After a number of successful art-house and commercial projects over the last two decades, (including the synth-pop duo Ming & Ping), BAO is coming out from behind the curtain and taking center stage with his first solo album Perpetual Heartbreak, an accumulation of everything he’s learned and been influenced by over the course of a lifetime.
Arriving in the United States at age three as a refugee from Vietnam with gifted abilities in the arts, BAO has observed and absorbed American culture from multiple perspectives throughout his life. He has been influenced by his time in California, where his story began and where he has spent a majority of his adulthood, and Texas, where he developed his talents at the School of Performing and Visual Arts, also known as the “Fame” school (which Beyonce attended as well, respectively) — all while keeping and giving importance to his cultural identity as an Asian American. He’s now a board member of the Slants Foundation, which promotes “empowering POC musicians to own their cultural identities.”
Perpetual Heartbreak is a cinematic album suggesting an imaginary film soundtrack that takes us on an emotional and sonic journey. The art of creating a story-telling album with a cohesive narrative thread, from beginning to end, is a lost art frequently attributed to 60s and 70s singer-songwriters and rockers, perfected in album’s like The Beatles’ Abbey Road. Most current artists focus on single tracks, sometimes even dismissing altogether the idea of an album where each track is given equal thought. Of course, this could be blamed on the ever changing nature of the music industry at large since going digital, but the excuse doesn’t work in an era in which producing an entire album can cost little in terms of production – mostly relying on talent. Although Perpetual Heartbreak has a clear-cut organization of lyrical themes and emotional evolution, Bao sets himself free and experiments melodically and rhythmically. From one of the album’s singles “Beautiful Things” with it’s airy guitars and 90s club-style piano, evoking downtown L.A. at night., to “Burn it Down” with its majestic funky horn section and disco vibes, to the ethereal R & B “We Never Say A Word” where Prince’s ghost can be felt, to the otherworldly post-apocalyptic interludes BAO gives us with tracks like “Mo Co Me” we’re taken on a ride of musical genres and history. Despite the dark mood of the album’s title Perpetual Heartbreak, it’s anything but. This is a song collection of learning from mistakes, growing up, and celebrating love in all it’s misery and glory. A Valentine’s to love itself.
I had a conversation with BAO, artist, musician, and my close friend with whom I navigated the late 90s/early 2000s, bonding over a lifetime of musical obsession. He talks to me about pandemic life, inspirations, Ming & Ping, art, composing for films, all things Perpetual Heartbreak, and more.
Where and how are you spending your time in this pandemic?
I started lockdown a little earlier than most people in the US at the end of February. I had just gotten back from Mexico City and developed a sinus infection there from the air pollution. And so I’ve been mostly isolated in my live/work space in Downtown Los Angeles since February, approaching one full year now. Downtown LA has suffered from an extra harsh surge of homelessness, protests and vandalism, and business closures due to COVID-19.
The main benefits of being in a walkable and social neighborhood have mostly gone away during the pandemic and I hope that we will recover quickly. The most positive aspect of this time has been that my studio has been a creative sanctuary. There is ample natural light and various stations for my different creative outlets like music and visual art and writing. So that’s been helpful during the pandemic but it’s been very hard to be in isolation for so long.
How have you been feeling since the release of your first solo album under your own name? Are you already working on something else or taking a break.
I recently starting to brainstorm about upcoming releases, but nothing concrete has come out of it yet. I’ve been feeling very good about Perpetual Heartbreak and releasing a debut full-length album under my own name. It feels like my best work to date and the reception has been great. There haven’t been as many ears on the record as my previous Ming & Ping albums. That’s because Ming & Ping is designed as instant-read pop songs, whereas the newer BAO material takes a bit more patience and time investment to digest. So I’ve seen that the audience is a little more mature and the publications with the most positive feedback have been the ones willing to invest in the album experience rather than picking out catchy singles.
Currently I’m working on a few collaborative projects with younger artists within the Asian American community and doing more mentoring and activism through The Slants Foundation, a non-profit where I serve on the board of directors. It’s been a longtime goal of mine to support creatives from similar backgrounds with the resources I never had.
You and I met in Houston during the late 90s and early 00s, where we both lived as transplants during high school. That was a time period of a lot of innovative and distinct musical styles coming from all over the world and locally as well. You’ve also lived in California for the last two decades. How have those locations influenced your sound? And who were some artists and bands that most influenced you?
