Partisan-signed musician and producer Abby Hwong makes music as NoSo that mirrors their search for a sense of self
Morning light floods through the windows of an empty dollhouse as the American flag flutters on calm, conditioned air. Abby Hwong wakes up, shrugs on a floral two-piece suit over their vest, and steps outside, skateboarding down streets of wipe-clean clusters of self-containment. Lawns are carefully clipped, palm trees stand sentinel, and the roads yawn wide and empty. But across the road, a child is waving at them, in that warm, unselfconscious way that school eventually flatten out of you; they’re wearing a Hawaiian shirt, scuffed trainers and a mask.
Hwong knows this kid. They’ve seen their picture framed on their parents’ mantelpiece before, gazing down the lens through their Halloween mask. But there was always something strange about it – strange about them, it would seem – in the way the other kids were looking at them: suspicious side glances, glass-like with discomfort. Was it the mask, or was it something else?
“That was just my experience growing up,” Hwong shrugs. “In that town, it was predominantly white and homogenous, and I just always felt out of place.” All of this – the visuals for lead single “Suburbia”, and the rest of their debut album Stay Proud of Me – are for little Abby: the child who would tightly close their eyes anytime a stranger spoke to them, wrestling with gender dysphoria before they had the vocabulary to express it; the child trying to reconcile their all-American childhood with their Korean heritage – searching for a way to hold the fragments of their splintered identity together when all they seemed to do was repel.
It’s about NoSo, the 24-year-old musician, producer and Partisan Records signee, sitting with Abby on the curb as the sun sets over the suburbs of Chicago, playing hopscotch and snacking on golden Oreos, letting them know that in the end, everything will be alright. “Stay the same without me”, they sing on “Suburbia” over melodic guitars that unspool like a daydream: a wish that lingers from a place of warped nostalgia for this place of alienation and paradoxical comfort.
Stay Proud of Me is a record born from Hwong’s realisation that you can’t outrun your city limits. Recorded in the claustrophobic confines of their family’s condo during quarantine, they’d have to snatch ten minutes of quiet between their mum and dad’s business calls to record, frantically laying down demos in rare slots of silence afforded during their trips to the supermarket. With the world reduced to four walls, Hwong started to look over their shoulder, retracing the steps of the person they once were who brought them to where they are now.
“It was from a very different era of my life, and it’s a bit of a time capsule, in that regard,” shares Hwong, who laid the foundations for the record as early as 2017. “I think someone described it as a sort of coming-of-age album, and I would say that’s pretty accurate. I think music is like a public journal, and so this is going to be another journal that I show the world for a different period of my life. I’ve grown since then,” they say, taking a morning walk in the Californian sunshine, “and I’m excited to move forward.”
They started with the end. The album’s closer, “Everything I’ve Got”, is a crystallisation of the sound that Hwong, even as a 20-year-old college student, instinctively knew was theirs. The NoSo palette is muted, drawing on subtle shades and finer flourishes to paint bold statements: a simple, acoustic guitar foregrounds their voice that trembles and soars; a careful choice of strings and brass tie your nerves in knots, stirring up a lump that lingers in your throat, building up to splashes of percussion that feels like the final, definitive fade to black – the kind of moment at the end of a movie where there’s still a long way to go, but for now, they’re okay.
“I kept [the song] on a flash drive, and I just knew I wanted it to be on my album someday as the final track. I would always hide behind really intricate guitar parts, but this is mostly very simple. I look back on it now and I think, ‘Oh, this is a bit melodramatic’, but at the time, I felt every single line, and every single line was true,” Hwong tells me. “It was difficult for me to perform for a while, just because I felt kind of embarrassed by how much emotion was in it. I have to remember I shouldn’t diminish how I was feeling at that time, because even though it may seem funny to me now, it certainly wasn’t funny to me back then.” Much of “Everything I’ve Got” was written in the midst of navigating their gender dysphoria and tilted relationships. They sing, from a well of frustration: “And I know it seems confusing / When I yell and hide my chest / And I know if I was born fairly / I’d be him”.
The months of lockdown were spent as a kind of exorcism of those long-forgotten feelings, the tremors of which can still be felt. Hwong’s suburban homecoming was a necessary, but painful, form of reconnection. “I always felt like I would get strange looks, no matter what – no matter how hard I tried to conform,” they say. “I think there’s a dark aspect to pretty much every suburban area, and even though it does represent a picture-perfect kind of success, it also represents, oh man…”, they sigh, “you know, putting people into ‘other’ categories. I felt very much that I was in the ‘other’ category growing up, and so I look back on that, and I just want to give little me a hug, because I feel like that town was specifically so brutal. It’s the same town where Mean Girls was based on, so you can imagine, right?”
I ask Hwong to paint a vivid picture of little Abby. “God, I was so weird,” they laugh. “I would sing ‘Mad World’ by Gary Jules, muttering to myself as I walked around the playground during recess. Yeah… I was bizarre. Looking back, I think it’s neurodivergence, honestly.” Growing up always felt like a destination Hwong was sprinting towards. “I was always rattled with thoughts about my identity, and being so confused about gender and race, that I guess I was in a bit of a rush to be like, ‘When is the part where I’m really comfortable with myself?’”
