There’s nothing like turning the volume way up on a song you love. A song — favourite or just discovered — offers a three-minute reprieve from the toils of your commute; from whatever thoughts are rumbling through your mind. It offers resonance, too. Crooned lyrics that soundtrack a feeling you can’t quite put into words. A belted chorus that touches something no other medium can do quite as well; quite as quickly. In “Tuning In”, we delve into the lives and loves of the people behind those tracks — and the ones they love, as well. This week, we speak to Hong Kong indie artist Cola Morgan.
Cola Morgan is new here.
New in every sense of the word. A new name (you might know him by his former alias, paperdreams), new EP, new Instagram handle and, well, almost-new high school graduate.
Currently half-way through a gap year wedged in-between the last hazy days of senior year at Canadian International School of Hong Kong and a film production degree at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Cola Morgan — known to his friends as Elio Kaczmarek — is hard at work making music, spending days on set filming for his new music video and re-branding from his ex-paperdreams persona. Not quite typical gap year things, but what would you expect from a Spotify-verified artist with close to half-a-million streams racked up on his most popular single, “Over And Over Again”?
“I’m a kid who writes and sings and produce songs that just reflect whatever I’m thinking or feeling,” says Cola Morgan.
With a Korean mother who, allegedly, plays the piano and a Scottish father who, allegedly, plays the trumpet — “To this day, I’ve not once heard my mum play the piano, or my dad the trumpet,” explains Morgan — the artist’s exposure to music began early on with guitar and drum lessons from age eight.
Then, came the calling of GarageBand. Then, FL Studio. Then, a soundproofed, real-life studio. Now, he’s on the verge of something even bigger: A new EP, led by Morgan’s soon-to-be-released debut single “Miami”, is a coming-of-age record; chronicling the kind of thoughts, feelings and intensity of emotion universal to anyone at the precipice of adolescence.
“I’d say the EP was really just inspired by my life at the time I wrote it. It seemed like nobody around me was capable of handling themselves. Every relationship was so messy and happiness was ephemeral but also totally shallow. I guess it was really inspired by the people around me? But it’s also quite introspective, I’d say… it’s really about myself at the end of the day [laughs]. I think that’s pretty much true for all music, though.”
“It’s all quite teenaged — and conversational, I hope.”
A conversation has started. Cola Morgan says hello.
Meet Cola Morgan
Who is Cola Morgan?
Morgan’s my middle name, first of all. And Cola, like, the generic beverage, has just been a weirdly recurrent symbol in my life. When I had the idea to stick the two together it just felt magnetic. I auditioned other names afterwards, and none of them worked. Not even my real name, as much as I wanted to use it. It just had to be Cola Morgan — I don’t even really drink Coke.
What was your first instrument or training with music?
I started learning drums and guitar when I was eight. I dropped the guitar after just a couple months, although I recently picked it up again. I just hated it at the time. I stuck with the drums until I was like 11 or 12. I think a big reason I stopped is because as I got more invested in music production I began to wonder, “What’s the point of playing the drums when I can programme them digitally?” I was young, and unwise.
Did you grow up around music? Does it run in your family?
My mum plays the piano and my dad plays the trumpet, but to this day, I’ve not once heard my mum play the piano, or my dad the trumpet. That about sums it up, honestly. I mean, we’d play CDs in the car, but we weren’t one of those families who’d constantly have music on at home, or anything like that. I actually feel really uncultured when it comes to knowing classic artists and whatnot. It’s so embarrassing.
What’s the first song you’ve ever learned by heart?
It must have been “Fireflies” by Owl City. My friend Andrew, who was probably 11 or so at the time, mentioned it one day saying it was his favourite song. So I asked my parents to buy a CD with that song on it — you know, so we could listen to it in the car. Then it became the only song I listened to for quite some time. I didn’t even really like it, but I tried to convince myself that I did. I mean, what was I supposed to do? Discover music on my own? I was, like, six.
When did you realise you were musical? Can you pinpoint a formative moment when you realised you were good?
I realised I was musical when it hit me that I knew how to make a track from scratch — so, like, when I was 12, probably. Of course the music I made when I was that young was total crap, but it had a coherence to it, at least, and that was something. But when did I realise I was good? I mean, I’m still wondering if I’m good. I don’t really know what good means in music. If you’re talking about me feeling good about my music, then that’s actually quite new.
Around the time I was graduating high school, I showed my girlfriend at the time a song I’d just finished. She told me she liked it, but I could tell she didn’t. It wasn’t a bad song, it was okay. But for some reason I kind of mulled over that, and it made me realise, I didn’t even like the song. I didn’t like any of the music I’d made. So why was I making it? After that I did some reflecting and eventually returned to music with the goal of just making stuff that I liked. I had to understand that my entire approach to making music until that point was based on some insanely asinine self-imposed rules. Once I did that, everything changed. And that’s how the songs on this EP came to life. That’s when I finally became able to leave my house and be genuinely excited to put my AirPods in and listen to my own shit.
What’s a song (or album; or performance) that had a really important, lasting impact on you, both personally and as an artist?
