Kala Chng brings cultures together in her electro pop tunes. It’s East meets West. Or more accurately East meets Knowle West, Bristol. And it’s the subtle blend that makes it such a powerful brew. With her music managing to be pumping, reflective, inspiring and way danceable. With 10- plus years as a solo artist, and a simple but effective name change behind her, we caught up with her to dig into her unique sound
ArtsCulture: When people ask, we describe your music as electro-dance-pop-Eastern-fusion. Is that accurate, what do you draw on for your unique sound and what role models do/did you have?
Kala Chng: Well, I now call it Electro Urban Pop with a Chinese twist, but that’s after years of people calling it stuff and me finding some way to summarise the most common ways people say they see it! I’m advised to use less words and drop one of them, but it seems like it then doesn’t quite summarise my music?
I’m inspired by a variety of what I listen to from Grime and dubstep, to Pop and RnB, I also love new RnB / electronic such as banks, FKA Twigs and I’m inspired by Banks live set up and by the way FKA gets involved in everything from music production to the videos. I wanna a be all round involved in the art of everything that wraps around my music that way.
As well as all that I’m bringing in a hint of Chinese strings and sometimes drums and scales, an influence that’s come about from my love of Kung Fu films (and their soundtracks!) and my love of the big drums in the Chinese Lion dance at Chinese festivals. My love of art, east Asian art and culture influences some of my stage set ups and videos/artwork.
Hmm role models… my absolute icon is M.I.A cus she fused her culture with her sound and she stands for something and she self produces (like me). But I wanna transition through time like Madonna, be a genius like Prince who crosses and transcends all the genres, and be a pioneer (and have fun) like Dizzy Rascal. I’ve also always loved Aaliyah’s voice, and the energy of the Spice Girls, too. I love a lot of current music too but it’s harder to be watching them that way yet as I haven’t seen them over time or on reflection.
As I find myself saying sometimes to people – I don’t want to be that good so I can be famous, I want to be famous cus then it must mean I’m that good! (Have my music mean something to that many people.)
ArtsCulture: Tell us about your songs – what inspires you, what stories are you telling? And how has your songwriting changed over time, since you wrote your first song at 7?
Kala Chng: So I’m inspired to write at all different times. Sometimes it’s something I’m feeling, sometimes it’s something I see in the world, or a moment I experience, or a story someone tells me. I’m also inspired by sights and sounds and how they make me feel and other music also can get me in the mood to write myself.
Wow you did your homework, how did you find out I wrote my first song at seven!!! That one was about my doll and how much I loved her!
I think my emotions have always guided my writing. Even if I’m featuring on someone else’s beat rather than writing my own, I hear it and if I’m feeling it, it gets lyrics and melody just flowing out!
At first I used to write just lyrics and melody. Then when I learned keys in secondary school in music class (very basically like you do when you just tinker in class!) then I started to write chords, but it was very backwards, like singing a note trying to find the note on the keyboard then trying every possible key from reading the chords book, very painful and slow!
I’ve had stops and starts in my musical journey over the years, tried to start different groups and bands, til eventual me and others around me figured why not just go solo! I used to mess around with holding up home karaoke machine mics (like kids cheap karaoke machine mics!) from boomboxes up to my cheap keyboard speakers and layer using two tape players, very dodgy sound! Then eventually I got a 16 track digital recorder and beat-maker, and eventually went into a studio to transfer that to serious production, before learning how to produce myself.
I think it’s a mix of knowing myself and recognising a moment when I’m ready to write my best work and knowing how to use the tools I have better that’s finally got me to the music I make now. I’m excited at where that will lead in the future, though I do worry I’m trying to do everything and be a jack of all trades and master of non ahah!
ArtsCulture: You’re a champion of women in music, celebrating culture and electronica. How do you do that and what is a Happiness Champion and a Culture Ambassador?
Kala Chng: Once when someone told me I was that I emailed them, like so what should I do now? As if they had called me that like a new job title, once given the job what are my tasks I should go out and do? They then pointed out that people called me that because I already do those things naturally, so I should just continue to be me haha.
I mean help put on music nights and events sometimes and go for women in music themes, or ensure an even line up of women. I produce electronic music and now ensure the live set up reflects that (have drummer triggering electronic drums and samples and synths and midi and laptop on stage).
So I was nominated as chosen as Happiness Champion for spreading joy across the city – it’s Bristol opposition to the Times’ Rich List to celebrate other things than wealth. It was award to me from various media on the panel and led by Happy City.
