I was born in Blacksburg, VA. It’s kind of a foreign city to me, because at least in the U.S., Southern California has always been, and will continue to be, what I call home. My family moved around quite a bit when I was little because my dad was always finding new job opportunities so I had never lived in a single city for longer than 2 years. As Korean immigrants, my parents felt obligated to accept any and every chance they were given to help create a better life for me and my brothers. It’s a life that so many Asian Americans know, but I grew up feeling like an outsider; I never felt pretty enough, or American enough, simply because I had a culture that my white friends weren’t familiar with. I remember having too many “lunch box moments” where I felt ashamed by the Korean food that my mom packed me for lunch, and would come home angrily nagging her to pack me “American food” like PB&J sandwiches instead. It breaks my heart thinking about it now because, in my family, food is a symbol of love. As an ignorant and culturally confused kid, I completely rejected the warmth my mother continued to give me. I resented my parents for not being “American” enough and tried to distance myself from my Korean culture. I’m fortunate enough to have parents that are incredibly supportive of my decision to pursue a career as an artist, and fortunately, I’ve finally been able to humanize and fully appreciate everything that they’ve sacrificed for me and my brothers.
Even though I moved around so much, the state of California is what I’d call home. It’s where I’ve lived the longest: 2 years in Carlsbad, 2 years in Valencia, and 4 in San Diego. But I spent what I think are my most formative years at a Korean international school called KIS (which funnily enough was called Korea International School—creative right!!). I attended this incredibly expensive and almost private-school type institution all throughout middle school and up until my sophomore year of high school. Though it gifted me with an incredibly thorough education, it was quite a tough ride. International schools are known for being elitist; if you’re not “Korean” enough, you’re not “cool” enough. Thus began the beginning of my diaspora as a Korean-American artist. The feeling of not belonging because I never feel “Korean” enough or “American” enough has stranded me with behaviors, language, and aesthetics that I never felt like truly represented me.
To be honest, I still struggle with this idea of being “authentic” because of how conflicting the duality of my identity as BOTH a Korean and American artist can be, but, the freedom of studying in New York City—I’m currently a rising junior at NYU Tisch’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music—has allowed me to do quite a bit of growing and self-discovery.
While I’m still working towards (and probably always will be in some capacity) ignoring social or cultural pressure to be someone or look like someone I am not, I’d say that after two years of living in New York I’m the most comfortable with my ethnicity I’ve ever been. New York City is a place that so many dream of living in and I’m constantly grateful to be surrounded by creatives that are just as passionate about what they do as I strive to be. Of course, with such a city comes the “small fish big pond” mindset. New York is a huge city full of people and it too often makes me feel mind-numbingly lonely. Everyone is always busy with something and it seems like you never get a second to breathe. If you do take a break, it feels like you’re lagging behind because so many already have stable careers, some artists being even several years younger than I am. People that I thought were gems turn out to be self-serving and disappointing, sometimes to a degree that makes me question if music is the right path for me. The ever so constant looming insecurity that I already struggle with because of mental illnesses I have magnifies into these intense pushes and pulls—music is the only thing I’ve ever known and am ~kind of~ good at, but am I actually good ~enough~ at this?!??
New York City is a place that so many dream of living in and I’m constantly grateful to be surrounded by creatives that are just as passionate about what they do as I strive to be.
As cold as winter in New York can get (both mentally and literally), it’s helped me develop more than I could have ever hoped for as an artist. Winter of freshman year was the lowest point in my life; I’d been hospitalized twice for events that are still too difficult to talk about, the after-effects of which I still continue to struggle with. Fortunately (thank GOD there is an upside to this story, it’s been so depressing I KNOW), I did the classic “I turned towards music to process my tRauMatiC feelings” type of songwriting. It was getting too difficult to talk to anyone about what was going on in my head because it was too scary for me to even let the words leave my brain. So! Being in ArTs sChOoL, I decided to write a song, which is now called “by(e).” It’s a song I wrote without thinking about what people would think or feel yet it’s my most-streamed song to date. The support and heartfelt messages I got from not only people in my program and NYU but also from random followers of my music I’d never met before reminded me why it is that I can’t imagine doing anything other than music; I love it more than anything in the world, even if it causes such heartbreaking doubt and if what means so much to me can mean so much to someone else, I can’t have any regrets.
Discouraging, busy, inspiring.
