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Q&A: Alumna Joyce Kwon ‘09 releases debut album

Music alumna Joyce Kwon is a recipient of the Hertz Traveling Fellowship, which is awarded to individuals who have manifested unusual talent in music and who show a bona fide intention to devote their lives to music. She received funding to study the Korean zither in Seoul for the academic year 2015-16. While in Korea, her initial goal was to record a mini-album of gayageum/voice songs with accompanying music videos. Since then her project has grown to a full-length album, titled “Dream of Home” released on 12/7/18.

How did the project go from a mini-album to a full-length record?

My debut album “Dream of Home” is now out and it bloomed into a bigger project than initially imagined over the course of the past year. It is a singer-songwriter album of what I’m calling “New-American Folk” music, songs about a new American experience — folk music of folks of the diaspora. I sing and play gayageum, the 12-string traditional Korean zither, on my original compositions as well as a couple arrangements of folk songs, along with a rhythm section of drums, bass, guitar and many keyboard instruments plus saxophone and trombone.

To give a bit of background, I studied composition and contemporary improvisation when I was an undergraduate at Cal and started learning to play gayageum when I moved back to LA after college. My late teacher was like my own grandmother and I studied in the old-school way of mirroring her each move on the gayageum, with no notes or recordings of any sort allowed, at a snail’s pace for a couple years. She imparted a deep love, pride and appreciation for Korean traditional music to me, which was fundamental in making my album. I stopped playing for years after that once I moved to New York but then relocated to Seoul to continue my gayageum studies on the Hertz Fellowship in 2015. Having started arranging and writing songs on gayageum for fun, I recorded one of them, called Little Bird. My friend Ross Garren mixed that track and encouraged me to make an EP so once I moved back to the States last fall, we started on the project in earnest.

We were planning on doing a solo voice/gayageum album in the vein of Little Bird but as we started arranging the songs, Ross suggested chordal instruments and others to flesh out the arrangements. It was fantastic having a skilled and talented producer to help guide the direction of the album: to me, the songs sounded plenty full already but to anyone unfamiliar with the spacious and sparse aesthetic of traditional Korean music, I now agree with the producer that they wouldn’t have heard it the way I did. It’s a very different experience holding a resonating zither in your lap, feeling warm breath and savoring the physicality of performance versus hearing a facsimile in the relatively flat dimension of an audio recording.

From the beginning, I said we could arrange the songs any way we want as long as we get the stories/lyrics across, and we weren’t tied to a strict budget so the project kept growing at each step of the process. Two generous days in the studio grew to a tight twelve, the timeline stretched three seasons beyond the fall, the budget ballooned six-fold and we ended up with seven musicians on the album instead of one or two. Then because I had already invested so much in the music, all of the supporting processes and creative also grew in scope. I’m glad it grew the way it did because that is the only way this album could have happened.

My college friends showed up in full force when I did a Kickstarter back in May and it has been a communal gathering with my various communities generously contributing, whether it be their creative talents, funds or other resources to make this album happen.

So to not make a long story any longer, that’s how the mini-album turned into a longer album — my debut album!

What was the recording process like?

This is a folk album at its core, rooted in Black American Music and Korean traditional music, but it was produced like a pop album using some of the most modern studio technology. We recorded it like a pop album, layer by layer, as opposed to a jazz album where you might track the whole band in the studio for a couple days and then clean up vocals. Ross and I would mock up an arrangement for each song before taking a day in the studio for it, tracking each of our parts first (keyboards and harmonica for Ross and vocals and gayageum for me). Then we tracked everything else, replacing the digital mockups with real instruments. We did this over the course of five months, going in a couple days a month to track while completing arrangements in between those sessions and also did some arranging during the tracking sessions.

Having made an EP in the past with my indie electronic band where it was heavily electronic and not performable in a live situation, It was important to me that we build the arrangements on real instruments, where we could recreate at least the essence of the music in live performance. I hope and plan to perform this music in various configurations in the coming year.

Because there were no clear predecessors for the album we were making, at least as far as I know, we had much to figure out in terms of how we wanted to mix the album and also how we wanted to approach the arrangements. I learned that even as musicians, depending on your reference points, you may hear the same music quite differently: in general, I did not see the need to add more parts but the same arrangements would sound skeletal to Ross. This tension was present throughout most of the music-making process and thus, influential in way the album shaped up. I was vigilant in making sure that we did not veer too far from the feeling of palpable space found in Korean folk arts while Ross, in effect, ensured that the album would be accessible to a greater audience with his signature lush arranging style.

I came up with a key phrase for each song for everyone involved to keep in mind in arranging and recording the album. For example, the key phrase for the title track “Dream of Home” was “beauty of space, like looking into a pool of water.” I like to say that I was “vibe control” while Ross was “quality control.” We make a great team and I’m thankful to have gotten to work with not only the best musicians but some of my closest friends in the world for this album.

What was your inspiration for the album?

This album was inspired by my experience going back home to Korea, where I was born and lived until the age of eight. It was a devastating time of loved ones passing away and residing in the world of the undead, being thrown under the bus by people I trusted and also going through what I suspect is a common experience for expats of feeling like an alien in the motherland after growing up made to feel you don’t belong in your adopted home country.

Feelings of homelessness and displacement were major inspirations for the album but so were an element of unrelenting hope, no matter how small, and anticipation of death—not in the feared way it’s often looked at but in striving to live boldly while alive. Also, while I don’t plan on dying for another five decades or so, I wanted to have something to leave so that family and friends could hear my voice (it happens to be literal in my case since I’m a singer) even when I’m gone. In laughing out loud while reading a posthumously published book of someone I adored, I realized that I had forgotten for a moment she was gone. I also found a stack of letters my aunt had sent years ago and it allowed me a chance to hear her voice clearly even after she had passed.

Back to the place of inspiration, Korea — I found the most concise way to describe my two years there is as an upper level of purgatory. So the “Dream of Home” is a nightmare and I spent most of the year back in shell shock from my time there. Working on the songs helped me process the trauma and the album was a great motivator in helping me get through each day for the past year. So it was inspired by my experiences but also became an inspiration in pulling me up when I was sinking.

How did you apply what you learned at UCB Music? Or how did what you learned at UCB change once you started on the project/it evolved?

Berkeley not only gave me a sturdy background in music theory and history but all of that within the context of a liberal arts education. It pushed me to think of music in social, cultural, political contexts and that mindset is core to me as a performing artist. It’s certainly possible to arrive at that in the context of a conservatory or the real world/no college, but for me, Berkeley couldn’t have been a better match.

The music department gave me ample room to grow and flourish. Because the department is more focused on composition, theory and musicology than performance, I had great flexibility in creating my own performance opportunities and devising a track closely aligned with my own interests in composition and contemporary improvisation. If my time in New York was to work out vocal technique and cut my teeth as a professional musician, and Los Angeles, a place to polish and refine rough edges, Berkeley was to lay down the musical foundation and stretch in any and every direction I desired, exploring the avant-garde without any concern of practicality outside of academia. It encouraged me to think creatively and boundlessly through a wider lens of the arts and humanities rather than focusing solely on idiosyncrasies of the musical field.

Though I’ve been away from Berkeley for a number of years now, I think the sort of oddball Bay Area character is apparent in my work as those were my formative years and my time in the music department very much shaped the way I compose and think about music. I am thrilled to share my debut album with college friends and teachers who saw and cheered me on from the beginning, as I began to develop my voice as an artist.

Listen to Joyce Kwon’s album “Dream of Home” here.