Living in Southern California in the early and mid-90s exposed me to alternative rock and Grunge music combined with the West Coast hip-hop and R&B that was very popular at the time; Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Snoop and Dre, Boyz II Men, to name a few. And being a teenager in the late 90s in Houston exposed me to Houston-specific music, specifically the Southern rap that existed there, including lots of Chopped and Screwed and artists like Masta P. And that was also the era that club music like House and Drum n Bass made it to the mainstream and artists like Bjork and Everything But The Girl were incorporating those new sounds into pop songs.
It actually has influenced my music and my person quite a bit just to have the awareness that different localities have different musical genres. That has inspired me to seek out music from different places in a more intentional way. Now I seek out music from all over the world to see how the local history helps shape the sound.
There’s been such a broad variety of music that has influenced me throughout my life. I listened to the oldies radio station with my mom as a younger child, loving The Beach Boys and Roy Orbison. As a preteen, I was exposed to a lot of Italodisco, New Wave, and early rap music from my older siblings. As a teenager, when I developed my own musical taste, it was all of the alternative rock and experimental electronic stuff from the late 90s especially Drum n Bass, IDM, and rave music. In my later teens and twenties, I got more into black music like Prince and R&B and James Brown. After that, I became more fascinated with movie soundtracks that weren’t traditional classical music, specifically with composers like Jon Brion and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. I think all of those influences made their way into my album Perpetual heartbreak through the textures and the moods that I tried to create.
Ming & Ping had a considerable following and sound, which you were responsible for. What were some of the things you learned from that project? What made you want to step away and create your own music under your real name?
The biggest thing I learned from doing Ming & Ping for over a decade is that packaging matters. Technical music skills onstage are a lot more of a niche interest than most people assume. It’s much more about being engaging and involving your audience than to simply playing your songs well. Once a fanbase is established, internal references and inside jokes help create a tribe or community of fans, so we had recurring themes and phrases like “spicy” or mocking Ping’s white trousers.
The main reason for releasing an album as BAO was simply to be able to expand my palette without diluting the Ming & Ping brand. It gave me a lot of freedom to write about topics differently and incorporate a lot more of my musical influences.
Musically, Ming & Ping were stylistically very minimal, with an intentionally limited sonic palette. On the other hand, BAO has no rules other than to unite around one central concept. My comfort zone is pop music with 80s inspired synth production. Ming & Ping were the epitome of that. BAO starts in that same place, but then veers into many other directions and deviates often from standard song structures. I also leaned into the pandemic’s “new normal” to collaborate with people remotely, which brought an effective and interesting level of controlled chaos.
I’ve always known you as a visual artist first, who then decided to pursue music. How has your visual artistry influenced your music career? Do you consider these multiple talents to be interrelated or separate?
Yeah, I’ve been visual artist for as long as my memory serves me, making drawings and sculptures and mixed media, then larger room-sized art installations as I attended the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston. I eventually learned that music is more immediate and requires a lower barrier to entry. You don’t have to have existing art knowledge or vocabulary to feel whether a song is good or not. You just do.
I see them as separate skill sets, but they inform each other. I treat my music as a combination of conceptual art and user experience design. The art aspect is very creative and experiential, while the design aspect helps me clarify and focus so that I can control what the audience experiences and when. For this, I’m grateful for training at the ArtCenter College of Design and a decade-long career as a designer and creative director in tech and marketing. I was afraid that working in design was a distraction from my main passion, but it actually informs my music in a way that is very different from lots of musicians.
When did you begin creating and playing music? Are you a formally trained musician or self-taught?
In 9th grade in high school, some friends invited me to play bass in their pop-punk band. I didn’t know how to play at the time but I picked up a Fender Squire bass and started figuring out how to play a few originals and covers with those dudes. We never performed anywhere, but later on in my high school career, I recorded some abstract textural sound art onto a friend’s reel-to-reel recorder. I learned digital audio engineering in my first year of art school and when I dropped out, I used that knowledge to start recording some Ming & Ping songs. I used my visual art skills to create some key images of Ming & Ping, which helped them go viral before memes were a thing. (image of M&P holding hands)
Something else that helped Ming & Ping’s success was loaning my songs to friends who placed them in their amateur skate videos. Pretty soon it was driving new listeners to my website, and after that, it helped our music get licensed by some of the biggest consumer brands in the sports and lifestyle products industry.
