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Home > Culture > Music > Tuning In: kiyu on being a “genreless” artist and how Hong Kong shaped his sound
Tuning In: kiyu on being a “genreless” artist and how Hong Kong shaped his sound

In his free time, kiyu is just like any other 20-something-year-old, preferring to spend his hours playing video games, rock climbing or even cooking on occasion. But when he’s working on his music, he’s all business — and it shows. With over 40k spins on Apple Music and 20k on Spotify, as well as numerous live shows under his belt, we talk to the “twentyone” and “overthinking” singer about refining his sound and capturing the hearts of his fans in the process.

Like many of us, kiyu is still figuring life out — except unlike many of us, he takes it one step further and turns his troubles into tunes. Fully self-taught, the Hong Kong singer-songwriter combines alternative pop with the “personal touch of an early 2000s cassette”. Aside from his music, though, kiyu simply wants you to know he’s just like you.

The singer, who goes by his real name, Jackie Chan, to his friends and family, had an unconventional start to his musical journey. He began experimenting with different sounds while recovering from a concussion from playing rugby in high school. Now, (fully recovered) at 21 years old, kiyu is helping his listeners navigate anxiety, loneliness, depression — you know, the whole shebang — through his songs.

While he is categorised as an indie pop artist, kiyu prefers not to be labelled and strives to deviate from any one genre. He has, on occasions, described his music as “genreless” as it is continuously evolving, with each song different from the one before it. But if he had to put it in a box, he would rather sort his music by what it sounds like and or by the emotions it evokes.

Tuning In: kiyu

When and how did your interest in music begin?

That is a question I wish I had a definitive answer to! I think it may come as a surprise for many people but I wasn’t involved in “proper music” until grade 11 in high school. I listened to music growing up and went to karaoke with my friends, but it was never something I considered long-term. In fact, I was a visual artist, like a watercolour painter, for a really long time. I started attending this institution called Choeng Mei Art when I was three years old to practise calligraphy, and I thought it was going to become my career someday.

Anyhow, I was a huge rugby guy in high school and one day, I got a concussion while playing. I was placed on leave and during that time, I started doing theatre, and then musical theatre, and eventually found myself immersed in the world of music. I began to watch live shows and discovered One Ok Rock live shows, The Script shows, Coldplay, stuff like that. I saw the stage from their point of view, with the large crowds singing their lyrics, all the flashing lights and decided that was something I wanted to experience for myself. So I guess that was when I was like: “this is what I want to do”.

Did you grow up around music? Does it run in your family?

My parents aren’t really musically inclined. I will say though, I grew up with music in the sense that both my parents loved listening to music so we always had something playing at home, listening to Beyond, Eason Chan, Beatles…

My brother actually shaped a lot of my sound because he was the one to show me a lot of new music, which then shaped my preferences. He and I also tried a lot of instruments together like taking piano lessons as kids, picking up the guitar, the drums, the trumpet and the French horn.

When did you realise you were musical? Can you pinpoint a formative moment when you realised you were good?

I don’t think I’m good! In fact, I think I’m very far from where I want to be. I listen to artists like Keshi, EDEN, Jeremy Zucker and I think their music is art. And I think with me, I’m still creating songs. But I think Hong Kong, culturally, brings so much. And it’s a shame that these sounds aren’t really shown to the world when I think they should be.

How have different cultural influences in your life shaped you as a musician?

Hong Kong is like this amalgamation of cultures and traditions. Growing up in an international school, I only experienced the “western side” of Hong Kong — it was like living in a bubble. After graduation, I realised there is so much more to the city. There’s a melting pot of cultures right in front of my eyes.

People are always trying to bridge the world and its cultures and find a way to learn about each other. I think Hong Kong’s music can be that. New artists in Hong Kong have a distinct flavour or sound that’s eastern and western. And I just want to share that more. I think I’ve rambled enough but to summarise, Hong Kong has shaped me as a musician because I’m culturally aware and understand both western and eastern sounds.

What’s the first track we should listen to that best defines your sound?

Every new song that continues to come out. I’ll be really honest, I think my sound is still continuing to develop and I don’t think it will stop. You look at Keshi, EDEN, Jeremy Zucker and their sound changes with every year as they accrue more knowledge and get closer to what they want to sound like. It’s the same with me. Honestly, it’s really cool, listening to an artist’s first songs and sequentially listening to their newest release. That way, you really get to know an artist. Especially since I haven’t hidden anything from my fans and listeners, you can go back and listen to the very first thing I made and you’ll see my journey.

At the end of the day, as singer-songwriters, we’re like a life story that fans subscribe to. Every time we release, we share a bit of our life. So if you want to know what’s the “definition” of me in the form of a song, listen to the most recent one. And if you want to know more about me, listen to the first song to the newest to know my story.

