- Mazinger Z by Go Nagai_Animation/TV
- Mobile Suit Gundum by Yoshiyuki Tomino_Animation/TV
- Cyborg 009 by Syotarou Ishinomori_Animation/TV
and many more…
You initially studied illustration and design production which are at two different ens of the spectrum. Was it hard balancing two different disciplines and at times having to merge the two talents into one body of work?
I am a graphic artist. What do I want to convey? I can see the key visual given and I will do the production of graphics and text. They might be close to the cuisine. To make the material of each, cook it…
I see you illustrate works such as Mad Max, Guardians of the Galaxy, Pacific Rim and more. Are these films that you think will challenge you artistically or films that inspire you?
I am inspired by movies such as feeling the throbbing and pounding when I saw the movie. It is not an action, but may be subject to inspiration.
NYCC was a pretty big deal and you got to create the official New York Comic Con Big Hero 6 poster. For this particular poster did you have a chance to see the film first or just have the trailer to go by for inspiration?
First, I want to say thank you and much appreciated. I was blessed with a very good opportunity. I couldn’t make it without support from many people. I want to say thanks to Don／Poster posse in particular. It is both the inspiration and the trailer. I approached this time highlighting the sizzle that worldview is transmitted.
Discussing the creative process behind it, it has such a strongly Japanese-influenced design given the San Fransokyo setting. How do you infuse your culture and setting into U.S. based designs? Is it important as an Asian artist to represent yourself?
I think certainly, things and gave birth to good effect background is Japanese. I think in particular, it is said to be reflected in the cherry tree and building form; the motif.
What are some of your favorite Asian films or Anime?
My most favorite Asian Anime: My Neighbor Totoro!
Could we chat a bit about Hero Complex’s Gallery: Imagined Worlds? How did you get invited and how hard was it to choose a property to illustrate given the vast choices out there to pick from?
Before I had the opportunity to participate in the exhibition there, and had the opportunity to participate. To visualize the work of our wonderful director it is not easy. However, I think that it has found a movie that fits my style.
What lies ahead for you as an artist? Any plans you can tell us about?
Many projects are waiting. I can not talk details unfortunately.
Lastly, what advice could you offer up for any novice creative?
Creativity and imagination of many and it will continue to draw.
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Originally from Hyogo, Japan, Kenzo graduated from Parsons School of Design with a BFA in Product Design after majored Western Philosophy in Japan. Before he established himself as an artist / designer, he started out his career as a set designer for TV broadcast including MTV and Sci-Fi Channel which lead to shoot his own shorts and TV spots, and worked in broadcast as an art director, director, and motion graphic designer for seven years. Needless to say, Kenzo is a creative that we just had to feature in the Creative Spotlight. As Kenzo lives and works in New York City, we sat down with him and asked him a variety of questions. Read below for the full Q&A…
How has your knowledge of Western Philosophy aided you in your understanding of Product design, art & humanities? Is there at all a connection between the two?
To stop thinking of ‘WHY’s and focus more on ‘HOW’s. Though in general, any studies or life experiences always reflect in your creative works and nothing is ever a waste. And for me to study literature and philosophy in Japan a bit and study Product Design was especially interesting. It was sort of like the former was a study on ergonomics of human soul and social function, and the latter was ergonomics of human body.
People in Japan are impolite. People in New York are impolite. Growing up and residing in places that generally have rude, angry, or aggressive people, how do you stay shy and calm?
I am not sure if my friends agree that I am shy or calm, but… Coming from blue-collar family and seeing what men and women in my family have done for us kids and how hard they work, I just know that I am fortunate and really lucky to be where I am. My grandfather was orphan and worked in die-cast metal factory for whole his life since he was a teenager till 1 months ago at age 97, just because he broke his hip-bone and had to stop. Even though he himself is not thinking that he has retired – he is talking about going to rehab to start walking again, so he can get back to work. My father also has been working in die-cast metal factory, and I remember this one time when I was about 8, he lost his pinky in press machine at night. He went to hospital, came home without a finger, and went back to work next morning. I think growing up seeing these and raised by these people somewhat make me humble (though, again, I am not sure if people agree, or even myself agree), and appear to be shy or calm? And being raised by these kind of people and see that as grown-up’s job, I might be having hard time seeing what I do as a proper “job” (though no intention for all the other guys in my field. I mean, it is definitely a proper job.) – I still feel like a kid, having fun doodling and coming up with fun ideas. And I guess this makes me shy away from calling what I do ‘job’ or ‘work’, and this might be contributing to appear shy about a certain things? Though it is of course hard to self analyze myself on these.
Also, when I was a junior high school student, I went to this very tough privately-own cram school which was infamous for being total Spartan and militant in its discipline. I actually had to sign the contract so we won’t sue them if something happens to me, since they did physically punish you and whatnot. (This was a different era in Japan, and this type of school eventually went out of business as mine did after I graduated from it, as the time had changed and people couldn’t agree with this type of method any longer.) It was definitely a very high pressure for kids. And it was not that my parents forced me to join the school either – I chose to do it. And after living through that as a kid, nothing seems to be as tough any more. I definitely won’t complain that I have to stay up whole night to do something I am very fortunate to be doing in the first place and something I love doing. So having this experience when I was a kid, keeps me calm for any situations now. And I am just tremendously grateful that I get to be doing what I am doing. So this might also be effecting my behavior, and prevent me from taking it for granted or acting ungrateful, possibly – And this might come off as a certain way which might be taken as shy?
Also, after seeing things like my father losing a finger and going back to work without skipping a beat – I can see that nothing really is as tough as what these men do either, and this mindset keeps me calm as well. So, I think at least some of the “Calmness” might come from these – though “Shyness”, I can only try to guess, and I am still not quite sure if I am shy, and I wonder where it comes from if I appear to be, wonder where the appearance of it comes from, or why people might think so. And essentially, the fact that I do what I do – make something and release them to public for all to see – I am not sure if I can be truly shy, and otherwise I won’t be doing such things or won’t have guts to do them, and I am sure there is something fundamentally wrong with me on some level. And over-inflated sense of self is not necessarily bad – especially in this case of having such occupation, we kind of need it. I must had some sort of blind-faith to my ability and I needed to be able to believe that, even in some small fraction, I could change the world to be able to continue doing what I have been doing this long and dedicate my life to it.
And one little thing – I don’t think that New Yorkers are impolite or rude, but honest. Especially living through all the 9/11, Blackouts, Hurricane Sandy, and so on, and having seen how wonderful and kind New Yorkers can be to each other, it is hard for me to grasp where those images of rude New Yorkers came from.