So, it’s funny how the whole “Fireflies” thing worked out — the CD that my parents brought home was of Owl City’s record, you know, Ocean Eyes. Despite not liking Fireflies that much, I can say now with almost absolute certainty that Ocean Eyes is my favourite album of all time. Yeah there’s the nostalgia factor, but it also showed me that gorgeous music that feels like it pierces your soul can also be incredibly fun to listen to, and I think that’s the kind of music I want to make.
Who’s your favourite musician/artist?
Owl City, for obvious reasons. I only discovered Phoebe Bridgers recently but she’s instantly become one of my favourite artists. Her music’s so incredibly evocative. It’s utterly intoxicating. Listening to her just makes me so happy that I get to make music. I’ll also say The 1975. I love what they do aesthetically. But they also taught me I don’t have to give a shit all the time and that was honestly a very valuable lesson.
What does music, or being a musician, mean to you?
That’s something I ask myself a lot. For now, I’ve landed on music being kind of like distilled emotion. I’ll try not to ramble about this — I’m generally a believer that subjectivity and objectivity are on a spectrum, and at the moment I’m comfortable saying music is one of the more subjective art forms. It’s slippery. Being a cinephile, I can tell you what I think makes a good film, and I’m really uptight about separating personal enjoyment of a film from a film’s “goodness,” since I see the latter as “more objective.” I’m not snooty about music. I think if you like a song, then that song has succeeded. And, you know, when we’re talking about getting someone to like something, we’re talking about eliciting an emotional response. So you could say that’s what music is to me — emotion, catharsis — it’s inductive. And so being a musician sort of means being, like, a dispenser of emotion. Even though that sounds unbelievably lame.
Is there anyone — both up-and-coming and established greats — whose work you’re currently really excited about?
Sam Gellaitry started releasing more pop-influenced stuff as of last year and, man, it’s incredible. I’m also keeping my eye on gabby start. He was hugely inspirational for me when he was still making indie electronic stuff under his previous alias, and now he’s really come into his own.
What’s your creative process?
Organic and very, very hazy. It’s really not methodical at all. But it’s important to me that I know what a song’s about before I start it, so I think more often than not I’ll begin with a lyric or a title or something and then just start experimenting. That one idea on its own always sounds like it could become a million different things, but if I manage to stick it with another idea that I think clicks, suddenly I know exactly what the song is. The way I see it, particularly in the early stages, it’s more of a subtractive process than an additive one — it’s about slowly eliminating the possibilities that don’t work rather than slowly adding the ideas that do. I’ve noticed I find it pretty difficult to internalise that I’m actually the creator of my music, and I think that’s cause I rarely feel like I’m creating a song from nothing. It’s more like I’m following the clues to discover a song that was already there. But when I’m passionate about an idea I’ll usually fumble through it pretty fast. The longest it took me to finish a demo for any of the songs off this upcoming EP was, like, a week. I just won’t sleep.
What’s your favourite lyric, ever?
That’s such a difficult question. Right now I’m gonna say it’s Rick Ross’ entire closing verse on “Devil In A New Dress”. It’s just so poetic and lonely and delicate. To me it’s utterly heartbreaking. And complemented beautifully by the production.
Taylor Swift. Thoughts?
Love her. Love her! Seriously. How could I not? I’m a big fan. I’d love to call myself a Swiftie but on account of also being a big Kanye fan I feel like I’m not allowed to… I don’t think about it too much.
What are your five most-played tracks on Spotify?
Sam Gellaitry – “Duo”
The 1975 – “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)”
Tycho & Saint Sinner – “Pink & Blue (RAC Mix)”
James Ivy – “Yearbook (feat. Instupendo & Harry Teardrop)”
Ye – “Devil In A New Dress”
Any guilty-pleasure tunes you’d like to plug?
I’d be truly flabbergasted if you could show me a bigger guilty-pleasure tune than Getter Jaani – “Rockefeller Street (New Nightcore) [#Rockefellerstreet Remix]”.
Do you have any pre- and post-show rituals?
Gosh. I wish I knew. This tends to surprise people but I actually haven’t performed yet. I’ve been doing music for a long time, but I spent so much of that time figuring out who I wanted to be, and sadly I only solved that and became an artist after COVID had hit. I’d love to start performing, but so far I’ve had to prioritise the other stuff. So I’ll let you know about those rituals when I can.
What’s the toughest challenge you’ve had to overcome in your career?
I mean, as an indie artist, there’s always gonna be the issue of getting heard and being taken seriously. It’s definitely a valid one, and it applied to me too. But I really struggled with understanding what I wanted — the kind of music I wanted to make, the way I wanted to present myself — and I wonder if getting heard would’ve been easier if I’d dealt with all that first. One of the coolest things about being an artist is that you’re the boss, but being the boss means accepting a lot of responsibility. It took me a really long time to feel like I was ready — mentally and creatively.
What’s next? What are you working on?
I’m super busy with getting this EP ready for release! I’ve found that with this kind of thing you always have less time than you think. We’re also still shooting music videos, which is extremely exciting and genuinely loads of fun, but a lot of work. Apart from that, I’m working on new music. Maybe for EP 2. Who knows.
Follow Cola Morgan here and stay tuned for his EP’s release