My Rehearsal Room: Lucy Kong

My Rehearsal Room: Lucy Kong

Creating an unexpected career as a J-Pop composer. 

Lucy Kong
Sydney, Australia

My Rehearsal Room: Lucy Kong

Creating an unexpected career as a J-Pop composer. 

I kind of fell into this line of work, to be perfectly honest! During my final semester at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, I had in my mind that once the degree needed I would have an intellectual art music career ahead of me. I had never written pop music before at all, and I was really starting to think about what might happen in the years after my tertiary studies. As I was walking out of the Con cafe one afternoon I saw a sign for an international J-Pop call-for-composers and thought, why not? I've long been a Japanophile and I was pretty open-minded about what shape my career would take, so the opportunity presented itself at the perfect time, honestly! The Conservatorium system was (and continues to be) a little highbrow when it comes to creative output, but I figured that if I was writing, I'd be happy, so I called the phone number listed on the poster and it went from there. The man that answered said he was wanting to produce an album and from there I sang on some demos and began my relationship with the company as a composer. Now, I'm part of the songwriting team, meaning we get orders for types of songs, write them and send them back over to Japan. It's an interesting process when you think about it - like in every line of work, you don't become an overnight success in an actual night! 

And how to describe J-Pop? It is very melodic and hyperactive! There are so many layers and many, many things going on. I work for a producer whose music is quite dense: I sometimes think it's like fitting as many synths as possible in one track! I was a bit stunned the first time I heard the music and that experience really humbled me and made me really think about what it takes to make a good J-Pop song. It's a difficult field and you have to work really hard to write a song that fits the market. There are a lot of artists working within the genre that I really admire and follow quite carefully. There is so much going on in J-Pop melodies and I think this does give the tracks more emotion. It's also not particularly subtle - it's big and obvious - and I really love that. 

I've only been learning Japanese for the past three years, so lyrics are still pretty tricky for me, but you can get so much out of the music as a listener without understanding every word. Aside from the language though, there have been lots of technical skills that I've had to pick up as I go. I didn't have much experience with digital or audio interfaces before I started and as soon as I started producing pop I knew I had to learn the software. It took a while to get those things down: assembling the right gear, working out which microphones were best for recording, what kind of computer would suit my work best. Learning to use my ears in a slightly different way has been an interesting development too - I produce all my own music without being a sound engineer, so figuring out how to use my ears to make the best music possible has been a learning curve! Honestly, though, it's just time and practice. Now I listen back to stuff I wrote in 2011 and think that I didn't know what I was doing! Which in a way is kind of cool, because I can see a really marked progression. My classical background and understanding of Western counterpoint and harmony have helped, I think: when I get sent reference songs I can sit down and listen to them, identifying the chord progressions as I go.

The Conservatorium system is slowly changing to reflect the current artistic climate, I believe, slowly becoming broader to encompass the realistic career progressions of composers. For me, training classically at the Con was a childhood dream and just being there was huge. I do realise that there is a lot of concern from my classmates and colleagues, that you study for years and years in this little bubble and then on graduation you realise you weren't really prepared for the real world. There's never a class you can take about how to remain active as a composer out in the world and how to find work. For me, the best way to counter this was to have an open mind and take every opportunity that arose. I hope young composers remember that it's okay to get your name out into the world, even if you feel too young or too raw. When I made that first phone call after seeing the J-Pop poster, I had no idea what would happen: a testament to the fact that if you're presented with something, you should run with it. The worst thing that can happen if you approach someone with your ideas or your work is that they'll say no, and that gets easier and easier to handle. It's really important in any kind of creative profession that you believe in yourself and your ability.

When I write, usually music begins as a tiny idea in my head and I have to sit at the piano and work it out. Nowadays, I carry manuscript around with me everywhere I go, so I don't have to be that composer embarrassingly humming melodies into my phone! If I'm having a slow writing day, which happens to everyone, I go for a walk, say a prayer and try and avoid the overthinking trap. We artistic types can get stuck in our heads a little too much and getting into nature helps clear the cobwebs a bit. This album that I've been working on is 50% piano works and 40% electro-acoustic tracks and I've worked on each half slightly differently. With the piano works, I work directly at the piano with manuscript paper, whereas the other half comes from a more conceptual place. My sister wrote the poetry and from that springboard, I went about creating imagery and recording sounds that worked alongside. Regardless of those different processes, there is a distinct narrative throughout the whole album, and while it is a fairly personal one, I think it's really relatable. It's a bit of a coming-of-age story and it's been really close to my heart.

The final piano sonata was written for my old piano teacher, Samantha Coates, and it's something I've really wanted to write for about twelve years because if it weren't for her, I don't think I would've gone into music. I had to stop piano lessons because I developed RSI and I kept thinking about the fact I wanted to write this piece, but you know how life gets - time just ran away from me - so when this album came into being I thought it was well and truly time. 

Download Lucy Kong's album, Electrobloom, here