This is true, I suppose it is all about perception. When you were working under Art Directors they didn’t always see your vision. As a young artist how did you deal with having your thoughts, ideas, and work argued against and rejected?
When I used to work in TV broadcast / Video / Advertising, and when I worked under art directors and when they did not get what I wanted to do or what I was trying to do, and I was still young and definitely not quite mature enough (though I am not suggesting that I am now) to properly approach them and digest their opinions and feedbacks, it definitely was frustrating. Even though in retrospect, I was more likely frustrated with myself. But this frustration fueled my creativity and gave me something to react against, and I started making series of my personal artworks which eventually became my things I am known for and clients started contacted me for. Now, after having more freedom, I miss the feedback and restriction sometimes since that often take you out of your comfort zone and make the process of the project unpredictable and non formulaic, and essentially force you to be creative. So I came to be able to appreciate them now. At some point, I was not even sure if too much freedom is ever good for you, creatively speaking. Too much freedom can make you lazy unless you are very disciplined person. And I know that I am not, so…
Another thing is, when I was young, my main motivation was anger and in some form of revenge. I am sure that many people were, but when I was young, I definitely was motivated by “I will show you someday”. So, I could apply this motivation to these situation, and gave me a great fuel to my motivation. I used these situation and rejections to keep my fire burning. So, stay angry. I am still angry at bunch of things in the world and I still use them as my fuel. There was a time I went all zen and felt like I lost my angers in me – sometimes we confuse numbness to maturity, and lack of desire to solemnness and dignified. Which I eventually found it not quite true.
Studio Ghibli apparently is disbanding its production department. Tell us how their films have made an impact on you and what your thoughts are on the current state of animated films in the U.S.?
As a Japanese person growing up in Japan, their works definitely left impact on me as much as next guy, even though I didn’t necessarily watch Japanese Anime when I was living there (though, you know, even for Japanese, we consider Ghibli films as something beyond the categorization of ‘Anime’, and we definitely see them in different class) – I ended up starting to truly appreciate it after I left Japan and started living in U.S., as we can look at where you came from and what you had from outside. Apart from the fact that the studio made all the brilliant films, I really enjoy comic strips he does for magazines and books (and some of them later became the origin for some feature films as we know – like “Porco Rosso” or “The Wind Rises”), and comic book version of “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” which take the story into whole other place and it’s 3 times longer the film, and there are more complex political conflicts among multiples domains. But what I really appreciate, and influenced by is what Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki the producer, and Isao Takahata have to say – their philosophy in life and approach to their works. I love reading their interviews and essays.
So last year in 2013, the first weekend after having a small retrospective of some sort where I looked back on my past works, I went to see “The Wind Rises” on first showing of Saturday morning, alone. There is the line in the film where one character asks the protagonist “How was your 10 years? Did you do your best?” regarding his creative life. Five Years ago, when I was having an early mid-life crisis of sorts and wondering and questioning why I do what I do, I saw “Ponyo”. The movie itself was fine, but I remember when I saw the “wave scene” in the film, where almost 70 year-old creator showed us something so new, creative and cutting-edge – things us young ones really should be doing – I felt like I was asked “What’s there for you, the young kid, to wonder?” which helped me to snap out of wondering and stop being scared, and started to just do. This goes back to the principle I mentioned in the first question above regarding ‘Why’ we do what we do and ‘How’ we live how we live. Even though I haven’t really been seeing enough American animations to form proper opinion about it, my general impression is that I am seeing more technical evolution than creative innovation in it. Which makes sense since creative innovation comes along out of the lack of technical freedom.
But while I am missing on what’s happening in U.S. animation, after I moved to U.S. and had been disconnected from Japanese culture for a long time, I started to catch up on what I missed in Japan, as I mentioned above. I was missing the whole period since I left Japan and till the internet became the part of everyday lives – I was lost on the pretty much whole 90s, which was considered Japan’s Lost Decade with its economic collapse. There are many key points in social phenomenons and trends I wanted to cover to fill the gap and understand where current Japanese collective mentality might be. I read bunch of books, listened to music, and saw films. And I also did watch bunch of Anime since it is a huge part of Japanese culture (if it’s not one of the biggest). For example, I watched the entire series as well as movies of ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’ because you just simply cannot discuss Japanese culture of 90s without understanding it and its ripple effect over time since. (And speaking of Miyazaki / Ghibli connection, Hideaki Anno, who is the director of Evangelion, animated the Giant Warrior sequence for Nausicaä, and also did the voice of the protagonist for The Wind Rises. And Anno consider Miyazaki as his mentor. He also worked on ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ by Takahata.) As I was watching it in 21st century, I was trying to picture the 90s of Japan, and I wished that I saw it in real time with the feeling of restlessness and fretfulness from the melancholia of its time at the end of the 20th century. It is a child of its time and reflection of where Japan was at that particular time and specific social condition, with its chaos and anxiety of the end of the century. I can definitely relate to how the piece is structured especially for its referential and hyper pedantic nature since I often take the similar approach to my work.
In general, I try to be open-minded and cover all genre, even the ones I am not so interested in since you never know what you find in them. I am generally border-line allergic to those anime usually categorized as ‘Harem Anime’ where nihilistic protagonist who only complains gets surrounded by big-eyed girls without making any effort or trying in life, so the viewer can live their fantasy through it. But again, you never know what you find in them, like Bertrand Russell’s Five-minute hypothesis in ‘The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya’. But this anime also uses these hard science fiction elements in pedantic way. It’s postmodern meta fiction with bento box of archetypes and cliches disguising as hard sci-fi disguising as harem anime and sickening cutenesses. Another little coincidental personal trivia regarding this anime is that, it takes place at the neighborhood where I grew up and used to hang out as a high school student. Even the school where the story takes place is the neighboring one from the school I went to. So seeing it years after I left Japan, I at least had something I can relate to – even when I could not relate to any of the characters. (Though I am not sure if anyone can, or anyone supposed to, since they are all very archetypical on purpose. They are essentially symbols and icons.)
Have you seen What’s Up Tiger Lily? In which, Woody Allen took a Japanese spy film and overdubbed it with completely original dialogue.
Yes I have. Except some recent ones, I have seen every Woody Allen film.
Since your father worked basically your whole childhood, albeit honorable, he didn’t have a lot of time to spend with you. When carving out a career for yourself, what steps did you take to ensure you would be around for your son?
I have to say that I still haven’t really thought about that yet since I don’t have any kids. Though I would love to have some someday, and if I do, I would love to spend more time with them.
As an artist who has big clients such as Nike, Raf Simons, MTV, Mercedes-Benz, etc. Did your formal education at Parsons contribute to these connections or did you have to start working your way up the ladder building a portfolio? What is the secret to such exposure?
