Singer-songwriter Abby Hwong, who records and performs as NoSo, joined me in their hotel lobby on the morning of their first show in the U.K. NoSo’s first album, Stay Proud of Me, had been out for less than two weeks, and the artist told me how special it was to be able to do headlining tour dates, including that night’s booking at a basement venue below a bar in the Stoke Newington neighborhood of Northeast London, and play all of the songs that people had started listening to on recordings. Previously, NoSo opened for New Zealanders Yumi Zouma, and had planned to open for Molly Burch’s summer tour before it was cancelled. The disruptions caused by COVID-19 have made NoSo’s big splash as a new touring act one that Hwong has called “a bit spooky,” especially since mask mandates have been dropped in most markets, but virus cases are on the rise again.
With this and Hwong’s comfort level in mind, we sat masked on the corner of a sectional sofa, as ambient sounds inside the lobby café gave way to thumpy beats and comically loud espresso grinding. I learned that the young creative, who attended music school at University of Southern California through the same program as WNXP favorite Remi Wolf, had only recorded two songs (“Suburbia” and “I’m Sorry I Laughed”) when they were signed to Partisan Records and created eight more tracks to finish Stay Proud of Me.
Hwong grew immensely as both an instrumentalist and producer over the past three years, insistent about tracking all of the sounds on the record, absorbing bass guitar lessons on YouTube and playing around with beats and keys to round out their ballads. But the naturally gifted vocalist and accomplished guitarist was also undergoing many a personal change simultaneous to the record creation. The nonbinary Korean-American wrote opening track “Parasites” about their top surgery:
The parasites removed from your skin“Parasites”
So lovely, lovely to meet you again
So lovely to be born again
Also in “Parasites,” a standout song and ideal album opener, we hear the phrase Hwong chose for the record’s title, “stay proud of me.” They described this tone-setting track one as “courageous” and “compassionate,” and it is. I’d also add “triumphant,” since a certain, involuntary heart-swelling occurs when you hear NoSo’s warm vocal delivery over keen, pop-rock melodies, whether or not you can relate to the specific transitions they’ve experienced.
Really, the whole of Stay Proud of Me balances these virtues — courage, self-compassion, triumph — through the wistful “Suburbia,” about a complicated relationship with one’s hometown, and the dysmorphic dream-inspired “David.”
Also touching is the balance of the direct and the delicate in “I’m Embarrassed I Still Think of You,” which includes this supremely relatable stanza:
I admit that wasn’t love“I’m Embarrassed I Still Think of You”
Not even close
But I still think of you
The mood of the album lifts with the bass-forward groover “Honey Understand,” which Hwong said was almost tabled for a future record. The songwriter shared how easy it is to second-guess yourself when you write solo and listen to your own work over and over, which was essential to the NoSo self-production route, but led to some burnout. And so it took other ears at the record label to convince Hwong to include this “different,” dancier track on Stay Proud of Me.
I appreciate that through this blitz of personal growth and external encouragement, NoSo the artist has embraced “pop” as a descriptor, though Hwong admitted they may have recoiled from that suggestion a few years ago. Like the best pop music, this record is pretty and accessible, but not rudimentary. It’s smart and open-hearted and shows great promise for the directions NoSo will explore, on the road and in their room. All of them point forward.
On the Record: A Q&A With NoSo
Celia Gregory: I remember when I first heard “Suburbia” and I was like, “Yes, an anthem for anybody who grew up outside of a major metro area and all the trappings of that.” But now you live in a huge city. So how far do you feel away from your suburban upbringing?
Abby Hwong: Interestingly, I went to high school in a (L.A.) suburb similar to the one I grew up in in Chicago. It kind of is like my safe place being in suburban areas, even though I do have like bittersweet feelings about it, but it’s just what I’m used to. Pockets of L.A. that are kind of reminiscent of that actually make me feel more comfortable than the major city part. Some of my favorite parts of L.A. are still the suburban areas like Pasadena.
CG: Have you found a musical community in the suburbs where you are, or is it more like through friends of friends and the greater L.A. scene? Creatively what’s supportive of you in your craft out there?
AH: Actually, I went to USC for music. I was in the popular music program and everyone I met in the program I have stayed in pretty close contact with. So that’s been my main hub for the music scene, but that’s kind of expanded because friends of friends playing at certain shows and you meet new communities. So yeah, it’s I guess the main focal point of it is USC but it has expanded.
