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2024 SXSW Festivals Interviews Music

Chance Emerson is bringing Asian Americana to the big stage


As we’ve written on the site over and over again, SXSW consistently brings the chaos. There are interviews where things can go awry, but then there are SXSW interviews, which really are in their own category of crazy. My chat with the Taiwanese American folk-pop singer-songwriter Chance Emerson started out with me being 40 minutes late thanks to the Austin festival traffic (seriously, it took about an hour to travel 2-ish miles from the Alamo to the Convention Center), causing me to sprint through the streets of Downtown Austin like a maniac. After somehow managing to catch the singer in our designated meet-up spot in the hallway — including a brief pause so I could catch my breath — we started only to be stopped again by a few important phone calls that the singer had to take. It also didn’t help that the random hallway space that we were talking in was also loud and echoey — all abrasively loud activities were captured in the recording as I listened back. But if all of that felt like chaos in the moment, you really couldn’t tell it from the interviewee himself. Chance Emerson was as calm and cool as ever amidst the storm.

chance emerson lollapalooza
Lollapalooza 2024 promotional poster.

In a way, that collected demeanor makes sense for the folk-pop narrator that we’re introduced to on Emerson’s latest release, Ginkgo. The songs on there, with all of its stomp-clapping bravado, feel like they’re written by a gruff heartbreaker busking in the streets of Nashville who’s been through it all. It’s easy to forget that Emerson is only a recent grad (with a degree in computer science no less!) who has only just recently decided to take the leap into music with his anthemic love songs that mirror those of musicians like Hozier, Noah Kahan, and Zach Bryan. And it seems like I’m not the only one who’s noticed the power and potential of his music: Emerson revealed partway through the interview that he was just booked to perform at Lollapalooza for the first time this year in August… a fact that he couldn’t wait to share.

In the interview that follows, I asked Emerson about a number of different topics — his music videos, how his family has been involved in his growing career, and of course, the uniquely bicultural perspective he brings to the genre. 

Oh, and as for what he thinks about Hozier’s music — specifically Wasteland, Baby?  Emerson simply replied, “Bangers.”

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Who are you and what kind of music do you make?

My name is Chance Emerson. I make folk pop singer-songwriter music. I’d have a really hard time putting it into a genre. Recently, my new thing has been calling it Asian Americana.

I really like that! You should do that.

Now it’s on record. Everybody knows.

Is this your first time at SX, and how are you liking it so far?

It is. I’ve never been to Austin before, never been to SX before. I love it. It’s such a strange, fun city. The food is killer. I’m so overwhelmed. The sessions and whatever has been very cool, but more than anything I’ve really loved meeting cool people and having conversations.

What’s the best thing that you’ve seen so far, and or have you eaten?

Okay, I feel like I haven’t eaten enough food. I had some great tacos, and probably my favorite thing I’ve seen so far… I went to the Taiwanese Waves showcase last night. It was really cool to see a bunch of Taiwanese people making great music. And I went to a panel this morning on communication and how to ask deep insightful questions, which I thought was really interesting.

Can you tell me a little bit about your background… what was it like growing up and where are you at right now? 

I was born in Taipei. Proudly Taiwanese — half Taiwanese — my dad’s American and my mom’s Taiwanese. I lived in Taipei for a little while and my family now lives in Hong Kong, so I was there for quite some time. I came over to the States for school and most recently, I was living in Providence, Rhode Island. I was there for college until this past December when I graduated. I would say I got deep into my music career in 2021 coming out of the pandemic back in school. I had a chance to really pause as everyone sort of did and think about what I wanted to do with my life and my core passions and goals and values and interests. I came back just really knowing that I wanted to pursue being a live music act and share my art. September 2021 was when I would say the show got started. I’d been releasing music for some time, but to me, it was then.

Chance Emerson performing.

So speaking of your music a little bit, you described it as Asian Americana earlier, and there’s obviously elements of folk pop… and I’d also say a little bit of country. What led you or drew you to this type of music? I’m covering a lot of Asian American artists and I don’t see a lot of people venturing into that sort of space. It’s kind of curious what that background comes from. Was it from growing up? Or was it just from seeing an artist that you really liked?

Yeah, for me, more than anything, I was writing songs that felt right to me. I think growing up… when I was like 12, 13, 14, there was a big folk resurgence. It was the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons and Ben Howard. [There was] a big thing happening in the UK, and with a couple of artists in the US, too. I was just so struck by that. I was in Hong Kong at the time, and I was listening to that and I was like, “This is amazing.” I started playing guitar when I was 10, but I thought I was like a rock and roll kid. Like, I loved Deep Purple, and “Smoke on the Water.”

I feel like everyone learns that as their first song on guitar. That was the song I chose to learn — that’s not the song my guitar teacher told me to learn. I chose to learn that one first because I love Deep Purple! I thought I was going into rock. And then I heard this genre… it was completely out of the blue. I remember so vividly discovering Noah And The Whale and Ben Howard. I was like, “This is amazing.” And I don’t know, I moved into New England, which feels like it at least environmentally fits that genre, and I just started writing more and more and more. But at the end of the day, I don’t think I chose to write in that genre as much as just like… that is what comes out when I try and write great songs. I love the genre; I love the space. It’s definitely very different from pop.

chance emerson lantern press photo
Chance Emerson.

I love the sonic textures within it. I think that there’s so much cool innovation happening within folk all the time. And I think something that does excite me about it is sort of what you brought up, which is there are not many Asian people in it. When I first discovered it, representation was very important for me growing up in a way that I didn’t really realize. I never knew if I could do folk, because no one was doing folk, right? And it’s only more recently that I feel like I came to terms with that. I think I would love to be an early Asian artist in folk, and I put a lot into my live career trying to tour and play in as many places as I can. 

You know, [when I’m] playing in small towns in the middle of nowhere and someone stays after the show and is like, “Hey, you know, I’m a Vietnamese first-gen immigrant and this is my favorite genre. And I never realized that no one looked like me in the genre until I heard your music and was like, ‘Wait, this is like, really hitting. Why?’” Knowing that I could play a small part of their journey or experience with music… like, I will cry. I get really emotional about that.

I think that’s amazing. It is very hard to find that sort of representation in that space. I think it was only recently that we’re seeing stuff that’s kind of getting into that… like Mitski’s recent album was leaning into Americana. Rina Sawayama uses the visuals, but she’s co-opting the idea of what a cowboy is, for example.

I feel like I remember very vividly the first time I heard an Asian act, making music where I was like, “This is music that speaks to me.” It was Far East Movement! Major shout out to the Far East Movement. I love them. And then in country music right now, one of the only other Asian acts that I’m familiar with is this guy, Gabe Lee. Total legend if you haven’t heard him! We’ve never met, but I just really love his songs. Like, they’re so beautiful and they’re so heartfelt. He was on Obama’s presidential playlist. It’s crazy. And I was like, that’s a Taiwanese guy making country music!

I know you recently released an album last year called Ginkgo. Could you tell me a little bit more about what the process of putting that album together was like? 

chance emerson gingko
Chance Emerson – Ginkgo

I put out [an album] in 2020, but 2021 was the year where I was like, “This is my life. This is not just a passion. This is everything.” So I think of [Ginkgo], even though it was my second… I do think of it as my first. I built the whole thing after I had decided that this would be everything to me. I feel like it allowed me to explore all the themes and interests sonically and also thematically that I had been thinking about for the last few years. 

I love albums. I am such a big proponent of the album as a piece of art in itself — not just the individual songs, but the composition of the tracklist and the flow and the way the energy moves through it. I was trying to write a record that would chart the course of young love, like a whole relationship from start to finish.

