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Meet Kenny Zhao in Marina del Rey

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kenny Zhao.

Kenny, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I’ve surrounded myself with music my whole life. Played piano since I was 5. Picked up viola in middle school. Taught myself guitar and bass, sang in a band when I was in high school. Studied composition, sound design, music production when I was in college.

I came out to LA to be a composer and producer – to make music for other people. I had trouble finding work, and did a number of projects for free, before deciding the easiest way to build a resume was to make things myself. The “resume” of the music world is a much less official affair than the pdf’s the rest of the world works with. So I kickstarted an EP with some filmmaker friends and made my first release. By a stroke of luck, one of the tracks was picked up by house DJ Armand Van Helden. From there, I made a second EP, picked up management and struck it out as my own artist.

That decision has since informed my career decisions. To be an artist is to be the face of your own brand and that is the journey I now navigate. I want my music to be an extension of my story. And that story has evolved each year, as I get more comfortable sharing and dig deeper into who I am. A few years ago, it was about proving my music was worth listening to. As I’ve gotten older, it’s become more and more about who I am as a person – as an American, as an Asian American, as a resident of Los Angeles. Those are the stories I want to tell now. These days the world can always use more humanizing stories.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
I’ve been extremely fortunate that my parents have been supportive of my decisions – both emotionally and financially. Because of them, I can’t really say I’ve experienced outright failure. I think the general erosive pressure of being turned down, missed opportunities, feeling like the only person who cares, have been the hardest part of being a musician. It’s a constant struggle, searching for validation. But I think the ultimate ongoing lesson is that validation comes from within.

I’ve also struggled with what exactly I wanted to do. I always saw music as my strong suit, so I pursued it wholeheartedly. I didn’t really anticipate the degree to which the professional world categorizes music into separate professions. So initially, I had a hard time finding work billing myself as a composer/sound designer/artist extroardinaire.

I’ve also had difficulty coming to terms with how to identify myself as an artist. Growing up, I never saw any successful Asian American artists in the music industry here in the states. Because of that, the music goals I set were always related to working for others, all the way up until a couple years ago. Giving myself permission to lead my own life, to be the example I want to see – I think that’s been an ongoing challenge. And every day, I meet that challenge is a day of personal growth.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with Zhao – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
I am a recording artist, producer and songwriter, I perform under the name “Zhao.”

I suppose I specialize in doing everything haha. I always had a curiousity for all things music, so that translated into being sort of a one-stop shop for making music – from the initial idea all the way through mixing. And I am proud of that! I’ve always felt that no matter who I meet in the industry, there’s always something I can teach them – always something I know that they don’t – and vice versa. I find that creates a bit more of a balanced ground when collaborating. It also keeps my ego in check, understanding a bit of everyone’s experience.

The music industry is filled with so many stories, so many experiences. Mine is both deeply reflective and fairly eclectic. Growing up, I studied and played classical music, which has formed the backbone of my sound. But from that I’ve developed an appreciation for all kinds of music.

Ultimately, I bring my wide ranging influences back to a more “pop” sensibility. I’ve always had a soft spot for well-made pop music and while my sound isn’t exactly top-40, I’ve been told that it’s very accessible, very open. This year, I’ve performed in lineups with jazz singers, singer-songwriters, funk players – even a rap show. And people seem to enjoy my music all the same. I think that’s a reflection of the eclectic world we live in, the things we’re ready to hear these days.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
My primary goal this year is to perform as much as possible. After two EPs and several single releases on SoundCloud, I finally have a collection of songs I’m ready to share. At least for me, setting up a performance properly has been quite a challenge. My songs are pretty complex production-wise and coming from a classical background, I spent a long time trying to actually play all the parts live. My reasoning was that since I could actually play all those instruments, then I should be playing them at my shows. But I’m only one person.

But I’ve since become more realistic about what I can do onstage and the priorities have shifted. The show should be in service of the audience, not some preconceived expectations. So, I’m looking forward to evolving my show with every time I play!

Performing has already informed my journey so much. I’ve noticed how underrepresented Asian Americans are in the music world – how underrepresented they’ve been in the entire history of recorded music. I hope I can be a driving force in changing that – that my journey can pave the way for more people who look like me.

I also have a series of singles planned for the next year. My last EP was very personal and quite cohesive. But as a producer, I have a lot of itches that I try to scratch – sounds that may not fit my style or stylistic rabbit holes I enjoy exploring. So, I decided to give myself the opportunity to explore those with a series of singles, each with album art and its own release.

In general, I hope my music attracts potential collaborators, likeminded artists who can help me grow and who I can help as well. I just want to keep getting better and to have an audience to connect with.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
KEI-LI, Charlie Chalkin Productions, Sam Hazlett

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