Caroline Chung
Caroline Chung | Credit: Katherine Thomas Miller

Oakland bassist, composer, producer, and Citizens Jazz band leader Caroline Chung’s new album, Sounds of Haejin, draws its title from her Korean name. Its source material comes from poetry and half-written songs stashed in notebooks she’s kept for decades. The 12-track album’s stylistically diverse sound arrives undeniably from Chung’s wide-roving musical background, interests, and collaborative partners who are often, but not exclusively, longtime friends.

Caroline Chung - "Sounds of Haejin"

“Killer Cops” delivers its crisp “End their dreams with one shot / They don't care ready or not” message wrapped within the lush curvature of Charith Premawardhana’s violin playing and pumped ever-forward by the drums of Brandon Farmer — two musicians Chung refers to as “great friends.” “Give Thanks” features rapper Imerald Brown, a one-time roommate, along with vocals from Chung and two more close friends, Taqwa (Leilani Adesanya) and Andre Mateo. On most of the tracks, Oakland guitarist Khalil Doak-Anthony, with whom Chung has collaborated since the late 1990s and who she says is “like family,” joins her on instrumentals and production. In all, over 14 Bay Area artists are involved, including San Francisco Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin, album artwork by San Francisco DJ Romanowski, and a music video (for “Vitamin D”) by Chung and rapper/producer So-So Topic.

There are also songs for which Chung reached out to vocalists she had never worked with or met in person. Asked during an interview if she deliberately seeks certain sonic resonance with her own voice or gravitates to counter-shade vocal artists when pursuing singers, Chung says, “I do think of the different voices and who will fit with a song. For singers [on the new album] I didn’t know, I just reached out through social media, sent songs, and let them choose. Most songs I write by singing myself and then try to see who would sound good on it.”

Chung founded Citizens Jazz in 2010. Prior to the pandemic she was busy gigging in the Bay Area — performing jazz standards, soul, blues, Latin funk, and Brazilian music. She is known to veer away from the music industry’s all-male, all-white domination, and frequently hires women or people of color as collaborators or band members. In a phone conversation, Chung is concise, answering questions with admirable brevity not unlike her songwriting style: Say it right, say it once, move on.

What are your earliest memories related to music and the role it played as you moved into your teen and young adult years.

I come from a Korean family. It’s typical of Asian families to have their kids learn piano or violin. Most Asian kids growing up in their culture will learn an instrument. My mom forced me and my sister to take piano lessons. It turns out I had the talent for it and my sister did not. That’s where my music started. Funny enough, I was known for being good at digital art, drawing. I ended up going to School for the Arts in Jacksonville, Florida. I was there for visual arts, and if I could have gone back, I would have done the music program.

When did being “forced” convert into something else?

After I stopped learning to play piano, I started learning to play acoustic guitar on my own. I learned all the hippie songs: Bob Dylan, that kind of stuff. And then I moved to Seattle when I was 21. I started playing bass, electric bass, and it was more about trying to start a band with other girls; trying to have an all-girl, punk-rock band thing. I was also dating a bass player who was phenomenal, and he inspired me. I was into hip-hop, funk, soul. I just played along to records. Parliament, Funkadelic, old-school James Brown. The funk grooves are only a couple chords, so it’s easy to play along to and get a feel of how to play. Later, after I moved to the Bay Area, I started getting into jazz, bought an upright bass, took classes at City College, Community Music Center, Berkeley Jazz School, SF State.

What has music become for you, during the pandemic, that it might not have been before and what does that indicate to you about your priorities?

For me it was trying to focus on original music. Gigging a lot; it was mostly all covers. That’s part of the gigging world here. They want to hear covers. I’ve always written poetry and had books where I’d write in it. I had half-written songs and poetry so I compiled what I had. I built a studio in my living room and it was me, thinking, “What do I want to leave behind? How are you going to be remembered?” [The answer] is never [being] a cover band or playing cover music.

Caroline Chung
Caroline Chung | Credit: Graham Holoch

You’ve been involved in equity and fair wages issues prior to COVID-19. During the pandemic many musicians “gave away” their music for free online. What are the dangers you see in that? Was there benefit?

I do think it’s detrimental to all the musicians when some musicians decide to play for free, or play a venue and not ask for money. The whole part of unionizing is so all musicians can be on the same page and stand together. We don’t have a union to do that for us so it’s up to us to set those standards. With Zoom concerts, it’s a whole different thing. It’s hard to get people to pay attention; it’s a different feel. It’s hard to get people to pay you when performing through Zoom. But in general, it’s our responsibility to have certain requirements for our services. We should have some basic income for musicians when we perform.

With the social justice protests in 2020 and calls for racial and gender equity on the front burner as we come out of COVID, what’s key to keeping the momentum going?

The number one thing is self-care. People need to remember the most important thing is you are at optimal physical and mental health. That will lead you in the right direction. I do spend time taking care of myself and that helps me focus. It helps my creativity.

It keeps your mind from wasting time thinking about negative things. Meditation is [a way] to help transform the way you think. That’s something I’ve been working on. I think women are still going to be rising and doing amazing things. For myself, I’m always trying to work with other women. From my experience and all these years of playing, I’ve always felt completely ignored, never hired, never taken seriously. All the stereotypical, sexist things women deal with. My strength is from going through all that. What keeps me going is trying to prove these people wrong because I’ve been doubted by so many people.

Where does that inner strength come from?

