Reflecting on themes of travel, breaking routine, and self-discipline, Girl Underground talks about the significance of personal and musical process with Oscar Key Sung.
Emerging onto the stage with a delicate confidence Oscar Key Sung commits to his position in front of the mic, immediately mesmerizing the audience as he unravels the rich range of his voice. Delving into the opening synths of his discography, Oscar takes us on a self-reflective journey from the more left-field tracks like “All I Could Do”, to the anthemic pop melodies of “Simple Luv”, making for an enthralling and achingly honest performance. The audience steps into Oscar’s intimate world, as several concertgoers groove along to his swift rhythmic dancing during songs like “Fools”. As he leaves his vulnerabilities on stage, I can’t help but reflect on the sincere performance I just witnessed. I’m not the only one, as I see the audience members around me with pensive attitudes, profoundly moved by the artist’s sound for this special moment in time.
Oscar engages in a process of self-discovery throughout his set, sharing with the audience his innermost thoughts and feelings. I briefly caught the musician in a fleeting moment backstage, smiling under the glow of his orange glitter makeup, chatting amongst friends and concert goers with an unwavering charisma. That’s the thing about Oscar; he brings an unparalleled energy and passion to his craft, and uses it to guide both his personal and musical growth.
We meet a few days later at a pleasant cafe in Echo Park. As Oscar arrives with his same charismatic attitude, we catch up about our weekends and he shares with me all the music he has slated for the future. I couldn’t help but be engaged by his enthusiasm, making for a stimulating conversation where the artist shares his thoughts with me in a most reflective manner. It’s evident Oscar lives with a heightened curiosity of the world around him, and his responses were anything short of viewing the world in a most fascinating way.
How is everything? How did you feel about your performance this past Thursday?
I’m good. I’m staying in a really beautiful spot with a lot of natural light and privacy so enjoying writing there. Turn wifi off, and just focus on writing. As for the show there’s always a feeling of simultaneously enjoying the moment, but also assessing how to tighten the wheels in the cogs as well. I very much was appreciative and I enjoyed it. I’m the type of performer who loves interaction. I’m not the type of person to flail around and be really intense, unless that intensity is returned. I feed off the sort of step by step progression of my performance. I’ll step up the intensity and respect the audience reaction. Like there were people dancing and I’m super appreciative of that, but I feel like it wasn’t a wild show. I was really happy with it though.
There was one thing that really stood out to me, you’re an amazing dancer!
Aw, thank you! I have a bit of dance background but never fully all the way. With dance I was always able to naturally do things. I feel like I don’t think much with my body — I’m very intuitive so it suits me. I love dance, it’s beautiful. I used to go and watch a lot of contemporary dance when I was younger. I’ve never trained as a dancer more than like doing it in high school but I take a lot of pleasure in dancing. Anyone who knows me really well knows that sometimes I break out into interpretive dance. Like I once did a dance exploring the similarity between Vegemite and licorice. It’s just absurd basically!
I come from an extensive ballet background so I feel like I could really relate to your performance.
I think ballet is stunning. The sheer determination and self-discipline that comes from it.
It’s been a process of struggle to leave it.
It’s one of those really formative experiences. The things that kind of fall apart are more beautiful in the end. That discipline can be applied to anything. Like for example I did martial arts growing up. I was really sick as a kid, and my mum was really into alternative medicines and stuff, so I started doing Qi Gong when I was like six years old.
Similar to Tai Chi it’s about building energy and brings really good strength to your organs. That led into combat martial arts. The discipline of martial arts for me, is similar to ballet for you. In a sense that you can bring those mentalities into everything. That idea of sticking to something, pushing yourself for it. It has been a really huge cornerstone of my life and a transformative experience for me.
How did you get your start in music? Not only the songwriting aspect but also production?
The songwriting came earlier and then I started to write in my bedroom in my house using very old keyboards and a guitar amp. My girlfriend at the time in high school and all my friends chipped in and bought me a loop station for my guitar amp, which I had been fawning over and looking at for so long. From there I think that I started making these sort of little mixed CDs. I would make them by looping guitar and keys, and I started making songs that way, back when I was like 15.
I then started thinking more about arrangements and layers. I organized to record an album with this person I had met and like a kind of five piece Psuche so I wrote the arrangements to that. And during that time, I kind of observed how he recorded everything. I began observing people and their process of construction. I then finished high school and went to university for animation and video art, but then I did some electives in sound production. I then ended up moving in a sound direction, taking classes in the evenings. Even though I already made a number of records very badly; well not very badly! Not badly, but like amateurly, I kind of really wanted to learn stuff like that. So I guess that’s when I began to work harder.
When did you move into the ‘Oscar Key Sung’ project?
What I think happened was that I was in some other bands. Initially the Oscar Key Sung project came from an assignment that I was doing at university where I was trying to mimic the process of my favorite album Medulla by Bjork. I was trying to make music that was made with the only sound source being my voice. And I was making all these instrumental pieces, by sampling my voice. I then would add effects to it and make it into something interesting and then I kind of was like “oh I like this stuff” I might put out some songs on Bandcamp, and put it up on the Oscar Key Sung page and caught decent views.