As far as the connections go, the education at Parsons did not directly contribute (though it was a great place to get an education from), especially since I studied Product Design, and as I graduated from it, I jumped into the completely different field of TV broadcast and Animation partly by design and partly by chance. I got my first project as a set designer while I was an student and when a filmmaker called Voltaire who did stop motion animation saw my sketch book at Yaffa Cafe in East Village late night, and hired me to design and build a set for ID spot for Sci-Fi Channel (currently Syfy). So I started doing some set design and prop design works – and eventually started messing around shooting my own stuff. And I wanted to put titles to them, so I started to play with animation especially since I was already doing 3D modeling and animation in Alias on Silicon Graphics as a part of education for Product Design. And I got into the animation, and right after graduating from collage, I became a partner of the production / motion graphic / design studio. (Which is now-defunct.) And as I was in this business and as much as enjoyed it tremendously, there are a lot of things I wanted to do which just did not fit to American TV, or even my partner did not get even though I was pushing them to be released under the collective moniker, and generally were sitting around without places to go. Also, to keep sanity to work in commercial world (which by all means I really enjoy), and to keep a balance, I started to give myself an hour a day after work to do my own thing without any limitations, guidances, or reasons. Just doing it for the sake of doing it. Then these personal works I was doing started to get noticed, and eventually lead me to my solo works. And from there, I started to build whole new portfolio from scratch since it was completely new beginning and I wanted to separate it from my past works and activities.
It was one thing leading to another, and eventually the whole thing snowballed. It really was simply starting from scratch, and building a brand new portfolio. And moving onto next stage and starting all over again from scratch. And I am not sure if there are such things as secrets to these exposure – except I maybe can tell you not to underestimate the power of small projects and guerrilla-style promotion. This continues to the last question and advice…
As a designer you have to sometimes convey a story through images. Could you walk us through your own creative process on how you effectively communicate through design?
There are multiple methods and tricks I usually employ. And these are not really as systematic and it is always a bit of combination of these multiple methods. One is sort of like translating one medium or sense to the other. Let’s say, you listen to a song and try to visualize it, or read a word or sentences and translate them into imageries. And when you do, you come up with customized and tailored system of sections and compartments. Like measures in music, but in visual form. This is sort of like how Kanji, Chinese characters work. Kanji is made out of different sections and shapes where each shapes have meanings, and they come together to form a letter and give it a whole new meaning out of the combination of the meanings each shapes contain. And these letters as a new section or a measure come together to form whole other level of meaning in words and sentences. You can even employ this system with bunch of (seemingly and essentially) meaningless shapes. You can decide and apply your own customized meanings to each shapes as your back stories, and you don’t even need to actually reveal or explain what these meanings are. As long as you strictly stick to what each shapes mean and follow the rules you created, viewer can start picking up on the vague meanings or at least the feeling and nuances through the system, repetitions, rhythms, and patterns. This create the enough stories and it can be more effective sometimes, since viewers minds fill the gap themselves and that is often more powerful than what we can come up with. This is also sort of like listening to the song in the language you don’t understand – your mind made it into this epic song with depth, telling you the secrets of life, when it in fact is simply the song about the boy waiting for the girl to call, and so on.
I often also use iconographies, and I often use the real and actual existing iconographies as well as the ones I come up with. A lot of times, they are mostly something I made up and designed, but they are designed based on the knowledge of how the iconographies came to be. When you study the history of each symbols and how they came to be, there are logics and systems. And you can apply these systems in combination in their philosophies and ideas to come up with your own icons and symbols.
These are based on my belief that the best way to sell lies is to mix them among truth. It is like writing a sci-fi novel. To write good sci-fi novel, and to sell fantastical ideas, it is better for the good part of the story to be grounded to reality. Once the viewer buy into the recognizable and familiar part of the setting, it is easier for them to go along with the fantastical and outrageous part of the story. So more outrageous your story (design) is, it is better for it to have something very grounded and sober. So people will buy the whole story. And buy the whole design.
What plans do you have for the duration of the year? Any surprises you could let us know about?
I wish that I could tell you. There are so many and constant changes in plan and projects this year that it is hard to tell which project happens in what timing and when. I would like to know that myself.
Lastly, any honest advice you could offer up to a young designer looking to find their footing?
Don’t underestimate the small things. There are no such things as small projects. Do your absolute best for every projects. Don’t hold back on good ideas, and never think in terms of “I am going to keep this good idea for later, for better projects, for better clients, or for better money.” Creativity is like a well which gives more when you pour out. You give the best you can at that moment in time, and if you live that way and continue to create that way, you will come up with something even better at the later time.
Any small but completed and manifested project is better (or, more effective, in this case) than the gigantic project you keep talking about and never making it happen. I knew someone who was always talking about this feature film he was going to make someday – he always said he had been working on this big script, but the project and its task was so big, he never got to the point of actually making it. I wonder if the pressure from this enormous project was so high, he was intimidating himself. So I was always telling him “Start with short films. Start with 8 minutes short, or even the three minutes trailer for the film you intend to make, so it starts somewhere. So you are actually starting something and making something – anything.” And of course, this was an advice I was giving myself, and something I kept telling myself. So instead of this amazing print or intimidating epic mural I had in mind, I started small – I made this little sticker, which so far is the very first and the last sticker I ever made. I made it for fun, for the hell of it, and did it quick.
And luck would have it, this sticker traveled west, because Mandy Coon, the roommate I had at the time was in this band and went on tour, and she had some of these sticker. She happened to give it to Mat Clark, who used to have Houston Gallery and was working for Nike at the time. And with late Alex Calderwood of Ace Hotel, who was also working as a part of Neverstop – they were involved in the project to open Nike Art Space in NY and after seeing this sticker, they contacted me and asked me if they can see more of my works. And after seeing my portfolio, they gave me this 50 feet large space for me to cover with my mural painting.
And here is point where I give you another advices. So I was given this great opportunity and they obviously made a gamble with me. They could get any big names, and instead, they put their faith in me. And I definitely hadn’t done any mural of this scale before, especially having only 8 days to work on and complete at the site, while I was still the partner of design studio for TV broadcast and video. I definitely was not sure if I was capable of pulling this off. So one of my advices here is, be ready for the future moment when someone is giving you a chance, be prepared for that one shot when you cannot fail, when you have to bring your 200% and shine. There is no such a thing as over-night success as they say. It is always built on years of building up and preparation.
