meta-scriptGet To Know The Many Sounds Of Asian Pop: From The Philippines' BGYO To Hong Kong's Tyson Yoshi & Thai Singer Phum Viphurit | GRAMMY.com
Many sounds of asian pop 2023
(From left) Baek Yerin , Tyson Yoshi, So!Yoon!, Lexie Liu, Phum Viphurit

Photos: Justin Shin/Getty Images, Just Kidding Limited, Justin Shin/Getty Images, Victor Boyko/Getty Images for Miu Miu, Frank Hoensch/Redferns

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Get To Know The Many Sounds Of Asian Pop: From The Philippines' BGYO To Hong Kong's Tyson Yoshi & Thai Singer Phum Viphurit

While many are likely familiar with big names in K-pop such as BTS, BLACKPINK and NCT 127, the Asian content has a plethora of equally exciting pop acts. Read on for 10 artists from China, Japan, Vietnam and beyond who are worthy of checking out.

GRAMMYs/May 11, 2023 - 08:48 pm

In recent years, the music industry has made strides when it comes to giving artists of Asian descent a platform. At this year's Oscars, "Naatu Naatu" from the film RRR became the first Indian-Telugu language song to win Best Original Song. At Coachella, Diljit Dosanjh made history as the first South Asian artist to perform in Punjabi; BLACKPINK became the first-ever K-pop group to headline the iconic music festival. 

Such achievements have been a long time coming. Asian musicians have long struggled in mainstream entertainment, often encountering stereotyping, exoticism and othering. Some studies have suggested that East Asian performers face more discrimination over their music-making, with many considering their style as less expressive than caucasian acts. And while much work has been done to change these views, more needs to be done. 

Asian artists around the world have been responsible for some of the most exciting and eclectic music being released today. While many are likely familiar with names in K-pop such as BTS, BLACKPINK and rapper Jackson Wang, there are many other underrated pop artists from across Asia. From Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, China, Japan to Vietnam, below are 10 artists worthy of checking out. 

Car, The Garden 

Since his debut in 2013, South Korean singer/songwriter Car, The Garden has been winning the hearts of audiences with his husky, soulful voice and feel-good songs. After releasing an EP and several singles under his previous stage name Mayson the Soul, the singer changed his name to Car, The Garden, which is an interpretation of his real name (his last name Cha is a homonym of "car" and his first name "Jung-won'' means garden). 

His original songs can be heard on Korean television series and international films. "Romantic Sunday," which he wrote for the hit 2021 K-rom com series "Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha," similarly evokes feelings of being cheerful, happy and carefree. His latest single, "Home Sweet Home," was written for the acclaimed Canadian film Riceboy Sleeps, about a South Korean single mom who leaves her life behind for the Canadian suburbs to give her son a better life.

Lexie Liu 

Chinese singer Lexie Liu has long been crossing cultural boundaries. Known for blending elements of electro-pop, cyberpunk, hip-hop and rock in her music, Liu also sings in English, Mandarin and Spanish. Liu incorporated Spanish into her debut studio album, The Happy Star, after hearing one of her songs on the Spanish Netflix series "Elite." 

As an independent artist, Liu’s career could have ended up much differently. At 17, she placed fourth on the South Korean reality competition series "K-pop Star 5." Ultimately, she decided to leave behind a chance at becoming a K-pop idol for more freedom to write and produce her own songs. 

Today, her cool girl and edgy style has moved beyond music. She’s since also become a darling in the fashion world, modeling and working with brands including Miu Miu, Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent. 

BGYO 

While idol groups are popular in Japan and Korea, BGYO have been redefining what it means to be a boy band in the Philippines. The five member boy group was formed in 2018 after the Philippine commercial broadcast network ABS-CBN launched its Star Hunt Academy, a program meant to introduce Filipino talent to the international market. After training in a program similar to the K-pop trainee system in South Korea, BGYO made its official debut in 2021.

Dubbed the "Aces of P-pop," the group’s name is an acronym for "Becoming the change, Going further, You and I, Originally Filipino." The quintet mix elements of pop and R&B, and attribute their music and style to their Filipino roots. BGYO's lyrics focus on social issues relevant to youth such as self-love, empowerment and hope. Their debut single "The Light" made the group the fifth Filipino artist ever to appear on the Billboard Next Big Sound chart, debuting at No. 2. BGYO capped off their debut year with more than 10 million streams on Spotify and 12 million views on YouTube. 

So!YoON!

So!YoON!, born Hwang So-yoon, is an alt-pop singer, songwriter and guitarist known for her powerful, raspy vocals. Before embarking on a solo career, she founded the band SE SO NEON at the age 18 — which became one of South Korea’s most acclaimed indie groups for their blend of rock riffs, R&B sounds and airy synths. 

Earlier this year, So!YoON! released her sophomore studio album Episode1: Love which explores themes of love, desire and self-reflection. Lead single"Smoke Sprite" features BTS rapper RM. Set over the grainy wash of grungy guitars, the sensual song follows two lovers calling out to one another in the gap between dreams and reality. The track is effortlessly cool, and perfectly describes So!YoON!’s unique sound and style. 

PRETZELLE 

PRETZELLE  is a Thai pop girl group that’s quickly taking the T-pop genre into the international market. The quartet's name is inspired by the infinity shape of the pretzel because it symbolizes happiness and enjoyment. 

This past January, PRETZELLE released the assertive and confident love song "U R MINE," which sees members fiercely devoted to a romantic partner and not wanting outside competition for their affection. Members Inc, Ice, Aumaim and Grace all took part in the writing process, and enlisted Shin BongWon (known for working on "Ditto" by the K-pop group NewJeans) to mix the song. The song has since received more than 161 million streams overall on streaming platforms including YouTube, Apple Music, Spotify and TikTok. 

Since its debut in 2020, PRETZELLE’s music has also appeared on a number of original soundtracks, including the Thai TV drama "Love Revolution" and the Korean animation "Teteru." The group have also found a solid fanbase, fondly called Twist. 