Then the band that I was in sort of wasn’t happening as much, I kept working on songs that I was writing, I just finished my stuff and put out on that same page. I had a lot of the same mentality of trying to have most things focused on the voice, I was thinking contextually about spacious stuff. Yeah, so I guess approaching production; I was very much trying to have interesting textures from recording tapes and stuff. It was kind of like the marrying of my ideas in production.
Your songs are sonically super impressive. How do you begin to build these sorts of soundscapes?
I feel like a lot of have said, and it’s very true, especially as a bedroom producer, expressing your values in the process is very important. Because I have a sound background I did a lot of tracks that are just textural sounds and sort of sonic soundscapes. I listen to a lot of ambient music more than any other genre, so when I’m making a song I still have a lot of value for the texture and the little sound objects.
How I go about it is I will be making little sound objects all the time and I’ll be writing all the time, making chord progressions, and then just combining everything at different points. All the elements in the track happen kind of separately. I’ll make an instrumental idea, and I’ll be writing a song and I’ll make instruments to the song, at some point, so I can record the song and flesh it out. A lot of the time I’ll have maybe six versions of the instrumental, I’ll then find a beat that I made in a totally different mood and different BPM. And then I think “oh maybe I’ll just take the whole song and put it over this” then I re-sing it onto that new format.
Your EP ‘No Disguise’ was written in Mexico City and Point Lonsdale, then revisited in Berlin and Los Angeles. To what extent did these cities inform your music making process?
I think that it informs it a lot. But I think it’s not necessarily apparent how it’s affected me internally sometimes. You know what I mean? I also think that this next record I’m putting out really captures the atmosphere of the highs and lows of moving locations. I have really articulated some of that stuff more so with this next record. That being said the No Disguise EP to me sounds like very Mexico City and very Melbourne. I did rework things in different cities as well, I think that changing locations is quite a heightened state, it’s an altered state. You can have wonderful friends in one place and that’s amazing; but I think when you’re shaken out of that, out of your comfort zone, and maybe have a whole lot of unknown elements to what’s going to happen to you. You’re aware that it’s quite a heightened state.
In a way it makes you much more vulnerable.
Yes, and I think as well you take in a lot more information which is kind of insane and I think that’s important to note in relation to being inspired. If you travel the same route everyday — for instance I’m the kind of person when I was in university or working full time jobs, I would 100% try and take a different route everyday. I wouldn’t catch the same form of public transport, or if I rode my bike I would always try and do something different. I don’t like repetition unless it’s in the sense of working on a craft. So I guess when you’re in a new environment, and there’s just so many new things happening, it’s just like you’re bombarded with information. I guess that’s inspiring.
It gives you more to draw from, and also makes you reflect on what you had previously because you don’t have it in that moment. So I think travel — well more than travel is important. I’m not saying that going to Paris for two days and then going off to Bali; that’s not the type of travel that I think inspires me. What inspires me is arriving somewhere new and not knowing how long you’re going to stay and just living there for a bit and discovering what that’s like, that to me is when it’s inspiring.
Is there any fear and anxiety going into that sort of situation?
Definitely. I think if you in your life choose to step outside of your comfort zone and pursue things that are not easy, you’re 100 % going to experience higher, highs and lower, lows.
What sort of mindset do you adopt when you approach lyricism? Do you draw from personal experience?
I guess the thing is I don’t sit down to write with the intention of writing unless I’m in a session with another artist. Sometimes I will sit down and say “OK time to write” and try and write, but to be honest it just sort of flows out at unexpected moments. I feel like I just let it all spill out, just keeping an active channel I guess is what I like to do. I don’t really like to rewrite lyrics too much. I do however like to take lyrics from another song and put them into a different track, just taking it exactly where a track is lyrics wise and put them in somewhere else. I guess just because I’m in a laptop era and have done a lot of remixes, etc., there’s this feeling of elasticity with writing. A song could change key and tempo anytime.
In fact it’s very interesting discovering the different colors that can come out of a lyric, with different chords and different tempos beneath it. That’s one thing that really interests me is how much production is like a tonal bedding for the words in a track. It’s the same thing as vocal emphasis in speech. The same sentence said with a different delivery can mean very different things. If you change the chords under a lyric it can give the words a different or just more complicated meaning.
I guess for me it’s like trying to find the balance of not overstating things, so much that they can’t have some sort of deeper meaning with the music underneath it. It’s not just writing is it? It’s music, so we have to have the lyrics sometimes a bit less literal and a bit less bound by time and space if you are to capture a feeling with music. That’s kind of my mentality. I don’t really try to allude to things very much, I don’t think. I tend to try and bring forth the feeling and sometimes you say that by not saying it directly, but I wouldn’t describe it as alluding.
Tracks like “Simple Luv” address scenarios of possibility and imagination. What sort of themes do you tend to touch upon in your music?