And an another advice here, which might not be for everyone but this is how I always have done things is, when you are not sure if you can pull it off, say yes and figure it out later. Because when you have to, you will. And this is the only way we will reach our true potential since we all have magnificent potentials but the ones which really got to our true potentials are the one who pushed ourselves and put ourselves in the place that we really have to get to our maximum potential. And how I pulled this project off was, I went to my design office from 11am till 8pm, and went to the site at 8:30pm and painted till 6am. I went home to sleep from 6:30am till 10:30am and repeated that all over again for 8 days straight. When you know that every minutes of those 8 days you are changing your life and creating the new path, you will be able to do it.
I have another example in one of my past project, regarding not taking any projects for granted and you never know what ends up where and how things connect.
We all go through different creative phases, and some of them are longer than the others, and some of them are more prominent than the other periods. Around 2005, I was going through this period which is sort of like my own version of Memphis Period – after going through sort of Punk, Rock’n Roll, and Pop period, I naturally got to this place where I was bored of general coolness and good taste, and I was playing around in the field which was located at the border of bad taste – which unintentionally was evolving into something similar to Memphis in its philosophy and style. Even though these evolution and phases I was going through was unintentional and I only noticed them in retrospective, this made sense since I was personally and internally going through the history of pop culture and its design changes and same pattern of paradigm shifts. And this was very short period. It was more or less in total of two weeks. And I did bunch of projects in these weeks and two prominent projects came out of it, even though, again, I only retrospectively realized that they were prominent according to my career. One was the project with Kidrobot. I worked with Kidrobot a few times before and they were always great, and this project was designing my 8” model of Dunny toy. And the other project coming out of this period was designing my own model of Reebok Insta Pump Fury.
After designing these and delivering these designs, I moved on from this Memphis-like period quickly. And right after I was done with these projects, I looked at them and went “Why on earth did I design them that way?” and was not sure if they were any good or what. This was rare occasions for me, since I am usually happy with the results and can retrospectively justify every design decisions I have made. But these two projects – I was never sure of them, even though they were definitely different and I had never seen anything like them at the time. And they took a while to come out and be released, and one of them also had a rocky path that I almost thought it was never going to be released. They eventually was released with good reactions from clients as well as public, even though I was still not quite sure of them for many coming years. And a few years later, MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art, New York) purchased my model of Dunny as a part of Architecture and Design permanent Collection. The design I was still not sure about, the piece that I was not exactly feeling like properly representing me at the time, went out and did a great work – earned me the very prestigious honor.
And last year in 2013, my model of Reebok Insta Pump Fury was selected as one of ‘The 25 Best Artist Collaboration Sneakers of the Past Decade’ as well as one of ‘The Best Reebok Insta Fury Colorways of All Time’. These two projects were like two weird children I was never quite sure what they were about since they were so unique that I myself almost did not get them – even though I am the one who created them. And they went out to the world and made names for themselves to make me proud. It is almost like I finally started to get them and understood why I designed them the way I designed them years and years later. And I finally came to think “Thanks god that I made you guys” in recent years – almost 10 years after I designed them. In retrospect, I almost feel like I was ahead of its time with them (even though I rarely want to use this phase, but how these two designs got awarded these ways years later almost justify me saying it), or even ahead of myself or my own evolutionary path. And these are the two least expected ones to archive these.
So these advices are not some honorable principles or theories. I have learned these and seen these through my experiences. You never know which project, or even something you write or say, ended up being in the spotlight and you ended up being known for, so don’t underestimate any projects or anything you do. Do your absolute best for every little things you do. I guess this apply to anything life in general – anything you do, anything you say, any decisions you make – you never know what takes you where. Something as simple as stepping outside can take you to somewhere or someone that can lead you to something else, or the fact that you are walking down particular street and combination of the view and your specific blood pressure from the walk together can create certain mindset which can bring you a greatest idea you come up with that week. So be the best version of yourself at all time.
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Mickey is a hip-hop artist based in the Bay Area. He finds his greatest joy in exploring the depths of human creativity and finding innovative ways of expressing the soul. That goes hand in hand with his love for Jesus as he also pastors at Living Hope Christian Center in Emeryville, CA, overseeing worship, media, and missions. I decided to sit down with Mickey and discuss his music, faith, films and more. Read below for the full Q&A…
How did you get involved in music?
I fell in love with Hip-Hop during my teenage years. I would listen to artists like Eminem and Jay-Z, memorize their lyrics and practice reciting them. I loved the feeling of the words coming off of my tongue with different rhythms and cadences. I loved the thought behind the arrangement of words, syllables and sounds. I fell in love with Hip-Hop and knew I wanted to do it. Imitation gave way to ideation and I began writing my own lyrics and producing my own songs. As I began sharing my music, people started to take notice of this chubby little Asian kid that could actually spit bars. The rest is history!
Tell us a bit about the Fearless tour, how the line up got assembled, and what it means to you to be apart of it?
I met most of the Fearless tour roster in the last few years. In particular, I formed a really good relationship with the guys from AMP and we’ve kept in touch since we first met. They approached me about joining the tour a few months back and when they told me who they had on board for the lineup, I was sold. The caliber of talent and skill they recruited is what caught my attention. I knew this was something I didn’t want to miss out on. I think it’s very significant to be a part of this tour because it’s the first time anyone’s getting a bunch of Asian American Hip-Hop artists together to do something like this. When I first started rapping, there weren’t many of us out there. Now, there’s a handful of talented Asian American Hip-Hop artists that are actually good at what they do and are finally being recognized for it.
Could you tell us a bit about your faith, and how it equates to your music. I know you recently went to Indonesia — what was that like?
My faith in Jesus Christ is a big part of my life and my life is a big part of my music. It all bleeds into what I create as an artist. I’m not big on labeling myself a Christian artist. I’m an artist who is madly in love with Jesus and as a result, my music largely reflects that. However, I wouldn’t say I intentionally set out to make “Christian” music. It’s just the natural overflow of what captivates my heart. I regularly travel to Indonesia to visit our church’s orphanage and spend time pouring into the local churches in that nation. My recent trip was amazing. We held a mass crusade and gathered thousands of people who heard the Gospel and responded by giving their lives to Jesus. We also witnessed tons of miracles. I remember thinking, “Who gets to live a life like this…?”
How do you decide which covers to record and shoot? Is it a lengthy process and is there any nerves living up too the originals (or even surpassing them)?
I do covers purely for personal enjoyment. I try to be as carefree making these covers as possible. When I hear something I feel like would be fun to rap over, I just start writing. I particularly love rapping over unconventional musical compositions which is why I rapped over songs by artists like Adele and Beyonce. The videos we create happen so spontaneously as well. One day, a group of friends and I were hanging out and we randomly thought it would be fun to shoot a video on a horse. We used my cover of Drake’s “Too Much” and went over to my friend’s ranch to shoot it. These covers allow me to stretch my creativity and enjoy doing what I love. I feel absolutely no pressure to outshine the original artist because in my mind, there’s no comparison. I’m simply building off what they already executed so well.
Up until this point, What has your journey taught you and what’s left to teach you?
I think my journey in music has taught me a lot about courage. It takes courage to share with the world something you create from the depths of your soul. People criticize artists all the time for what they put out, but it takes an immense amount of courage to put anything out in the first place. It takes courage to do anything significant in life. I’ve learned not to be afraid of failing because it’s part of the process towards excellence and innovation. In fact, I’ve learned to embrace failing a lot, failing boldly because it only makes you stronger and better. I have lots of left to learn on my journey. I don’t imagine I’ll ever stop learning. And I’m excited to be a student my whole life.
Observing Jin’s misstep with Ruff Ryders early in his career and Asian rappers kind of being put on display, what steps in your own career are you taking to ensure you have full creative control on how you want your music to be?
First of all, I just want to say I love MC Jin. He’s such an amazing role model and he really spearheaded the way for a bunch of us Asian-American Hip-Hop artists. I feel like he went through the struggles he did so that the generations of artists after him wouldn’t have to. I think one way I safeguard myself from deviating from who I am is surrounding myself with honest, creative people; they are people who I trust to tell me when I’ve missed the mark or made something that is less than who I truly am. Artists need community. I find that my community is the biggest factor that keeps my head from blowing up and keep me uniquely me.
What are some of your favorite Asian films or Anime?
I grew up watching Dragon Ball Z. Amazing stuff. One of my favorite Asian films is The Raid. I love the underdog. Goku is always the underdog. The dude from The Raid is the underdog. I love watching the underdog find a way to win and overcome the odds.
Some people seem to frown upon so-called Christian rappers that don’t utilize gospel themes in their music. You seem to have done a good job escaping being labelled. What is the creative process for constructing an album for you. What audience do you want to reach?
I think honesty makes the best art. The most impactful songs in history weren’t made with the intention of changing the world. They were simply honest reflections of the soul that bled into the music. I try to make that a value in my creative process. All of my albums were birthed from an overflow of what I felt, thought, and experienced during that particular time period. I just happen to be radically in love with Jesus and so my music reflects that. I don’t set out to make inspiring Christian music. I set out to make honest music. I desire to reach anyone who’s willing to listen to this chubby Asian rapper share about his life. If my songs just so happen to inspire someone along the way, it’s the fruit of what I created and not the goal.
When releasing new music do you still have that ‘fear’ that caused delays with your first album or have you learned to push through it?
I always battle fear whenever I create or release something. If I don’t meet fear along the way, I conclude that what I’m doing is beneath what I should be doing. Fear is a good indicator that you’re on the right path towards excellence. I’ve learned to push through it by accepting the fact that I most certainly will fail along the way. I will encounter people who don’t like what I do. But no one will ever be able to tell me that I didn’t give my everything. I’m far more afraid of living a life full of regrets than failing my way to success. There’s no deeper regret than not doing something you really wanted to do because you were afraid of failing.
Lastly, any advice for any budding act trying to make it?
Enjoy life! I don’t create music because I hope it’ll make me tons of money someday. I don’t create music because I hope to be known. I do it because I love doing it. Never lose love for your craft. It’s what’s going to create things worth hearing, things worth experiencing. Don’t get caught up in being recognized or “making it.” You’ve “made it” the moment you started creating.
Want to stay up to date on all of Mickey’s music? Be sure to catch him on the Fearless tour and follow his cookie crumb trail below:
Laura Mam has been on my radar for quite some time. Not only is she a talented singer and musician but her music has real purpose. Laura’s dreams for music are centered on rebuilding a sense of confidence in the arts among Cambodians and hopes that she can use music as a vehicle for empowerment. Laura is a Cambodian-American songwriter/singer/guitarist who dreams for music centered on rebuilding a sense of confidence in the arts among Cambodians and hopes that she can use music as a vehicle for empowerment. She already has two successful Kickstarter campaigns under her belt, and it is with her last campaign, where her project ‘IN SEARCH OF HEROES’ is the topic of discussion. Read below for the full Q&A…
Even though many of your songs deal in different languages, your crossover success is quite obvious with your recent KickStarter success. How do you achieve this ability to affect an audience across multiple cultures with your music?
I think I am in a very unique position because I come from a generation of genocide survivors that left so many of our people scattered among Western nations because of the refugee situation. However, although all of us are living in different places, our experiences of displacement and our desire to recover our identities are common struggles, and this is has lead to a beautiful discovery of one another. I am very lucky that I’ve been able to share my music with Cambodians living at home, abroad, and with non-Cambodians who are generally interested in my journey and the narrative that I come from. It is a beautiful thing to know that as one of the smallest minorities of the world, people are still paying attention to our narrative. And at the very base of this story, I am multi-lingual and studied Khmer and French when I was an anthropology major at UC Berkeley because I was focused on Cambodia. Although I am no longer pursuing an anthropological career, the language skills I gained along the way have helped me to communicate with French speaking and Khmer speaking audiences as English, French and Khmer are the primary languages of most Khmer communities around the world. And the anthropological skills have definitely helped as well.
Is there a particular challenge combining ancient Khmer narratives with modern-day concerns?
Certainly there are challenges. For the most part, it is a very sensitive path when trying to interpret Khmer narratives in the modern world because so much of it is tied to “politically incorrect land mines” that are just waiting to be stepped on. Our culture is one that was nearly destroyed thanks to the Khmer rouge. So in our efforts to save it we have become very sensitive about how it is represented, with good reason because there was certainly a great sense of prestige associated with all of our cultural riches before the Khmer Rouge regime came around. Maintaining our sense of prestige and honor in our culture has been a deep concern for all Cambodians. But on the other hand, many Cambodians that have been cut off from the homeland have limited access to the realities and nuances of our culture, so there is a bit of a cultural void. Furthermore, the modern world dictates many contradictions to our culture as far of showing modes of respect, how to think of one another as equals, changing our thinking about the meaning of class, even changing our thinking in regards to nepotism. We are still very much a Kingdom and have a Kingdom mindset and when you slap democracy on top of that and expect them to mesh perfectly, you will certainly be in for an upset. But things are evolving slowly, and I find pleasure in finding and spreading the middle road and calm approach to accepting the slow nature of our evolution.
So, congratulations on your recent Kickstarter. This year, you had a much bigger dream then the last campaign. What can you tell us about this project and what the backers can expect from this particular project?
