Finding a space for their music: from Hong Kong to Berklee

kiri t
Photo courtesy of Kiri T.
“It’s not about being creative with it. It’s about competition. It’s about being better than the person next to you.”

It is easy to think that, in Hong Kong, most musicians are either aspiring Cantopop stars signed with major labels like EMI, or secret indie rockers who retreat to their industrial building-band spaces after work.

Some, however, occupy an uncomfortable space in between: they want to bet all their chips on a music career, yet they have little interest in mainstream radio-friendly pop. Despite the stigma attached to performing arts in the city, they chose to forgo a typical university career for a full-time music education.

Both from Hong Kong, cehryl and Kiri T. went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, a college of contemporary music, in search of spaces to grow. But if there is freedom to be found there, would they want to return?

The storyteller

Like most children here, cehryl was forced by an overambitious parent to learn the piano as a young girl, and hated the hours she had to spend practising classical pieces. So it came as a surprise when she found herself sitting in front of the piano every now and then, her fingers dancing over the keys. The introverted musician was always occupied with telling stories of her own — whether through short piano compositions for her grandmother, or parody novellas.

Photo courtesy of cehryl.

cehryl’s songs overflow with a pleasantly escapist quality: her lyrics are a cinematic montage of the musician’s thoughts and emotions. In “sway”, one of her personal favourites, cehryl sings about the mesmerising feeling of dancing with someone. Her beguiling vocals lure us into her chaotic state of mind, as she bursts into bouts of lyrical contradictions: “Let me go, let me stay, let me live in oblivion. I’m reminded for a strange sober minute that we shouldn’t.” It’s almost like watching one of those black-and-white romance films at an old cinema.

Last year, it only took the Berklee Music Production and Engineering graduate one and a half months to compose, write and produce the entirety of her second EP, Delusions. From loop-based tunes without a chorus (“don’t wake me”), to moody electronic sounds (“fractals”), cehryl’s works straddle the line between indie pop, alternative R&B and even a bit of soul and Bossa Nova.

But the musician’s early influences were almost exclusively Asian music. “When I was really young, I only listened to Jay Chou and Leehom Wang,” she says with a laugh. These days, she has entirely forsaken Cantopop. “It’s very obvious that the songs are made to make money, so there isn’t a sense of creativity or individualism that’s coming from the artists.”

cehryl knows this better than anyone else: she attended the prestigious Diocesan Girls’ School and grew up surrounded by students who already achieved ABRSM grade eight distinctions at the age of six. “I think that definitely in Hong Kong, music is seen as a more academic thing, especially for local schools,” she says. “It’s not about being creative with it. It’s about competition. It’s about being better than the person next to you.”

cehryl’s own family did not agree with her decision to study music and only softened after “many years of arguing and tears”. When she first arrived at Berklee, she was surprised by the support of her classmates’ families in their pursuits of music. “I thought that the world generally saw the arts as something that’s just for entertainment, to be put in the background,” she says.

Photo courtesy of cehryl.

This depressing state of affairs does not mean cehryl is relinquishing her dream. The 21-year-old plans to work on more projects in Los Angeles before moving back to Hong Kong in a few years’ time. Although she admits it is tempting to stay in the United States, merely complaining and leaving won’t do any good, she mused. “I really want to see Hong Kong going back to the era when art was the priority in people’s lives.”

“I’m hopeful that it’s going to change, because it’s been kind of in a slump for the past ten years, and everything goes in cycles,” she says. “Who knows what will happen?”

A dreamer (not a fantasiser)

Once upon a time, Kiri T was a teenage girl scribbling lyrics into her notebook during class, leading to a coveted gig of writing songs for Cantopop star-slash-activist Denise Ho at the young age of 14. But after graduating from Berklee last year, the singer-songwriter-producer was hit with the reality of pursuing a musical career in the metropolis.

For Kiri, it is one thing to produce music, but it is another to support yourself with music in Hong Kong. “You get distracted really easily,” she says. “You have to put 200 percent effort in doing it, because you’ve already given 100 percent to your own music, but you still have to make a living. You have to take on other side jobs that don’t contribute to your art.”

Back when she was in Hong Kong, Kiri performed at corporate and wedding gigs, and gave piano lessons to earn income. Her connections with producers such as Alex Fung — also a Berklee graduate — allowed her to continue writing and arranging songs for local musicians such as Jan Lamb and Cherry Ngan. Some of her earlier works for Denise Ho were “Faceless People” (2012) and “The Third Day in Aokigahara” (2013).

kiri t
Photo courtesy of Kiri T.

Despite the artist’s close connection to the Hong Kong music scene, she moved to New York earlier this year. “Hong Kong is more like a nostalgic thing that I grew up with,” she says. “To be honest, I enjoy working in the States more. It’s musically and professionally more fulfilling.”

Kiri’s personal projects are a mix of lush harmonies, R&B-influenced vocals and dreamy synth beats. While these sounds have become synonymous with the 21st century, they remain outside the Cantopop mainstream.

Her most recent single, “Rearview Mirror”, deals with her thoughts on leaving Hong Kong and the feeling that there’s no turning back, as she sings in the chorus: “Not looking at my rearview mirror.” There are parallels between the music video and Kiri’s life: she has boarded a train with no plans of getting off.

Another reason why she chose to leave was the skepticism around musicians in Hong Kong. Kiri’s parents took her decision to kick-start a musical career with a pinch of salt: “People will equate getting into the entertainment industry with you fantasising about becoming famous, 發明星夢.” To Kiri, it is “pretty insane” to equate music with fame: “If you sing or write songs, that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to be Katy Perry. You could be Lalah Hathaway. You could be Robert Glasper.”

But whether it’s the variety of music that people listen to, or the stereotypes of musicians, Kiri says changes are happening bit by bit: “There’re more clubs in Hong Kong for people to jam together. Many jazz and groovy musicians always hang out there,” she says, pointing to 1563 At The East, Peel Fresco and Sense 99 as examples.

“The door is opening, but it’s just opening slowly,” says Kiri. 

Editing by Still / Loud’s Karen Cheung and Wilfred Chan.