At the time of writing that song I guess I had lost faith that I would fall in love again. Because it had been awhile and I realized that I had not been in like a simple love (laughs). I had partners when I was younger — and I hadn’t had that type of love for quite a minute. When I wrote the lyrics for the song I was randomly asked to curate all this music for some runway stuff in Paris. I was in a hotel, and I had just left Melbourne and I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was going, I had been seeing someone until shortly before this. I had been foolishly selfless with that person. I had sort of just played myself a little bit, and I had not even engaged my true desires, or needs, or thought about what I wanted because I had just been way too conscious of theirs. And it wasn’t a serious thing, it was a short thing before I had left Melbourne.
It’s sort of an experience that makes you realize what you really want.
Yeah, so when I was in the hotel, what I was trying to was kind of cast a spell. If you write a song when you lament over things that are negative in your life, then you’re basically just continuing that feeling, you’re asserting that reality. I thought, if I wrote a song about this potential beautiful scenario, maybe I could manifest it into my life. So it was a spell making this song. That’s how I perceived it. I was basically just talking about a fantasy that could be a reality. I allowed myself to be a little naive, and a bit sweet, and have that moment rather than being serious. So it is drawing from one experience in a sense.
The song is really inspired by a film called Tampopo, it’s a Japanese film and one of my top three favorite movies. It’s kind of a comedy. But very beautiful. I love Japanese comedies, they are meaningful. Comedy in Europe and Japan especially; it has a deep beauty. There’s this thing where they start the movie and they say something like “when you die the best things in your life play before your eyes like a movie”. And then there’s a scene at the end where this person is dying and they are like “my last movie is about to play.” And that’s when I thought, wow what do I want my last movie to look like? I want it to be some sort of beautiful love story, I don’t want a movie about stupid erratic things. So, it was kind of about that as well. Thinking about myself as old and dying has been a bit of a new thing for me. It was a discovery last year.
I’ve always identified as someone who would die younger, and then last year I realized I’m maybe not going to die young. It was just this moment where I was camping with two friends, and one of them; she was talking about how she always pictures herself as an old woman before making a decision. And I was just stunned because I have never, ever, ever, done that. I had never done that in my life. Little did they know that I was shook in that moment. It’s so funny when you get to realize something about yourself, it’s like, “wow how did I not know this?” So suddenly I’ve realized that it’s something I think about constantly. That was a big part of the whole song too.
Can you think back to a year in your life that was transformative for you?
To be honest, no I can’t think of a time specifically. I feel like if I’m not in a formative stage, I shake things up, and make my life into becoming a formative stage. I crave those kind of over the top transition periods a lot. I think that’s part of why I travel the way that I do, and do the things that I do for that reason. You should never feel locked in, it’s an illusion. You can always change it up. Sometimes it’s crazy annoying to change it up but you can do it.
Do you feel sometimes you shouldn’t change it up, but you do so regardless?
I’ve definitely had occasions where I actively shake it up out of a comfort zone, and it’s incredibly scary to do. But it’s always because there is something that feels missing, like I am just settling. Then once you do shake it up, you feel so much better about yourself, and that makes up for the fact that you have a disaster of a life, and manifests into something that is so much better. I think that the universe, whatever it is, rewards you for being true to yourself.
Stepping back from a product like the ‘No Disguise’ EP, do you believe your music and sentiments expressed in this piece take a life of its own?
That’s interesting. I definitely think there is a thing that happens, and I’m not sure if it happens with other forms of art. Because I’ve never really gone as far with another medium, but like if you’re working on a song alone for weeks and then you show it later on to a friend, it sounds really different. When you have other people in the room, you think about it in a different way.
For example, when you think something is funny, or thinking you sound overly emotional or “try hard,” that type of stuff really comes through. I guess during the making of something I tend to go through that process. I don’t make music then put it out the first time I get feedback, I send it to a lot of people. I show it to strangers. I do feel like those songs have already taken on a life of their own. It’s really true, like you said you can’t make something in a moment, and after its out its done, because you’re not trying to change it anymore. It holds this whole meaning to you but then you start to see it with a more distant perspective I guess.
It’s almost like this is me in this moment, and this is me now.
I also think “this is what I would sound like to a stranger.” I think I’ve made the mistake in the past of trying to make music that I think people want to hear. That really messed me up, because after it came out then if it didn’t get liked it wasn’t satisfying.
It needs to be satisfying to you before it can be satisfying to others. Your music is an extension of yourself.
I think with the No Disguise EP I very much did exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t compromise at all. Every song is a different genre, and to me it sounds like it flows and has a story to me.
I had not expectations genuinely, and I’ve had other projects where I’ve had expectations but with that EP I just very much did it for myself. There’s no way to feel bad about that. You can get to know me pretty well just from listening to it. I felt really content with being an artist that wasn’t trying to do anything to intentionally express something. It was quite easy to just be satisfied.
A big thank you to both Oscar and his team for making this piece possible. Be sure to stream No Disguise EP and keep up with the artist below.