Phyllis Chen Proves Toy Piano Ain’t No Child’s Play

Story by Jimmy Lee. 

When you tell people you play the toy piano professionally, hearing snickers or getting a blank stare just comes with the territory. It’s something Phyllis Chen is not unfamiliar with.

“People used to turn their noses when they heard I played classical music as well,” says Chen. “But that’s OK. That’s not a major concern of mine.”

The more pressing matters on her mind include finishing her latest commission, a composition for string orchestra and toy piano, which she will debut in April in Austin, Texas.

Chen is just one of a few musicians demonstrating that the toy piano is not just a plaything for children. “When I touched it, it was like how I felt about the piano. I just loved the tactile experience of playing it and fell in love with the bell-like sound,” says Chen, who first came across the miniaturized instrument when she was 21 (it was being used as a prop in a puppet theater). Now she’s composing new pieces and releasing CDs highlighting the toy piano. “I knew that there wasn’t a lot of music out there for it, and it made me feel like I can create new repertoire for something that doesn’t have boundaries and the traditional thinking that is expected in classical music.”

There is, however, a lot of misconceptions about what Chen does. For one, she is not anything like Schroeder of the Peanuts comics and cartoons, playing Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” on her toy piano. And she’s not the child whom producers from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno assumed she was when they inquired about her appearing — they weren’t interested in adult toy pianists, apparently. And some people who venture into one of her concerts might walk in with wacky expectations, like the one time a few audience members told Chen they thought she was going to be a miniature pianist (as in a small person).

“It’s a profession filled with misunderstandings,” says Chen.

Another refrain she hears often is that people who hear toy piano automatically assume it’s music meant for kids. But what she’s playing is verging on the avant-garde, and could even be construed as too arty; it’s music not for the masses. One of the first pieces she performed publicly was written by John Cage, the master modern composer most notorious for “4”33’,” which is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of the orchestra sitting in silence.

So how does a classically trained pianist, who started playing at the age of 5 and has music degrees from Oberlin (undergrad) and Northwestern (master’s) and is nearing completion of her doctorate from Indiana University, end up behind a toy piano? For Chen, it started with tendinitis that affected her hands. The doctors told her to take a break from the piano. “In a way, it was a blessing in disguise. It gave me the actual chance to do my own thing,” says Chen.

Her hands, since childhood, have gravitated toward sonic-producing objects. She was the one who wanted to start the piano at age 5, not her immigrant Taiwanese parents, who moved Chen, born in Schenectady, N.Y., and her brother to the South when she was 1, after her father became a professor at Virginia Tech. “Now, thinking about it, I rented bassoons, oboes, clarinets and flutes — all these things when I was a kid. I just wanted to get my hands on them and play them,” recounts Chen. “It was again the tactile experience.”

She does still play the piano, often with the International Contemporary Ensemble that she co-founded. She has also tackled the violin and yet another keyboard instrument: “I was completely in love with the accordion, and I totally thought I would become an accordion player,” says Chen. She even joined a klezmer band, but bearing it on her shoulders was too much while dealing with her tendinitis. The toy piano, on the other hand, “was an easy instrument to play because of the light touch.”

Chen exhibited that touch at a concert last September at New York City’s Joe’s Pub, while seated on a short stool. Yet she still loomed large over two toy pianos, one in the shape of an upright and the other a baby grand. You not only hear the bell-like tinkling of the notes she plays, but also the movement of the keys as they’re being depressed. And it’s really noticeable when Chen’s fingers are flying across the few octaves that fit on the keyboards. Her instruments project a clangy sound that dissipates quickly. There are no rich, resonant tones that you’d expect from a concert Steinway. And Chen is perfectly fine with that.

“[Toy pianos are] really kind of like a voice. They all have their own weird quirks,” says Chen. “It’s funny, but I’ve met instrument makers who say, you should put this into maple wood, and I could tune it for you [to make it more like a real piano]. Well, then, it’s not a toy piano if it’s perfect, beautiful sounding.”

With the toy piano, there are no unwritten rules to be bound by. Rather, the toy piano is pushing Chen to be a better artist. “I don’t feel as musically stuck anymore, or stifled by the classical tradition,” she says. “Now I could finally give myself the permission to do whatever I want and take responsibility for it.”

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here

VOICES CARRY: Carissa Rae

Story by Ada Tseng. 