Baek Yerin 

The frontwoman of the indie Korean rock band the Volunteers is also a singer/songwriter whose voice you may have heard on K-drama soundtracks. Baek Yerin's original ballad, "Here I am Again," was featured in "Crash Landing on You" and peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard K-pop Hot 100 chart. Known for her sweet and delicate vocals, Baek is credited with composing the majority of her songs, often touching on real life experiences. 

She first debuted with major South Korean label JYP Entertainment as part of the duo 15& with singer Jamie (also known as Park Ji-min), and formed her own independent label, Blue Vinyl, in 2019. The 25-year-old writes in Korean and English, citing Amy Winehouse, Oasis and Rage Against The Machine as some of her biggest influences. Yerin has also written for artists including Chungha, Soyou and Yeonsoo. 

Phum Viphurit 

Thai Indie singer/songwriter Phum Viphurit first rose to international fame in 2018 with the breezy summer song "Lover Boy," and has since garnered a loyal fanbase in his home country as well as South Korea, India, Japan and Hong Kong. Viphurit writes in English and blends elements of surf-rock, pop and neo-soul into his guitar riffs and melodies. 

The 27-year-old moved to New Zealand at age 9, and then moved back to Thailand for university. Viphurit reached viral fame for his original and cover songs on YouTube, and signed to the indie label Rats Records. While Viphurit’s songs are often uplifting (such as 2022's "Welcome Change"), he has also been open about his own mental health struggles in songs like 2019’s  "Hello Anxiety."

Sexy Zone 

Fans of the "Full House" TV franchise may recognize Sexy Zone, the Japanese boy band that made a brief appearance on "Fuller House" in 2018. Yet  Sexy Zone has been an active group since 2011, releasing eight studio albums and numerous No. 1 hits in Japan. 

With a name inspired by Michael Jackson’s "sexiness"  and bright and colorful concepts, Sexy Zone’s music can surely be compared to the catchy bubblegum pop hits often heard in K-pop. The members’ eye-catching costumes, synchronized choreography and charming personalities have helped the group garner a loyal fanbase, dubbed the Sexy Lovers. 

Tyson Yoshi 

Tyson Yoshi, born Ben Ching Tsun Yin, is one of Hong Kong’s best known hip-hop artists, amassing more than 46 million views on YouTube and more than 247,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, with streams from more than 100 countries. While ballads have often dominated the Hong Kong music scene, Yoshi represents a new kind of contemporary artist in his home city. His music melds elements of trap, pop, hip-hop and R&B, while he sings in Cantonese, Mandarin and English. 

While Hong Kong society has typically favored more conservative styles and appearances, Yoshi stands out for his bleached colorful hair and tattoos. He's developed a fanbase for singing about wanting to be understood and tackling stereotypes, such as in  "I Don’t Smoke & I Don’t Drink."  When he started dabbling in songwriting in university, he took inspiration from artists including Avril Lavigne, Justin Bieber and pop-punk bands Sum 41 and Simple Plan. 

MIN 

MIN first gained popularity as part of the dance and music group St.31, eventually becoming one of Vietnam’s top female soloists. She found success with her 2017 mid-tempo pop single "Có em chờ" with rapper MR.A. Later that year, her EDM-inspired track "Ghen" featuring ERIK from the V-pop boy band MONSTAR. 

MIN’s profile continued to grow internationally after Vietnamese-American singer Thuy asked her to sing Vietnamese lyrics on a remix of her viral single "girls like me don’t cry." On collaborating with MIN, Thuy wrote on YouTube that it’s "so important to me to show two badass Vietnamese women from opposite ends of the globe TOGETHER." 

Celebrate AAPI Month 2023 With A Genre-Spanning Playlist Featuring BLACKPINK, Yaeji, Olivia Rodrigo & More

Yuna 

Photo: Timothy Norris/Getty Images

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Listen: Celebrate AAPI Month 2021 With This Playlist Featuring Artists Of Asian & Pacific Islander Descent

While the AAPI experience is far more vast than four letters can hold, AAPI Heritage Month provides ample opportunity to explore the infinite reaches of what Asian, Asian-American and Pacific Islander art can be—and this playlist can be your soundtrack

GRAMMYs/May 26, 2021 - 01:57 am

The experience of being Asian-American and/or of Pacific Islander descent cannot be contained in a word, phrase or corporate slogan. Each universe contains innumerable micro-universes; under a microscope, even more realms of identity and feeling emerge. 

That said, it is incumbent on each of us to recognize and appreciate the contributions of AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) artists, even though the dialogue and introspection the term entails is astronomically larger than four letters can hold.

GRAMMY.com is proud to curate a playlist for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month 2021. Uncontained by genre or racial identity within the Asian and Pacific Islander diasporas, the result is a sonic tour through wildly divergent genres: pop, jazz, classical and beyond. We've also compiled quotes from artists as well as Recording Academy staffers who self-identify as AAPI.

The aim of this playlist is not to artificially string together artists based on their appearance or perceived racial descent; rather, it is to demonstrate how artists within the AAPI world have enriched more styles of music than we can count.

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Picks From Recording Academy Staff Members Of AAPI Descent

Kobukuro — "Winding Road"
Golden — "Hate Everything"
Lee Hong Gi — "Still"

"I love that this month gives us an additional platform to celebrate the APIDA community. The Asian American experience is filled with a lot of complexity and richness, so I'm grateful we've been able to shed some light on that through food, music and art, history, advocacy, and a heightened sense of community. Always excited to keep the energy going beyond this month!" —Taylor Kimiko Saucedo, Project Manager of Ticketing and Event Operations, Production Department

BTS — "Butter"
Stray Kids — "Back Door"
Eric Nam — "Honestly"
Radwimps — "Nandemonaiya"
Pierre Fitz — "T'lah Berubah"
Gabe Bondoc — "Filler"

"I'm so appreciative of our community and all those who support it, in and out of this month. My Philippine culture has always been a part of me, and while I always try to bring it out in everything that I do, this month I feel more welcomed to show it! During this month, I'd also love to encourage everyone to support local Asian businesses; not only have they been affected by COVID, but also the Asian injustice acts happening throughout the world." —Thea Marvic A. Domingo, Executive Office Coordinator

Rina Sawayama — "Bad Friend"
Mitski — "Your Best American Girl"
Yuna — "Dance Like Nobody's Watching"
H.E.R. — "Focus"
Suzuki Saint — "Sunday"
Japanese Breakfast — "Be Sweet"

"To be honest, I am used to AAPI Month being ignored by non-AAPI entities, so it's been a little strange to see so much about it this year. I'm getting promotional emails from companies highlighting AAPI-owned products, etc. I have a feeling the increased celebration of AAPI month is unfortunately tied to the rise in hate crimes targeting AAPI people, and so I have mixed feelings about it—not about the month itself, but about non-AAPI folks suddenly acknowledging it when they haven't before."  —Jane Kim, Coordinator

Crush + Pink Sweat$ — "I Wanna Be Yours"
DPR Live — "Cheese & Wine"
Phum Viphurit — "Lover Boy"
NIKI — "Indigo"
Rich Brian — "Kids"

"I'm glad that many people have been promoting Asian American culture this month! From the food and languages to more serious issues such as discrimination and #StopAsianHate, it's been an enlightening few weeks." —Chris Chhoeun, Accountant, Business Affairs

Quotes From Artists Of AAPI Descent

Joey Alexander — "Under The Sun"

"While it's often customary in Asian culture to remain silent when faced with adversity, it is encouraging to see how all the Asian communities have banded together to speak out against the violence that's been inflicted on our elders, brothers and sisters, not just recently but systematically because of how we look. I am hopeful for a future of harmony where there is an open dialogue about our cultural differences and how as humans, we are all seeking peace, happiness and prosperity." —Joey Alexander

Read: Joey Alexander On The Primacy Of The Blues, Building Tunes To Last & His New Single, "Under The Sun"

Vijay Iyer Trio — "Children of Flint"

"It's not that any particular album is political, but at almost any moment in my musical life, I'm listening to what's happening outside and that is informing what I do, why I do it and with whom I do it. And for whom I do it. The first two pieces on the album [2021's Uneasy] are probably the most 'political.' But it's more like each of them was serving a specific purpose—serving a specific cause. And by serving, I mean literally serving. Trying to support an existing movement on the ground." —Vijay Iyer, speaking to GRAMMY.com in 2021

Bhi Bhiman — "Magic Carpet Ride"

"I'm happy to see it. I think it's important for the younger generation of kids—Asian kids, but maybe more importantly, non-Asian kids—to see that we are just a normal part of the country. We don't need special sections for our movies on Netflix or a temporary showcase on corporate retail websites. We just wish to be treated with the same respect as our European-American counterparts in real-life situations. We want to be judged on the content of our character, not the color of our skin. But there are some strong stereotypes in America about Asians, and in my case, Indians. My parents are from Sri Lanka, which floats on the edge of the Indian subcontinent. As a musician, I'm often on the wrong end of conscious and unconscious bias, unfortunately. The plight of the perpetual foreigner is that our superpower is invisibility in plain sight. It can be challenging, especially when I know I am one of the best out there at what I do. But I love seeing people embracing their heritage and culture and having pride in it. I see the world changing and stereotypes fading away, which is good news for the next generation." —Bhi Bhiman

Yo-Yo Ma — "Amazing Grace (Prelude)"

"I value the perspective that time can give as well as different disciplines. We can look at ourselves biologically. If we look at ourselves genetically, the huge chasms in racial-ethnic differences become minuscule." —Yo-Yo Ma, speaking to GRAMMY.com in 2021

Jihye Lee — "Struggle Gives You Strength"

"I sincerely appreciate the many organizations celebrating AAPI Month. I am thrilled to see some of the Asian musicians getting special exposure, including myself. I am beyond thankful for the support. Although I am aware all the actions come from genuine intention, I still want to be seen just as a composer. I hear the name Toshiko Akiyoshi as a comparison just because of my ethnicity. Even though I have tremendous respect toward her, I don't think it's my music that reminds them of Toshiko but my look—and I am not even Japanese. Maybe people want to name the same skin color of musicians they know as a nice and kind gesture, just like I hear 'Ni hao' on the street—and I am not Chinese. I am an Asian female composer, but when it comes to music, I wish my music to be heard without any preconception and wish to have AAPI support focused on our works—not on being Asian itself. We are in the middle of making changes, and I hope these efforts lead us to a world that doesn't need the word AAPI." —Jihye Lee

Jen Shyu — "Lament for Breonna Taylor"

"I'm an artist who really embraces my ancestry. I go deep into it. That's my path. But I know how frustrating it must be for other Asian artists who people might expect that of them. They just want to make music, you know? It's just being the other. I've never let it stop me because I'm so hard-headed. I just go forward." —Jen Shyu, speaking to GRAMMY.com in 2021.

Tomoko Omura — "Revenge of the Rabbit"

"They're stories you can relate to, those folk tales. They've been told for a long time for reasons, right? Because we're humans at the end. Those children's folk songs and folk tales have lived so long because the messages are strong. I think it's a great way to connect us as humans." —Tomoko Omura, speaking to GRAMMY.com in 2021.

Min Xiao-Fen — "Annica (Impermanence)"

"This world is small, you know? People should be open-minded." —Min Xiao-Fen, speaking to GRAMMY.com in 2021.

More Artist Picks By Recording Academy Staff

Jay Som — "Tenderness"
Mxmtoon — "Creep"
Tyler Shaw — "North Star"
Steve Aoki feat. BTS — "Waste It On Me"
TOKiMONSTA — "Bibimbap"
Giraffage feat. Japanese Breakfast — "Maybes"
RayRay — "Outer Space"
Yaeji — "Raingurl"
Peggy Gou — "It Makes You Forget (Itgehane)"

"As a person of color myself, I know the struggle of feeling foreign or being 'othered' in my own home country. Yes, I am of two lineages, but I am as equally American as I am Mexican. I feel the plight of my AAPI brothers, sisters and nonbinary friends during this difficult, scary time. And while we are celebrating AAPI artists and cultures all month long, we must keep the conversation going all year long. #AAPIAllYear." —John Ochoa, Managing Editor of GRAMMY.com

Raveena — "Tweety"
Hayley Kiyoko — "Found My Friends"
—Jenn Velez, Editor of GRAMMY.com

ZHU ft. Yuna — "Sky Is Crying" 
TOKiMONSTA ft. Yuna — "Don't Call Me"
Lastlings — "No Time"
Yaeji — "WAKING UP DOWN"

—Ana Monroy Yglesias, Editor of GRAMMY.com

ZHU Talks New Rave-Ready Album DREAMLAND 2021, Being Inspired By Hyphy Music & Asian Americans Finally Being Heard

Dr. Dog
Toby Leaman & Eric Slick of Dr. Dog

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/GettyImages

interview

Still Barking After All These Years: Dr. Dog On Low-Key Longevity And Their New Self-Titled Album

For two decades, Dr. Dog have enjoyed a dedicated fanbase and quiet resilience — although maybe not critical acclaim. Their new self-titled album shows that they've stayed not only consistent, but creatively lively; drummer Eric Slick talks all about it.

GRAMMYs/Jul 24, 2024 - 01:47 pm

At the end of 2019, Dr. Dog decided they'd had enough of the touring grind. After all, the many-hued, many-styled psychedelic band had been going hard for two decades.

"It just got tiresome, and the other guys in the band had kids," Eric Slick, their drummer since 2019, tells GRAMMY.com. "I think there was just this conscious decision to be like, 'Maybe we need to take a breath.'"

This amounted to a fork in the road for Dr. Dog, who have always occupied a funny space in the indie-verse. In a revealing 2016 Talkhouse essay titled "The Counting Crows Taught Me Not To Give A F— About the Critics," Slick acknowledged that music press has written "unspeakable reviews" over the years, unfairly characterizing them as safe, repetitive and wary to take risks.

One spin of Dr. Dog's new self-titled album — which arrived July 19, their first in six years — should disabuse you of this notion. Sure, it's a continuation of their gently trippy melodic soul aesthetic, but it also shows how they've subtly developed on it.

"It's not like a typical Dr. Dog record where I go in the studio and I'm just bashing the crap out of the drums, and hoping that whoever's mixing it knows what to do," he explains. "We all had to play really sensitively to each other, because there's no headphone mix, and we allowed any kind of bleed through the microphones to become part of the ambient noise of the record."

Dr. Dog arrives during a critical year for Slick. An active solo artist on top of Dr. Dog, session work and other group efforts, he released an eccentric new album, New Age Rage, back in April. Naturally, working with Dr. Dog has incontrovertibly influenced his solo work.

Plus, Dr. Dog's last show at press time — a sold-out Colorado amphitheater gig — was a watershed for Slick, as the historically timid singer got to sing his first-ever lead vocal on a Dr. Dog album — the lovely "Tell Your Friends" — live onstage for the first time, the crowd singing every word.

Read on for Slick's account of that special moment, as well as all things Dr. Dog.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

You've written about not being able to catch a break from the critics, but Dr. Dog just performed a sold-out show at Red Rocks. What does that tell you about music critics' authority — or lack thereof?

I mean, with Dr. Dog, I feel like our fan base has gotten riled up by the fact that critics don't tend to like us. Even when they do like us, there's usually some sort of backhanded compliment or there's some issue that is taken with the band's reluctance to change, or at least what it seems like on the surface.

I think the constant criticism that we get is that our albums don't tend to show a lot of growth. Maybe if you're not paying attention that might seem true, but I feel like we put a lot of emphasis on trying new things. It's just like we sound the way that we sound.

[Founding member] Scott McMicken is kind of a musical genius, isn't he?

Scott is extremely prolific, and I used to live with him back in West Philadelphia in, like, 2010. I would go to bed, and then there'd be a CD slipped underneath my door of the 12 songs he wrote that night.

He's just one of those people. He's kind of like Robert Pollard in that way. He has no filter, and he's so prolific, and loves to record. He loves to record on his Portastudio. It's his life, and he's so good at it, and he's so good at tricking himself into creating new context for his art, and it's really inspiring to be around.

I could tell certain directions he was pulling things from. Like, some deep Stax Records vibes…

Oh, yes, yes, big time. He's been really into Stax and also Sun Records the last couple of years. He's just been diving into the production values on that stuff. He also loves all the Studio One stuff, too, like super into dub and the late '60s, early '70s era of Jamaican music. He's way, way into it.

[Bassist and co-founder] Toby Leaman is so good, too. For those less familiar with the band: how would you describe their push and pull as writers?

Scott, I think, always gets sort of pegged as freewheeling — lots of colorful chords and production. It's more kaleidoscopic. And Toby's songs are sort of classic — very open-chorded, "you can hear them in a big space" kind of songs. And I think Toby has also gotten really good at designing songs for the road — for big sing-alongs.

I think they're just so talented at what they do. I used to say that Scott's songs were kind of like a rocket taking off. They would start really small, and then by the end they're huge. And with Toby it's like a big emotion for the whole thing, if that makes sense.

And maybe Toby's songs are a little bit more even-keeled in how they're put together, and how they're structured, but that emotion is really felt throughout the whole thing — whereas Scott's more of the story guy.

Where would you say Dr. Dog fits into that "class of 2009" milieu — whatever you want to call it? How has everything shaken out as per the band's role in the landscape?

