Get To Know CEHRYL [Interview]

Kieran Kohorst
Credit: Gemma Harrad

The hours between dawn and dusk exist in multitudes - they can be euphoric, haunting, frustrating, revelatory, restful; sometimes all at once, other times never at all. For do-it-all musician CEHRYL, these hours are best described as productive. “I can only create when the night comes, and the house is quiet,” she explains, detailing the process of recording her newest release, willow tree. The album is arranged, produced, written, and performed by CEHRYL herself, the music taking on the nature of the environment she created it in. willow tree is serene, emotional without being jarring, and deftly assembled to elicit a considered response from the listener. “The album, to me, feels loose, hazy and vignette-like, but still has its own trajectory,” the Hong-Kong based artist shares of the project. 

Below, CEHRYL speaks to how willow tree came to fruition, the laboring process of being creative, hosting her own radio show in Hong Kong, and more. 

You aim for a sense of comfortability on this new LP, which is established from the first track and sustains throughout. The music was recorded at night, in a quiet house - what do you think is the best way for a listener to take in willow tree? What kind of environment suits this album best? 

CEHRYL: Probably alone, commuting somewhere during the day or on a walk in the evening, or after midnight in the quiet of your room, to parallel the environment in which I wrote the songs.  It’s an introspective, dreamy collection of songs that I hope my listeners hear themselves in.

In producing, writing, and recording this music by yourself, did you find it easier or more difficult to work through any struggles that came up in the process? Was it easy to find those answers on your own, or was it a challenge to not have others to rely on?

I’m a bit of a control freak, so it’s always easier for me to work by myself. I recognize and respect the benefits of working with other people—and that’s something I want to do more of—but I find it most efficient writing and recording by myself as I am able to be at my most transparent and without fear or judgment of any of my ideas or takes. The flow of creativity is best, I’ve found so far, when I can try out all my bad ideas without wasting time or energy putting out disclaimers.

The shortest track on this album is “swimming pool,” at just over a minute long. In that small window, some of the most pointed writing on the album takes place, in my opinion. What’s the story behind putting that track together, and how did you know when it was finished?

I wrote that song in 2020, when I moved back to Hong Kong from LA due to unforeseen circumstances, leaving behind deep friendships and a music community formed in my most formative years. It was hard to accept, at the time, that I had to let that all go. I was a little depressed at the time and had all this imagery of sinking in my head. I wrote and recorded the song quickly one night—to me it’s an interjection (in the album and in my life), an aside, to myself, a note to self that “it’s time for the next, time / for the next”. After writing two verses, I didn’t want the song to go to some catchy chorus. It was unnecessary to me, so I just kept it at that, some sort of vignette.

It’s mentioned in the press release that you had a hard time creating music for awhile, and it wasn’t until you heard a new album that you had the drive to create again. What were you keeping busy with during that time you weren’t actively making music, and did it teach you anything about yourself? Are you able to share what album it was that brought you back to your own art?

It’s easy to paint a picture of “during the time I didn’t make music, I lived life and absorbed different books and albums and films, putting music down for a bit” etc. etc. but that’s not true. During that time, I tried to make music, I just wasn’t happy with any of it. I lacked the energy to sit through long hours of workshopping an idea until it was better—the basis of making any art good in my opinion (just sitting there for longer). But I didn’t feel hopeful about my music career, and was just overwhelmed by how streaming and capitalism (haha you can roll your eyes) have led to the pressure on artists to market themselves as brands on the internet. So I was busy with trying to make music, busy feeling shitty about the music that I was making, busy trying to find a middle ground between “making music is so narcissistic” and “but music is my only purpose”, busy thinking about what I should be doing with my life instead, busy at my job in Hong Kong, busy thinking about all the other more real things happening in the world. The album that made me feel really excited to make music again was Nick Hakim’s Cometa. When I heard it, it felt like falling in love for the first time again, in the most earnest and unashamed way.

“rules” feels like a track myself and others are going to be coming back to as a favorite. Before the song fully develops, you repeat that you “don’t make the rules,” just before swooping in with your feather-light vocals to deliver a verse. While they may not be relevant to this track in particular, are there any rules in your life that you have been following lately that have made a difference in your lifestyle or creativity?

I’m tryna have less rules! If we’re talking about discipline though, I’m trying to read more. Trying to carve out X amount of days every week too to sit down, open Ableton, or play my instrument. 

Just before your album’s release, you joined Almond Milk for a track titled “California” that was written in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. The song has a distinctly different spirit from what appears on willow tree - what was the experience like working on a track this unique, especially juxtaposed with the sound of all that exists on willow tree?

My friends in Almond Milk had the foundation and arrangement for the song a few months ago—I wrote some Cantonese lyrics and sang on it. It was a fun project that came out around the same time as the singles for Willow Tree but in my head it has nothing to do with it at all. I love projects like this though, they’re liberating and just fun when you don’t have to consider a coherent concept or sound.

Over the past few months, you’ve been hosting monthly shows on a Hong Kong community radio that features field recordings of Hong Kong, songs you like, and voice notes from fans. You referred to the show as an “experiment” on your Instagram - what are some highlights from your time on air interacting with listeners?

Doing radio shows has been really good practice for me. Honestly, I don’t know who listens to my shows—maybe it’s two or three people, but I’m grateful for that still. For myself, signing up to do them has propelled me more proactive with searching for unfamiliar artists or songs (as opposed to relying on Discover Weekly or other algorithms). It’s also been good training for creating an emotional arc with 12-13 songs. I’ve loved receiving voice notes from everyone—they all warm my heart and I would love more (please send them to I really loved my friend Alex Siber’s long one which he made with his family. 

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