Finding respite in uncertainty: A conversation with Audrey Kang of Lightning Bug
Dazzling instrumental arrangements and introspective lyrics see the band at their most mature and refined. These marks of growth might give the impression that the album has reached a resolution, but that sense of closure can actually come from finding respite in embracing uncertainty. Conclusions don’t necessarily have to mean that one has to find the answers to everything. One can find comfort and empowerment accepting that some questions in life can be left unanswered while having trust in yourself to move forward.
We spoke with Audrey Kang on the phone, right as she finished a recording session back in May, to learn more about a solo trip across the United States, A Color of the Sky’s inspirations, and Kang’s creative processes.
Parts of this interview have been edited for clarity.
From The Intercom: Speaking of recordings, was the one you just finished part of some possible new music?
Audrey Kang: Yes, it is, but it’s not part of the new record [A Color of the Sky]. Just new music, kinda. You’ll see!
FTI: I saw on your Instagram that you recently made this big trip from Mexico City to New York by motorbike! How was that? It seems like a very big stretch of land to travel across.
AK: Yeah, I looked at the map the other day, like I pulled it up to see how far I’d come and it’s like, really far. I think when you take it day by day, you don’t realize the magnitude of the distance, which I think was my strategy. I just thought day by day about my next destination, where I was gonna sleep, and how far I was gonna go. I think thinking about it in its totality is extremely intimidating; thinking about everything that can go wrong in that large expansive time and space. It’s a good metaphor for life honestly.
FTI: Yeah, it’s especially true in these times. You mentioned how this one song, Townes Van Zandt’s “Rex’s Blues”, took you across the country. How did that stick with you throughout the trip? Did it serve as a type of mantra?
AK: I think you just have so much alone time and so many hours on the road that you need something playing in your head, and I just listened to that song before leaving and it really stuck with me. So I was singing it in my head, or actually singing it out loud, as I was driving and then when I made camp for the night I was learning it on the way. So it gave me something to do: get better with finger picking and just learn the song. As the trip progressed, I got more familiar with the song and I grew more and more connected to it. I did feel like it was something familiar every day. Does that make sense?
AK: You’re moving through new spaces all the time…
FTI: And having that one constant thing you know you can turn to?
AK: Yeah! I think it’s a really magical song. There’s something about it that really kept me company at least. That song made me feel like it was going to be okay. Even when I was super tired, or there was a storm coming, or like I thought something was gonna go wrong, or any number of challenges that I met along the way — that song always felt like some sort of protection.
FTI: Most of the press I’ve read about Lightning Bug so far mentioned the band being a shoegaze project. I know that it’s not the only thing. I feel like folk-pop, dreampop, psych rock and ambient could be good descriptors too?
AK: *laughs* I think you’re raising a good point because I think ideally I wouldn’t want the music to be so easily classified under one single genre. Logically it’s a way to categorize music and to find music that you like and I think we just have this tendency to want to classify everything. Personally, I don’t think that our music really falls easily into one of those categories. Maybe song by song, but then for another song you have to change it, so, I don’t know if that answers your question.
FTI: Oh yeah it answers my question. I find myself categorizing the music as I go through each song. Like, “Oh yeah, this is totally a folk song” and the next song’s like “Hmm, maybe this is psych rock?” and then there would be a stretch of a song that I think really takes from ambient influences.
AK: *laughs* Yeah. I mean I listen to a lot of different bands or genres. And honestly, for me, the bands that keep my attention have songs that won’t sound the same on every record. It’s something that’s very hard to get out of as a musician. I find that in a lot of records every song kind of sounds the same? It is a challenge to bring diverse genres together in a record while still maintaining some sort of cohesion.
FTI: Since genre isn’t too much of a defining factor into making music would you say that nature’s more of an influence?
AK: Yeah, nature is a huge influence. As a person, I don’t feel much of a separation between myself and nature. In the way I operate — it sounds so cheesy to say — I just feel very connected to nature. I’m always looking for it around me, but it’s not really hard to find, even in New York City, if you’re looking for it. You don’t have to even seek it cause it’s all around. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the influence of nature really comes natural to me. It’s not something I have to labor over or even try to do. It’s something that is so much a part of me, that anything I put out will naturally have that as part of it.
FTI: I guess it goes without question it has an influence on the latest album, A Color of the Sky. When I read The FADER’s interview I read that there was this kite festival that you went to a few years ago. Was that the main inspiration behind that album?
AK: Yeah. Honestly when I saw that article headline I was like, “I don’t know if I’d go that far”. I feel like there’s this tendency to make things a little bit more click-baity in journalism. Like “This wouldn’t have been written if not for—”. I mean, yes, it has a huge influence on me and it sort of shifted my perspective, but it wasn’t direct. The album didn’t actually directly have anything to do with the kite festival, it was more like having the experience. Honestly, it could have been anywhere. It didn’t have to be the kite festival, I don’t think.
For me, if I go somewhere new, alone, with some sort of separation of what I’m used to and all the problems that I’m stuck in in my everyday life, I think it’s very helpful to take a step out and then return to yourself with some space and get some perspective. So I think that was the big thing with the kite festival. And the kite festival was so transformative because I haven’t been to anything like that. It was insane to see a great number of kites being flown. The pure spectacle of it that was different from anything I’ve ever seen before also helped. So I guess what I’m trying to say is: Anything that makes you feel like you’re learning, you’re experiencing something new, can be very inspiring.
FTI: When I was listening through Lightning Bug’s catalog I noticed these overall themes and sentiments of sadness and anger in Floaters (2015), then this determination in October Song (2019), and now a type of clarity in A Color of the Sky. How did that breakthrough come about in the songwriting?
AK: It’s funny because it’s so interrelated. Songwriting helps me parse through my emotions, which then helps me write songs, which then helps me parse through my emotions, so it’s really hard. It’s like the chicken or the egg. It’s hard to say what came from where or where the source really lies.
But I think I get a lot of inspiration — and not necessarily just for songwriting, but in my life — from reading and from reading books. I read a lot over the last few years, honestly ever since putting out Floaters, and I used to read a lot as a child. I think as you grow older you stop reading cause you don’t have that much time or you get distracted by other things. Life takes over and as a child you have so much free time. Anyways, I started reading a lot and I think that actually helped me, more than anything, become the person I wanted to be, rather than being trapped in that sad angry place I was in.
Also, my friends really helped me; Logan and Kevin in Lightning Bug especially. As we made music together I feel like that helped me open up as well.
FTI: I find myself relating to music through more of a feeling, so naturally, for me, it’s generally harder to catch on to lyrics. When I was reading the comments of the “September Song, part ii” video, I found one person saying “The melody’s beautiful in this song, but I’m not really sure what the singer’s saying.” I wondered if melody comes first in songwriting or lyrics for you?
AK: You know, actually, they come together at once. Usually whatever I want to say will already have a melody attached to it. Occasionally the melody will come first and occasionally lyrics will come first. Usually the case is that they come together.
FTI: If I were to write music, which I don’t really at all, yeah melody would come more naturally for me to start.
AK: I think you can hear that happening a lot, actually. Sometimes with younger bands too. And I don’t mean to sound like “There are younger bands and I’m this older band”, but what I’ve noticed is that sometimes you can notice clearly when the melody has been written first and then the lyrics feel more like and afterthought; like they’re trying to fit words into this melody they created. So yeah, my point being that I think it’s more common that melody comes first.
FTI: When I first heard Lightning Bug’s music, it was actually pretty recently. When “The Right Thing Is Hard To Do” came out, that was around the same time news of the Shootings in Atlanta got national attention. I remember how distraught I felt with how events were shaping up to be. Once I heard the song, I felt this sense of peace I haven’t really felt in quite a while.
In the press releases surrounding the single, you mentioned how the song touched on this feeling of needing to prove that you were worthy of being alive and that really stuck with me. I was wondering if that sentiment was tied to your cultural identity or your upbringing?
AK: Yeah, definitely. It definitely was. As I’m sure you can relate, growing up in a mostly white America while having Asian parents and being first generation, and growing up speaking Mandarin first, I think I experienced a lot of… I just felt inherently inferior. I felt that I was worth less than a white person, and that I really carried through a lot of my life.
I don’t know if, when I wrote that for the press release, I was thinking so deeply about it or where that feeling would have come from. But when you ask, I realize that yeah, that was a huge part of, if not, the main part of it, which is really sad. But I definitely don’t feel that way anymore.
FTI: Even if there was a sadder meaning behind it, it is very comforting to be able to relate to that in some way and come to that sense of peace in that type of relation. Thank you for releasing that song when it did.
AK: It’s funny because when I released that song, that’s all I really focused on in the beginning of the day. I didn’t really even see the news until later and it was such a huge… it dampened everything. It darkened the experience of putting out a song and announcing a record. Instead, I was incredibly sad. It was an interesting day to be putting out music, especially about something that I think touched upon the feelings that were brought back to the surface by the shooting in Atlanta.
Can I say one more thing about that, actually? That I think is important.
FTI: Oh yeah, of course.
AK: We’re not inferior! It’s so obvious. Even having to say it is ridiculous. But I think it’s so important to make it so clear that it doesn’t matter if some terrible person or a lot of terrible people see you as inferior. It absolutely has nothing to do with your actual worth. It sounds so obvious when I’m saying it now, but I think it’s so easy to let other people’s perspective affect your self-worth, especially when you’re younger. I think when I heard about the shooting, for a moment I felt that moment resurface of, “Okay, somewhere out there just decided these people shouldn’t be alive and I could take their life.” Something about that made me feel that inherent feeling of inferiority, but then I snapped out of it. You shouldn’t let anyone affect your self-worth.
FTI: I remember when the news about it came out I had trouble expressing my feelings, or whether or not to express my feelings. Because it’s like, “Oh I’m just adding into the echo chamber of negativity,” but I realized that it is important to voice my opinion and be heard about how I feel about the situation. Hearing your music also reassured me that our experiences are important.
AK: I also struggled, actually, around that. Of whether to say anything on social media. But I felt that there was a responsibility to at least address it. Like a responsibility to other Asian Americans, or other Asian people out there, as an Asian American to say something.
As an artist too, I feel like there was a certain responsibility. There was so much anger and sadness around it, I didn’t want to feel that, because it’s so obvious that we are sad and angry. No one needed to hear me telling them that I was sad and angry because I just feel like that was a given; which is why I think I just wanted to say something that was uplifting, but not in a way where it’s like, “Everything’s going to be fine,” but something that was empowering in some way.
FTI: When I was reading more into The FADER’s interview, you mentioned how you were very visually descriptive when creating music with your bandmates. I was thinking how this creativity translated to a visual medium like video with music that already had that visual foundation. The videos for “The Right Thing Is Hard To Do” and “September Song, pt ii” are so aesthetically different. What was the mindset making those videos for each song?
AK: I think it’s so important to choose someone you trust. So I worked with Melanie Kleid, who did the animation for “The Right Thing Is Hard To Do”, and Sarah Bolander, who choreographed, directed and really wrote the whole video for “September Song, pt ii.” Their distinct minds actually made a huge difference too. If I had been the one to do both the videos, I’m sure there would’ve been more of a similarity. But I really trusted Melanie and I really trusted Sarah. I hope I let them take the lead successfully. Sometimes it’s hard for me to take a step back but in these two cases I felt comfortable sitting back and offering guidance and some general sense of direction and really wanting them to say something of their own too.
Sometimes I think it’s like you already have the song. You want the video to be another facet of it. You don’t necessarily want it to just be the song visually if that makes sense.
FTI: When I was listening through the whole discography I felt like by the time I reached A Color in the Sky, there was a sense of reaching this type of conclusion. Would you say that you feel the same?
AK: Oh no, definitely not! I definitely think that sense of conclusion and that sense of what you felt was more of a sense of acceptance. I think that it’s accepting that you don’t know the answers to a lot of the questions you want to be asking about your life, about the world. When you accept that, you do arrive somewhere. I think I’ve had this acceptance to embrace uncertainty that might have caused anxiety before. Hopefully that comes through in A Color of the Sky as a sense of confidence and what may come across as also a sort of sense of conclusion.
FTI: What would you be looking forward to the most when the album’s out in its entirety?
AK: Playing shows! I’m really looking forward to that and making the songs come alive and playing them in a different way, in unexpected ways. Adding to them and being actually able to perform them. I think Lightning Bug songs sound very different live. So, yeah, I’m really excited for that.
FTI: What would you say is your favorite song on the album?
AK: It really changes, honestly. But right now I would say “The Flash”, the last song. I think in that song, “The Flash” is actually referring to this flash of understanding and it washes over you in a moment but then it’s very easily lost as quickly as it comes.
Lightning Bug is Audrey Kang, Kevin Copeland, Logan Miley, Dane Hagen and Vincent Puleo.
A Color of the Sky is out now via Fat Possum Records.
This interview was conducted by Karolyn Jaranilla via phone in early May 2021. Press photos by Ingmar Chen.