My grandpa was my favorite person in the entire world when I was growing up—he was my absolute hero and was an incredible violinist. It was only natural that I followed his lead, I wanted to do something as passionately as he played the violin. Thus began lessons in violin, piano, guitar, and singing. Unfortunately, I’ve completely forgotten how to play the violin and can play very poor piano and guitar. Fortunately, having been involved with every sort of vocal group in middle and high school (whether it be choir, a capella groups, musical theatre, etc.) means that I can come up with harmonies or melodies to fill in empty spaces in my songs instead of having to reveal my mediocre piano and guitar playing. My mom was also thoroughly involved in music, majoring in the flute and minoring in the piccolo. Being in an Asian American family usually comes with the requirement that you learn some sort of musical instrument or act so my brothers picked up the saxophone (they’re twins, one of them plays the alto and tenor, the other the baritone and alto) and I continued with singing. Initially, I think my parents were hoping that this “music” thing I wanted to do was something more like a hobby rather than a career. It’s understandable, the music industry is an incredibly risky and emotionally demanding field of work. But! Almost like this weird thing called fate, about a month into freshman year of high school, I got a call from my mom saying that the producers from this televised South Korean singing competition called “KPOPStar” wanted me to come participate in the first round of auditions—these were the ones where contestants sang in front of the three judges (YG from YG Ent., Yoo Hee Yeol from Antenna Music, and JYP from JYP Ent.) and if yours was interesting enough, could be aired on TV. I freaked out! It turned out that this practice video my vocal teacher sent to the show got the attention of the writers/producers, and they thought I could be a good fit for the competition. I ended up passing the first audition with praise from all three judges and crazily enough, applause from the writers, cameramen/women, producers, etc. standing by. It felt like an absolute dream. I had always known that I wanted to pursue a career as an artist, but having this kind of validation from people who mattered in the music industry gave me this exhilarating, almost terrifying, feeling that maybe I could actually do this. Everything kind of spiraled into this nightmare-like dream from there.
At first, I was on this sort of high. When my first audition aired, my phone literally would not stop buzzing for around an hour after. I was getting texts, phone calls, voicemails from people I hadn’t talked to in years that claimed they knew I would make it all along and that they’d support me this entire way through. It made me feel important, but it made me want even more validation. I wanted to prove myself to everyone. I wanted to be perfect. In the following auditions, I couldn’t stop ripping apart everything I had done “wrong.” When the judges didn’t like my performances either, I would let myself give in to the horrible self-deprecating thoughts I had: I’m not good enough, I’m not pretty enough, I’m too fat, I’m not likable, I’m on this show because they need someone to compare the actually talented contestants to, stop eating stop singing stop breathing. What was even worse were the comments that people would leave on the YouTube videos of my performances. They only continued to validate every negative thought I had about myself. If anything, they’d give me more ammo. I kept advancing to the next round of auditions, up until the Top 8 Live Shows, but I continued to foster insecurity that I am not, nor could I ever be, enough. As a chubby freshman in high school, the stress of being shoved into the public eye of South Korea, where being thin means being pretty, slaughtered any semblance of body positivity or optimism about my career as an artist that I had. I couldn’t get myself to see the positives of the experience: I was the youngest contestant in the Top 10; I had made all of these new friends through the show; most importantly, I proved not only to my parents but to myself that there’s an actual chance I could make it as an artist. What happened after the show is honestly quite a blur, I think I may have repressed most of it. But I think that this show is how my career in music really began. It was the launching point for my learning how to write songs, produce, and a big reason why I applied to the college program I’m at right now. It was an experience that is a large contributor to the mental illnesses I still struggle with today, but once I was able to get out of rock bottom, it gave me just enough hope to keep me from giving music up.
My grandpa was my favorite person in the entire world when I was growing up—he was my absolute hero and was an incredible violinist. It was only natural that I followed his lead, I wanted to do something as passionately as he played the violin.
At first, no. My parents have always wanted me to pursue my dream, but understandably so, they wanted me to do something that had more security. But after being on KPOPStar, I think I proved to them and everyone else just how hard I am willing to and am working to make it as an artist.
It broke my heart and then some being told that I couldn’t ever make it as an artist because I don’t adhere to a certain beauty standard. I was left with an empty shell of a dream that meant everything to me—I want to prove to myself and to any other Korean-American female artist that what we “lack” is not what we are, nor who we work to become.
I’m currently working on a release plan for a 2 track EP that will be out everywhere you can stream music on August 2nd called “Round 2.” While I wrote both songs in a state of heartbreak, to me they were a way of accepting and recovering from the difficult truth that being “good enough” is a feeling, not a fact. I think it’s something that everyone struggles with—to be able to discern their feelings from the objective—and hope that anyone who listens doesn’t feel so alone. Getting over someone or something is so possible, but it takes time. Time that is excruciatingly lonely and prone to making you turn back to what you need to move on from. It’s something I’m still working on; even though I’m in a headspace where every and any music I make isn’t worth putting out, I think this release is something I need to let go of.
I want to prove to myself and to any other Korean-American female artist that what we “lack” is not what we are, nor who we work to become.
