If you haven’t heard of keshi yet, that’s okay; it’s a bit by design.
Casey Luong, a.k.a. keshi, is a Vietnamese-American singer from Texas who got his start on SoundCloud. The musician and self-taught producer grew his fanbase on the platform, where his music eventually caught the attention of the aesthetic-obsessed curators of YouTube’s lo-fi community. From there, keshi gained enough of a following on his own (and through the undeniable power of word of mouth) that he was able to quit his day job as an oncology nurse and sign a flashy deal with Island Records.
Now, two years, three EPs, one tour (he went on the road with LANY as a support act), and a buzzy performance at Head in The Clouds later, keshi is preparing for the next stage of his career: the release of his debut album.
Ahead of Gabriel’s release and before setting out on his headlining hell/heaven tour, keshi sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss his fanbase, revisit his Soundcloud days, and dig into his songwriting process.
The A.V. Club: Let’s start with your performance at Head In The Clouds: The moment “beside you” started playing, everyone immediately had their phones up. No other artist I saw that weekend got that reaction. What was that like for you?
keshi: It’s the most amazing thing. It’s a dream come true. I think it’s the result of having grown [the fanbase] so slowly online. If you were onto the music early, you didn’t really talk about it too much, right? Not until you finally get to see [it] live. You don’t realize it, but there’s this huge community of people who also had [my music] tucked under their belt. It was cool to see. I love that the fanfare is so insane. I haven’t really had the opportunity to play to that crowd until that moment.
AVC: How much did your creative process change when you stopped doing SoundCloud and signed to a label?
keshi: Oh, zero percent. The label picked me up at a time where I had a decent amount of momentum [and] they didn’t want to intrude. They knew I was comfortable being left alone. We tried some writing sessions in the beginning, but I was awkward about it. I’m kind of notorious for not playing well with others in that way. I’m not harsh or anything, but the sessions aren’t very fruitful.
The creative process overall was not changed when I signed because I was just a studio rat by myself. But it did change for Gabriel—in a good way, not in a way where [it doesn’t sound like me]. My amazing A&R found a producer, Elie Rizk, who is 100,000,000% compatible with me. He’s a musical whiz. This is what I intended keshi to sound like when I first started the project.
AVC: Let’s go back to your SoundCloud days. What kind of stuff were you listening to then?
keshi: Oh, I still have all my old songs in SoundCloud, they’re all obscure. Just random ass shit. The repost function and community aspect of SoundCloud was so cool, because it didn’t matter if a song was popular. That was creatively liberating. All the time you’re listening to stuff like, “Oh shit, that’s really cool, how can I do that? In my own sort of style?” You learn a lot about production. You learn how to break a lot of rules. You learn you can do whatever you want.
AVC: You’ve told the story of your former nursing job a million times. I’m also the child of immigrants, and I can imagine that conversation, so I want to know if there’s anything that’s been left out of that narrative.
keshi: The important thing that I wanted to stress about that is: Your parents immigrated in order to give you the chance to shoot for the fucking stars. When I wanted to take that leap, everyone said no. I was like, “No, this is the opportunity that y’all came here for. We can go all the way, if you believe in me. And I believe in me, so we can do this.” It also happened at a point where it made sense. It’s not like I had 100 followers and I was like, “Yep, I’m moving to L.A., Mom! See ya in a bit!”
AVC: I think the way that you did it was very careful.
keshi: Careful! Careful is the best word. I think I will use that from now on. Yeah, I was very careful.
AVC: When bandaids and always came out it was during lockdown. What was it like to record that music and not get to play it live?
keshi: I was okay with it because when I look back at the records, I’m proud that I was able to do it all by myself. The goal of those trilogy EPs was to see how far I could take it by myself. I think I did a decent job. But I feel like I’ve outgrown it. And it started to become a little bit disingenuous in terms of what I felt like I could be making.
It’s not like I see [the EPs] as a smudge or anything. But is it the pinnacle of what I wanted to do as an artist? The answer is no. The pinnacle is Gabriel. I’m immensely proud of it.
AVC: What was your first show on LANY’s gg bb xx tour like?
keshi: The first show, I believe, was in Toronto. For that show and the whole tour, I was getting my sea legs. I learned so much about what works and what doesn’t in the context of an audience that doesn’t automatically love you. Now I can see objectively what makes the crowd react and what doesn’t make them react.
AVC: What’s one of the things you learned?
keshi: Transition between songs. I also forgot the magic of hearing one of your artist’s favorite songs die down and sweep into the next one. It’s just an experience that way. So, pacing. I think it’s really important.
AVC: Okay, now we can get into Gabriel. How did you approach the writing process?
keshi: I was in a really dry place after the always EP. I knew that it was time to make the album, and I didn’t know where to start. I wanted to make something cohesive and poignant. But I was lost. I went to the Rolling Stone Top 500 Albums list, and listened to tons of music. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Beach Boys, Prince, Marvin Gaye, Beatles… And I just found that there’s no one “rule.” Everyone just does what they do relentlessly and unapologetically. That was liberating and paralyzing at the same time because I had no idea what I wanted to write about. It wasn’t until I talked with [collaborator] Madeon, and he was like, “Don’t be scared. Don’t be worried about cohesiveness. It’ll reveal itself to you in time, and you will be fine” that I was relieved. That’s how I was able to get started.
The writing process was split between Houston and L.A. I would go to L.A. and stay with Elie for two weeks. While there, it was about getting crazy beats and sounds. Anytime I would write it would put a pause on the momentum, and I didn’t want there to be a stop. I was like, “I can’t write with other people. Don’t worry about it, let me take this home.” Once I got home to Houston, that’s when all the writing happened. I would knock out song after song and then go back to L.A. It was a back and forth for the whole year. I started in January and ended around July.
AVC: Why is it so important for you to keep Texas as your home base?
keshi: Having a home base is a really important thing for your own emotional security. Having a rock is very important, whether that’s people, family, or a home so that you don’t feel like you have to earn anybody else’s approval, right? If you’re lost and you’re looking for love, you might do things that are out of your character. So, I think that’s really important to stay true to yourself.
AVC: What about the music scene in Texas? Is there anything you wish people knew about it?
keshi: The thing is that me being an artist in this internet-based era meant I never had to leave my studio. I never had to go and mingle at bars and clubs or gigs and try to meet people.
AVC: So for you, is Texas more personal than professional?
keshi: For sure. If you wanted to go and meet people in Texas to make music, you could. But, I guess I was antisocial. I was like, “Fuck it. I’ll just do everything myself.”
AVC: Speaking of separating the personal and the professional, you’ve always had that distinction between keshi the project and Casey the person. Now that Gabriel is going to drop and you’re going on tour, are you still trying to maintain separation?
keshi: It’s all about the balance. I find myself more and more stepping into the shoes of the artist I made. That’s what I talk about on the record. It’s a merging of the two people. It’s very candid. I’m excited for people to hear it.
AVC: Okay this last one’s a fun one. Can you tell me what songs or albums you’ve been keeping on repeat? And then can you tell me something you’re sick of?
keshi: For the past four or five months, I’ve been listening to Chet Baker’s It Could Happen To You. Ever since [a friend] put me onto that record, it’s been on repeat. It soothes my heart like you would not imagine.
AVC: And what are you sick of?
keshi: It’s definitely something I go back to a lot, but it’s Where the Light Is: John Mayer Live In Los Angeles. I really love that record and it’s timeless for me. So sometimes I get way too much of it. But then I’ll come back to it when I need some reminding of who I am.