Since that first year they’ve gone on to do it every year and I’ve nominated people for it each year. And I forever now try to constantly live up to that and remember I have the power to bring joy to others and endeavour to do that as much as possible, from even the little things like saying hello or offering help to big things like having big dreams and visions for my community that i strive to make reality.
I was told I’m a culture ambassador cus I bring my Chinese culture into my music and run related events and so on, but also I think now I’m looking to bring more access to culture in my local area Knowle West in Bristol (where Tricky is from) that probably applies there too! That’s my two halves – half Chinese half Knowle Wester! Both cultures are very important to me, both I want to bring Chinese culture to more people, celebrate my local culture and bring and grow from within more wider cultural events and activities for the area.
ArtsCulture: It’s not been all plain sailing – and you’ve quoted Dory from Finding Nemo. How important is resilience and how did you manage to ‘just keep swimming’?
Kala Chng: Well It’s actually really hard sometimes! I juggle a lot: music career, community work, my family, friends, my dance and kung fu, and my problem is I love so many rich things in life and I’d have even more if I could find more hours!
Some bad stuff happened to me in my past and I think that’s helped me be resilient cus I think if I can deal with that then I can do anything I just have to stay strong. It did get hard after many years of ‘being on the grind’ so I have recently hired a mentor and it’s made a huge difference already!
I also read and listen to a lot of books/audio books based on personal development, and also have a keen interest in Psychology, so I think I get a lot of tools and support from reading and listening to all of that knowledge and experience and learning. One of my favourites is a book called ‘How to Be a Bad Ass‘ and it’s read by the author so each chapter is like having my own life coach, except I can’t ask any questions when I get really stuck about specifics and personal or music specific things so my music mentor’s really helped with that.
ArtsCulture: You’ve got strong graphics, a great look and you’ve had dancers performing fan dances with you – how important is the visual sense to what you do?
Kala Chng: To me it’s so important, I often see the related artwork of video as I’m creating the song, it’s like one big art piece in my head I can hear and see it. Sometimes I don’t always have the budget for the epic saga in my head, but I usually find some sort of way to do something.
For the live stage I want my performance to be as entertaining and immersive as possible so I try to add whatever I can if budget or time or friendly helpers allow! To me often the visuals are so part of the final piece in my head that it doesn’t feel fully complete til I get those last parts done. It’s important for me to work with people who really know me and we can work well together and create this piece together that’s like my original idea but with so much more from their skills and collaborative influence.
For me I really care about how things look, I can’t always have it exactly how I want or at all due to budget, but I’ll hold onto visual ideas for ages in the hope I can reinvent them and repurpose them some other time. One of my favourite subjects in school was art, but we were only allowed one creative subject for GCSE (what a tragedy!!!!) so of course I chose music! I think I love art but although I was good I’ll never be amazing, so I work with people I consider to be instead!
ArtsCulture: What’s the role of the artist in society?
Kala Chng: Oh my gosh what a huge question! Although it is and also my answers have been long I feel this can be answered more briefly!
To capture the time, to reveal the truth, to change hearts, to bring people together, to express how others are feeling who cannot express it and thus enable them to fully recognise how they feel and move forward, to support the expressiveness of other arts (e.g. film), to enable us to express ourselves, to have something to dance to, to sing to so again like bring people together yeah – some or all of those.
ArtsCulture: What are you working on now and where can we find out more?
Kala Chng: I’m currently in the middle of writing a new album, and working on a music video for the (maybe first) single which is finished. To keep up to date with me the best thing is to subscribe to my newsletter via my website, but that’s sounds a bit commital right! If so you’ve got these choices:
Listen to my recent album and EP on Spotify (or other online stores) and follow me to get the new releases when they are out
If you wanna help me look good (haha) you can like me on Facebook – and if you wanna ensure those funny algorithms let you actually then see my posts maybe try liking / commenting a few posts on the wall: https://www.facebook.com/KalaChng/ I post nearly everything on there.
Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/kalachng (maybe you can follow me on twitter for happiness / follow your dream related tweets https://twitter.com/kalachng/ or my Instagram mainly has Chinesey arty stuff plus some music life stories https://instagram.com/kalachng)
Website and blog if you wanna have a nose around more about me: https://kalachng.com/ Plus that also links to my other socials.
ArtsCulture: Thanks for your time and good luck with new album!
top image: Kala Chgn courtesy of Chris Dean Photography.