CG: So the making of Stay Proud of Me — which, by the way, I love because it implies you already are proud of me. It’s nice. I know it’s a lyric from a song, but why did you choose that for the title of the record?
AH: I think when I was looking over the tracks and trying to connect certain themes together, the song “Parasites” always sort of stood out in that it felt like the more courageous song in terms of subject matter. So originally it was going to the line “take off the drag” from “Parasites.” But “stay proud of me” just sounded a bit more compassionate in tone, and I feel like all the songs are within that theme as well as opposed to in order, it’s more of just an expression.
CG: I was going to ask you about the sort of self-compassion, self-discovery. You’ve said multiple times that this was a journey for you to create this record of your life, sharing with people these things that maybe you were discovering at the same time you made the songs. Can you talk about the timeline for for that? The writing, the recording and then also coming into a more actualized version of yourself as artist or as a person?
AH: Going into it, I only had two demos done, which were “Suburbia” and “I’m Sorry I Laughed.” And so the rest of the songwriting seemed a bit daunting at the time, because I had never made a record before. I hadn’t even made an EP. So I was like, “Oh my God. How am I going to do this?” And I also got signed [to Partisan Records] within the context of those two songs, and those were the first two songs I essentially produced. I was trying to become a stronger person through the process. And so it was very technical in terms of the learning aspect of that and then also with me as a person.
I was trying to grow in that regard, self-discovery and identity, while also being very technical with the music production aspect of it. It took around three years to make and at times I would be a bit frustrated being like, “When is this going to be done?” But I think I needed that time for me to grow as a person and also as a musician. Even once the album was finished and mastered and all that, I think I’ve changed significantly as a person in regards to my identity because I feel like it’s just been a constantly evolving process.
CG: You learned whole new instruments to be able to lay down these tracks, right? What did you go in playing? Do you normally compose on guitar or keys, or is piano new for you?
AH: Guitar has always kind of been I’m most comfortable with, though I’ve had very basic rudimentary skills on piano from music school and from when I was a kid, just chords, very basic stuff. And then for this record specifically, I would learn how to practice piano every day from a children’s book where it’s like playing nursery rhymes, essentially learning music theory that way. And then I taught myself bass just from YouTube videos. Kind of a similar way to how I learned guitar, because I’ve always kind of been I’ve always found myself to be most productive in a self-taught sort of fashion. And so it was really important for me to feel like I was hands-on with the record and to play all these parts. Not only for the record itself, but just to prove to myself that I can do it. I’ve just always been on so many other people’s timelines when I’ve worked with different musicians and I just wanted to do it myself.
CG: Speaking of bass, I love “Honey Understand.” That bass line is very Talking Heads. It’s a very pretty record, by the way, but that one is such a groover. Can you talk about maybe writing and laying down that song?
AH: I was kind of in a rut for a really long time with making the record. I only needed two songs left and I just genuinely felt like I kept repeating the same patterns that I usually gravitate toward with guitar, and ballad type things. I took a really long break from music, and then when I came back to it kind of refreshed after not even touching an instrument for months, I just started making the beats and the bass and some ambient sounds with the keys. It was very different than anything I’d ever made before — a bit more industrial-sounding with the beats.
When I finished it and I was sending it to people, I thought it might be too different from the other songs on the record. But the owner of the label I’m signed to said, “No, I think it works with with the rest of the record!” And I’ve always liked records that are interesting and eclectic with different genres. And so I thought, “Yeah, I’m just going to dive in. I’m not going to wait for this.” I was originally going to hold it for second album in case it felt more like the newer sounds on the second record, but I was like, “No, I want this out now.”
CG: Yeah, it’s a nice lift right in the middle there. You mentioned ballads. Let me ask you to describe the way these songs are so personal and delivered in such a sweet way. I think probably a lot of folks are crying in their bedrooms listening to this and feeling it on a deep level. What are you hearing personally? Are people reaching out to you that you’ve never met and maybe will never meet that are telling you how this music is striking them? How does that feel as an artist whose brand new out-the-gate first collection of music is able to strike that chord with people so personally?