This year’s project is a spiritual exclamation on my part and probably one of the most beloved albums I will ever make in my life. It is a collection of 27 years of conclusions I have discovered in the long search for my identity, and the heroism in my own identity. It is an album that speaks to the dream of the final pivot of the new Cambodian generation from victim survivor’s mindset to the empowered youth generation that took control of their own narrative and worked together to build our nation up again in the greatest comeback you have ever seen a nation return from. In this album, I have found the hero in myself and have come to Cambodia on a crusade to find the other heroes of my generation. I wish to highlight them, to show my fellow compatriots that we have so much power when we work together, when we all see this grand vision of a beautiful and harmonious future for Cambodia, when we all understand that it will take patient evolution to reach the heights that we all dream of.
So, you can expect some darn good boogie unity music, some interesting youtube webisodes with Cambodians heroes I will be interviewing along the way, a brand new Cambodian live act that incorporates traditional and modern pieces seamlessly while taking Cambodian youths to new heights by celebrating the potential of our generation. This album is meant to capture a shift, a shift of a generation, a shift into a time of new heroes for Cambodia.
You explained that this album covers the evolution of the last three years, the mind set of the people and how it has grown. What led up to these events (Cambodia’s complex developing issues?) and what exactly was it that inspired your new music directly?
In my experience during the last five years of traveling and touring to various Cambodian communities in America, Canada and Cambodia, I found that many Cambodians share this wild desire to see our country rise from the ashes it came from, the desire to find heroes that we can identify with who make us feel represented in an honorable and dignified way, and the desire to find heroic traits within ourselves. In regards to our youth, we are a generation of lost ones, deaf to our past with so little education about it, blind to the future as a developing nation in a modern world with resources slowly being swallowed by larger countries and soft cultural power of other countries constantly exerted upon us by reminding us that we don’t have what they have, and mute in our present with few industries to support creative expression. Although, I would say that expression has blossomed in the last two years and the strength of our voice as a people is more powerful than its ever been. One thing has been consistent in my travels, all of us wanted a hero to come and save us. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received the same message from Cambodians telling me they have been waiting for representation, someone to be proud of, even I felt that way for so long.
After watching the incredible protests in Cambodia’s elections of last year and the participation of the youth, my thoughts were confirmed that if we ever want to see social change, it’s going to require more than one leader, it’s going to require all of us to see the larger picture, to move and act as a society that commonly understands that we can only grow together through patient evolution. One of my songs, “Yosop Yulsong” which means “Dreams” has the following lyrics:
“get away from illusion
and we might have a movement
if you’re mind’s polluted
you won’t find solutions
seek truth, then choose it,
not cruelty, inhuman
this ain’t revolution, this is evolution”
These lines were directly inspired by the young people of Cambodia in their marches. Cambodia sufferes from many development issues including corruption, illegal logging, land evictions, lack of rule of law, the list goes on and on. And the people were on the streets last because they wished for change. What I saw in them is the desire for change and their desire was bright and lively. But I also saw that it was also riddled with upset and frustration because things did not change immediately. All I want for our young people is to find the middle path, to be patient, and to patiently pursue this course of change, because change is possible, if we pursue it with perseverance and intelligence. If we are able to channel our powerful youthful energy into building blocks of positive change for Cambodia as a developing nation, we may be able to lay the foundation that secures its future and an independent and self-sustainable nation. We have so much potential and I see such similarities between the 60s generation of America and the current generation of Cambodia. And a wonderful quote from a brilliant man stands still to motivate our current generation of Cambodians:
“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” – John F. Kennedy
What are some of your favorite Asian films?
Favorite Asian Films! I’m actually pretty crazy about Kung Fu flicks because I think that each movie has enough philosophy to fill a library with information. I love the philosophic approach that most great Kung fu movies take. All Bruce Lee films make me giddy. I loved the recent Ip Man movies and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I loved an oldie called Wing Chun with Michelle Yeow, it was hilarious and it has awesome philosophic approach as well. But aside from Kung Fu, I love internationals films ranging with different cultural backgrounds like Better Luck Tomorrow, Saving Face, The Joy Luck Club, Jodhaa Akbar, Battle Royale, The Overture, and of course…The Ring (Ringu), although I didn’t really enjoy the last one as it made me afraid to be alone for a couple of months but admit that it was well done.
Do you feel a sense of relevancy or urgency regarding the subject matter of your music in terms of contemporary society? Does your work address the human condition or is it primarily relevant to Khmer history and people?
I admit that I am primarily focused on the Khmer narrative. But of course there are 100 lessons of gratitude to consider when you listen to music set in the narrative of Khmer history. I feel that the world has many artists to help represent and teach one another, however Cambodia has very few. I think I can leave it to the great artists of the world to help us understand ourselves as global citizens, but for me, I feel it is important to help Cambodians like myself just understand ourselves as general Cambodians because of how much we have gone through and how little resources we have today.
However, there are some things that I see in the world today that mirror what was happening to my country only 40 years ago. I have a song on the album called “In the Hands of Men and Monsters” that compares commonalities between leaders like Richard Nixon and Pol Pot in their disregard for human life, and came to the conclusion that we cannot wait for heroes in the political arena to come and “save us” as those are not necessarily the decisions they tend to make since their priorities require them to base decisions on the struggle for power. So much of that period of the Vietnam war mirrors the conflict in the Middle East today. During the Vietnam war, we saw the deaths of “VCs” (Viet Congs) not men, women and children. Today we see the deaths of “terrorists” and “insurgents” not men, women and children. We saw agent orange dropped on Vietnamese forests and villages and we saw bombs dropped on Cambodia, a neutral country, which made what America did technically illegal. Today we see drones dropping bombs on the middle east and have children afraid of the sky in Pakistan while we don’t even know what the rules are for terms of engagement when it comes to drone warfare. We saw the rise of the Khmer Rouge who cared nothing for human life and decided that anyone who has been introduced slightly to Western culture was tainted and deserved to die and that we could create a magical pure society by killing everyone off. Today, we see the rise of ISIS who believe they can create a holy caliphate as long as they kill anyone who isn’t like them or with them because they are infidels. History repeats itself, bombs don’t solve problems, they cause extremism. Extremism doesn’t do anything but kill large amounts of people and leave scars that last for decades. And yet, another day passes by where we the people watch others die and someone somewhere makes millions by selling weapons of war. And finally, we have a whole new generation of refugees who will probably spend the next 50 years of their lives trying to understand and reconcile what is happening to them now. If there is anything to learn from my music, it is that the scars of war last beyond the generation that experienced them, the need for knowledge on healing and empathy is more important than ever and will continuously be so for decades.