In so many ways, music defines a generation or a culture, giving us the soundtrack to our multilayered, bicultural landscape. And the 10 women we highlight here not only lay it all on the line and bare their souls in their music but, each in their own way, do much to round out a picture of what it is to be an Asian woman in America. Our cover girl Yuna defies the modern definition of pop star with her inimitable voice juxtaposed with a girl-crush-worthy style of chic turbans and covered-up ensembles. We have the gossamer voiced Priscilla Ahn, whom we feel like we’ve grown with as her life journey (and music) goes from melancholy to bliss. Then there’s the flame-haired Hmong American hard rocker and an indefinable artist whose voice is featured in one of the hottest hits of the year. From sweet little ditties to feminist anthems, from odes written in the throes of love to songs that feel more like a cathartic purging, their music moves us, inspires us, rocks us. Take a glimpse into the meaning and memories behind the melodies. 


Filipino American singer Carissa Rae Alvarado, born and raised in Southern California, first started appearing in YouTube videos in 2008, crooning covers of Alicia Keys and Michelle Branch when she was still in high school. One day in 2011, at a friend’s music video shoot, she met a boy, a fellow singer-songwriter named Michael Alvarado, and little did she know that after three hours of talking and laughing, he had told his friend he was going to marry her.

A year later, there was a ring on her finger, and their individual YouTube followings only grew when they shared their proposal and wedding videos with their fans online. Eventually, Carissa Rae and Michael also officially combined their singing personas to create the duo called Us. In addition to their love songs about different stages of their relationship, their 270,000 subscribers can’t get enough of their general adorableness. The 23-year-old recalls how they got all their friends and family to sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” her favorite karaoke song, at their wedding reception. She admits to being scared of whales since she was 8. She loves jump roping. And they post new videos every “ThUSday.”

“My husband always knows how to make me laugh,” she gushes. “Even if it’s just a silly face he makes. I always tell him he is the most handsome and most ugly person I’ve ever met, because he can make some of the nastiest faces ever, and it just cracks me up!”

The duo recently released their sophomore pop/folk album No Matter Where You Are last November.

First Song: The very first song I wrote was about love. I was about 15 years old when I wrote it. It was basically about when you literally are so in love (in this case, it was puppy love) with a person, he or she is all you can think about. So no matter where you go, you see that person’s face.

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder: My husband and I were in a long-distance relationship for a while when we were dating. He lived in North Carolina, and I was in California, so one way that we coped with the distance was writing songs about it. “Near or Far,” which is on our first self-titled album, speaks about how we don’t need to worry about the miles in between us, that I’ll always be right there with him in his heart. This song was a wonderful reminder to stay strong and never give up on us even though distance was tough.

Favorite Music of the Moment: Lorde’s album Pure Heroine has been [playing] on repeat lately. She is such a wonderful songwriter!

Instrument Envy: I’d love to learn how to play an upright bass. The instrument itself, along with the sounds it makes, just fascinates me.

Guilty Pleasure: Excessive shopping is a habit that I need to break. I personally love shopping and can’t get enough of it, but my wallet (and my hubby) aren’t as thrilled when it comes to new clothes. If I weren’t doing music right now, I’d probably be working in fashion.

Fall in love with Carissa Rae at AudreyMagazine.com/carissarae.

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here.    

VOICES CARRY: Thao Nguyen

Story by Ada Tseng. 

In so many ways, music defines a generation or a culture, giving us the soundtrack to our multilayered, bicultural landscape. And the 10 women we highlight here not only lay it all on the line and bare their souls in their music but, each in their own way, do much to round out a picture of what it is to be an Asian woman in America. Our cover girl Yuna defies the modern definition of pop star with her inimitable voice juxtaposed with a girl-crush-worthy style of chic turbans and covered-up ensembles. We have the gossamer voiced Priscilla Ahn, whom we feel like we’ve grown with as her life journey (and music) goes from melancholy to bliss. Then there’s the flame-haired Hmong American hard rocker and an indefinable artist whose voice is featured in one of the hottest hits of the year. From sweet little ditties to feminist anthems, from odes written in the throes of love to songs that feel more like a cathartic purging, their music moves us, inspires us, rocks us. Take a glimpse into the meaning and memories behind the melodies.  


