In “Tuning In”, we delve into the lives and loves of the people behind the tracks you love — and the ones they love, as well. In this edition, we talk to rising Hong Kong indie-pop artist cehryl.
I’m really happy you picked Aberdeen,” cehryl says when we meet at the harbour. It’s a warm and quiet afternoon by the water, the perfect setting to sit and chat about everything from photography to food writing and film scoring.
Despite her fairly traditional Hong Kong background (“I didn’t come from a musical family. My parents, like, rarely put on music”), singer-songwriter Cheryl Chow took a chance at applying to the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where she studied music production and engineering. She returned to Hong Kong in June 2019 and has slowly been making her mark on the local music scene, after producing and performing in LA.
Her latest release time machine (listen on Spotify here) is a dreamy EP that comes complete with stunning visuals, soft beats and confessional songwriting — or at least that’s how we’d describe it. We spoke to cehryl to learn more about her art, how she would define herself, and the music that speaks to her soul.
Tuning In with singer-songwriter cehryl
Your music has been described as indie-pop, lo-fi, bedroom pop and R&B. How do you feel about those genre names, and how would you describe your sound?
I would agree that it’s indie-pop or indie R&B of some sort. I think that over the years, I’ve tried to expand that, not for any one reason but because of my music taste — which I understand is a cliché thing to say because I feel like all artists want to be like “Don’t box me.” I don’t like the term bedroom-pop or lo-fi. I think it’s such a gimmicky thing.
Do you think you could convey your sound to us as a feeling or even visually?
Feeling, I would say, it’s intimate. Mostly nostalgic. A little bit wonky or rugged on the edges. Visually, a little hazy and soft. Hopefully, very honest.
How do your parents feel about you being in music?
At first, it was really difficult for them to support and accept or embrace that this was what I wanted to do. Especially in Hong Kong — money always comes first. And it’s a very collectivist city as opposed to like the “individualist West”. I think it makes sense that they didn’t really fully support it in the beginning. But throughout the years, I think they’ve softened a little bit. And I really appreciate that they — even if they didn’t understand it — still try to show support.
Your music features confessional, almost like diary-like lyrics. How would you characterise your own songwriting?
I would agree with that. My songwriting process doesn’t include any form of performance. I’m really just writing from my heart, from me to myself. It’s a really undisturbed, uncensored mindset. I agree with the word confessional, but I feel like confessional implies that I’m trying to blurt something out, to announce something that was kept private before. I don’t think it’s performative. I would say that it’s very private and intimate and personal and honest.
You’ve also written essays and pieces before for other publications and you run the homesick at home literary journal. Tell us about your writing!
I’m really happy you asked me. I think why I got into music, a big part of it was the storytelling aspect. Or just words. I’m fascinated and obsessed and just always hungry for words. Growing up, I wanted to be a writer. I don’t think that’s true anymore, but homesick at home was an outlet for me to kind of take a break from music, and to create a space for me and my friend and anyone who wanted to post their writing somewhere but was too afraid or shy to post on their own personal Instagram accounts.
“MY GRANDMOTHER DOES NOT COOK FOR THE WHITE GAZE” was a freelance piece for Pit Magazine. I wrote a personal essay on the history of MSG because I have a really strong connection to it and also because I’m really interested in food history. I think there’s so much sadness and joy in food — the relationship between family and food and childhood is so interconnected. All the topics are really different, but it all has to do with being challenged by words and using the formation of syntax to express some sort of longing.
What’s an album that had a really important, lasting impact on you, both personally and as an artist?
Nina Simone’s Here Comes the Sun was an album that I played over and over again in my room in Boston during college. I felt it was a really healing album for me. I think I was going through a bunch of shit when I was in Boston, and I would just lie down on my bed and turn off all the lights and play the album on loop for hours and just look at the ceiling and think about life. I think it’s just who she is as an artist, and in every word that she expresses. She carries all the pain and all the joy of her life. I think you can really hear it from every syllable that comes out of her mouth. That album to me is so comforting and healing and uplifting, but also acknowledging pain and loss.
Tell us a little bit about your recording and producing process.
