On imagine naked!, OHYUNG Finds the Emotional Core of Ambient Music

OHYUNG used to think ambient music was pretentious. The open-endedness and ability to retrofit seemingly any message to the music felt cheap. Plus, growing up in a very white town in central Pennsylvania, OHYUNG wanted nothing to do with spaces that felt dominated by whiteness.

OHYUNG’S first three albums, Untitled (Chinese Man with Flame)PROTECTOR, and GODLESS, deliver intense and political messages in a hip hop, electronic, and noise-driven package. On those albums, says OHYUNG, ”the message is what it is, and it’s hard to interpret it in any other way.”

Things are different with OHYUNG’s fourth album. imagine naked!, out April 22 via NNA Tapes, is an expansive, atmospheric collection of gentle landscapes that loop, morph, and sometimes unravel on themselves in a way vaguely reminiscent of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. Each of the 11 tracks is titled after a line from t. tran le’s achingly tender poem “vegetalscape,” resulting in track titles like “my torn cuticles!” and “to fill the quiet!” This album is unambiguously ambient, an aesthetic that OHYUNG now embraces.

“A lot of it was self-inflicted,” OHYUNG says when recalling their resistance to ambient music in the first place. But in addition to stirring up an insatiable anger at the system and world’s inequities, the pandemic made OHYUNG crave peace and serenity. They found themselves needing outlets for both, so their anger was channeled into the GODLESS album, while their desire to create something calming for themselves became imagine naked! “Two complete polar opposite records coming from the same time frame,” OHYUNG reflects. 

While first crafting the songs that would later appear on imagine naked!, OHYUNG didn’t know that they were making an album. Instead, they approached each piece as an exercise in slowing down; they wanted to make soundscapes in a less “maximal,” layered, or technical way as they had in their prior work. For these exercises, OHYUNG challenged themselves with stretching out time, making long tracks, and being “patient and okay with it.” These exercises eventually became the basis for the album. 

One of the most important things about my art-making practice is involving members of my community in my work.

By coincidence, the same week that they finished the record, OHYUNG heard t. tran le share their poem “vegetalscape” at a reading. It resonated deeply with them. “The music was just fragments at the time, and [the poem] really gave direction and voice to what I was working on,” says OHYUNG. “The music seemed to fit so well with the poem, which is this slice of life in the pandemic of just trying to exist, take a deep breath in this way, like going so detailed into the day-to-day of existing, memories. It felt like such a perfect connection.” 

OHYUNG and t. tran le had already worked together in a professional setting at the Asian American Writers Workshop (AAWW), but this was their first artistic collaboration. “One of the most important things about my art-making practice is involving members of my community in my work,” OHYUNG says. The album artwork for imagine naked! is a painting by the “amazing queer Filipinx artist who is also a poet” Aldrin Valdez, whom OHYUNG also met through AAWW.

Of all the tracks on imagine naked!, “my weeping frame!” took the longest to make. It’s full of cascading pianos that OHYUNG worked hard on to tweak the delays, harmonies, and chords to fit in their head in an interesting way. In contrast, a couple tracks came together near-instantly, stemming from a backlog of unused sounds that OHYUNG had previously created for film scores. In addition to their solo artist work, OHYUNG is a film composer (as Robert Ouyang Rusli). Either way, “if it feels good, then it’s good to me,” OHYUNG says about the time spent on each track. “Doesn’t matter if it took 20 seconds or 20 days.”

OHYUNG--Photo by Acudus Aranyian

OHYUNG–Photo by Acudus Aranyian

Despite being a self-critical artist, OHYUNG knows their strengths, the largest of which is “finding an emotional core.” Though they produce their own music, make their own samplers in Logic (a digital audio workstation), and have a basic understanding of how to tweak synths, OHYUNG describes themselves as “not a synth nerd — I’ll never understand modular synthesis and that’s fine.” OHYUNG’s humility in this arena is less the result of a fundamental knowledge gap and more an assertion of their values. “That stuff’s all cool, but it doesn’t really matter to me if the emotional core isn’t there,” they say, recalling a distant past where they did have more of a chip on their shoulder with regard to technical skills.

The past, present, and future reveal ample evolution in OHYUNG’s art. Since their beginnings playing violin in school orchestra, playing in bands in high school, and taking the AP Music Theory class that inspired them to start composing, OHYUNG has shifted to and between a plethora of styles and practices, not necessarily in a linear or upgrading way, but according to what feels good and necessary for their self-expression at the time. 

Live performance is where OHYUNG experiences the most catharsis. It took them while to find a form of performance they enjoyed, but once they stopped trying to recreate the sound of a record and started treating shows like performance art, the act of performing became therapeutic. “I use performance as a vehicle for growth,” OHYUNG says. “I’ll try something new that I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing in my day-to-day life, and then, seeing how people react to that and being like, oh, there’s actually no difference between performing and real life…and so, maybe now I can feel the confidence to actually do this in my day-to-day life.” They enjoy pushing themselves and seeing surprise in the audience.

OHYUNG also experiments with presenting more femme on stage, which they describe as feeling really good and not as scary as they expect. They like to physically embody the music when onstage — whether that means playing an ambient track and just standing there and feeling it, or playing a physically intense song and screaming, running, and stomping around. For OHYUNG, the guise of the performance space helps them overcome fears. “It’s like peeling off the feelings of repression.”

As they enjoy seeing surprise in their audiences, OHYUNG has dealt with their own surprises from audiences and critics leading up to the imagine naked! release. “I’ve seen people write about this record, and everyone gets something different out of it,” they say, admitting that sometimes, they’d never even thought about the things people were reading into their music in the first place.

I’ve never had people engaged in my music in a way that I didn’t expect,” OHYUNG says, “but that’s what’s really beautiful.”


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