Born and raised in Virginia, Vietnamese American Thao Nguyen began playing guitar and writing songs as a pre-teen, before starting the alternative folk rock band Thao & The Get Down Stay Down with two of her College of William & Mary classmates in 2005. Last year, after years of touring and numerous albums, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down released their third full-length record, We the Common, which was inspired by Nguyen’s volunteer work at the California Coalition for Women Prisoners in San Francisco, Calif. The title track, “We The Common [For Valerie Bolden]” is dedicated to the first prisoner Nguyen ever met. Though Bolden, who is serving life without parole, has not heard the song — there are strict rules about bringing music into prison — Nguyen has read her the lyrics. “I just had a very intense interaction with her that stayed with me,” remembers the 29-year-old. “She talked about how she doesn’t want to die in there. She wants to see her daughter. I was struck by how lighthearted and casual our conversation was, yet it was punctuated with very poignant moments.”

“The Feeling Kind,” their latest music video for another single off the new album, made local news when the California Highway Patrol had to halt the shoot mid-production. It was the first music video to be shot on the new San Francisco-Oak- land Bay Bridge after it opened last September. “We had a salsa dancer dressed in full carnival regalia,” explains Nguyen, “and the outfit was beautiful but also revealing. I think traffic on the bridge came to a dead stop.” Luckily, they had gotten enough footage to make the parade-themed video.

After finishing up their We the Common tour early this year, Nguyen and her bandmates will begin working on their new album, tentatively scheduled for early 2015.

First Musical Memory: Listening to Smokey Robinson for the first time on the radio. And playing my brother’s Casio keyboard.

First Song: The first song I ever wrote was a rap song in the third grade. I had a choice to write a book report on Charlotte’s Web or to do something else, so I wrote a rap about Charlotte’s Web. My secret dream was to become a rapper, so it was a no- brainer that I would do a rap song at that age.

Best Advice: When I was 17 and living in Virginia, in the suburbs of D.C., I went to a small coffee shop show to see one of my favorite musicians, Erin McKeown. I got her to sign something, and I told her, “My dream is to do what you do.” And she was very direct and straightforward with me. She said, “It’s not a dream. You just do it.” I took that to heart, and she was right.

Inspirations: I looked up to Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders, Cowboy Junkies and country blues players. I didn’t know any Asian American musicians when I was growing up, so I want young [Asian American] girls today to see that it’s a possibility to make music your career.

 

Check out Thao & The Get Down Stay Down at AudreyMagazine.com/thaonguyen

 

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here. 

VOICES CARRY: Nadia Ali

Story by Ada Tseng. 

In so many ways, music defines a generation or a culture, giving us the soundtrack to our multilayered, bicultural landscape. And the 10 women we highlight here not only lay it all on the line and bare their souls in their music but, each in their own way, do much to round out a picture of what it is to be an Asian woman in America. Our cover girl Yuna defies the modern definition of pop star with her inimitable voice juxtaposed with a girl-crush-worthy style of chic turbans and covered-up ensembles. We have the gossamer voiced Priscilla Ahn, whom we feel like we’ve grown with as her life journey (and music) goes from melancholy to bliss. Then there’s the flame-haired Hmong American hard rocker and an indefinable artist whose voice is featured in one of the hottest hits of the year. From sweet little ditties to feminist anthems, from odes written in the throes of love to songs that feel more like a cathartic purging, their music moves us, inspires us, rocks us. Take a glimpse into the meaning and memories behind the melodies.  


Nadia Ali first garnered attention in 2001 for her band iiO’s hit single “Rapture,” the quintessential early 2000s dance song that inspired partygoers to get on their feet and lose themselves amongst the strobe lights.

The Pakistani American songbird was first introduced to dance music by the likes of C+C Music Factory and Cece Peniston as a teenager frequenting New York City nightclubs. By 17, she had met producer Markus Moser, who’d be her collaborator in iiO, and in the years after, she’d debut as a solo artist with her 2009 album Embers, which included the Grammy-nominated single “Fantasy.”

Last year brought not only a new marriage but also a move from New York to Los Angeles (“There is inspiration everywhere in L.A.,” gushes Ali), and she’s currently working on a new album called Phoenix, set to be released this year.

First Musical Memory: I must have been about 3 years old. It had to do with watching Bollywood movies. They’re all musicals.

