“That’s been part of my problem with figures of authority is that I hate that,” 26-year-old Jett Kwong laughs, explaining why she dislikes strict interpretations of art — preferring, instead, to keep her work open to the many interpretations it may receive. “I like that other people will feel other things,” she continues, “you make up your own versions of it according to who you are and what you’ve experienced.” The Denver born and raised experimental pop artist lives life by her own rules — cultivated by a desire to connect through storytelling.
Kwong has already released two singles — “Away” and “Cream” — this year, with another single set for late summer and an EP to follow. 303 Magazine caught up with the artist at the Denver Botanic Gardens to discuss the influence of family history, finding stability in an inherently unstable industry and the elusive question of magic.
Kwong creates music that touches on themes that are both deeply personal and intrinsically universal. Kwong’s mother is from Hong Kong and her father is from South Dakota. Growing up, she knew she stuck out from her peers. Outside of her family, Kwong explains that she didn’t interact much with other Asian people. And the few other Asian children in her school — she didn’t quite identify with them either.
“Moving through the world with no conventional belief system or conventional community has been a little off-putting,” says Kwong. Despite its difficulties, this introspection into identity has permeated her worldview and ultimately made her into a person that doesn’t feel the need to subscribe to convention. This tendency can be seen in her instrument of choice — the guzheng, a Chinese zither. “It just spoke to me in a different way,” Kwong explains. The guzheng is delicate and haunting, romantic yet deliberate.
From a young age, Kwong knew she was destined to pursue a creative career — by her early teenage years she was already writing songs and taking voice lessons while attending Denver School of the Arts. Armed with sentimentality and interest in history, Kwong’s family is undoubtedly a source of inspiration and influence. “A lot of the content that I create is based on this romanticization and also a reimagining of family experiences and family stories,” she tells 303.
In addition to her musical pursuits, Kwong is a prolific writer and director — she plans on premiering part of a satirical fashion documentary she co-wrote and directed centered around her grandmother’s wit at her next Denver performance at the Leon Gallery on July 18. At this point in her career, Kwong’s family is supportive “in the way they know how to be.” Kwong goes on, “what I’m doing is not what they thought I was going to be doing and it’s changing for me too — every day it kind of develops as I keep going.”
“I just feel like it’s my responsibility to transmit — on both sides — my families stories and experiences and history into what I’m doing.” – Jett Kwong
Stark Night, Kwong’s first EP, was released in 2016 and written while she was in college at the California Institute of the Arts. “There were a lot of learning experiences and obstacles which in hindsight I’m very glad for.” Kwong tells us that it took a couple of years to start making music again after that release — recognizing the necessity of finding out what was important to her beyond her career. During a stint in Germany, Kwong took what she calls a “self-incubation” period to dig deep into what truly makes her happy.
Kwong explains how, especially in the arts and entertainment industry, it can be difficult to sift through the noise and bombardment of media to get in touch with your values. Kwong has discovered that this is an ongoing learning process, telling us that “it’s not always clear, it’s one of those elusive things where you think that you have captured it and then things kind of develop and morph into other things.”
These values can be seen in the video for her track “Changes.” The video features a cast of half-Asian women from various backgrounds and explores feelings of performance and conformity. “Moving throughout the world, especially as a female, there’s a larger performance in a lot of ways that we’re pressured [into],” says Kwong.
Where Stark Night is “meditative and celestial, spacious and esoteric,” telling of someone who is young and still in the process of figuring out who they are, Kwong’s recent releases are more focused and driven. “I don’t know where it’s moving to but there’s definitely more momentum and more drive,” says Kwong.
Having a visual accompaniment to her music is important for Kwong — in fact, only one track on her forthcoming EP will not have a visual counterpart. Her recent release “Away” and accompanying music video — which Kwong directed with her collaborator Huan Manton — focuses on the mundanity of life and sacrificing your dreams for reality. “Life demands a certain sacrifice and compromise from all of us,” Kwong tells us. Images of a tar-like substance enveloping the aloof cast contrasted with a brightly colored rope evoke feelings of suffocation and monotony amidst an ethereal and utterly catchy song.
Even in Los Angeles, people don’t always “get” what Kwong is doing — she explains how people often try to categorize things that don’t necessarily need to be categorized. In her own words, Kwong’s music is “cinematic, experimental pop” that “lends itself well to being listened to with intention.” Her main goals are to achieve “connectedness, magic and feeling” with her art rather than play into a predetermined formula for what it means to be successful.
When she isn’t creating music, Kwong teaches voice and guzheng lessons, directs commercials, occasionally works on film sets and is a marketing and creative consultant for a nonprofit. While Kwong often wishes that she had more stability, she values the freedom that her freelance life provides. When it comes to her home, her relationships and her health, Kwong tells us that she tries “to find stability where I can.” For Kwong, being in touch with her values of connectedness, storytelling and learning, are more important than leading a conventional life.
“It’s funny, I wouldn’t have said this a while ago, but I think I’m influenced by the question of magic.” – Jett Kwong
“I think that there’s a lot of magic that we are taught to ignore in the world,” she continues. From “small details to connecting with someone really deeply, there’s just so many different ways that when I’m feeling my best and when I’m feeling my most open, I feel so receptive to these little things that really make things magical and makes life worth living.” Whether you’re spiritual or not, the question of magic has always been a fascinating one — and one that is open to interpretation, just as Kwong prefers.
Don’t miss Jett Kwong’s upcoming performance at Leon Gallery on July 18 which will include a screening of her short film and Q&A — you can get tickets here. Keep up with Jett Kwong through her Instagram and Website and stay tuned for future Denver performances.