Buddhism was introduced to Cambodia over 1000 years ago. The way the old generation used to respect and relate to the Buddha and his teachings is very different to the way the new generation relates to it today. Do you feel the current ‘youth generation’ is regaining its focus or moving away from these teachings?
Unfortunately I feel that many youth are moving away from Buddhism because modern society dictates that we all conform to a capitalist mindset, which is based on channeling ambition into creating material wealth so that the entire society can benefit from the capital transactions taking place. However, I think that Buddhism as a philosophy is infinitely useful no matter how far up the chain we go, or how low on the chain we stay. Personally, Buddhism affects every decision I make and every thought that I choose to have. And I like to believe that at some point in our lives, we all go into the this world doe-eyed and excited by the glitz and glamour, and then we all get beat down and soon learn to desire peace over gain. And Buddhism is like that buddy that will never leave you, it’s ready for you when you are ready. I think it’s important for the youth to understand the cycle of a capitalist mindset, and when they are ready to understand peace, Buddhism can float like a feather down from heaven to guide them in their path. This is what I love about Buddhism, there are no rules. It’s just a guideline for you to follow if you are tired of your thirst for illusions and would like to find real bliss.
Younger artists and musicians haven’t witnessed the horrors committed by the Khmer Rouge with their own eyes. Why have you stepped up to tackle these issues and spread awareness with your music? Do you feel you have an obligation?
Absolutely. One cannot understand where one is going if one does not understand where one has come from. It is important for the next generation to understand the war because they are reason that we have become so disadvantaged as a people. I have seen many comments from Cambodians that get angry at the disadvantages that we have as a people and blame it on our population being “stupid.” These comments have horrified me. It is so important to understand that what we went through changed our narrative forever, and we cannot understand the beauty of rising again unless we see the hell that we have left. The Cambodian narrative is a lot like a Lotus’s lifespan, the lotus must rise from the mud, stretch upward in the pond, and blossom in the sun. We as a people cannot blossom in the sun unless we realize that our roots are in the mud.
With that said, nearly a third of the rural population lives below the poverty line. Does that mean you have to try harder for your music to reach the masses? How do you plan to do that?
I have a few concerts planned in the countryside and will have national coverage on major Cambodian TV channels CTN and MyTV this year. I’ve never been able to tour the countryside so this will be my first time. I am very excited. I hope that they respond to music this year, my music will certainly be very different from what’s out there. Youtube is also an amazing tool because it is accessible by even the cheapest smartphone. The digital age has benefited the Cambodian narrative tremendously, only great things await us because sharing has become extremely easy in the last five years!
What advice do you have for an insecure musician who might have trouble turning their dreams into goals?
Follow your heart and follow the signs. They are there. You can fool yourself into thinking that they are just coincidence, but if your heart truly desires a dream, it starts with manifesting it. Say your dream out loud. Tell people about it. Make it real. Make your dream your girlfriend. Tell your dream how much you love her, adore her, want to bring her to a bigger and better life, marry her, make love to her, fight with her, disagree with her, make up with her, and finally tell her that you have reached a point where your love for her in unconditional. And if your dream is a one night stand, you will know it right away and find another one. There are plenty of fish in the sea. Dreaming is an act of love. Enjoy it, don’t fear it.
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Chef Edward Lee is a Korean-American who trained in NYC kitchens, and has spent the better part of a decade honing his vision at 610 Magnolia restaurant in Louisville, KY. This dining experience offers a combo of southern hospitality and urban sophistication. His approach is steeped in the farm-to-table agriculture movement, featuring ever changing menus based on the availability of organic ingredients available in the Kentucky/ Indiana region. Lee’s innovative cuisine has twice earned him a finalist nomination for the James Beard Foundation Awards Best Chef: Southeast in 2011, 2012 and 2013. He has been featured in Esquire, Bon Appétit, GQ, Gourmet among many other publications. WIth a new book in hand, and season 3 of PBS’s ‘Mind of a Chef’ now airing, we decided to sit down with the renowned chef to talk shop. Read below for the full Q&A…
So how exactly does a Korean-American who trained in New York kitchens, wind up migrating to Southern-cuisine, particularly the Louisville dining scene?
It was a lot of serendipity really, it was right after 9/11 and I was looking to get out of NYC for awhile, a friend knew a restaurant in KY that needed help during Derby and I’d always wanted to see it so I went down there for a weekend and fell in love with the landscape and the agriculture. I thought, this is a place I could spend some time in.
You hear more and more about young cooks moving out of New York to start restaurants because of the economics. Did that play into your decision?
Not really. At the time I was thinking less about economics and more about finding a new place to breathe in some fresh air and develop as a chef without all the noise and media hype of a big city like NY. I wanted to be left alone to cook and in Louisville, I found a place that was off the grid but still a relevant place to be.
I suppose that is what made you the perfect chef to spotlight in ‘Mind of a Chef’. For instance your 22 ingredient BBQ sauce, let’s talk about that. How do you decide whether you are over complicating or effectively developing layers of taste and flavors? Where is the balance?
Well, it started as a 33 ingredient BBQ sauce. It was edited quite a bit to only have the essential ingredients in it. I always start a dish with too many ingredients in it, then I taste it again and again and each time, try to remove ingredients or garnishes until I get to something that is the right essence of what I am trying to achieve.
Since you have been on television many times, I can only conclude that overall it is a positive experience for you. Similar to tattoo shows in recent years, when you started cooking over 20 years ago, the thought of this resurgence of cooking and reality shows was never in your mind. Do you think the new generation of chefs should embrace and take advantage of this avenue of extra exposure?
It’s been a great experience generally for me. I can’t speak to any other generation than mine. I imagine it must be overwhelming to have so many options before you as a young chef. When I was in my early 20’s, there was no food media to speak of so my generation of chefs worried only about one thing – cooking successfully every night of service. I almost feel lucky, that in my youth, I didn’t have too many things to distract me from my cooking. Lord knows I can get easily distracted.
What are some of your favorite Asian films?
I love Tampopo, also a groundbreaking Korean movie called Shibaji (The Surrogate Woman), Eat Drink Man Woman, but my favorite is Rashomon by Kurosawa – it changes the way you look at everything.
Was MilkWood the benchmark set in order to have the confidence to begin expanding even more? I know starting from scratch can be scary no matter what level of chef you are, so how did you approach this particular endeavor?
We do have plans for further expansion, I can’t say that it is that calculated. I travel a lot and when an opportunity arises, I chase it to its logical end, sometimes it works out, most times it doesn’t.
What can you tell us about the concept behind your first restaurant outside of Louisville? How are you handling this restaurant differently compared to your locally owned restaurants?