Musical Inspirations: What made me want to get into music was actually a cartoon called Jem and the Holograms. That’s what really made me want to be a singer. Then Madonna, of course.

Personal Inspirations: My husband. When I first met my husband, we remained friends for nearly a year before we dated. In that time, I had such a big crush on him, and I didn’t know if he was interested. And out of that came a lot of songs, like “Must Be The Love,” which I released with Arty and BT last year.

 Get your dance on with Nadia Ali’s “Rapture” video and more at AudreyMagazine.com/nadiaali

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here

VOICES CARRY: Teresa Lee

Story by Ada Tseng.

In so many ways, music defines a generation or a culture, giving us the soundtrack to our multilayered, bicultural landscape. And the 10 women we highlight here not only lay it all on the line and bare their souls in their music but, each in their own way, do much to round out a picture of what it is to be an Asian woman in America. Our cover girl Yuna defies the modern definition of pop star with her inimitable voice juxtaposed with a girl-crush-worthy style of chic turbans and covered-up ensembles. We have the gossamer voiced Priscilla Ahn, whom we feel like we’ve grown with as her life journey (and music) goes from melancholy to bliss. Then there’s the flame-haired Hmong American hard rocker and an indefinable artist whose voice is featured in one of the hottest hits of the year. From sweet little ditties to feminist anthems, from odes written in the throes of love to songs that feel more like a cathartic purging, their music moves us, inspires us, rocks us. Take a glimpse into the meaning and memories behind the melodies. 


 

Teresa Lee first met her PaperDoll bandmate (and husband) Patrick Moloney at an open mic in New York’s Lower East Side. She was a Chinese-Thai-Taiwanese American singer-songwriter who played piano, he was a guitarist, and they joined together with Jack Koch and Will Haywood Smith to form the pop-rock group PaperDoll.

Two albums later (2008’s Ballad Nerd Pop, then 2012’s Sashimi Deluxe) as well as tours all over the world, from the U.S. to China (they were first invited to perform in Shanghai for the 2010 World Expo and have been rocking out around the country since), Lee finally decided to take a break at the end of last year to enjoy her last months of pregnancy with her and Moloney’s first baby. While the 28-year-old is counting down the days to new motherhood (“I know this sounds insane, but I swear the baby is tapping out very distinct rhythms in my belly,” says Lee), she continues to write music — country music, of all things — and can’t wait to take their child on tour with them one day.

First Song: The first song I wrote that I was proud of was called “I Just Lied.” It was on an EP I had out in 2004, and it was about being lost, but embracing what you’re feeling at the moment, even if it’s nothing. The lyrics were: I don’t need to know right now how to feel / It’s too soon to tell, wouldn’t know what to do anyhow. Someone told me, “My friend passed away, and this song helped me through it.” It was the first time I was really proud of my work, and it gave me a lot of confidence to move forward.

First Musical Inspirations: I used to say this as a joke, but now I think it’s true. Remember Tia Carrere’s character in Wayne’s World? The movie came out when I was like 7, and she was a kickass girl that vaguely looked like me, a singer who played bass, and I remember thinking, “Oh, that’s a possibility!” [Laughs] Also, Jem and the Holograms.

But if we’re talking about people who aren’t fictional: Emily Haines from Metric and Tori Amos. My friend’s older sister had [Amos’] album Little Earthquakes, and I remember thinking I didn’t know that music could be that good.

Personal Inspirations: My mom has been so fearless and encouraging of my music, in a way that I didn’t even realize was unique until I was an adult. I honestly didn’t know that Asian parents wanting you to take the safe route [and be a doctor, engineer or lawyer] was a stereotype until I went to college and read about it in books. She always wanted me and my brothers and sisters to do something that inspired us, and I can’t thank her enough for that.

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here

VOICES CARRY: Chhom Nimol

Story by Ada Tseng. 

In so many ways, music defines a generation or a culture, giving us the soundtrack to our multilayered, bicultural landscape. And the 10 women we highlight here not only lay it all on the line and bare their souls in their music but, each in their own way, do much to round out a picture of what it is to be an Asian woman in America. Our cover girl Yuna defies the modern definition of pop star with her inimitable voice juxtaposed with a girl-crush-worthy style of chic turbans and covered-up ensembles. We have the gossamer voiced Priscilla Ahn, whom we feel like we’ve grown with as her life journey (and music) goes from melancholy to bliss. Then there’s the flame-haired Hmong American hard rocker and an indefinable artist whose voice is featured in one of the hottest hits of the year. From sweet little ditties to feminist anthems, from odes written in the throes of love to songs that feel more like a cathartic purging, their music moves us, inspires us, rocks us. Take a glimpse into the meaning and memories behind the melodies. 