This sense of never quite belonging, falling between the cracks between two worlds, is inherent to their childhood. “I’ve talked about this with my Korean-American cousins,” says Hwong. “We all had a really difficult time, because in our predominantly white towns, we felt like we stood out too much. But then, at Korean school, I was a remedial level because my family didn’t speak the language to me growing up. I felt like a fraud, essentially, in comparison to the other kids. I was caught up between the two, where I would return to my all-white town, and I would bring Korean lunches to school and the other kids would be like, ‘Ew!’, but then Korean school kids would be like, ‘You don’t speak Korean!’” Now, Hwong is trying to learn Korean on their own. “I feel like a lot of the things I do in my day-to-day life is trying to unlearn a lot of unhealthy, internalised racism from growing up in a space like that. Every day, it’s taking about taking baby steps to not be so hard on myself.”
Part of rekindling that splintered connection with their Korean heritage was watching television soaps religiously over lockdown. “Yeah, I was going insane,” Hwong laughs. A concoction of fascination and boredom meant that during those flat months, they started to pen screenplays – ten seasons’ worth, no less – inspired by Korean melodramas. “I basically had no inspiration for music because I wasn’t having any experiences with the outside world, so every day, I would write these Korean drama screenplays, starting from the moment I woke up until five in the morning. They were all, you know… poorly written – very much a teen soap opera type of beat, but it did give me some purpose when I had really bad writer’s block.
It was one of these figments of their imagination that formed the lyrics for “Honey, Understand”. Hwong explains, “I had this instrumental, and I had no idea what to write about in my personal life because I was cooped up. I just started mumbling gibberish, which ended up being storylines from the Korean drama screenplay. One of the characters is an heiress, and people have a parasocial relationship with her. The song is basically saying, ‘You don’t know me, but I’m proud of you’ – which, on the surface, seems sweet, but is actually pretty terrifying when you think about it. It’s this whole idea of romanticising a public figure. It was so funny looking back, but it really helped me break through at the time. Honestly… there’s some zingers in there,” they laugh.
“The way we’ve been conditioned to think about this industry… it’s like a theatre cast, where you’re like, ‘Oh, they got the role, and I didn’t’, you know?”
Hwong’s flair for theatrics should come as no surprise. As a child, they were thrust into theatre classes. “I was so dreadfully shy, to a concerning level,” Hwong cringes. “When I was a kid, I would close my eyes any time strangers came to talk to me, and so my mom and dad were very worried about me. When they put me into theatre classes, I blossomed.” They even opted to perform in Westside Story with their cousin at a summer camp in Wisconsin, rather than taking a trip to Korea. “Now, when I look back, that’s so, so tragic,” they laugh. “I thought you could escape any situation just like how it is in theatre: if you can’t see the audience, they can’t see you.”
While they only committed to a career in music as a 16-year-old, they’d always held a fascination with the guitar. “I took some lessons, and it was a local shop in my town where these old men would teach me how to play songs I wasn’t interested in,” Hwong shrugs. From there on, they learned alone in their basement in Chicago, expanding to different instruments as the years went on to satiate their curiosity.
“I was very much in the guitar world, and I would listen to The Beatles and all these old man, white bands. And I would always think, ‘Oh shit, if this is the music industry, if this is how it’s always going to be, then where do I fit in? Is there even a seat at the table for someone like me?’”, Hwong shares. “I heard artists like Joan Jett and I was like, ‘Okay, I like her style’, and then I think when I was college, I got more familiar with artists like Mitski and Japanese Breakfast, who were all coming up on the scene in a more prevalent way. There was one part of me that was like, ‘Thank god, now there’s possibly a seat for me’, but then, the horrible part of my brain was like, ‘Oh, they took my seat, because we’re both Asian and we both play guitars. There’s no spot for me, the music industry is full’. And that’s just the way we’ve been conditioned to think about this industry: it’s like a theatre cast, where you’re like, ‘Oh, they got the role, and I didn’t’, you know? Which is so silly, but that’s how I felt about it. I certainly don’t feel that way anymore, of believing that Mitski got the role of Rapunzel and I didn’t – but for a while, that’s how I felt.”
For a long time, Hwong used their voice reluctantly. “I was really shy about singing – I still kind of am,” they admit. “I’m working on it.” It was only as they delved deeper into song writing that they considered their voice as a tool to get to where they needed to execute their vision: a necessity, rather than an indulgence. They committed to studying music at the University of Southern California, whose graduates include Remi Wolf and MUNA. “I think it was very helpful in that it cultivated healthy competition, I would say. I went into the programme lacking some of the most rudimentary skills on guitar because I was self-taught, so I had my own fingerstyle of playing it. I didn’t even know how to play scales that much, really. I think from watching these guitar boys playing jazz chords and being all like, ‘Yeah, bro! Like, that one, five progression!’ – it created a fire under me, where I wanted to keep up with these people.”