I’m self-taught. I can’t read music and I never had traditional training. However, I’ve been so entrenched in the arts, so I have the vocabulary to describe what I want aesthetically, even if I’m not using proper music terminology. I’m sure I’d be much more efficient if I was classically trained, but I do appreciate the broad perspective I have from being involved in other areas of the arts.
Perpetual Heartbreak has a really wide range of sounds and influences that can be heard: electronica, dance, R & B, disco, new wave and more. What were you listening to or thinking about musically when you created this album?
First and foremost, I wanted to create a cinematic experience. Listening to this album should be like watching a surreal David Lynch or Michel Gondry film on VHS. The core of my style is 80s inspired synth-pop a la early 80s Prince, Kraftwerk, and Pet Shop Boys. But in this record, veered into a few other genres, as you said. More modern influences have been Nine Inch Nails, Jon Brion, The Weeknd, and the overt vulnerability in Julia Michaels’ songwriting.
Something that heavily influenced the theme of the record was the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which came to the front of my mind during the pandemic. Wabi-sabi teaches about the acceptance of things being impermanent, finding peace in solitude, and embracing or even encouraging imperfection. That’s been my vibe for a long time, but in this album, it’s a leading component and you can hear it in the intentionally melted synth sounds or the long, lonely reverbs.
The album is also a journey with a narrative. You’ve stated in other interviews that this is about some relationships you’ve experienced and what you’ve learned from it. How did it feel to put yourself and your personal feelings out there? Was it cathartic? Did you feel any vulnerability in the process?
This album was the most unvarnished and vulnerable release I’ve ever put out. It goes into topics I never felt comfortable writing about before, from my experience as a refugee from Vietnam, to the shortcomings of the Asian American community in dealing with mental health, to my very personal experience of being in a relationship with an abusive partner.
It felt good to break down some of the barriers of my ego while making this record, but I don’t think that will be my approach all the time from now on. Firstly, because it takes a lot out of you and secondly, because it’s a lot of fun to role play and write things that aren’t always personal or super meaningful. I’m not ready to give up the fun of writing shallow pop songs or silly love songs.
You recently dove into the world of composing music for films. How has that been different than other music projects and albums you’ve done in the past? How is it different from creating an album like Perpetual Heartbreak or Ming & Ping music?
I’ve done a couple of short films and mobile games, but it’s something I’d absultutely like to do more of. I enjoy doing music for picture because I’m so visual and very mood-based. It gives me a chance to manipulate emotion through music, a component that most people discount in a film. They’re there to see the movie, not listen to the music, but the music is what sets the mood for each scene.
Every filmmaker I’ve worked with has told me that their film felt complete once they heard original music over it. It’s different from making my pop records because your goal is to stay out of the way most of the time. You find melodic or textural themes to associate with different characters or settings. You play the role of guiding the viewer’s expectations before anything visual happens onscreen. It’s such a fun medium for me to explore and I’d love more opportunities to score soundtracks.
What’s next for you? And does Perpetual Heartbreak have any music videos to accompany some of the singles?
The song Perpetual Heartbreak has a very visually appropriate music video. It’s a single-shot video, which is a style I’ve been interested in lately. I’ve also created a mountain of supporting content for the album. There’s video series where audiences can listen along to the album with me in my studio as I react to the songs. It’s actually very emotional. There’s another series where I explain my personal meaning behind each song and a third video series where I walk viewers through the technical construction of each song in my Logic Pro X files.
Post-release, I’ve been collaborating more and co-writing more, especially with younger Asian American artists. It’s been a goal of mine to support the careers of other Asian Americans and be the mentor and resource that I never had when I was coming up. I hope that they’ll never hear that there’s no market for their subject matter, as I’ve been told in the past about my music.
I’ve also been working with The Slants Foundation, on which I serve on the board of directors. We put on monthly workshops and events and we give grants to support musicians and creatives of color, especially in the Asian American community. We’re launching our own conference this year and have some very accomplished keynote speakers lined up. The foundation was founded by Simon Tam, whose band The Slants spent a decade fighting a legal battle regarding trademarking their band name. They eventually made it all the way to the US Supreme Court and won in a unanimous decision in 2017. The Foundation follows that tradition of empowering POC musicians to own their cultural identities. You can find our nonprofit at theslants.org
Amarantha da Cruz is an American born Brazilian writer. She loves music, art, words, film and magic. She’s also the founder of OyeDrum Magazine.