The walls of Alex Wong’s intimate recording studio in Nashville, Tennessee are coated in chalkboard paint. Though they are wiped clean at the moment, they will soon be filled with a jumble of words and ideas that gradually forms the map of a new creative journey. A multi-talented artist, songwriter, instrumentalist, producer, and sometimes-chef, Wong has an innate inquisitiveness and introspection that lend him a unique ability to thread a story through seemingly disparate creative expressions and experiences. He patiently peels back the layers of each and charts his way to a common core.
“Whether it’s a record I produce, or my own album, or any other project I’m working on, I strive to find an element that goes beyond the genre or medium and taps into the underlying intention—what you’re really trying to say,” he explains. “Rather than people saying, ‘that sounds like you,’ my goal is always to make people say, ‘that feels like you.’”
Though he has a new full-length solo album, The Elephant and the Seahorse, and a two-act musical (The Paper Raincoat) forthcoming in 2019 – as well as a Latin GRAMMY nomination, multiple song placements in film and TV (The Last Song, The Lincoln Lawyer, Ray Donovan, and True Blood, among others), and a growing list of production credits with artists such as Delta Rae, Elizabeth and the Catapult, Melissa Ferrick, Ari Hest, Megan Slankard, and Vienna Teng – Wong still feels that it’s taken him a long time to learn what “feeling like him” actually means.
He tackles that very question on his forthcoming solo LP, The Elephant and the Seahorse, which finds Wong grappling with his complicated relationship to memory as it pertains to his identity. To bring the album to life in an authentic way, the artist had to mine his own fears of memory loss, experiences, and even cultural conditioning throughout the writing and recording process.
“My whole basis for songwriting is that I have a question, and I’m going to work through it in this way,” he shares. “That’s usually what I find myself more excited about writing—those broader ideas that become a very personal question of, ‘who am I?’ and ‘where do I come from?’. I find myself way more interested in tackling that stuff in my songs than I am in, say, writing my way through a breakup.”
In making The Elephant and the Seahorse, Wong found himself directly addressing his upbringing as a second-generation Chinese-American for the first time in his artistic career – something he had been hesitant to do, partly because his cultural conditioning discouraged him from wanting to stand out too much.
“I was taught not to stick my head out too far, not draw too much attention to myself, because it was considered selfish,” he notes. “So being an artist or singer was definitely not on my radar for a long time. But part of why I pursue it now is because it’s where I feel the most raw. I feel the most personal growth when I challenge myself to let myself be seen.” Ultimately, that’s what The Elephant and the Seahorse is about—standing in one’s truth and showing up as oneself.
On the new record, Wong offers the line, I miss the sound of my father’s Chinese fading in the suburban breeze. He admits it was one of the hardest lines to write, because he didn’t think anyone would understand that feeling. “Growing up, there was a lot of shame surrounding the idea of losing your culture to that of America, that somehow it was your fault for not holding on tight enough, when at the same time, there was a lot of pressure to assimilate,” he says. “We were taught that our experience as second- generation immigrants was not ‘the norm,’ and therefore not ’marketable’ in popular culture. Learning how to talk about those things and showing up as myself, without apology, felt absolutely necessary to moving to the next phase of who I am, both as an artist and as a person.”
For Wong, everything is fair game when it comes to creative discovery. He has synesthesia, which leads him to think of music as colors, shapes, and even textures. He often watches cooking shows to fuel his own imagination, even going so far as to create a pop-up dining experience called Angelhouse Family Dinner, which he hosts on various occasions throughout the year.
“The analogies are useful to me,” he explains. “I like to think about the connections between things, because it’s easier than looking directly at a thing. I feel like that’s really important in everything I do -- seeing a relationship between unrelated things and trying to explore and find a way to talk about that relationship.”
Whether producing his own projects or projects for other artists, Wong approaches the process with a synesthetic spirit of looking for relationships between seemingly unrelated things. Before any tracks are laid, he and his collaborators take to the chalkboards and fill the studio space with whatever stream-of-consciousness musings come to mind. “I try to stay away from any musical terms, because that’s kind of where all the sounds come from. Instead, we’ll have all of these random words -- it could be ‘velvet,’ or ‘concrete,’ or ‘7 p.m.,’ or ‘fresh-baked bread.’ We start with all these sort of sensory things, and then wonder how they might relate sonically,” he explains. “What does fresh-baked bread sound like? What is the feeling? Why did this person write that on the board? What are they really getting at here? As a producer, I really like going in with absolutely nothing planned sonically, and then pulling everything out—what does that make me feel like? Every record sounds different, but every sound relates to this theme, so you can see the lineage. It holds the record together in a way that you may not be able to articulate, but you can feel it. It’s a freer way for me to work, and it’s just more fun that way, too.”
For Wong, creating isn’t so much about the specific mode of expression as it is the common thread that binds one to the next.Each can be a path that leads to a more authentic version of oneself. Whether that comes to light through making music, or writing, or even cooking, it always comes back to the question that is waiting to be answered: a map to that same core at the center of it all.