AH: It’s been pretty amazing, because I’ve received some personal messages where people either saw my release show live and then also listened to the record on their own time and have kind of shared their experiences from their own journey with identity and self-discovery. And how the music kind of feels like it soundtracks those parts for them. And I think that’s ultimately what makes this worth it for me, even though it’s at times like doing this as a career has inevitable highs and lows, but little moments like that it just feels very significant for me.
CG: So is there is there a shadow side to that vulnerability in being an artist? Do you feel like there’s a privacy sort of invasion aspect of it? Like, yes, you created this, you authorized its used to like for some people, but then does it feel kind of bare?
AH: I don’t really feel like it’s personally invasive, because it was cathartic for me to make it and be honest in that way. In the future, I’m not sure what I’m going to write about, honestly. I’m sure I will end up writing about similar topics within this album. Songs like “Honey Understand,” which are fictitious based on my own imagination and my creative writing, I think still to me have received a response that I’m satisfied with. And so I think hopefully in the future, no matter what I do, there’s going to be some grace for people if I’m not deeply vulnerable, like every single time.
CG: One can write a bop without being like, “Here is my soul.” But you are a really skilled writer. Before you ever started playing guitar, did you fancy yourself a poet, a creative writer? And was this even before music was part of your life?
AH: I think so. Before I even touched a guitar in elementary school, it’s always been that creative writing was my favorite subject. It’s pretty much the only subject I really was interested in during my whole academic experience. And that’s carried into my career. Even though I love music with all my heart, storytelling, creative writing, is kind of my main love, and music is like an embellishment of that. To this day, I still like writing essays and screenwriting things, and I think it all lends itself to each other.
CG: So sometimes, process-wise, do these songs start as just words on a page and the music comes way later?
AH: Actually, I think with songwriting itself, it’s usually music first and then I write the lyrics. But when I’m writing the music, I do imagine scenes, kind of like the perspective of a movie, and I fill it in afterward.
CG: I’d be remiss not to mention, because of the uniqueness of this, I’m able to conduct this interview when we’re both pretty far from home, abroad. You mentioned offline about getting back to touring, being kind of “spooky,” which is a great way to put it. I think we’re still riding these waves. But because this record came out just recently this summer, what does it mean to be able to play these songs in front of people now that they’ve been able to digest the whole album?
AH: It’s been crazy. I think like when I went on my first tour with Yumi Zouma in the spring, I was really nervous leading up to it because it was a different set-up than I had done before. The last time I played live was in 2019 and I was it was just me and an acoustic guitar. I hadn’t even ever performed songs from the record. And so I think when the first show that I played, I was so achingly nervous for it, but then I got on stage and got to see real-time reactions from people, it just affirms that, “Oh yeah, I do like music.” Because usually I would just be sitting in my room writing songs all day, and I’m the only one who hears this, and I have no perception of what’s good or not because I’m a solo artist. You kind of get like sick of yourself a little bit when you’re with yourself all the time, listening to your own lyrics, especially with producing. Like, I’ll record 50 vocal takes sifting through. So just being able to play it live and for it to be more raw in that sense, it was such a relief because I was just reminded that I like doing this! [Laughs]
CG: The vocals are so crisp. Would you consider yourself poppy? If somebody calls you a pop artist, how does that make you feel?
AH: What’s so funny is that if you had asked me that years ago, maybe I think I would’ve been defensive, kind of pretentious and would say, “I’m not pop. My music is so much more!” But then I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve totally accepted the fact that I write pop songs. There’s just some kind of connotation from the words “pop music,” you know, that that I think a lot of musicians cower away from because the perception is that it’s simple. But I think as I’ve gotten older with my favorite music is pop music. And so I’ve just accepted it over time and also have embraced it.
CG: It’s not a four-letter word anymore, right? It’s like become it’s like come back around. To write a really great pop song takes a lot of savvy and intelligence. This album is full of those. Are there any artists — maybe peers, contemporaries or influential artists that are in that same vein, and whether you knew it or not, you were sort of picking up some of those pop sensibilities from them?
AH: In school we had to do covers of a lot of popular music and it was always Prince that stood out to me. That was kind of my turning point, like, “This is one of the best musicians of all time and it’s very much pop music.” And then even more contemporary examples — Christine and the Queens is such a complex musician and makes pop music, as well. And their stage performances in combination with that, they’re just such interesting and complex people. And therefore, I think, inherently their music is also complex and multilayered. I think that’s what helped me realize that you don’t have to be insanely experimental and avant-garde to be legit musicians.