Interview: keshi is set on world domination
When we first interviewed keshi (Casey Luong) back in 2018, he was still at the cusp of breaking through. Lo-fi, and more specifically, lo-fi hip hop as a genre, was slowly creeping its way through YouTube algorithms and making its way to the mainstream. keshi, who at the time was sitting on a few million streams, was still just getting started — at the time of our interview, he was just gearing up to play his first live show to support THE REAPER EP, which he self-released.
Then, somewhere along the way, everything changed. A number of his songs, including “2 soon,” and “like i need u,” blew up on streaming platforms. Island Records, a label under the wide branching Universal Music Group, signed him and released a string of new EPs — skeletons, always, and bandaids, all of which fed a hungry fanbase who was starting to fall head over heels with the artist. keshi slowly became a household name, one especially revered in many of my Asian American circles. People took notice. Now, keshi’s getting ready to release his debut album, from which his racy single “SOMEBODY” is on… and his popularity is only set to grow from there.
But even after speaking with him over the phone after his 2021 Head in the Clouds performance, talking to keshi still felt like talking to a friend. It didn’t feel like I was talking to a man who had crossed the billion-streams threshold — or even one who had been living his musical superstar dreams. When I asked him a few questions that my close friend Clarissa had asked him back in 2018, oftentimes he gave similar answers. In many ways, it seemed that even though he’s been living the dream, he’s still that chill, laidback guy we talked to all those years ago — just one with a bigger stage to work on now.
Here’s what keshi had to say about his previous day’s festival experience, the gargantuan musical event that will be his new album, and, of course, his go-to burger chain of choice.
What was it like performing at Head in the Clouds, and what was your festival experience like?
Head in the Clouds was surreal. There’s not really another way that I can describe it. Just seeing a sea of like 25,000 people hold their phone lights up and create an ocean of light was incredible. It’s something I’ve always dreamed of, especially after having seen so many concerts like John Mayer live performances on YouTube. And I remember that later after I performed I went back to my trailer and I was looking at some Instagram stories and someone had captured some of the stream that was by Amazon on Twitch. I hadn’t noticed in my performance trance that there was a cameraman with me the whole time capturing my movements and everything.
And he covers my back as I’m playing drums and he captures the sea of light from my perspective, and it looks straight out of something that I had seen out of a John Mayer live performance. I felt like I got to live out my John Mayer fantasies a little bit. It was great.
You also made a few special appearances at Head in the Clouds — particularly with NIKI and eaJ. What was it like performing with them on stage, and did you know that your mic wasn’t on during the NIKI set?
Yeah! So I do want to talk about that. I will address the mic thing first — I was side-stage and they handed me the microphone. I had my in-ears in and my pack in, and I could hear NIKI just fine. And when I came out and I sang, my vocals were coming into my ears just fine. I remember we were walking out and I kept on singing, and about 10 seconds later I looked down — and fans would hold up their phones and they’ll write something out in huge text so you could see. It’s very courteous of them, they make the background yellow and the text red, so it’s like, Emergency, you need to see this! And it said, “Your mic’s not on!”
And I was like, Surely that’s not right because I can actually hear my vocals in my ears. They’re coming through just fine — I can hear it, and the mix is fine! But then it wasn’t until afterwards that I got off — I saw on NIKI’s face that she seemed a little disappointed. I was like Oh, that’s weird, maybe my vocals were turned down really low. But I came to find out afterwards that yeah, they really left the mic off the whole time!
I do understand that in the festival situation that things are very, very hectic. That’s just one of the downsides to having such a packed event like a festival. So you know, you roll with the punches. I did my best, it was out of my control, but hopefully we’ll be able to give the fans another experience that they’ll remember in the times to come.
As for performing with Jae, that was really great — my mic worked there I think so we’re good! It was really great — I thought it was really cute and endearing because we hadn’t gotten a chance to rehearse before, me and Jae. I was just hopping on. And we both agreed, like Yeah, we’re both professionals! We know when I’m going to come on, we don’t have to stress about it. I knew exactly when my part was on so I make this sort of slow entrance out. And I think Jae might’ve been planning to actually introduce me. So by the time he turns around to look at where I would be coming from, I’m already out on the catwalk. And he turned around and looked confused and I thought it was funniest thing.
I was watching a playback and I turned around to look at him and I kind of stare at him, like dumbfounded, that he hasn’t figured out that I’m already out there. Jae’s a great friend — he’s a silly dude and he loves having fun! I remember I went stage left and I see Jae rushing me to come and throw me into his arms and stuff. Very fun, very memorable.
…And he kicked me off right afterwards! I mean, there’s not that much time left in the song — there’s like 30 seconds left, I can vibe out for a little bit! He’s like, “Alright, get off my stage.” I was like Okay, bet!
It feels like you’re just having fun with friends at the end of the day. I love NIKI too; she’s just the sweetest person in the whole wide world. I’m getting dinner with her tonight with my fiancee actually, so that’ll be fun.
We’ll be looking forward to that performance when your mic is on! It’s still to come.
Right — that was just a teaser! Now you guys want more.
I wanted to shift gears a little bit and talk about your new single that just came out, “SOMEBODY.” I’ve noticed that it’s a little racier and explicit compared to your other songs. What was it like putting that song together?
When I first made keshi, I always envisioned leaning into this territory anyways. And I had written songs like that before — I just hadn’t really been in the mood to release those tracks quite yet. I really wanted to change my approach to how I made music. I feel like I was always so focused on the deeper meaning of lyrics and making things sound moody and everything like that, that after a while, I began to lose touch as to why music has the charm in the first place. It’s because people enjoy listening to it! It has to be fun to listen to.