Well, it’s a work in progress so I’ll let you know a year from now. I tend to let things happen organically and then make adjustments. A great restaurant is not one that is excellent during year one, it’s one that can sustain excellence throughout year 4, 5, 6 and beyond.
How is the culinary apprentice program coming along and do you see this program expanding after the first initial 9 month round?
It’s coming along nicely. Yes, we plan to open a brick and mortar restaurant and expand the program to include more students. I will take this project as far as it will go. This is so important to me. I want to see it succeed in ways that would be unimaginable for my other restaurants.
I heard that you start planning ingredients for some food a year in advance to properly cultivate and grow fresh. With the rise of scientific cooking and biodynamic food, do you see this replacing the old traditional methods?
Nothing replaces anything in the food world. We still pickle and ferment in a traditional way that is the same method for hundreds of years. New technologies enhance and add a layer of complexity but it should never replace the old ways. We are built on the old ways, without it, we are nothing. Having said that, our new greenhouse that we just installed is going to allow us to do some experimental gardening and push the boundaries of agriculture.
Lastly, can you talk a bit about your book, Smoke & Pickles? For example, in Korea it’s common to take several ingredients and roll them up into little lettuce wraps. Here, you wrap lettuce around southern cornmeal fried oysters and country ham, and dabs it with a little caviar mayo!
I took along time to write my first cookbook because I didn’t want it to feel like a gimmick. I think anyone can say, hey lets combine this cuisine and that cuisine and make a fusion and wow that’s neat. I didn’t want that. I have been a student of Southern foodways for the past decade, traveling and researching the remotest corners of the South to understand a tradition that continues to fascinate me everyday. Korean food is something that is in my blood, my DNA and my emotional memories. Finding a meaningful way to combine the two, is for me, the result of a lot of introspection and hard work to find my voice. The book is the evidence of this.
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We’ve interviewed plenty of photographers before, but I never really heard of a man behind the camera who uses Instagram to rise to fame. This week we celebrate episode no. 363 and next in line is key South African Instagrammer, Gareth Pon. Not only that but, half Mauritian, half Chinese, South African born Asian, Gareth, is also an accomplished filmmaker and has expertise in architecture and fashion design. Needless to say, the man is busy. He was kind enough to squeeze in a few moments between excursions and talk to us a bit about his journey. Read below for the full Q&A…
Hey Gareth, how’s Europe treating you? What kind of things have you been getting into?
Hi there! Things are going so well. I am actually typing this reply from Nairobi, Kenya. I am here for a conference that I am speaking at tomorrow. I just met up with some local Instagrammers and we went on a bit of a night excursion. Before this trip I was in Germany for Photokina, amazing event. I also spent some time in NYC for a surprise trip with Grey Goose Vodka & Virgin Galactic! It was really good meeting up with the USA creatives too.
How much of your inspiration comes from filming or photographing other creatives?
I really do love telling the stories of other creatives and I feel that is often the drive behind my passion to create. It works two ways, firstly it inspires me to be more creative by sharpening my own medium and secondly it gives me the opportunity to capture a story that needs to be told. I’ve always been a people’s person & doing documentaries gives me the opportunity to create something that I see as a gift to the person who the story is about.
For instance your incredible video for Lorraine Loots’ 365 Ant postcard project. How did you two come together for that video?
Lorraine and I actually met via Instagram, I sent her a message one day and told her I would love to make a documentary about her. We met up in Cape Town and set a day aside to shoot. I did some basic planning and set out some ideas but I didn’t do too much planning because I wanted Lorraine’s story to be told from her perspective. It was my privilege to be able to tell her story and allow her to share her project.
The Evolution of Instagram evolved from a place to share your life to a place to sell and market yourself. This is quite evident in your ‘single moments’ film which connects many users to make an epic video. In your own words, how has instagram and social media aided you in your own career?
Instagram for me has really become a platform for me to drive my creativity, meet other creatives and also to have a daily output where I can get an instantaneous response to my work. I’ve met so many people through Instagram and it’s also ignited a few passions in my life, travel being one of them. The biggest thing for me is being able to have international exposure through Instagram, I feel as if it’s given me so many opportunities that I would have never had if it weren’t for Instagram. It’s also challenged me to seek out new interests and constantly challenge my perspective and approach to creating.
And what exactly do the Official Instagramers South Africa Community achieve? Could you tell us a bit about where this concept began and what kind of goals you’d like to accomplish?
This community was actually founded in relationship with the International Instagramers community (www.instagramers.com). We have communities all over the world that are constantly planning instameets and pioneering the medium of mobile photography. In a South African sense I feel like it has given South Africans the opportunity to love their city again, because many of the instameets we organize are amazing opportunities to discover the beauty of various cities within South Africa. My simple goal for the community is to just give South Africans a platform to meet people, love their cities again & expose our beautiful country to the world.
Again, stemming off the last question…what attracted you to South Africa?
South Africa is my home. I’ve grown up in South Africa and even though I am of Asian descent I really feel that I am a South African at heart. I also believe that South Africa has a lot of hidden beauty and what better a way to show off that beauty through photography and the perspectives of thousands of South Africans.
What are some of your favorite Asian films or Anime?
My all time favorite anime is Fooly Cooly or FLCL as many call it. It’s the first anime that I’ve watched more than once & it’s a riveting, crazy, intensely inspiring, perfect mix of randomness that makes my creative brain grow. I also love vespas and the color yellow ;).
As a lover of movie making, do you have any aspirations to make a full length documentary or film?
I do indeed have aspirations to make a full length film. I’m absolutely obsessed with 2 things: Documentaries that engage and challenge the audience & Science Fiction films. However with that said, I do definitely feel like I need to take these challenges in my stride and that when the time is right the dream of making a full length feature will become a reality but for now I know I have a lot to learn before I can one day make my very own Science Fiction feature film. Maybe it’ll be the very first live action Science Fiction to actually be filmed in space.
Oh wow, well let’s talk about that then! Lets say your dream of going to space is achieved. What are three things you would like to do while out there?
- I would take a photo (obviously) & I would make sure that I at least take a few selfies.
- I would take full advantage of zero gravity, I would see how high I could jump and I would pretend was swimming through the air.
- I’d make a little mini documentary about all of the above while up there.
Lastly, any advice for any budding photographers looking to make an impact via instagram?
Engaging on the platform in a genuine way, meeting others and learning as much as you can from those who inspire you. Create unique, beautiful content. We live in a world where there are millions of people who can take photos and we are bombarded every day with huge amounts of visual noise and any visual creative needs to find out what makes them unique. I try capture moments that touch the heart. If you can find that one thing that speaks to your heart, it’ll ultimately speak to the hearts of others.
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