A lot of the bands that we toured with are not really around anymore, and that's kind of an interesting thing. How have we endured, but a lot of other great bands aren't still around? I think about that a lot.

I also think about — because we didn't have any kind of critical acclaim — maybe we went unscathed a little bit. In regards to something like Pitchfork, there were some do or die moments for bands, and there were some bands that we're friends with that had their careers completely killed by a certain review.

And for whatever reason, because we didn't bring any attention to [our music]it, and we didn't say anything on social media about it back in the day, we just kind of accepted it for what it was.

I heard there was All Songs Considered about our new record that came out the other day, and they were kind of placing us in the same category as the Mumford era. I never really saw that comparison, but…when you're so in it, it's hard to know.

"Tell Your Friends" is so beautiful. What led to your sneaky George Harrison role in the band?

Well, I also wanted to respect the fact that we already have a two-songwriter band.

Everybody in the band writes songs. It's already enough if you've got one, but if you've got two great songwriters in the band, how do you approach them — the classic trope of Phil Collins coming forward during rehearsal ready to sing now, or whatever it is.

I had that song left over from the New Age Rage sessions, and obviously it didn't fit on that record at all, and I was like, What if I just send it to the guys? And I did, and I was super nervous about it, but then everyone immediately was like, "Yeah, let's do it. Let's try it." 

So, by the time we got to the cabin in Forksville, Pennsylvania, where we made the record, everybody was really enthusiastic about the song. And then it kind of dawned on me that this song sort of encapsulates how we're all feeling about our relationships with each other. So, it feels like a nice little bow on the sentiment for the record.

You had posted on Instagram about the powerful moment of singing "Tell Your Friends" to that sold-out audience, and hearing the audience sing along. I know you've had a lot of insecurity and baggage with singing over the years, even hiring vocal teachers. Can you talk about your journey on that front?

I had a teacher growing up through the School of Rock program that actively discouraged me from writing songs and singing. So, I kind of feel like this whole racket of me writing songs is kind of like a spite store. [Laughs.]

I think I started doing it just to prove a point, and then it's turned into this whole other thing. I'm in love with the process and I love doing it, and I think it was there all along, and I was just kind of stuffing it down.

I started putting out songs for real in 2014, and still had years and years of stuff to work through with that, and also I just started doing it, because I had this impulse to do it, and it became clear pretty much right off the bat that I needed to start taking vocal lessons and take it seriously, because I was blowing out my voice every night.

So, eventually I started taking lessons with a teacher in Nashville who's like a gospel/CCM teacher, and the first lesson, I walked in there and she was like, "If you could sing anybody in the world, who would you sing like?" And I was like, "I don't know, Stevie Wonder or Prince." She's like, "Great, we're going to sing 'Purple Rain' right now."

And I was like, "Wait, what? I have to sing 'Purple Rain' in front of you right now?" And she's like, "Yes, so let's go." I was just like, "Holy s—, I'm not ready to sing 'Purple Rain.' I don't know the words to the song, really."

She really kicked my butt, and it led to me strengthening my chords, and it honestly gave me the confidence to come to Dr. Dog with this song, and then to be able to perform it.

The first time performing it in front of 10,000 people was pretty intense, and I think as it was happening, the beta blockers kicked in.

It was just really special and meaningful, and it just felt like the culmination of these 10 years of just really putting in the work, and taking lessons seriously.

It's the fulfillment of this thing that has been gnawing at me my whole life — which is to be able to write songs, to be able to perform them, and now I get to do that within the context of these people that I care about so much.

More Alternative Music News

Cults
Cults' Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin

Photo: Shervin Lainez

interview

Cults' Evolution: Madeline Follin & Brian Oblivion Discuss Their Upcoming Album 'To The Ghosts'

Out July 26, Cults' new album reflects their 15-year journey as artists. Ahead of their Lollapalooza performance and U.S. tour, the duo discuss how they've pushed their sound forward.

GRAMMYs/Jul 24, 2024 - 01:17 pm

Over the past 15 years, Cults have captivated audiences with their atmospheric, layered compositions that pack a pop-friendly punch. Now, on the brink of releasing their fifth album, To The Ghosts, on July 26, Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion reflect on their journey and new creative freedom. 

While their previous albums required the duo to stick to deadlines precariously organized between tours, the pandemic provided new circumstances. Freed of distractions and obligations, Follin and Oblivion traveled to Los Angeles in 2022 to join up with their longtime producer Shane Stoneback (Vampire Weekend, Sleigh Bells) to craft an album that looks back on their past while pushing their sound ahead.

"We don't have the sales pitch for the album down yet, but there's no other band that sounds like us," says Oblivion. "We're digging into our thing, and if you're into anything we've done before, you'll love this one."

Adds Follin, "We're like no other."

The album title is addressed to the ghosts of both Oblivion and Follin's past selves. As Oblivion explains, their four prior albums were time capsules that reflected the period in which each album was written and recorded. This release is something different.

To The Ghosts is a personal landmark for Follin, particularly. In 2020, upon the release of Cults' fourth album Host, she admitted that she'd been too shy to bring her own songwriting and demos to the table for the band's first three albums. It was Stoneback's encouragement that altered the creative process for the duo, resulting in their most collaborative album to date, and significantly more reliance upon live instrumentals in the studio.

"We spent a month in an AirBnB then a week in the studio with Shane," explains Follin.

"It was a mad dash to replace all the midi instruments with real ones, so we were running around playing vibraphones, organs, and guitars and all these things we'd recorded in demos and laying it all back down in one week."

It may have been a mad rush at the end, but over the years the duo have refined their formula for making albums. They're no longer the giddy art students and lovers making DIY music with no plans for world domination.

