Clara Chung, A YouTube Star on the Rise
Story by Eri Mizobe
Photos provided by Clara Chung
What do you get when a talented and beautiful (both on the inside and out) young woman is combined with a guitar, ethereal voice, and recording devices? Meet Clara Chung, a Korean-American singer. Little known just two years ago, Chung found her way into the music industry by posting videos of covers and original songs on YouTube.
Born in New York and raised in Los Angeles, Chung has been singing and playing instruments much of her life. Last June, she graduated from the University of California – Irvine (UCI) with a major in psychology and minor in education. The following September she released her first album, The Art in My Heart.
Chung will play a free concert hosted by the Asian Pacific American Student Union (APASU) in the Living-Learning Center on Friday, February 11. Before her show, Chung took some time to discuss her campus visit with Ethos and what comes next for a YouTube star.
Eri Mizobe: What inspired you to post your videos on YouTube? Was it scary at first?
Clara Chung: Well, at first I was just pushed by my friends to post videos. They told me that I should try it out. I actually didn’t want to, but I did so anyways involuntarily. But it turned out to be a good thing, and now I do it because I either really want to offer a different version of a song or launch my own stuff.
EM: I heard that you play the glockenspiel. What kind of instrument is that?
CC: It’s like a xylophone. Basically, it sounds like bells, and you hit it with mallets. It has a very Christmas-y tone to it. I love them.
EM: For people who aren’t familiar with your music, how would you describe it? Who are your biggest musical influences?
CC: It’s honestly very hard to say because my album takes on a lot of different sounds. It has ten songs, and within those there are songs that are very much like Sara Bareilles and others that are more like Coldplay. And there are other songs that I can’t categorize. I guess if you want to sum up influences, I’d say definitely Sara Bareilles, John Mayer, Feist. I try to take the best of all these artists that I really admire and somehow incorporate them in my music.
EM: You’ve said that if you hadn’t gone to UCI, you might not be a singer today. What particular experience(s) in college influenced you to pursue music?
CC: Irvine is kind of the reason why my music is alive because when I was in Los Angeles, all the people around me–my inner circle of friends–all discouraged music. Even people as close as my boyfriend would say that they don’t think music is for me, and that I wouldn’t make it. It was really disheartening. But when I went to Irvine, I was forced to be around a completely different city and people. Through joining organizations, I met people who told me that I should really try something. I thought ‘no’ because it was engrained in my head that I can’t do it. I convinced myself that I could never pursue a career in music, but these friends of mine in Irvine, they’re the ones who forced me to put videos on YouTube and enter competitions. I owe it to all of Irvine, and the happy spirit of Irvine.
EM: In 2010, you won the Kollaboration LA competition. Can you tell me more about what that was, and how you got involved? Did winning the competition help you solidify your decision to become a singer?
CC: Kollaboration is a long-time running competition, and there’s every kind of talent, from Bollywood dancers to magicians, and even people who can do freaky human tricks. Of course, everyone auditions and they all compete, usually for a cash prize. The competition has become exponentially bigger. I think it’s now held in about twenty different cities all over the US. I competed in Kollaboration 10, for their tenth anniversary. It was held in the shrine by the University of Southern California, and it’s where the Emmy Awards were held one year, so it definitely hit legit standards.
As far as how I got involved, every competition I’ve ever participated in has been because a friend referred me. Someone told me, ‘Clara, you should audition. They’re doing auditions two blocks away!’ I hate auditions–all the rejections, and just being put on the spot–it’s such an uncomfortable zone! But I thought ‘Why not?’ and so I went to audition. It literally took only about a minute and a half. I walked in and set up, which took twenty seconds, and then I played and sang, which took about a minute, and then I walked out in ten seconds. I got a call back, which was crazy because I was going to have to perform in front of 6,000 people. I didn’t know what to perform, so I wrote a song, which was ‘Offbeat’ [featured on her new album]. And somehow I won.
It was overwhelming because it broke all of those beliefs I had about myself, the beliefs that bad friends gave me about how I can’t make music my career. I really didn’t think I could win, so winning a competition of such a huge scale made me realize that anything’s possible. It was great, and not to mention [there was a] $2,000 cash prize. I gave it all to my parents, but that’s alright. It was the least I could do to thank them for all that they do.
CC: Uh…no, not really. The boyfriend–absolutely not. I found myself naturally moving away from people with whom I didn’t feel support. It’s such a sensitive thing, and musicians are sensitive people. We’re a little more emotional than most human beings, so I really didn’t want to be around bad energy. And now I’ve found a place where I can grow. But of course, I’m still cool with all of them!
EM: What was it like to produce your debut CD?
