Olivier Cong resembles the ocean: the gentle tide of music occasionally sweeps ashore what’s hidden in the depths of his reticence. Awash in blue light inside his studio, Olivier gazes out the window into the grey stillness of summer, his mind wandering. In the background, his newly written track unfurls into near-whispers one moment, and erupts into full-on sonic meltdown the next.
It is then that I realise beneath his outward calm are whirling undercurrents.
This year, the 24-year-old musician released his debut album, A Ghost & His Paintings, which shape-shifts between alternative, experimental and folk. The album lays bare the ebb and flow of the musician’s psyche: while Olivier maintains there isn’t an overarching narrative for the album, in moments that feel both personal and universal, we hear the musician wrestling with himself over the anxieties and insecurities of youth.
The song “Seven Steps to Be Happy Again”, for instance, deals with his complex emotional turbulences: Olivier’s sigh in the intro and his despondent vocal delivery seems to be at odds with the title’s idealism.
“It never worked / It never healed,” he sings. As if comforting himself, he continues: “Something beautiful might be on its way.”
Many in Hong Kong find a home in Olivier’s music for this reason—his coming-of-age exploration of identity. “This generation has similar thoughts,” he says. “There’s a sense of detachment, and yet, a desire to express oneself.” Olivier’s own responses always come punctuated by ellipses, as if he’s flipping through pages of an invisible diary, looking for the right words to delineate his feelings.
“Searching for the Raven”, the first song Olivier ever wrote, is an ode to his quest for self-worth. It tells the story of a man who embarks on a journey to the wonderland to find meaning, only to watch time slipping out of his grasp. “So he asked, was it all worth it, is it all worth it? / Was it a raven that I saw or a black albatross that flew by?”
Swimming in contemplative waters, the song takes us back to a state of limbo experienced by the musician four years ago: he had quit his studies at a local university just half a year in as he felt unsure about the path ahead. In pursuit of a psychology degree, he travelled to Southampton, a seaside city in England, to continue his studies.
He started composing songs as there was nothing much happening in the university town, he says. His music instinctually conjures up images of murky winter drizzles. During the transition from “Waves” to “Brushes”, he even takes the listener on a nocturnal stroll as a thunderstorm smothers the English coast.
Upon returning home in 2017, he co-founded the music label Raven & The Sea Music Production; the name perhaps an allusion to the song’s impact on his life. Before writing “Searching for the Raven”, it never crossed his mind that he would be capable of arranging an entire song.
“As a human being, no matter how ordinary I am, I can still make something out of myself,” he muses.
Perhaps none of this is coincidence: his blue-lit studio, his strange affinity for the sea, and love for the film Three Colours: Blue (1993). The first of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy, Blue centres on the protagonist overcoming grief and being liberated from the past. Permeating the film is the colour blue, which represents the ideal of freedom.
Olivier admits that freedom has been a core value in his decision-making. To make ends meet, he has been taking up side jobs such as composing music for commercials. “I like the way it [my music career] works right now. My expenses are not high. I pay rent, buy gear, hire musicians to play for me, and still have extra money to eat out. This is all that matters,” he says. “Since I can afford it, why don’t I live freely?”
This may be why, despite the fact that the album put him on the radar of Apple Music, he emerged onto the music scene with barely any promotional activities and no biographical information to offer: just ten tracks and two faceless silhouettes on the album art.
For him, staying in the shadows is a personal choice—one that prompted him to name the album after “A Ghost and His Paintings.” In the song, Olivier sings about a character who tries to hide inside a room full of paintings, and hauntingly repeats the phrase “I want to live like a ghost.”
“Even if I stop speaking, writing songs, communicating with others, or expressing myself, I think it’s alright. I can live like that,” he explains.
This freedom also means Olivier never shies away from what he wants, including experimenting in other musical styles and transgressing boundaries between art forms.
“People always ask if I can write happier music, but I don’t think I need to make this attempt in my own music, because I’m not a person like that, and shouldn’t force myself to act this way,” he says. To test his limits, he immediately agreed to an invitation to arrange and produce three songs for singer-songwriter Serrini’s album Don’t Text Him last year. Recently, he returned from Shanghai after composing music for a dance piece choreographed by Hong Kong Ballet’s Ricky Hu Song-wei.
With A Ghost & His Paintings under his belt, Olivier is currently working on a three-track project, Delusion. He says the three parts stand for stages of his recent state of mind: feeling strong and indestructible, getting excited about everything, and realising his true self after things fall apart.
Which stage is he currently in? “Now, for me, I guess the three parts are all crammed together and appearing simultaneously,” he says. “Sometimes I feel invincible—as if I can do anything—but sometimes I just feel like I’m full of shit.”
For someone whose music bears so much intimate scrutiny on his inner turmoil, Olivier Cong seems rather calm and measured on the outside. Even after an hour-long interview, he remains virtually a closed book.
But behind this enigma is a musician who flourishes within silence and embraces emotional vulnerability, a vulnerability that he lays bare before the world in his music—and that is what makes Olivier and his music all the more human.
Editing by Karen Cheung. Check out this exclusive playlist Olivier curated for Still / Loud: