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Jen Kwok seeks to heal the world on ‘Songs for One EP’

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It’s hard for musicians to form an honest connection between themselves and their listeners during a performance. What are they to do? With so many fans and so little time, musicians have to play sets that appeal to as many people as possible before being trucked off to the next venue. Even within the smallest of venues, intimacy is hard to come by. Does it even exist anymore? 

Jen Kwok. Photo by Heather Craig.

For the last two years, actress-slash-musician Jen Kwok sought to bring back agency between performers and listeners with her unusually structured musical series Songs for One. Created to be a reactionary project against distressing politically charged events at the time–the presidential election and hate-fueled shootings that were springing up left and right–Songs for One allowed Kwok to offer an “antidote to the disconnection and divisiveness” of the outside world in her own small way. Through personal invitations and word-of-mouth, Kwok would invite one person into her studio to play a personalized set of three songs just for them. Her listeners’ feelings and opinions were taken into account, allowing Kwok to adjust her set according to every individual person. No two “concerts” ended up being the same. If only for a moment, these performances tailored each experience to fit the person listening while strengthening their unspoken bond.  It’s quite an interesting concept.

Still from “That One Thing.” Animated by Celeste Lai.

Last month, Kwok expanded upon her original idea by releasing Songs for One EP, a visual project that spotlighted three songs from those sessions, slating them for widespread release. Those songs–“Deep Down,” “Desert to the Sea,” and “That One Thing”–encompassed those overarching feelings of bruised hope that Kwok had during the time. Even though the timeframe for those exclusive performances have come and gone, the songs on Songs for One EP give those who missed it a general idea of how those private concerts went. Each one of the songs represented here is infused with a healing aura, creating soothing melodies that make you forget the troubles of the outside world one song at a time. Released alongside three videos by female animators and collaborators, the songs here all take on lives of their own.

Compared to the songs that she’s released in the past, with goofy, tongue-in-cheek names like “Thong Song” and acoustic covers of Ghost Town DJs’s “My Boo” on the raunchily named *69 EP, the songs represented on Songs for One EP are marked with a grave seriousness that deflect against the injustices of the world. There’s also an unspoken pain written into the narrative on the songs here that are brought out by collaborator Jody Shelton’s omnipresent heavy orchestration. But don’t be fooled–Songs for One EP stems from a place of self-love. “Deep Down,” the EP opener, sets that tone right from the beginning. A song about accepting yourself as who you are, its message is heartwarming while the song sonically emits a sense of serious doom and gloom. But as she’s joined by a chorus of singers mid-song, Kwok wants you to know that you aren’t alone–offering her listener hand to hold. Troubling times call for more meditative music.

Lyrically, as a whole, all of the songs on the EP follow a theme of reassurance amidst tumultuous times. It’s a form of self-therapy which would be a jarring listening experience if it wasn’t for the backdrop they are built on. In certain moments, however, it can get to be too much. “That One Thing,” which finds Kwok telling her listeners, “You should do that one thing / The one you’re always talking about,” might be the biggest offender of such tactics. Yes, while it is a song that feels cleansing and inspirational, the directness and didactic message of it starts to sound like a pep talk disguised as a song. For a project that seeks to help you lose yourself amongst the songs, “That One Thing” yanks you out of the lullaby-like atmosphere and inadvertently places you back into that outside world by reminding you of the issues that you’re unwilling to face. There’s an inspirational mentality behind the song, but it can spill over into preachiness.

But on the second song on the EP, “Desert to the Sea,” Kwok finds the best balance between the reassuring self-love and musical entertainment. The lyrics here are pointed, yet universal: relaying hope without being too cloying. Soon building to an emotional crescendo that shows off a wider range of Kwok’s vocal talents (for most of the project she’s singing only slightly above a murmur), “Desert to the Sea” embraces its listener with images of love and uplifting dreams. “You can go from the desert to the sea / But don’t believe me / Don’t believe me,” she sings. There’s an inevitable assurance that allows “Desert to the Sea” to ache with staunch self-confidence, truly quelling any negative thoughts a listener might have with shining positivity. It’s a song that glimmers, making you truly start to believe in the power of her words as well. 

Though Songs for One EP can’t perfectly replicate the intimate experience of those originally exclusive performances, the snippets here showcase the power of Kwok’s inspirational project. Though there are still troubled times ahead of us that can’t completely be waved off with a lullaby, the internal healing aura of these songs can come pretty darn close.

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Li-Wei Chu

Li-Wei Chu is a recent graduate from UC Davis who majored in Cinema and Digital Media who also briefly studied film at Queen Mary, University of London. Li-Wei is obsessed with horror films (especially the ones that give him nightmares), films from East Asia, and really, any film that makes you stop and think. He loves talking about film and indie music with others. He’s also a record collector and cross-stitches when he has free time. In the future, he hopes to be able to write about film and wants to find a job in the film industry that can support his record buying habits. Maybe one day he’ll also be able to play the guitar.

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