Chhom Nimol, 35, the lead singer of the Los Angeles band Dengue Fever, is part of a family of well-known musicians in Cambodia. Chhom’s brothers and sisters taught her how to sing while they were growing up in a refugee camp in Thailand, just across the border from Cambodia, during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Upon their safe return to Cambodia, Chhom made a name for herself by winning a national singing contest, and shortly after she moved to the U.S., her American bandmates Ethan and Zac Holtzman discovered her in a Long Beach nightclub. They were looking for a vocalist to sing in Khmer so they could record covers of Cambodian psychedelic rock. Chhom agreed to join their band in 2001; 13 years and seven albums later, Dengue Fever released their latest EP, Girl from the North, last December, and another new record is already in the works.

First Musical Memory: When I was 6 or 7, I remember going to a neighbor’s place, and we would listen to music on their radio. Mostly it was Khmer-Surin music, a mix of Thai country songs with Khmer lyrics that is popular near the border. I still love that music so much; it has good memories for me.

First Song: I was about 18 years old, on a singing trip to Australia. I really liked this Cambodian man so much, but he already had a girlfriend. I was young. My heart was broken, and I wrote my first song. The English translation of the title is “In This Life We Cannot Be Together.” It is a very sad song. I still remember all the words.

Turning Struggle into Art: When we first started the band in 2001, I had a problem with my visa to stay in America. Our car was stopped by the police after a show in San Diego, and they arrested me and put me in jail. I was so scared because my English was not so good, and I did not have money to pay. Plus, they only let me eat burritos in jail, and I did not know how to eat burritos. I was lucky that my sister, my band and my friends raised money to help me, but I had to stay in jail for 22 nights. That was a terrible time in my life. There is a song on our first album called “22 Nights.”

Check out Chhom Nimol’s distinctive sound at AudreyMagazine.com/denguefever.    

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here. 

VOICES CARRY: Hollis Wong-Wear

Story by Ada Tseng.

In so many ways, music defines a generation or a culture, giving us the soundtrack to our multilayered, bicultural landscape. And the 10 women we highlight here not only lay it all on the line and bare their souls in their music but, each in their own way, do much to round out a picture of what it is to be an Asian woman in America. Our cover girl Yuna defies the modern definition of pop star with her inimitable voice juxtaposed with a girl-crush-worthy style of chic turbans and covered-up ensembles. We have the gossamer voiced Priscilla Ahn, whom we feel like we’ve grown with as her life journey (and music) goes from melancholy to bliss. Then there’s the flame-haired Hmong American hard rocker and an indefinable artist whose voice is featured in one of the hottest hits of the year. From sweet little ditties to feminist anthems, from odes written in the throes of love to songs that feel more like a cathartic purging, their music moves us, inspires us, rocks us. Take a glimpse into the meaning and memories behind the melodies.


That girl singing the hook from Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ hit song “White Walls?” That would be Hollis Wong-Wear, a frequent collaborator with the Grammy-winning hip-hop duo — and the one who inspired Macklemore to write a song about his Cadillac. “I thought it was the perfect metaphor for his career at the time,” says the 26-year-old. “And he loves Cadillacs, so I said, ‘Write about what you love. Why not?’”

Wong-Wear is a musician in her own right. Though she’s performed in choirs and theaters from a young age, it wasn’t until she discovered poetry that she realized she wanted to create art. “I realized I had something to say,” she says. “It was the first time I was being validated for my personal narrative.”

Spoken-word poetry naturally led her to hip-hop — she was part of the two-women rap collective Canary Sing — and she loved the challenge of being a lyricist, MC and freestyler, especially as one of the few Asian American (she’s biracial Chinese) women rappers in the Seattle music scene. But just as she was making a name for herself in hip-hop, she went in another direction, starting a synth-pop group The Flavr Blue with bandmates Parker Joe and Lace Cadence.