But in another sense, the academic environment proved suffocating for Hwong. “I had professors who would tell me my songs didn’t make sense, and that they should follow and adhere to very strict structures in popular music. But then I would be like, ‘Oh, fuck that. Don’t tell me what to do’. And so, in that regard, when you’re telling a budding songwriter that they should write a song in a certain way – I think that’s wrong, personally, and I think that’s a stunt in growth. Having the ability to be that young and say, ‘No, I’m going to do what I want’, is something you should keep in mind. Just because someone’s older, doesn’t mean they’re right.”
Despite being uncompromising when it comes to their artistic integrity, Hwong’s self-confidence was something that didn’t come quite so naturally – particularly as a producer. “I was always questioning my own skills with song writing and feeling a lot of imposter syndrome with producing,” they tell me. “I felt embarrassed to even use the term ‘producer’ for myself, even though I was playing pretty much all the instruments on the album. I went into it feeling like a fool, wondering how on earth I was going to execute it because I had very, very minimal skills in that regard. I felt like in order for me to be legit, as a musician, it had to be so instrumentally intricate. That’s the kind of mindset I developed going to music school, where anything I do has to be super difficult to play, or else it’s not legitimate – like, simple is not gonna fly. I think the process of making this album was about me realising that the songs which I felt had the most meaning were the simple ones.”
With Hwong’s horizons not broadening, during the making of Stay Proud of Me, but closing in on them, what began as a record rooted in concrete, tangible experience unravelled into escapism. “David” was a song written about the envy for an All-American Adonis: “I wanna be serene and blank / like David / I wanna be a dream / With girls all over me”, Hwong wishes. It was based on a dream. “There’s a line about how I stare up into the sun, hoping my eyes would change colour, and he turns gold, kind of like a statue. So those are kind of surrealist lyrics,” they explain. “Sometimes, it feels like someone hops into my head with an image and writes certain lines for me.”
But an experience which has underpinned Hwong’s adolescence is their ongoing journey with their gender identity, finding a form of outer expression that aligns with their inner instincts. They watched an episode of Canadian comedian Mae Martin’s show, Feel Good, and found a joke far more resonant about wearing all black because they didn’t want other people to realise their gender. “For a long time, I would wear all black, and I wasn’t really sure why,” shares Hwong. I was very adamant about not wearing colour, and would only wear two very specific shirts that fit me in a way I felt safe in. And then when I heard that dialogue in Feel Good, something clicked for me finally, when I realised I’d been doing that this entire time, too.” Nowadays, they’re more comfortable in colour than ever.
“I mean, there are days where I fall into this unhealthy camp of being dysphoric and confused, but I think it’s immensely better than it had been before,” Hwong shares. “It sounds really… it is really tragic, but for a long time, I’d be like, ‘I don’t understand how people can say they love being trans, and that being trans was beautiful, because I was like, ‘I’m miserable. I feel like I’m in a mental prison. Am I ever going to get to the place of thinking that this is a gift, in any way?’ And nowadays, I’m really happy with who I am. I’m really glad to be trans, and I never thought I’d feel that way. But it has taken a lot of work, and along of self-reflection, to learn how to be kind to myself.”
The best declaration of Hwong’s sense of self has always been made through their music. Their music being defined as inherently queer is something they remain hesitant about: “I’ve talked about this a lot with other queer songwriters, because I think being categorised into a genre of music based on one facet of my identity is a bit odd.” But then, they think, again, about little Abby. “But on the other hand, I wish I grew up and saw the kind of representation that kids have today. I would have loved an artist to openly sing about women in a way that isn’t fetishizing, which was how most of the mainstream music was back then about queer subjects. Now, I think it’s so much bolder, and our people are so much more courageous. I wouldn’t categorise music that I love as queer music necessarily, but it’s music that I feel seen by.”
Though Hwong is eternally striving for a point of perfection in their music, the greatest lesson they have learned in the process of bringing Stay Proud of Me to life is, simply, to let go: to let go of the sound of that particular drum pattern, or that chord progression – to let go of the confusion of what it meant to be little Abby. Their past has been held up to the light, and now, there is only relief, because there is nothing more they can do, nothing more to be said. This is the final word.
Hwong dreamed, once, of selling out stadiums, but now they long for nothing more than stability: it’s a vision, they realise, to their chagrin, that isn’t so far removed from the Chicago suburbs of their childhood. “If I get a Prius and I can afford to buy a latte every day, then I think that’s pretty sick, you know? It’s gotten a lot more practical as I’ve gotten older,” they tell me. “I think, in general, music can serve an unhealthy way of thinking, like, ‘Oh, this is my vessel to get attention. Gimme, gimme, gimme, look at me!’ But I think I’m reaching a headspace now where I realise this is only something that I do. It’s not everything. It doesn’t have to be about extremes. It can be the little things, as well.”