In 2010, Follin and Oblivion founded Cults and released their debut EP "Cults 7", followed by their debut self-titled album in 2011, which was similarly lauded. By the time their sophomore album "Static" arrived in 2013, the pair had freshly broken up and the themes of being creatively and emotionally stagnated resonated in dramatic, spacious orchestral compositions. They followed up with "Offering" in 2017, which was the first of the duo's albums to lean into optimism and a sense of embracing a more pop-friendly path.

That optimistic pop thread is picked up once more in "Crybaby", the first of 10 tracks that kicks off the new album. It launches with a lush, reverb-rich guitar hook and shuddering church bells, then shifts into a calypso beat and Follin's dreamy ode to escaping the modern malaise ("dry your eyes / turn off the screen"). Like the other catchy, bittersweet synth-pop numbers on To The Ghosts, "Crybaby" wraps up in close to three minutes. 

The lengthy outliers are "You're In Love With Yourself" and the closing track "Hung The Moon," which runs over five minutes. Ending an album with an epic power ballad is their signature style and "Hung The Moon" bathes in drama, love, loss and redemption. "In a storytelling way, that's the only ending that makes sense to us, a melancholy resolution," Oblivion says.

To The Ghosts captures everything fans adore about Cults and they'll have ample opportunity to catch them performing live this year. The duo are set to return to Lollapalooza opening for Vampire Weekend on Aug. 4, followed by their own headlining U.S. tour the same month. 

Ahead of their intensive touring schedule, the duo joined GRAMMY.com on a group video chat from their respective homes in New York’s East Village one evening, to discuss their upcoming release.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

You began working on this album during the pandemic. Tell me where you wrote and recorded material, and whether you did that together or separately?

Madeline Follin: We were writing and recording in Brian's spare room. Can you see him?

Brian Oblivion: This tiny room! [directs the camera around a room not much bigger than 7 x 10 feet].

Follin: I sat on that couch right there, and we spent a lot of time in that little room [laughs]. For the most part we were together for the entire thing.

**Madeline, you revealed that before making your fourth album Host, you were too shy to show your own music to Brian and producer Shane Stoneback. What broke that barrier down for you to fully participate in the creative process?**

It was really hard to get it out of me. I had really strong imposter syndrome. Even though Brian was just starting out, he had taken a few recording classes in college, so he knew a lot more of the recording lingo and ways of communicating technically. I didn't know, so I felt so nervous to even communicate what I wanted. Shane helped with that a lot in terms of translating what I wanted into the language of studio speak. Shane is unlike any other producer we've worked with. He heard me out.

Tell me about working with Shane Stoneback in terms of what you came into the conversation with, and what he contributed to shaping this album.

Follin: We thought that we were not going to work with Shane again because he'd largely gotten out of the business. During [the] pandemic he switched careers and began working in the movie business. So, we started working with a few other people, we were feeling it out, and it just wasn't working. We reached out to [Shane], and he randomly happened to have 30 days off and said if we can finish it in 30 days, we can do it. We said, "we're coming out tomorrow."

What were the creative decisions you made in the earliest stages, and how much did you change your mind or allow outside ideas in as you were working on this album?

Oblivion: It took us a really long time. We definitely wrote over 100 songs. I put it all on an iTunes playlist and it was over 6 hours of music. This time we got a lot of confidence from some of our older songs being popular with young people. We thought, maybe the time has come around where we can do exactly what we do, and that's kinda 'new' again. Once we went through all the permutations and landed on "Crybaby," which was the first song on the record, we just thought "this just feels like us, so let's lean into what makes us unique." The messing around period was just trying out new tricks and trying to expand our possibilities.

John Congleton has a real knack for guitar sounds and finding a rawness to live instruments. How did he come to mix this album?

Oblivion: I've been a fan of John's going back to Xiu Xiu and my high school days. He's a master of distortion, him and Dave Fridmann, that's their thing. They can make things really fuzzy and interesting, but also fit it all in the speakers in a way that's like a weird magic trick. We have kind of a vintage sound, and he gets that but he's also smart at highlighting things that are new. He mixed our last record too and from the first conversation, in which he said he thinks like a musician and wants to do something strange, we knew we wanted him.

Follin: We'd mixed with other people before but when we got a mix back from John, he was bringing out parts of the song that we hadn't even recalled leaving in there. He makes our songs sound new to us again. We have a lot of trust and respect in him, and we were trying for so long to get our schedules lined up.

Oblivion: We work on our music for so long that by the time it's ready for the mix, we really want to hear something new. It's refreshing for us that John hears something new in us.

Tell me about "Crybaby," the first single. What were you going for in terms of the music, the mood and the message?

Follin: We'd been working on that song as part of the 100 songs that didn't make it. Brian started working on that song and I had never heard anything like that come out of his computer before, and I was shocked. It's funny because people say it's so "Cults sounding", but I thought it was unlike anything we'd done before. It's got a '60s vibe, an island vibe, to me and I thought we needed to zone in on it.

Oblivion: That was at the point where we decided "let's see if we can still make Cults songs that hark back to the earliest record." I love the lyrics, they're simple and there's no hidden meaning, which is great. A lot of the music that we love and that inspired the start of our band, is really obvious but also really weird in terms of lyrics. "Crybaby" is a fun, whacky diss track.

Let's talk about what inspires you musically.

Oblivion: What gets me excited is spending a lot of time sharpening my Spotify algorithm, so every Monday I get a collection of weirdo emotional love songs about heartbreak, these obscure, catchy B-sides, and whenever I find a song like that, I'm so inspired. Something that has kitsch, gravitas, and a bit of humour, that John waters, David Lynch combination lights me up.

Follin: Right now, I'm really into a lot of Fontaines D.C. I felt a 'Cults' vibe from them even though they probably have no idea who we are. It's been a while since I've put on a song, and then I want to put it on again right away.   

"Left My Keys" is an anthem for growing up. Tell me about your experience growing up in this band.