“I’ve never felt like I fit into a box, so I’m always pushing myself to be daring and different,” says Wong-Wear. “In the seven years that I’ve been making music, I’ve done rap, R&B, dance/electronic music and super lounge-y soul. I’ve sung in a jazz quartet. I’m way more motivated to do something I’ve never done before than to perfect one particular type of music.”

Nowadays, in addition to her work on The Flavr Blue, she’s excited about who “Hollis” can be as a solo artist. But don’t expect her to make an album of hip-hop/R&B songs just because she’s riding high on her high-profile Macklemore collaboration. Wong- Wear won’t be satisfied unless she surprises everyone — even herself. “I want to channel that rawness, honesty and emotional heft that I had when I first started out in poetry,” she says, “and carry it through to where I am now, so that I’m always evolving musically.”

First Musical Memory: Raffi’s “Baby Beluga.” Live in concert, the VHS tape. I watched that video every day for years.

First Song: I wrote a song on the piano when I was 17, and it’s about being trapped in the suburbs. Now that I think about it, it was the suburban California version of [Lorde’s] “Royals.” [Laughs] Not as polished, but very dark.

Inspiration: My mom emigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. by herself, and she was an entrepreneur who started a Cantonese restaurant. So I think I inherited the hustle of being an immigrant from her, and I apply it to my own life and career. Her drive and relentless energy inspires me, and that’s why, for example, it’s important for me to manage the band that I’m in, to be at the helm of my own music. My goal is not to be a singer; my goal is to be an artist and businesswoman.

See Hollis Wong-Wear in Macklemore’s “White Walls” video and more at AudreyMagazine.com/holliswongwear.    

 

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here

VOICES CARRY: Alley Her

Story by Ada Tseng. 

In so many ways, music defines a generation or a culture, giving us the soundtrack to our multilayered, bicultural landscape. And the 10 women we highlight here not only lay it all on the line and bare their souls in their music but, each in their own way, do much to round out a picture of what it is to be an Asian woman in America. Our cover girl Yuna defies the modern definition of pop star with her inimitable voice juxtaposed with a girl-crush-worthy style of chic turbans and covered-up ensembles. We have the gossamer voiced Priscilla Ahn, whom we feel like we’ve grown with as her life journey (and music) goes from melancholy to bliss. Then there’s the flame-haired Hmong American hard rocker and an indefinable artist whose voice is featured in one of the hottest hits of the year. From sweet little ditties to feminist anthems, from odes written in the throes of love to songs that feel more like a cathartic purging, their music moves us, inspires us, rocks us. Take a glimpse into the meaning and memories behind the melodies.


The fiery, scarlet-haired vocalist of the alternative metal band Fields of Prey never even listened to hard rock before she met her friend and former bandmate Ricardo Guevara in 2010. “All the screaming frightened me, to be honest,” remembers Alley Her, 31. “I was brought up singing in a choir at church, and I was playing in a pop-rock band. [But] after some time of studying the techniques and style of hard rock, I started understanding the emotions behind such music. Afterward, I made it my ambition to be the first female Hmong hard rock vocalist, and I’ve been trying ever since.”

Her’s mother is Lao, her dad is Hmong, and their family migrated to the States seeking asylum post-Vietnam War, when she was 6. “I actually have a photo that my parents took of us during that time because my sister was very ill and we didn’t think she was going to make it. So my mother sold her last piece of jewelry to hire someone to take a photo of her children,” she says. Her was 13 when she wrote her first song to try to cheer her sister up, and that was when she discovered her ability to express herself through music.

Fields of Prey’s first single, incidentally, was titled “Red.” Why can’t you see that you are mine, she belts in both hard rock and acoustic versions of the song. I’m your salvation, your demise. Her and her guitarist Sunny X’s Hmong heritage made them favorites at the first-ever Hmong Music Festival in 2012 in Fresno, Calif. Though Fields of Prey recently made the difficult decision to disband last December, Her is still working with a few of her former band- mates to release a new album. “I am proud to say that through my struggles as a musician and in the world of Fields of Prey, I have become the person I have always wanted to be,” says Her.

First Musical Memory: Dancing and singing with my mother when I was about 7 years old. She used to teach me and my sisters folk songs from Thailand. We would sit together and watch videos of grand concerts and performances from Thailand, and I used to fantasize that I was on stage performing along.