I have dealt with my health, so that was a big event many years ago. In 2010, I was diagnosed with cancer. I basically refused chemo and radiation and took my own path. I was told, like everyone else, that I had to do chemo and radiation. The medical industry is corrupt and I don’t trust it. I did research and saw how corrupt the cancer was. I decided not to do chemo and I’m doing great over 10 years later. That’s how I make decisions. I’m pretty clear as to what I want and things like that. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time wasting time.

 

What paradigms have toppled in your industry  as a result of the pandemic?

Even places like SFJAZZ are trying to incorporate other styles of music. The classical symphonies are working with hip-hop artists. I feel like that’s a lot of them trying to reach out to what’s currently popular to get more audience. The sad thing is that younger folks are not listening to jazz and definitely not to classical music. There is still the need to keep it alive as educational and historical. One thing is taking over the other. People still want live music. Whether it’s in a concert hall or on a street in the Mission [District], it’s going to happen. People just need to be more supportive of live music. I wish our city would be more supporting of places that do have live music. They should be getting tax breaks or some sort of incentive.

You called yourself an “empath” in one of the interviews I read. Is that innate, learned, a product of your process of collaboration?

Ever since I was a child I was always trying to help. I would feel sorry for a homeless person. I noticed my friends wouldn’t notice them. It’s in my calling to do something with my art that will be of service to others. It’s part of being an empath and being a musician. Collaborating is a beautiful thing. When you collaborate, you touch on different magical experiences that come out of it.

What voice or instrumental qualities sound best in combination with your own?

The guitar player I’ve been working with for 20 years [Oakland guitarist Khalil Doak-Anthony]. He’s like family. We’ve played live gigs, and he has similar taste in electronics, funk, soul. We were working on music on the computer using electronic beats and for three or four of the tracks I had Brandon Farmer record his drums over it because some songs sound really good with live drums. With the voices, the number one thing is it has to sound soulful. It doesn’t matter if it’s a high voice or low voice. If it’s soulful, then that’s what I’m looking for.

Khalil Doak-Anthony and Caroline Chung
Khalil Doak-Anthony and Caroline Chung

Let’s talk about your new album and what it means to have a body of work collected instead of issuing single songs.

A record, that’s something that’s more traditional. I’m learning it’s not how people are doing things anymore. An album is a whole project: piecing together songs in order, designing the album cover. It’s designing the whole thing that’s part of the music. That’s what’s fun about putting out an album. But these days people are just putting singles out and that’s more the modern thing. I’ll be putting out singles after this, and then maybe if I have enough singles, maybe I’ll be cutting that as an album. With singles, you can give teasers until the album comes out.

What did you find most notable while learning new technology and techniques for mixing with Aki Ehara?

At first, I was having a hard time conveying what I was hearing to him since we weren’t meeting in person. The more we worked together, the more he got a better idea of what I like and sounds I like. It’s like a relationship, and I guess artists, when they get bigger, will usually have the same person mixing. What I would do is mix the song the way I thought it sounded cool and send it all to him. But then I realized my settings weren’t saved. We figured out the best way was to send a version and he’d work on a separate version. I was learning as I was going along. There were mistakes, like I accidentally permanently deleted a song I’d worked on forever and had to start again from scratch.

What process did you use to research and select equipment for building your own recording studio?

I knew basics, so I had already purchased a (Reason Studios) music program for the computer. A friend gave me some equipment he wasn’t using. I used that as my computer interface, invested in a really nice vocal mic, had my controller keyboard, and I made a vocal booth. My friend gave me his Akai EIE [a USB interface to connect audio components with a computer] and I bought a couple of monitors. It’s a small studio but it does the job.

Talk about writing, composing or recording a few of the songs on the album:

“Killer Cops”

That one I wrote last year. It’s a response to all the police brutality and murders happening in this country. I feel it’s more emotional than angry. I had my friend Charith (Premawardhana, of Classical Revolution) play violin. Why emotional? Because most of the response has been anger. The protests are an angry response. But when I think about those police murders, I think about what their families are going through and it makes me sad. That’s more of where I was coming from.

“Give Thanks”

The song was basically an honor to all the things we should be grateful for. I wanted to have a positive message in the album. That song, it’s like pieces of different recordings I did: the beginning is rapper Imerald Brown who I was briefly roommates with. She came over and recorded some stuff and I pieced it together with the rest of the song. The other two vocalists on it were two of my good friends I was hanging out with a lot. I wanted it to have a spiritual, church vibe.

“Chances”

I’m currently working on the music video. I feel that song is important to me. I just really connect with it. It’s about giving chances to people who are the underdogs. The people who don’t get a voice or don’t get a chance to succeed in anything.

There’s a line in the song, “It’ll be okay if you're wrong.” We don’t privilege ourselves with that idea often.

Yeah, it’s the idea of “give yourself a break.” It’s part of self-care, but also part of just moving forward and seeing the positives.

You are licensed massage therapist: What has happened with your practice?

I’ve done a few home visits with people. More recently, people are reaching out. The place I worked, Piedmont Spa in Oakland, closed but they left their website up permanently with all of our information so people are reaching out.

Future plans you want to mention?

My focus is to keep putting out new music, keep working on music videos. The videos are fun, new and interesting. I have a friend with a really nice camera. “Vitamin D” was our first. Now we’re doing video number two. In terms of live shows, I’d love to put on another Women in Jazz show.

Did you enjoy the article?

Sign up to our weekly newsletter to receive the latest articles every Tuesday