And I don’t want to be an artist that’s constantly pigeonholed into making sad music, because that’s not who I am at the end of the day. I feel like I’ve always wanted to diversify my sound when it came to production, or the way that the writing is. So I think this record that’s out is the epitome of what I can do as an artist, from all different fronts. I’m so, so excited for everyone to hear it.
It’s kind of being teased right now, but what can you tell us about your upcoming album? Anything that fans should be looking forward to? Unexpected collaborations?
All I can say is that the content that we have planned for it is very, very exciting to me, and I feel like I’m reminded of what I intended keshi to sound like when I first created him. And it felt liberating to be making it again — it didn’t feel like a chore. It didn’t feel like, Ah, here we go again. Let’s do the same exact thing over again. I feel like fans will definitely be taken by surprise and they’ll be impressed! We’ll have a record that, hopefully, they can live with for a long time. I think that’s the goal.
I just wanted to take a moment to talk about your song, “War With Heaven,” on the Shang-Chi soundtrack. How did that collaboration come about?
So I actually didn’t write the track — I actually didn’t have anything to do with the production of it, which is rare for me. I usually have to be in the DNA of the song somewhere, but I think that’s just a testament to how instantaneously catchy it was when I first heard it. They had given me the track for me to cut the vocals on it, because they had only demo vocals on it before. And I remember I wanted to retain the magic it had when I first listened to it. So I made a very strong point to not change what wasn’t broken. All of the vocal tendencies that the demo vocalist put in, I wanted to take that care and do the exact same thing — even if they weren’t the tendencies that I would do. It actually did take a while for me to cut the vocals. I mean, it only took a day, but it took me longer than what it usually would have. But I’m very, very proud to have been involved.
Speaking of Shang-Chi, have you watched it, and is it as good as John Wick?
So truth be told, I actually have yet to see the movie because I’ve been so busy with album work and so busy with the tour. I haven’t had the chance, and I really want to catch it when I get home. I hope it’s still in theaters — I think it still is! Would definitely love to see it.
As for whether it’s better than John Wick — it’s probably not, because John Wick is the best… it’s a cinematic masterpiece, the best movie of all time! I don’t think anybody disagrees with that.
Way back when, when we interviewed you in 2018, you were just getting ready to release THE REAPER EP. At that time, you had quite a few streams — a few million. I recently read in your press release that that number has now recently crossed the billion streams threshold. Did you ever imagine that your career would ever be taking off in this way?
Honestly, no. It’s still something that I’m having trouble believing. And I think that the Head in the Clouds Festival really solidified everything for me. I feel like I’d been waiting a really long time to get to a point where I felt like I had gotten to the level that I’ve always dreamed of. And it’s been such a long road that I feel like I’m finally there. It’s incredible. I can’t even believe it.
Nowadays, when I speak to a lot of young music lovers who their favorite Asian American artist is, they usually point to you!
I’m really really glad, I think it’s really really important — it’s like an unusually important thing. I kind of beam with pride. I bear some responsibility that comes with it for sure. But it is a surreal thing. I think part of it might stem from the fact that the art is always what I’ve stressed, rather than identity.
And I think that I’m not the only person out there who feels that way when it comes to listening to their favorite artists. It validates and reconfirms my belief that at the end of the day, people care a lot about the art, and it’s less so than my background and ethnicity — and it’s more about consuming something that you really enjoy. And of course, the fact that we come from similar cultures, I’m sure that resonates as well, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that they enjoy the music, which is what I’m there for.
In our previous interview, we asked you about In-N-Out, Shake Shack, and Whataburger. I’m wondering if your opinion about any of them has changed at all!
No! I feel like you can’t even compare Shake Shack with anyone else. In-N-Out is definitely better than Whataburger. Whataburger — don’t even get burgers there! If you get something from Whataburger, you get the chicken strip sandwich or the patty melt. Nobody gets the burger there! I don’t know a single person who does that.
In-N-Out is great, you gotta get animal-style. The french fries are good — everyone complains about the french fries. I think they’re genuinely good. And Shake Shack is just a different tier.
But you know, I’ve actually very recently taken a strong bias towards Five Guys.
A new challenger approaches…
Yeah, a new contender in the mix!
What’s your go-to choice at Five Guys?
It is the cheeseburger, which is a double patty. So when I go to McDonalds, I would always get a Quarter Pounder. So I basically get the Quarter Pounder at Five Guys. I’ll get raw onions, I’ll get grilled onions, I’ll get mustard and ketchup, and that’s pretty much it.
I guess if I’m feeling spicy I’ll get lettuce, but that’s my go-to burger, honestly. Just onions is fun. And mustard! I have to have mustard. That’s my go-to, it’s my secret.
I’m waiting for the keshi x Five Guys collaboration.
Collaboration? Yeah, let’s go!
Last question for you — what’s next for keshi?
I would say, honestly, I’m trying to do world domination. We’re aiming to do a world tour next year with the record, and I feel like we have a pretty good shot of taking keshi to the next level. I’ll leave it at that.
This interview was conducted by Li-Wei Chu, over the phone on November 8th, 2021 after the 88rising’s Head in the Clouds Festival in Los Angeles.
To read Clarissa Aben’s interview with keshi back in 2018, click here.
Li-Wei Chu is the chief editor of From the Intercom. When he’s not editing drafts and searching for new artists to cover for the website, he loves watching cult films, cooking, and listening to his ever-growing collection of vinyl records. You can follow him on LetterBoxd and make fun of his taste in movies here!