Influences: I’d have to say my influences are a compilation of many different genres and styles, ranging from Avenged Sevenfold to Green Day, Paramore and Flyleaf to TLC and Whitney Houston, to bands like Train and Collective Soul — all melting together to make up the full scope of my music personality.

Favorite Song: My favorite song with Fields of Prey is called “Ghosts.” It’s on our Perfect Dark album. I wrote this song for my bandmates. It is a tribute to our struggles, an apology for our imperfections, the anthem to which we live our lives and the reminder to never forget the dreams that we dreamed.

What’s Next: Sunny X, Arion Tucker and I are still writing and creating new music together and will continue to do so. We will never stop. We have been spending night and day in the studio composing and experimenting with crazy ideas. A new project is in the works for the three of us, and my favorite single “Sleepwalker” will be released soon.

Go to AudreyMagazine.com/alleyher to hear her distinctive sound.    

 

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here.  

VOICES CARRY: Priscilla Ahn

Story by Ada Tseng.

In so many ways, music defines a generation or a culture, giving us the soundtrack to our multilayered, bicultural landscape. And the 10 women we highlight here not only lay it all on the line and bare their souls in their music but, each in their own way, do much to round out a picture of what it is to be an Asian woman in America. Our cover girl Yuna defies the modern definition of pop star with her inimitable voice juxtaposed with a girl-crush-worthy style of chic turbans and covered-up ensembles. We have the gossamer voiced Priscilla Ahn, whom we feel like we’ve grown with as her life journey (and music) goes from melancholy to bliss. Then there’s the flame-haired Hmong American hard rocker and an indefinable artist whose voice is featured in one of the hottest hits of the year. From sweet little ditties to feminist anthems, from odes written in the throes of love to songs that feel more like a cathartic purging, their music moves us, inspires us, rocks us. Take a glimpse into the meaning and memories behind the melodies.


 

Priscilla Ahn — the biracial Korean American singer-songwriter best known for angelically melancholy songs, like her first hit, 2008’s “Dream” — was so skilled at creating music from feelings of sadness and loneliness that when she suddenly found herself happily married (to actor Michael Weston), she realized she was a bit lost. Whereas before inspiration would come naturally, the 30-year-old’s latest album, This Is Where We Are, released in February, required her to dig deeper. Holed up in a hotel room outside of Palm Springs, secluded from all the distractions of the world, Ahn wrote most of the songs on her new album in the middle of the desert.

“I wanted to incorporate cooler beats,” says Ahn of her fifth album’s new sound. “I’ve always loved indie electronic music like Lykke Li, Little Dragon and chillwave stuff, but I never knew how to write those kind of songs. Finally, I got a keyboard with pre-programmed samples, and it opened this huge door of new song ideas.”

First Musical Memory: I remember learning the theme song from the movie The Land Before Time, “If We Hold On Together.” My mom got the sheet music for it, she’d play it on the piano, and I’d sing my heart out. I was probably 5 or 6, and I remember one time, I was singing and just started crying! My mom was like, “What’s happening?” I was thinking about my grandfather in Korea because I missed him. [Laughs] The song just moved me so much.

First Song: The first song I wrote is called “The Beach Song.” If you ask me to play it, I can’t remember. But I was 14, and I had just started playing guitar. I lived in Pennsylvania, so we’re land-locked, and we’d go to the ocean for vacation. So the song is about how I loved going to the beach and relaxing.

Favorite Story Behind a Song: I do a song in my live shows called “The Boobs Song.” [When Ahn was first dating her husband, she found a book of poetry in his house with an inscription from an ex-girlfriend that said: “I hope you like the poems and that they remind you of my boobs.” She then wrote him a song about it.] It’s funny, even though it stemmed from fear and sadness. It was early in our relationship, and I had to be careful because I can get jealous really easily, and I didn’t want to show that bad side of me yet. So I was like, “Oh, this is fine. I’m OK with this,” even though I totally wasn’t. [Laughs] I was young, about 22. He reacted well; he totally threw out the book. Now, I’ll tell the whole story before I play the song, he’ll be in the audience, and he’ll grin and bear it. He’s a good sport.

Fulfilling a Dream: I actually just performed at the Ghibli Museum! I did an album with a lot of Japanese cover songs and songs from [Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli] movies called Natural Colors. So I did a secret show at the Ghibli Museum on December 23, 2013, right before Christmas. That was the highlight of my life.