As a Korean-American, Kpop has been an instrumental part of my upbringing, so if I could collaborate with anyone, I’d choose BTS. I’m a massive fan (army all the way!!!!) and to be able to collaborate with a group of Korean artists that redefined what it means to be a KPOP Idol would be beyond a dream come true. I admire the courage and tenacity they had to continue being themselves in the industry of KPOP, where the ideal “Kpop idol” cookie-cutter mold is practically shoved down trainees’ throats.
Being at arts school in New York means that I get to be surrounded by so many intelligent and hardworking creative women. Two peers that immediately come to mind are my dear friends Carolyn Jae Sterner and Grace Zhang. Carolyn is a creative director who also happens to be in my program at NYU (she was also my roommate sophomore year, best roommate EVER!!!!!). She’s one of the most hardworking and dependable friends I have ever had the privilege of making. Being roomies with a fellow creative meant that we got to bond over the anxiety of what kind of future we’d have pursuing our careers; she’s not a “yes man,” she’s honest when you need her to be and it’s helped me grow in ways that would be impossible without her. For that I am eternally grateful. You can view her beautiful work through her Instagram and website.
Grace is a Chinese-American director (she recently put out a film called Snakeskin, the link is in her Instagram bio if you’d like to check it out) who I had the honor of working with to create the visual for a song of mine called “mind.” She’s currently studying at Pratt. Grace is hands down the kindest person I have ever met. She was so easy to work with, constantly making sure that I was happy with the visual and doing several edits without hesitation. Our aesthetics aligned so well and everything for the visual fell in place; it was almost too easy working with her. If she can do what she did with my song with such a low budget, I literally cannot imagine what she can do with real money.
I wouldn’t have been able to write this EP without Carolyn or Grace—through constant support they helped me recognize the toxicity of a relationship that I was holding so close to my heart and reminded me that I deserve to be and should be able to be happy. I admire these two women with my whole being and believe in their careers with everything that I am. I’m so incredibly lucky to have them in my life. The world needs to prepare themselves for Grace Zhang and Carolyn Jae Sterner.
Growing up, I didn’t live in areas abundant with creatives, and I guess I wasn’t necessarily in places to focus on anyone other than myself because of how much I was struggling with my mental illnesses. But! I’m more than thankful to have all of the incredible womxn around me that are in my life today.
As usual for so many other female peers, the list is too long. But, I think the biggest issue for me lies in the subconscious internalization of imposter syndrome. I struggle with social phobia. It’s impossible for me to raise my hand during lectures, even when I’ve recited what I’m going to say a hundred times in my head already. I break out in tears when I have to explain to professors why I’m not “actively engaged” in class. I can’t sleep the days leading up to a presentation. I already feel small and incapable as a human being, so when male peers don’t fully take me seriously as a producer, or when my identity as a producer is automatically ruled out at someone’s first glance, I can’t help but question what the point of being a producer at all is. I constantly feel like I have to prove myself. Even when circumstances should validate my capabilities; sophomore year I was the only girl in my program’s Ableton Production class. When the boys were being asked how long they’d been producing in Ableton for and what kinds of plug-ins they use, I was only asked if I used it to perform. I was just as capable, just as experienced—if not more, there were friends of mine confused as to why they were in the section because they’d never even opened Ableton—but to some people, just because I don’t have a penis, it never crossed their minds that I could possibly be a producer. When I was interning at a recording studio in LA last summer, one of my supervisors saw me working on a track in Ableton and said, “Michelle, you know I’m really proud of you” as if, I as a woman, trying to produce was some groundbreaking feat. He spoke to me like I was a baby doll, incapable of making anything too serious. Just something cute.
Constantly experiencing the internalization of misogyny that men are systematically taught, I can’t help but feel discouraged and like I should just stick to what girls in this industry are expected to do: look hot, write about boys and sex, and sing. I feel small and disposable. It blows my mind when male peers take me seriously as a self-produced artist, when that shouldn’t even be something I have to worry about in the first place. I shouldn’t have to be “thankful” that I am not a victim of sexual harassment or assault. I shouldn’t want to seek a boy’s validation. I shouldn’t have to worry if I have to act more feminine to gain a bigger audience. I shouldn’t feel the need to aspire to look like thin girls in latex and push up bras. But I do, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t get myself to stop. Feeling like an imposter makes me reduce my self worth not only as a person but also an artist to my gender. I have a death grip on my title as a self-produced artist because without it, I feel like I have no control as a woman in the music industry. Being an artist is all I’ve ever wanted to do; I cannot live without this part of my life, so I am going to do everything I possibly can to make it. But it feels impossible. Even when something good happens, I feel like I should be thanking other people instead of recognizing that I was the one who put the work in to get there. I guess in a way this means that part of me has already given up, but the rest of me refuses.
No matter how many steps back you are pushed, you have the power to keep going.
Images by: Michael Tian, Carolyn Jae Sterner, Josefine Cardoni
Styling by: Jenny Tarbell, Carolyn Jae Sterner
Assisted by: Grace Zhang
July 17, 2019