It’s very lazy, I would say. I like having a workspace that’s casual enough that writing and recording and producing all feel like taking notes. I don’t like a really elaborate process of going somewhere to record something and then having a limited amount of time. I haven’t really done that. I’m not saying that one is better than the other, but I’m more used to doing it very low-key. Everything just comes in one big spurt of energy.
You’ve produced for others too – you composed for Hong Kong illustrator Kazy Chan’s solo exhibition, and for an Adobe film by Natalie Chao. How did these collaborations come about and what was the process like?
I did Kazy Chan’s exhibition first. He reached out to me earlier this year and was like, “I really like your music. I have this exhibition coming up. Would you be down to do some sort of musical collaboration with it?” Over time, we figured out the format. He had 15 to 16 pieces — like paintings and miniature sculptures. Each had a story behind it based on animal myths and legends. I wrote a song for each one — some of them were tracks without singing. That was a really fun experience. I think it challenged me to work on someone else’s project because you’re given the emotion and the story and you’re supposed to narrate it sonically as opposed to [starting] from scratch.
Natalie Chao’s documentary for Adobe is called THE LOOK OF MEMORY. We’re really good friends and we’ve worked on her previous film that won Sundance. We’re long-time collaborators. For her previous film, I just scored it. For this one, we started working on it together from scratch. The film is a self-portrait/manifesto of what it means to hold a camera. It was honestly one of my favourite projects I’ve ever worked on because it was two women — me and my really good friend that both love the same things and ask similar questions about what it means to hold a camera. Like why we hold on so tightly to memory. What does it even mean to be nostalgic about something? So this film, I scored it, I mixed it. I shot some of it and I developed the concept with Natalie. It was super collaborative — everyone wore all the hats. It was a very fulfilling project.
Talk us through the time machine EP. What was different about this release?
I think I hate everything before it. I truly hate everything that I’ve ever made before time machine. So I would say what makes it different is I like it. I guess that’s a good thing because it means you’ve grown and the art is better now, hopefully. I would say it’s a little more intimate, a little more honest than before. A little freer, as well.
Your music videos are gorgeous! Tell us a little about your vision — talk us through the videos for “philadelphia” and “outside the party, inside the dream“.
So the music videos for those were done in conjunction with the same team and the same group of people. The idea was for “outside the party, inside the dream” to be a sequel to “philadelphia”. It was directed by my friend Ran Zhang and edited by Jonny Ho. “philadelphia” is about things that you once were close to, but are not anymore and the absurdity of that. It was about my time in college and all the people that I felt so close to, but have lost over time which is the natural, sad adult thing that happens. The music video was an attempt to recreate that feeling of a group of college friends. We shot this in January 2021. I was there to discuss the beginning stages, but in terms of the editing and stylistically, I was very hands-off. I was just curious to see what my videos would look like if they were made by someone else. It was cool; I think I learned a lot from that. I think it also reflected what I had in my mind when I wrote the songs.
What are your five most-played tracks on Spotify?
You recently featured on boylife’s gelato album! How did that collaboration happen?
He’s my really good friend from LA. He’s the best. I would say that we’re really good musical collaborators. When I was still in LA, I would always go over to the studio and we would sit on the carpet and try to come up with riffs on his bass that I was very attached to. That song was something that he wrote and sent me and was like “sing over it”. And I was like “Yes, sir!”
What did you miss most about being on stage?
Every time I perform, I’m so lazy about it until three days before and then I get really nervous. But then when I sing the first syllable of the first song, it feels like everything in the world is still and everything is in the right place. It feels like time has stopped. I know that’s really dramatic. I’m really grateful that when I perform, I’m given this accidental opportunity to seize everyone’s attention and sing something that was really personal to me. I just missed the magic of it – how suddenly I’m not scared anymore and I don’t care how I look or anything.
What’s next for you? What are you working on?
I should be working on a lot of stuff. But honestly, I’m taking it easy because the last two months have been hectic with a lot of freelance work. So, I’m trying to reset my mentality — I’ve just been in absorption mode. I’ve been reading a lot and watching a lot of films, but I plan to start working on music again very soon. I’ve honestly lost the urge to do that for many months, but I’m hoping to get back there.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.