That was the goal with it and I wanted it to be written more or less in real time. I wanted to be writing these things when I was feeling these things; I wanted the wounds to be fresh, or the healing to be fresh. It’s been 10 months since I put it out and I’m very proud. I think I got close to what I was going for. As artists, you never get to 100%. You just have to be like, “I’m putting it out, fuck it!” But looking back, I’m really, really proud of the work that I did there and I hope I got to that theme. The whole idea would be that if you were to play the record on repeat, like from start to finish, it would kind of continuously track these cycles of love through young adulthood and teenage years.

It was a really special piece, also. It was me and my best friend. His name is Jack Riley and he’s an amazing producer. We met in college and we live together. I’m moving to LA with him, and he’s so talented. I could not have done it without him. I think part of why it’s special is oftentimes in music, especially long-form projects like an album, they become so fragmented with lots of collaborators. It can be such a gift, but on the other hand, I struggle with so many cooks in the kitchen. I think it’s hard for me to realize a single unified vision when it’s so many people, so it was really special for me to get to work with just one person on the majority of the work of the album… and also for that person to be one of my most trusted and best friends.

Chance Emerson press photo.

Now that you’ve been touring for the album a little bit and you’re playing some shows here, I was wondering if this means that there’s possibly going to be new music on the horizon.

I’m in the kitchen! I’ve been cooking. I actually graduated in December, and one of the first things I did was get off the internet. I sat in my childhood bedroom which I hadn’t lived in so long, and I just wrote for like two months. I wrote every single day because it was so emotional for me. I feel like I’m right on the cusp between being a person and not. I think graduation and that kind of thing can mean a lot of things to different people, but for me, this is a transition between childhood and adulthood. You’re going from a safe area to a very dangerous Wild West. What is that going to look like, and how are you going to manage? I was sitting in a room with my friends who weren’t graduating, and they were like, “How do you feel?” I was like, “I feel like I’m about to die.” It wasn’t necessarily in a bad way. I guess the flip is I felt like I was about to be reborn. I just felt like I had so much to say about that transition. Now I’m trying to write about big transitory events. I don’t want it to be like, “This is all about graduation,” because it’s not. The theme that I’m trying to tackle with this next one is uncertainty and the What the fuck? That’s the crux of the album… when you’re staring at the edge of something and you’re looking over and you’re like, I have no idea what to do. What do you do? My favorite song currently that we have finished, it’s called “Beginner.” They’re very much kind of in theme in terms of what I was just talking about.

Should we expect it to come out this year?

Yeah, I think so. I think it’s gonna come out this year. I hope so. 

So another thing that I kind of noticed with the music videos that you put out is that you have friends and family members involved in your work. Can you tell me a little bit about letting them into the world that you’re creating?

So my first band ever was called the Barefoot Boys, and it was me and my two first cousins. Moreso than family, I love working with friends. I feel like what I write about feels so, so deeply personal to me, [so] I have a really hard time letting people in who I don’t already know. For example, with Jack or with my cousin Alex [Emerson], who produced and directed a bunch of videos, or Jack who produced the whole album and a lot of the songs that are coming soon… I’m writing about things that I was already on the phone with them being like, “I’m in so much pain! Or I’m so happy!” They were there for the event, and it made it so much easier to open up about it. I just think it creates a shared vision so much faster… and also I love my friends and family more than anything! I love my brother, I love my sister… my brother shot a music video for me once in Hong Kong when he was literally only nine years old. It’s not the most well-filmed, I will say. I had a little bit of executive input. I was like, “Hey, man. Maybe no selfies in the video.”

A few years ago, you released quite a few music videos that were shot in Taiwan. What was it like working there? 

I was studying at a university in Taiwan then, and I was playing a few shows in Taiwan. But I was like, “How cool would it be to film a video in my home country?” And so I went to the film club at the school and I was like, “You guys want to make something together?” 

I was really good friends with this woman who was running a vegan restaurant. I don’t know, she just kind of took me under her wing when I was not able to speak Mandarin so well. She was like, “Yeah, you can make friends here. It’ll be okay.” One of her best friends ran a convenience store in southern Taiwan, and she was like, “You should totally film it there!”