(Half) Asian Influences: Though I didn’t realize it until just recently, I think it all played into my songs subconsciously, even if it’s in the questions of where I belong. Even when I was little, I’d look in the mirror and think, “I don’t look like my mom, and I don’t look like my dad.” Because I’m a mixed breed of them, I thought my parents bought me at Kmart! [Laughs] But now, I’m so proud that I did grow up with a different culture.

 

Hear Priscilla croon at AudreyMagazine.com/priscillaahn.    

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here

VOICES CARRY: Awkwafina

Story by Ada Tseng. 

In so many ways, music defines a generation or a culture, giving us the soundtrack to our multilayered, bicultural landscape. And the 10 women we highlight here not only lay it all on the line and bare their souls in their music but, each in their own way, do much to round out a picture of what it is to be an Asian woman in America. Our cover girl Yuna defies the modern definition of pop star with her inimitable voice juxtaposed with a girl-crush-worthy style of chic turbans and covered-up ensembles. We have the gossamer voiced Priscilla Ahn, whom we feel like we’ve grown with as her life journey (and music) goes from melancholy to bliss. Then there’s the flame-haired Hmong American hard rocker and an indefinable artist whose voice is featured in one of the hottest hits of the year. From sweet little ditties to feminist anthems, from odes written in the throes of love to songs that feel more like a cathartic purging, their music moves us, inspires us, rocks us. Take a glimpse into the meaning and memories behind the melodies. 


 

Nora Lum — the Chinese- Korean American rapper known as Awkwafina, who in 2013 made a name for herself with her viral hits “My Vag” (a response to Mickey Avalon’s 2006 song “My Dick”), “NYC Bitche$” and “Mayor Bloomberg (Giant Margaritas)” — admits that her catchy moniker doesn’t really mean anything. She chose it mostly because it sounded ridiculous as a rap name. “I always think it’s hilarious when companies attempt to feminize a product,” she says, “and I always knew that Awkwafina wasn’t a rap game name where people would be misled about the kind of music [I] would be making.”

As a kid growing up in Queens, N.Y., Lum, 25, was influenced by the musical tastes of her Chinese American dad (Bob Dylan, Townes van Zandt), and she started her musical journey playing trumpet, inspired by the likes of Chet Baker and Louis Armstrong. Though she never intended to become a rapper, nowadays, she’s drawing attention with her funny, provocative and very share-able videos, while also being respected for her beats, rhymes and tongue-in-cheek delivery. Her debut album Yellow Ranger (also the title of one of the tracks) was released in February.

First Song: I think the first song I ever wrote (and actually sang and recorded) was when I was 15 around Christmas. I had this holiday songbook for my trumpet with an instrumental background CD. Basically, it was a really lowbrow, raunchy cover of “Jingle Bell Rock” that I don’t have to go into right now.

Inspiration for Her New Single “Queef:” There were literally tiny drunken cherubs farting out light when I had this idea. It came out of nowhere. Basically, I had this (almost spiritual) vision of a woman being endowed with superhero powers that manifested into earth-shattering queefs [slang for vaginal flatulence]. Unfortunately, the vision didn’t quite continue into what would actually happen once she had the “queefage” or how it would help fix the world’s problems.

Why Yellow Ranger: When I was young, I played Power Rangers with all my friends and remember feeling angry when people said I should play Trini [the Yellow Ranger]. I always wanted to be Tommy or Jason, or Kimberly if I had to pick a girl. Trini was seriously lame to me as a kid. But as an adult, the connotations Trini carried with her seemed less offensive and (as much as I detest the word) empowering.

On Being Labeled a Feminist Icon for Songs like “My Vag:” I minored in women’s studies in college, so it would be wrong of me to deny knowledge about the importance of female visibility in certain industries. At the same time, I think it’s also important for people to understand that rapping about vaginas is something I do because I own one. Rapping about being a woman is something I have to do by default because I’m also not a heterosexual man with a penis. I think that making songs that bring up blush-worthy content can be easily confused as either aggressive, rogue feminism or being a girl without a social filter at parties. At the same time, I am proud that my music has been embraced by other women and celebrated as something good for feminism.

 

 Wanna hear “My Vag?” Go to AudreyMagazine.com/awkwafina.    

This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here.