Oblivion: What makes this record different is that historically, we'd do all the music together over a span of two years, then Maddy would squirrel away to take a month or two to write all the lyrics, and that made the records very reflective of that moment, that time. For this record, because we had a protracted work schedule with nothing else to do, we took the time to slow down and look back. "Left My Keys'' is about being a teenager, and "Crybaby" is about things that happened a long time ago. Growing up is being comfortable enough to address your own past and realizing everything turned out okay so far. It's the first album where we're looking backwards and processing stuff from the last 15 years and before.

This album feels brighter than 'Host.' What happened between 'Host' and 'To the Ghosts' that explains the transition?

Oblivion: There's a lot of stuff we got out of our system. Host and Offering were both dark records, to me. It's wild to see that young people have picked up on "Gilded Lily" and that was such a crazy, cathartic song for us, so now it is crazy and cathartic for them. Most of my favorite bands are dark, sad bands, but that's not the totality of who we are. Being able to explore both sides of who we are was refreshing for us.

Follin: Personally, we were both feeling a lot better in our lives. We worked through a lot of anxiety, and because of the pandemic there was less partying, clubs, and bars. We had time to get healthier.

Oblivion: In a lot of ways our band is defined by our limitations. We have made music for 15 years, just the two of us with the same producer. But every time we make something new and interesting and all the things we think of as roadblocks help to provide a framework for what we do.

You released 'Host B-Sides & Remixes' in 2022, two years after 'Host.' Are there outtakes, or planned remixes, that are planned for this album too?

Follin: Definitely. 100 percent, we will be having something, but I'm not saying.

Oblivion: It's been really fun with the last few albums to put out songs that showed what would have happened if we went in a different direction. Sharing that part of the process with listeners has been fun.

You have a huge schedule of touring. Tell me about the plans and how you mentally and physically endure all the travel and performances. Does it get easier the more you do it?

Follin: No. Every single night, even if we're in the middle of nowhere, whether there's 15 people or 1000, I almost have a heart attack before walking on stage each night. You're crammed in a box with 7 people every night, there's a lot of emotions…

Oblivion: …and something is always breaking at soundcheck, it's like arghhhh! It's really hard, but when we put out Host and we didn't get to tour for two years, we missed that connection. The feeling of sharing your music with people allows us to move past it and get into something new. It's a big part of our personal growth and experience. We love touring.

Follin: In normal daily life, we hang out together. We hang out on weekends. It's not a forced thing. It feels so good to meet fans every single night, too, and hearing stories of how you affected somebody's life.

Most of the tracks on this album fall at around the three minute mark, and many end quite abruptly without fading out or dwindling down. Was that a deliberate strategy, and then why did "Hung The Moon" require that extended time as the finale?

Oblivion: It's verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus and you're done in three minutes!

Follin: Brian is very concerned about time, and I don't think it matters. I like shorter, he likes longer. We're compromising.

Oblivion: "Hung The Moon" is the big epic ballad that ends the record. We have had one on every record, it always ends with a big power ballad. In a storytelling way, that's the only ending that makes sense to us, a melancholy resolution. I love that song because it starts off as a sweet love song then it gets tense and spooky towards the end, but the lyrics stay really loving. It's that transition between the rush of an initial relationship and then the long game, where it's sweet and delicate, but it's also real life, so you're afraid that you'll lose things and you're trying to hold on to that original thing. So, the album ends on a bittersweet note.

Lollapalooza News

Koe Wetzel Press Photo 2024
Koe Wetzel

Photo: Jody Domingue

interview

Koe Wetzel On How New Album '9 Lives' Helped Him Tap Into His Feelings

After establishing himself as an outlaw country act, Koe Wetzel wanted to dig deeper with his fifth studio album. The buzzy star details how new collaborators and unintentional therapy helped him show a new side of his artistry.

GRAMMYs/Jul 23, 2024 - 06:37 pm

The word "rabid" may often be tossed around in conversations about fan bases, but Koe Wetzel's die-hard followers truly deserve the distinction. A quick search of the Texas-born singer/songwriter's fans reveals videos of Wetzel breaking up audience fights, arguments over featured vocalists and many, many Koe-inspired tattoos.

So, what is it about the 32-year-old country star that gets people so riled up? For starters, Wetzel, like Zach Bryan or Cody Jinks, is an outsider in the genre. He found his footing and honed his unorthodox sound — which defies traditional genre conventions to include influences from hard rock and hip-hop — as part of the Texas music scene rather than on Nashville's Music Row, the genre's commercial epicenter. Wetzel debuted in 2015 with Out on Parole, an album released under the name Koe Wetzel and the Konvicts. That record and its follow-up, 2016's Noise Complaint, made Wetzel a star on the college touring circuit, and by the time 2019's Harold Saul High was released, he was charting on Billboard while fielding management and label offers.

Wetzel's rough-and-tumble persona is another draw. He's outlaw country in his music and in life, with the Feb. 28 date of his 2016 arrest for public intoxication now known as "Koe Wetzel Day." He's known for working hard and partying harder — though, as he tells GRAMMY.com, he hopes to soften that image with his new album 9 Lives, out now.

As Wetzel puts it, at the heart of his gritty, irreverent persona is "just a goofball" who "probably should" go to therapy more often. Accordingly, his songwriting on 9 Lives is his most vulnerable to date, mingling meditations on fame and mental health with party anthems and hardscrabble tales of life on the road. Produced by Gabe Simon (Noah Kahan, Lana Del Rey), the record takes the gritty, rough-hewn country rock of Wetzel's earlier releases and lets it breathe a bit, adding touches of pop and roots to his grunge-leaning, hip-hop inspired beginnings.

Highlights on the record include the gritty and groovy title track and "Bar Song," a hypnotically infectious ode to a wild night out; "Leigh" shows off Wetzel's comedic side, as he playfully laments falling for "girls with names ending in Leigh." He also includes two drastically different covers: "Depression & Obsession" by late rapper XXXTentacion, and "Reconsider" by Keith Gattis, a country singer/songwriter who died in 2023 — further proof that Wetzel is anything but your typical country artist. 