As for that amazing, super talented dancer… dancing is an extracurricular [activity in Taiwan]. If you go out on a weeknight on a college campus, you will just see the best dancers you’ve ever seen in your life. And I just started asking. I was like, “Would you want to be in this music video I’m doing about a checkout person at a grocery store… and about dreams and aspirations?” She was like, “Okay!” It was very serendipitous and fortuitous that I got to meet them.

I also wanted to talk about some of your influences when it comes to your music. With your upcoming project, what are you listening to? What do you take inspiration from?

I’m really inspired by the split in my life, which is another transition, I guess. It’s just the fact that I moved back to Hong Kong after graduation, and I’m trying to have all the visuals around this new project reflect this bicultural identity that I love. It’s also really weird sometimes… it’s weird to have grown up somewhere that’s culturally quite different from where I am now and then all of a sudden go right back to it.

I’m inspired by that kind of contrast. I’m trying to make that more evident in my writing and my music. 

I’ve been listening to a lot of Hozier, Noah Kahan, Noah and the Whale… I’ve been going back to my roots, honestly. The first bands that I fell in love with in Hong Kong, like Mumford & Sons, Marcus Mumford’s solo record, Noah and the Whale, Ben Howard. I think my last record was… I say Asian Americana, but I think my last record was more poppy than not. And in this one, I feel like I’m trying to get folky, raw, and authentic. That’s the goal. We’ll see if I actually deliver! All talk no bite right now.

I think in one recent interview that I read, you talked about your mom being in the audience for one of your shows. What was that experience like? How did she react?

That was so awesome. My mom’s Taiwanese; my dad’s American. My dad was often over here, and so he was able to come to a lot more shows while I was starting my music career. But then I started playing with a band in college and I think that that was the first step towards that moment in 2021 where I was like, “This is it. This is everything.” My mom had only really seen me as a solo acoustic performer in front of like, maybe 20 people. And then the next time she saw me was after COVID — we were on tour with this amazing band called Blues Traveler. They’re so legendary and I’m so grateful to them because they were the first band that ever invited us out on a tour like that and took a chance on five STEM majors in college. 

Chance Emerson performing live.

It was New Haven, Connecticut, a city we had never played in and we were opening for a band that my dad loved. My mom just happened to be in town and got to come. She went from seeing me playing solo acoustic… my like, cute little folk songs for like 20 people in high school, to seeing me in front of 1400 people in a big amphitheater with a full band. And I’ve been telling her about it! It’s obviously a big part of my life that I feel like I never got to share with her, so it was really, really special. I could tell she liked it because she livestreamed the whole thing on Facebook. That’s how you know with a Taiwanese mom! It’s actually the only good footage I have of that show… is her livestream.

Do you think you’re going to bring her to Lolla?

This is what happened with the last festival I played — I was like, “Do you want to come?” She was like, “I’m not gonna understand anything anyways. You should bring your Dad.” I’ve had a tendency to bring my Dad as crew.

Chance Emerson performing live.

What are you listening to, reading, and playing right now?

I don’t play video games! My brother plays them — I’ve never been good at them, and all I can do is stand next to him when he invites me. So I guess Mario Kart is my answer, cause that’s old and gold.

I feel like this is not a cool, niche indie answer, but I read a book called Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow… so good! I cried. I’m definitely like a hopeless romantic.

And listening to… I’ve been listening to the Angie McMahon album, totally killer. I’ve been listening to a lot of Dijon and Stephen Wilson Jr — his thing is like “Death Cab for Country” — so cool! And I’ve been listening to Ryan Beatty. Fantastic songwriter. One of the best songwriters… maybe of all time. His song, [“Bruises Off the Peach,”] is one of my favorite written songs I’ve heard in the last few years.

I watched The Brothers Sun. Fire! I met Sam [Song] Li here and I told him how much it meant to me.

Did you share your music with him?

Nah. I’ll DM it to him, I don’t know!

Artist pages: Instagram | Spotify | TikTok | Website

This interview was conducted by Li-Wei Chu in-person in Austin, TX at SXSW 2024.

All photos used provided courtesy of the artist.

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