What song, album or performance had a really important, lasting impact on you, both personally and as an artist?

The album “Science & Faith” by The Script. I’ll say it and I’ll say it again: longest-standing album and one of the greatest of all time. The lyrics, the melodies, the voicing, everything. I still listen to the album for the millionth time looking for inspiration or to observe how they did certain things and how they conveyed certain emotions. Personally, it helped me get through some tough times in school.

Who’s your favourite musician/artist and why?

I think EDEN would be my favourite just because he makes art. Each song isn’t music, it’s literally art. And he also studied in Hong Kong, I think he grew up here too actually. He showed me that Hong Kong musicians, or people who started out in this city, can actually do something huge and become so big.

What does music, or being a musician, mean to you?

For me personally, I have a selfish goal of wanting to hear fans or an audience sing my lyrics back to me. I just look at live performances like I previously mentioned and I’m just like: “Wow, I want to know what that’s like”. To have the world relate to your insecurities, your life struggles, your happiness, everything and just sing it back to you.

Professionally though, I think I have the goal of really showcasing to the world “this is what Hong Kong can offer”. I want to open that door so that Hong Kong artists can dream bigger than just staying in Hong Kong. That they can show their craft to the world, play shows abroad and really be a part of the global conversation of music.

What’s your creative process?

Honestly, I just make things when I feel like it. I get inspiration from listening to music, listening to others’ works, going about my day and having an opinion on everything that happens around me. Then I put that down on paper, sing a tune in my head and there you have it — a song. Whether it’s good or not is a different story, but I prefer quality over quantity, in the sense that each song is like a curated piece of art. If I were to really put my efforts into finishing a song and giving it my all, I can only do that for a small number of songs instead of making a lot at a time. But I make everything myself — lyrics, producing, playing the instruments, singing, mixing, master, everything.

Do you have any pre- and post-show rituals?

Before a show, I don’t really want to talk to anyone. I think Chris (my manager) can attest to this, I just sit there. I’m trying to empty my thoughts, breathe and get my lungs open.

Post-show, I also don’t want to talk, haha. Usually, though, Chris and I will discuss how the show went and we criticise our work to try and pinpoint areas where we can improve for the next time. But after those talks, I just like being by myself in silence. Take a nice shower, drink some water, just chill for the night.

What’s your favourite lyric, ever?

This might be a cop-out but EDEN’s intro to the vertigo album “wrong” is probably my favourite lyrics-wise. I remember the first time I heard it, I got chills for the whole minute of the opening. There are no repeats in the lyrics but I guess if you want a specific line, I’d just say the opening line of: “But I could be more, isn’t there more?”

What are your personal most-played tracks on Spotify?

Oh God, I don’t know. All-time? Probably either something from The Script, One Ok Rock, Jeremy Zucker or EDEN. Though this year it’s probably Keshi because I’ve looped his new album so many times. If we’re talking like an actual track and not the artist, I think last year on my Spotify wrapped it was Jeremy Zucker’s “Lakehouse” or “Always I’ll Care”.

What’s the toughest challenge you’ve had to overcome in your career?

So far this whole career has been a challenge. I went from not having a career at all and thinking I made a mistake trying this career thing, to thinking I should go do some backstage work instead, then thinking I wasn’t even going to get that and not knowing what I was doing at all. Then I met my manager and found someone to relate to, and now I’m trying to find the best way to tell the artistic story that I want to share.

Obviously, I’ve made strides since the beginning but I don’t think it’s gotten any easier from when I first started. New problems occur, things happen, it just keeps going and keeps you on your toes.

How has your music changed and evolved over the years since you started?

I think it’s changed in the sense that I’m getting more familiar with the tools I’m using and also getting a larger understanding of how music, music business and sounds work. An example would be Itamae, the head sushi chef, who spent like 15 years making sushi. You just get more and more masterful at what you do.

If you listen to “Rain”, my first song, I had no idea what I could do with Logic. Now I’m still exploring, discovering more and gaining a larger grasp on the possibilities of my work. If you listen to my stuff in order, I think it’s pretty obvious.

What’s next? What are you working on?

I have a new song coming up on 15 July! I’m really excited about it and I think it’s a really nice summer-moving-into-fall song to listen to. It’s called “saturday night” and it’s going to show a new side of me to the world. After that… well, I’m not going to ruin the surprise but we’ve got exciting news coming along. If you follow my Instagram, I always keep people up to date there.


(Lead and featured photos courtesy of kiyu)

Charmaine Ng
Editor
Charmaine enjoys eating steamed broccoli and knocking back cups of spearmint tea, all in the name of health. Covering art, beauty and music :)
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