On the album's July 19 release, Wetzel chatted with GRAMMY.com about his switch-up with 9 Lives, from recruiting a new producer to covering a rap song and more.

It's rare to speak to an artist on an album release day, so I'd love to hear how your day is going and what the feedback from your fans has felt like so far.

I'm just glad that everybody's taken [the album] in the way I wanted them to, you know? I didn't know how people were going to react to it, because it is a little bit different from the sound that we put out before. But the reaction has been great. I think people are getting a little bit more of a feel for the stuff that we put out in our earlier years. 

Your fan base is so passionate, and it seems like they are also really open to you taking risks and hearing new sounds from you. Does that resonate with you?

Yeah, for sure. It's not that they were getting used to the same sound we had been putting out for the last couple of records, but I felt like they were wanting something a little different than the country rock stuff. And I think with this record, we give them that. We're giving them  something that they haven't heard from me before. 

Take me back to the early days of plotting this record. What got the ball rolling for you?

Well, we really didn't go into it expecting it to be a full record. We hadn't put out music in a while, so we went into it with [the goal of] get[ting] a couple singles out, just to get stuff going for a record, possibly, in the future. I hadn't put out my music in almost two years at that point. And so, the idea was to go in and write some newer stuff. I knew the direction that I wanted it to go — a little bit softer, more honest, vulnerable route. 

We got in [the studio] with Gabe Simon and Amy Allen and Carrie K and Sam Harris in El Paso, and we were there for, I think, two or three days. We wrote four songs: "Damn Near Normal," "Sweet Dreams" and a couple other tunes. We kind of sat back and looked at everything, and it all came really easy for us. 

We looked back like, "All right, man, this sounds great. We should do it again." So, we hooked back up in Nashville at RCA, and we knocked out a couple more. I think we did four or five more songs in a couple of days there. Before we knew it, we're like, "Man, we got a whole record in there." It wasn't planned at all.

It must feel good to go in without any major expectations and come out of the studio with music that fits your vision.

Yeah, for sure. Gabe Simon — he really brought that out. It was my first time working with him. It was kind of scary, going in to write and work with somebody that you've never met before and being so open and honest with them. He pulled out everything that made all those songs [right for] the record.

It sounds like the two of you have a special creative partnership. What do you think it is about your work with Gabe that made him the right fit for the record?

One thing is just us coming from two different worlds. I'm a Texas guy, and he's coming from Nashville. It's just those two worlds colliding, pretty much. And he really cared about me and cared about my life, — things that are going on in my life instead of just being about the music. He cares about my well-being. We're friends now, and he'll hit me up on any given day and ask, "How you doing? How you feeling?" It has nothing to do with music. That's the type of dude Gabe is. 

I think that played a big part in this record. Of course, he cared about the music, but he also wanted everybody to understand the stories that were being told. 

You mentioned earlier that you get into more vulnerable territory on this record. What was it like for you to open up in that way in your music?

Honestly, it was kind of freeing. I don't go to therapy as much as I probably should. And I've said this a couple of times, that when I first met Gabe and Amy and all them, they all sat me down and picked my brain, just trying to get song ideas and [figure out] which way I wanted to go with the record. I always say that was my first real therapy session. And it was total strangers. 

I don't talk about my feelings and stuff as much as I probably should, so whenever I get to write this music and play this music, that's pretty much how I express how I feel.

On the other end of the spectrum, you're great at incorporating humor into your songwriting. On this record, I'm particularly thinking about "Leigh," which is just so clever. What role does humor play in your writing process?

I'm a goofball. [With] my persona, people want to think I'm just this hardass, kind of outlaw dude, but I'm really just a goofball. I like to have a lot of fun. I like my records to have a lot of fun. So throwing in songs like that to keep people on their toes, you know, it's just to let them know it's not always so serious. It's a lot of fun and games. 

We had a lot of fun making that song. At first, it kind of started off as a joke, and then we kind of sat back like, "Holy s—, this is pretty good. This is a fun song." We can't wait to play that one.

The two cover songs on the record fit so well, even though they are from drastically different artists, XXXTentacion and Keith Gattis. How did you choose those, and what made them fit the rest of 9 Lives?

Keith Gattis, I didn't really get to know him or do a deep dive into his music while he was alive. He passed away last year. And Charlie Robison was one of my favorite Texas artists growing up. They passed away pretty close to each other last year. 

Once I figured out that Keith wrote a lot of Charlie's songs, I really dug into his music a lot more… Something inside me was just like, "Yo, you gotta cut this song." I feel like it rounded out the record. We just tried to do it as much justice as possible. 

[It was] kind of the same with "Depression & Obsession." XX is one of my favorite underground rappers. I love that era of music. I love what he did. He was another artist that was gone too soon. There's no telling what more we could have gotten from him. So, I wanted to do it justice and give a nod to them by putting those songs on the record.

You have Jessie Murph joining you on "High Road." How did the two of you connect?

Ron Perry with Columbia, he signed her a couple years ago. When we signed with Columbia, he asked if I'd heard of Jessie Murph. I wasn't familiar with her at the time. Then I looked her up and instantly became a fan. She's a f—ing superstar. Her voice is amazing. 

We talked about having a duet on this record, but I couldn't find a singer that I wanted to have on the record. But it was kind of easy because Jessie worked with Columbia and, like I said, I was a huge fan. So, we hit her up. We let her put her own spin on it, and she absolutely crushed it. 

You're certainly busy enough, with a new record out and a tour coming up. What else are you looking forward to in the second half of 2024?

More new music. We're already trying to get more new music going. We've got a lot of songs that are still in the vault that probably should have made the record but it just didn't feel right at the time. I can't really say a whole lot, but we've got a lot of songs in the vault and I'm still writing. So, once the tour's over with, we're hoping to put on some new music pretty quick.

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