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NoSo's debut album is a care package for someone in need: Their younger self

On NoSo's debut album, songwriter Abby Hwong plays out their daydreams.
Bella Rose Porter
/
Courtesy of the artist
On NoSo's debut album, songwriter Abby Hwong plays out their daydreams.

"Music has always been a tool for me to express feelings I feared would be unacceptable, in a form that's more poetic and palatable for people," says Abby Hwong, the Los Angeles-based artist who performs as NoSo. In their dreamy indie rock songs, Hwong wrestles with what it means to confront those fears and emerges with confidence, becoming accepting of — even proud to share — those feelings. That newfound fortitude is at the heart of their debut album, aptly titled Stay Proud Of Me, which they describe as a labor of love written to their younger self.

Music has been integral to Hwong's life since childhood: Their album's cover art was inspired by the '80s Korean records their parents played for them as a baby; growing up, they would see legends like B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt and Aretha Franklin at the Chicago music festival where their mom worked. Hwong began playing guitar at age 12, but didn't start writing music seriously until moving from the Midwest to Los Angeles at age 16. "That's when I was able to look inward and feel like I had a valid reason to write emotional songs." Hwong explains. "That allowed me to see, going forward, that everything I had repressed, I could write about." They eventually attended the University of Southern California to study popular music.

NPR Music first discovered NoSo when they entered the Tiny Desk Contest in 2019 with a song that showcased their impressive guitar skills, including an earworm riff that still sounds refreshing years later. You can hear Hwong's virtuosic, memorable guitar playing throughout Stay Proud Of Me, which is also elevated by a fuller production of cinematic synths and lush pop sounds; they're especially skilled at packaging heavy subject matter as a catchy hook or chorus without cheapening its sentiment. Hwong is nonbinary, and their songwriting has been a place where they process their evolving gender identity. They wrote the album's opening track while recovering from gender-affirming top surgery: "So lovely to meet you, again / so lovely to be born again," they sing gently as the instrumentation swells, setting a compassionate tone for the album. On songs like "Suburbia" and "David," they reflect on growing up in a nearly all-white Chicago suburb; on "I'm Embarrassed I Still Think Of You" and "Feeling Like a Woman Lately," they reflect on their identity as a queer and trans person. Across the album, they give themselves freedom to explore varying instrumentation, experiment with song structures and play out their daydreams.

Ahead of the album's release, Hwong spoke with NPR Music about the courage and compassion in their music and how Stay Proud Of Me took shape.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NPR Music: I understand you went to USC's Thornton School of Music, where you were in the popular music program. I read that you had a fear about learning the production side of things until later in college. What was the process like of finding your sound?

Abby Hwong: Most of my academic experiences were focused on guitar and songwriting and composition, and I procrastinated on learning how to produce until my senior year of school. I had so many resources and different classes I could've taken, but I just thought, "I'm not a producer. It's fine." I think [I was dealing with] some kind of internalized misogyny because I could always picture what I wanted the songs to sound like, but I didn't think I could do it myself. I had to have someone else put their stamp on it, otherwise it didn't feel legit. I worked with really great producers — but it was on their timelines, their availability. I had to submit demos for label submissions, and I was like, "God, if I could just do this all myself it would be so much faster!" I wanted to be done quicker, and so that's what pushed me to actually learn.

Vulnerability is a theme that really comes across on the record. How did you learn to be vulnerable both with yourself and others?

I've been pretty reserved since I was a kid because I felt like things I would say would not be acceptable in the homogenous town I was in — especially my thoughts about being trans. When I was young, I didn't really have the vocabulary to articulate how I felt about it. I kind of carried [that] through into my adulthood, until recently. But music has always been a tool for me to express feelings I fear would be unacceptable, in a form that is more poetic and palatable for people. For a long time, I would use convoluted metaphors because I was scared of just being outrightly vulnerable with lyrics. And then as I progressed as a songwriter and realized how cathartic it is to be honest and vulnerable, I got more and more brave.

You've said that your chest is a motif across the album that "represents [your] gender identity, projections and insecurities." What did you mean by that?

I address my chest on "Sorry I Laughed" and "Everything I've Got," which are really vulnerable songs. [I wrote them] prior to me having [top] surgery. "Everything I've Got" is a very emotionally intimate song, and I'm essentially projecting all of my insecurities onto someone else — being like, "It's because I'm trans, that's why we can't work." That probably was not the issue at all, but I was always very embarrassed of my chest because it felt shameful — I was like, "This should just not be on my body." And then "Sorry I Laughed" [is about] laughing when someone is trying to be physically intimate with me because my chest makes me so uncomfortable, and possibly offending that person in the situation. Something that was so uncomfortable for me ended up being a catalyst for making other people feel uncomfortable. Now, post-surgery, I can reflect on those moments and feel empathy toward the people in those situations, but also for myself.

This album feels like a real step forward for you as a musician. Is there a relationship between your gender identity and evolving musical sound?

Yeah, 100%. The reason why this album is sentimental to me is because I started writing it when I was 20 years old and ended it when I was 24. And there were a lot of imperative life changes for me during that period of time regarding my gender. Through the songs, I feel like you can tell that I've become a bit more courageous and kind toward myself in the lyrics. And I still feel like my gender identity is evolving. Past this album and into the future, I think [my songs will] hopefully become more courageous as I become more accepting of my own gender identity.

There are some very cinematic elements to the production on the album, especially on "Honey Understand." It sounds to me like this music creates a space to explore a lot of different narratives or even shapes your life could take. Was that intentional?

I actually wrote, like, 10 seasons of this Korean drama screenplay [during quarantine]. The quality of the writing is questionable, but it was so fun for me to do that because I wasn't having any experiences in the outside world. And I wrote "Honey Understand" from the perspective of the characters in that screenplay. I don't think songwriting has to be intense in order to be valid. Like, Kate Bush wrote Wuthering Heights about the book and sang from the perspective of the character in the book, changed her vocal tone and everything! And so I think there's that element of fantasy and just light-hearted fun that I think is good to explore.

I'm curious how you came up with the album title, Stay Proud Of Me, and what role pride plays in your life these days.

"Stay proud of me" is also a line from the opening track, "Parasites." (It was between that and the line "take off the drag" for the album title.) But I think "Stay Proud of Me" is the overlying theme across all the songs. Most of the songs on the record are within the theme of addressing my younger self. I just want to weep when I see pictures of my younger self. There's such an innocent vulnerability, but also so much pain from when I was a little kid. I always imagine if I were walking across the street and saw little me, I think the younger version of myself would be proud of older me. And also kind of like, "Well, that person's, like, pretty weird." [Laughs.] But also, maybe: "I'll be brave like that."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elle Mannion