CC: Oh gosh! Imagine the one thing you’ve always wanted to do, but you knew was never possible, and then one day someone shows up and says, ‘Hey! We’re gonna do that thing that you thought was impossible.’ I was right next to Lupe Fiasco, and Sara Bareilles was walking in and out too. It’s a very renowned studio, and it was a dream come true. Everything worked perfect with it.
EM: Have your parents shaped your goals in any way?
CC: Yeah, that is the underlining topic in most of my fan mail. Fans always ask me for advice because they want to become something other than what their parents want them to be. But I’m a little different because I never heard the word ‘doctor’ or ‘lawyer’ my entire life. My parents never stressed any profession on me. I think they believe that you shouldn’t stand in the way of what your kid was born to do. They’ve always been an advocate for my well-being and happiness, so they’ve always let me do what I want to do, even if it meant making a few wrong turns. In the end, it all turns out to be a life lesson anyway.
I think my parents did a really good job. But for people who are dealing with those kinds of pressure, you can’t blame them, especially if your parents are immigrants because they just want the kids to lead a happy life. But I guess for me, even when I had the revelation that I’m going to pursue music, I’ve never been a huge risk taker, so I wanted to have a bachelor’s degree in my pocket as Plan B. So what I tell kids who are under pressure is that you’ve got to take care of yourself, and by doing so you also make your parents happy. There’s a way to do two things at the same time. It’s really hard, but you’ve got to really want it. I personally didn’t have too much pressure growing up.
The thing about my career and music is that it’s not ‘Asian,’ you know? Because music is universal, regardless of color, and when you hear a song, you don’t think about color, you only think things like, ‘Oh that’s a great song.’ So I feel like being Asian has nothing to do with it. If it does, then there’s a problem. I’ve always been a fan of multiculturalism and equality, so I think my perspective on things doesn’t really let me feel like anything’s because I’m Asian. I think that should be the perspective of everyone. Color? What color?
EM: Do you think that the Internet, particularly YouTube, has helped people be heard?
CC: Oh my gosh, are you kidding me? I think YouTube is a miracle-worker in every field of entertainment, or anything for that matter. Artists are there, people who direct films are there…I think YouTube is going to change the world, if it hasn’t already. And I know a lot of people say, ‘Why do you think there’s so many Asians on YouTube?’ but as far as I’m concerned, there’s so many people from different backgrounds on YouTube doing what they’re good at, and it’s working. They’re gaining numbers and clout and starting their careers and it’s getting serious!
EM: What was it like to perform at the White House during Asian American and Pacific Islanders Heritage month?
CC: It was awesome! I basically performed at a panel for the U.S. Department of Education. It was great to hear the chancellor speak on education. And Kal Penn from Harold & Kumar was there! He’s actually the one who referred me. So it was great. Everyone was really professional and I felt really proud. I think we’re actually going to do another similar event in Los Angeles, and this time I’ll actually be speaking on panel.
I guess it helps that I have a foot in the door on education. I teach autistic kids, it’s my day job. The kids are great. Sometimes I go home with beatings, just because autistic kids have a hard time communicating, so sometimes they hit or scratch you to try to say something. But I still love what I do. It’s a priceless moment when your kid makes progress. That’s why my heart is with teaching autistic kids. I love teaching ‘regular’ kids, too, but something about helping someone who is really in need makes me happy. And again, it’s all about having a Plan B. I paid so much for a piece of paper that says I minored in psychology, so I want to implement it and build experience. [Laughs.]
EM: What is the best advice anyone has ever given you, and what is your best advice to others?
CC: The best advice I’ve ever heard is when I was having a meltdown. My friend verbally slapped me in the face, and said, ‘Hey, Clara, remember why we’re doing this. It’s for fun.’ Especially now that I’m an independent artist doing everything from ordering something, to hand-drawing a design, to actually performing on a stage and going to meetings–all of that is handled my just me and my manager. So it starts to feel very tiring. That’s when I have to stop and ask myself, ‘What’s wrong with the picture?’ I’ve realized that I have to make it fun.
My advice for others is that you’ve got to chase what you love to do. If you don’t, I strongly believe that you’re going to be miserable. Go ahead and chase the dollars, but if you don’t love what you do, in the end, you’re not going to be happy. Money buys pleasure, not happiness, at least for me. So my motto is to do what you love.
EM: What’s one fun fact about you that most people don’t know?
CC: I absolutely love noodles! If I could eat one thing for the rest of my life, it would be noodles. In any form, from any cuisine, it would be noodles that I would live on. It gets a little annoying for my friends, though, because whenever they ask me what we should go to eat, I say pasta or ramen! [Laughs.]