Multi-talented singer-songwriter-producer Cehryl is set to appear with a full band at Clockenflap’s day-long mini-festival in the heart of the city this Saturday. The Hong Kong-born singer holds a unique place in the local music scene with her dreamy, reflective, genre-bending beats. The 25-year-old moved back home in 2019 after studying music and performing in the US. Following the recent release of her album Time Machine, HKFP catches up with Cehryl about performing in the Covid era, and whether Hong Kong is still a hospitable place for young creatives.

cehryl. Photo: Jonny Ho.

Your tours were halted due to Covid – how does it feel to be performing again? Do you find the audience are even more hungry to finally see live music?

It feels like… the smiling-face-with-a-tear emoji. I’m incredibly lucky to be playing again, especially alongside Hong Kong artists that I really admire. I prefer playing festivals to solo shows; there’s less attention. I started playing again in June and have definitely noticed a renewed sense of passion for live music. The support for local acts is particularly strong (and I love it).

Tell us about the full band you’ll have on Saturday and how this differs from your more intimate gigs?

Arranging and producing takes place in another part of my brain, but they’re so closely tied to songwriting that they’re also inseparable to me. I’d like to expand that mindset though; I want to learn from and collaborate with other people.

cehryl

This Saturday’s performance will mark the first time I play in a full band setting in Hong Kong. I had a band In Los Angeles with some of my closest and talented friends Eric Derwallis and Alex Szotak. This Saturday I’ll be playing with—also very talented and also close friends of mine—Akira Mimasu and Matt Lui from neo-soul band RIDDEM. The full band setup will definitely add some… oomf to my otherwise soft live performance. Excited to be playing more shows as a band!

cehryl. Photo: Ran Zhang.

Your Clockenflap profile describes your music as jazz, R&B, folk and pop. The genre of your tracks is certainly hard to pin down – how would you describe it, and what kind of music has most inspired your sound?

I would agree that I’m highly influenced by these four genres. On the four walls of every room I’ve stayed in, I’ve taped up pictures of Chet Baker, Amy Winehouse, Bill Evans, Frank Ocean, Stevie Wonder, Adrienne Lenker, Nina Simone, Nick Drake, Beach House, The Velvet Underground. I’ve tried to emulate, in some way, every artist I’ve loved at some point in my life. I wouldn’t know how to describe my own music since I think I have songs that sound more folky and songs that sound more R&B; I think most music nowadays is hard to describe conclusively, but since that makes for a bad answer, I’ll casually say indie pop/R&B for now.

You’re a singer, songwriter, your own producer and you studied music production in Boston. How are you pulling this all off and which of these roles sparks the most joy?

I’m a control freak, so being able to do everything (not very well, but enough to have a final audio file) sparks joy. I’ve listened to a lot of singer-songwriters growing up, so the two roles are inseparable to me. Arranging and producing takes place in another part of my brain, but they’re so closely tied to songwriting that they’re also inseparable to me.

I’d like to expand that mindset though; I want to learn from and collaborate with other people. I’m not fixated on the idea of being some sort of DIY person all the time; it just so happens that it’s in my personality to try to figure things out myself.

cehryl. Photo: Brian Mantra.
Cehryl playlist.

In terms of your creativity and audience, how is Hong Kong comparing to your time in the US? Where do you hope to end up?

Culturally, in terms of the role of music and art in society, Hong Kong is very different to the US. It’s very clear from the way artists present themselves and from their lifestyles. When I was in LA, I was constantly surrounded by artists, so it definitely motivated me to keep working on my art. I’m definitely a little less motivated here in terms of discipline and productivity, but I also feel more free creatively because the music scene isn’t as saturated/overpopulated as it is over there. I feel less pressure to present myself in a certain way on the Internet, for example. I’m not sure where I hope to end up though. I have a love/hate relationship with every place.

Artistic freedom and expression in Hong Kong is undergoing a hammering at the moment – are you concerned about your creative space, or the industry as a whole?

I’ve wondered: am I exempt if my art doesn’t contain explicit political commentary? Can individual artistic freedom exist if collective freedom of expression doesn’t exist? Lately, I’ve had trouble finding the/a line between personal and political. 

Your photography b-roll Instagram (@cehryl404) offers almost-voyeuristic, sometimes humourous or sad slices of Hong Kong street life. Is this a place you’re finding inspiration for your music?

Being in Hong Kong definitely inspires me creatively. I’m not quite sure how my songwriting connects with the photos I take… Sometimes, I see photography as an opportunity for me to take time off music. As we all know, doing something you love 24/7 can kill the fire. I don’t see a direct link, but I’m sure my interests in filmmaking and photography and music all come from the same place. 

Are there any other fields or formats that feed into your writing?

I’d like to say that I’m an avid reader, but in all honesty I’m more of a book hoarder. Reading and watching films fuel my writing and expands the way I sense/feel the world/my world.

What are you listening to at the moment?

Lots of Broadcast, lots of Nick Drake. Phillip Glass too and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

cehryl. Photo: Jack McKain.

Aside from the string of gigs this summer, what’s next for you?

Just finished making the soundtrack for this Hong Kong illustrator/painter Kazy Chan’s exhibition. Currently, I’m working on two documentaries as sound designer/mixer and writer.

Really excited and happy to be working on films! It’s the path I want to take next.

cehryl. Photo: Christy Leung.

Time Machine is available to buy and download on Bandcamp.

This Saturday’s “Long Time, No See” gig – a “Clockenflap Presents” event – celebrates the return of live music performances in the city. Held at MacPherson stadium in Mong Kok, the showcase will feature live performances from 11 local bands and artists, including hip-hop artists YellowPeril, indie-rockers Charming Way, R&B group Fds/4eva, as well as Cehryl.

  • Date: 3pm-11 pm on September 18.
  • Tickets: Purchased online, cost HK$480. Audience members will be able to dip in and out of the show, and grab drinks and food from around Mong Kok.
Photo: Supplied.

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