On his debut album 'GABRIEL,' keshi showcases a newfound confidence
Casey Luong made his first post on SoundCloud five years ago under the moniker keshi, when he posted a dreamy, echoing track about heartbreak. Since then, he's straddled several different worlds, first working as an oncology nurse in Texas while uploading his musical creations online, to becoming a popular artist with an upcoming headline tour.
The Vietnamese American artist has become known for his lo-fi sound, laced with his signature falsetto, delicate guitar and piano melodies, and lyrics that touch on loneliness and desire. Here, keshi speaks with Weekend Edition about his debut album, GABRIEL, and how it's an ode to his new sense of bold confidence, his blurred sense of musical identity and an unwavering connection to home and the people he holds close to his heart.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Scott Simon, Weekend Edition: How do you go from being an oncology nurse in Texas to a popular musician?
keshi: It was a long road for sure. I've always loved music. I've been playing the guitar since I was 13 years old, and I'm 27 now. And it never seemed like a practical career choice; definitely not to my parents. [I] always wanted to have something sort of stable for myself, I kind of envisioned myself being more of a family man who kind of just — not literally — but mentally slept through work, so I could come home and make music on my downtime. I've always loved music, and it's been my dream to pursue it the past few years.
Let me ask you about this whirlwind of a year. The track, "WESTSIDE," seems to speak to this feeling of being overwhelmed. When you become a success, so quickly, is there also a tinge of fear that it can disappear just as quickly?
Absolutely. Especially when I've been on the other side of having worked a job that I wasn't as passionate about as I am about this one. "WESTSIDE" is a song some fans perceive to be romantic, but it's less about my partner and more about family. Actually, I was in California writing [music] at the time, and I think the feeling of homesickness had finally started to catch up with me. As romantic as going to LA and being in a recording studio and living my dreams can be, there are trades that you have to make. I've never had wanderlust like some of my friends did back in high school when they graduated; they were so excited to go to New York, they were so excited to go to LA or abroad. But as long as I was surrounded by my loved ones and I could make music at the end of the day, that's all I really wanted.
Tell us about [the album's] first track, "GET IT." Are you trying to welcome people with this track?
Oh, absolutely.. I've been known for sort of a gentle sound — or a romantic one. And I wanted to make a statement with this debut album that there are a variety of sounds that I want to try. In the past, I've been sort of afraid of venturing out too far for fear of losing that core fanbase. But if there was ever time to make that statement, it would have to be with the debut record, and "GET IT" is a song that showcases a new sort of bravado and confidence that I've been feeling the past couple of years that I wanted to put on display. But it is two-sided in the sense that it does deal with this braggadocious kind of feeling, but also talks about how I deal with drowning in it almost. At the very end of the song, there's an acoustic part where I talk about [how] I'm not quite sure who I am anymore. I'm getting confused between myself and my artist persona a little bit, and just wanting to stay centered.
The track "PÈRE," translates to "father" in French. It's an all-dialogue interlude, all in French, which is a language that your father learned as a child in Vietnam. The track starts off with: "I would like to tell myself, don't worry; that everything will be fine, everything will be fine, because I was afraid."
I was missing my family back at home, and I just thought it would be poignant for my dad to come in [and record himself], and I prompted him. I said, Dad, if you had anything to say to your 18-year-old self, what would you say? It was my roundabout way of asking him for advice. So I had him come into my studio, in my house in Houston. I don't speak French, but my dad did when he was a youth in Vietnam, before he left during wartime. At the end of the recording session, I had to ask him, Dad, can you transcribe this for me, I need to give it to the record label so that we all know what you said. And he translated it for me and I typed it in my notepad in my MacBook, and I teared up. I had to really pull myself back together because we don't show emotions like that. It was very, very special to hear him talk about [that]. Even my dad, my superhero of a dad, had a time in his life where he felt like things were falling apart.
Let me ask you about "GABRIEL." The title of the album, which is inundated with imagery and visions of angels, heaven, hell, demons. Why does that theme draw you in?
It wasn't something that I started from the beginning. It just kind of revealed itself to me. I'm not religious, but it was fun to write about where these sorts of things pop up in my life. Like, what is an angel to me in my life? Why does my life feel like limbo? And I've always loved the name Gabriel. Back when I was 18, I was like, I'm gonna name my son Gabriel. I'll call him Gabe, it was just, you know, romantic thinking with my partner. And midway through the album, it was time to give it a name. And I was like, why isn't having a record any different from naming a child? I don't have to be so precious about it. It essentially [goes] back to this thought about family and where my life is going right now. I think it's just a reflection of how incredibly personal the whole record is to me.
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