We catch up with Stephanie Poetri, Keshi And Eaj at Head in the Clouds festival.
Everyone agrees that 2020 was a complete mess; from politics, racism, to the pandemic, the list goes on. With remnants of last year trickling into 2021, one may say the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness come to mind. As we all continue to navigate how we can amplify each other’s voices during these tough times, the movement behind 88rising has become consistent through the form of music and art.
Since its foundation in 2015, by Sean Miyashiro and Jaeson Ma, 88rising has highlighted dozens of Asian acts around the world on their platform to expose them to the masses, and also do so for a cause. So, when the collective announced the comeback of their Head in the Clouds festival earlier this year, it felt like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel after being thrown into a massive hellhole.
88rising artists Joji, Rich Brian and NIKI respectively closed out Saturday and Sunday while big names like Saweetie, CL, Feel Ghood Music (Tiger JK, Yoon Mirae, Bizzy and BIBI), eaJ (Jae of DAY6), keshi, Stephanie Poetri, DPR Live, UMI, Guapdad 4000 and many more came right before. Acts were evenly divided into two stages (88 Stage and Double Happiness Stage) where set times were equally staggered on top of each other, giving attendees enough time to walk across the Rose Bowl Stadium lot to see each one.
In between sets, we caught up with three of the big acts on the lineup who also happen to be friends with one another and produce relatable music. (Peep that foot pic that was taken backstage between the three of them.) But the one major sentiment they all share? “It feels fucking amazing” to be back [on stage, in person, seeing friends], says eaJ.
Releasing her quarantine-themed AM:PM EP earlier this year, the Indonesian singer-songwriter with honey-like vocals expresses her joy of being back, and also reveals she moved back to Los Angeles.
“The biggest stark difference is being able to go into sessions again,” she begins to explain. “Because in COVID I was in Indonesia. So, it was all Zoom sessions and maybe once a week if I was lucky. But here I work maybe 4 to 5 sessions a week, and so there’s a lot more music. It feels kind of nice to get back into it. And my favourite part is all the new music coming out from other artists. You know because we had a little dryness, I would say. You know, I was a little thirsty.”
In the wake of what’s been going around the Asian community, Poetri highlights the movement 88rising stands by as well as the celebration at Head in the Clouds. “‘88’ and Head in the Clouds has always been a celebration of Asian excellence and just being able to feel the love and everyone just being proud is really nice,” she says. “My favorite thing is representation. Like all the people coming here are going to be able to just watch people who look like them, who’ve gone through experiences that they have, and I think that’s one of the things I feel so grateful to be a part of.”
Just two hours away from her performance on the Double Happiness stage, she says her song “Selfish” is a song she’s excited to perform because of the audience engagement. “There’s a little pause in the chorus and I really want to see the crowd pause as well. The thing is with AM:PM, it’s kind of about COVID because it was written during the pandemic and so it’s almost like a part of me kinda just wants to let it go, because you know I’m over it.”
Talking about being relatable, the 21-year-old songstress says her ultimate calling would be writing music to accompany others and hopefully be “background music or the soundtrack to someone’s life.” “Everytime I write a song it’s in the hopes it’ll accompany someone through something they’re going through or even just if they’re studying and they just need some, you know!” she explains. “The fact that I get to like doing this as my job is incredible, and so I kinda just always try to get people what they want, and I try not to take it too seriously.“
Now that she’s back in action with the 88rising team and reveals new music is on the way, the “I Love You 3000” singer namedrops her two friends eaJ and keshi as two acts she’s excited to see and possibly work with. “I actually started conversing with Jae and Keshi during the pandemic because we would play games together,” she says. “So I can’t wait to watch them perform live. And they’re also incredible musicians.”
The 27-year-old Vietnamese-Texan just finished performing his set at the festival that was quickly followed by a small appearance during NIKI’s when he caught up with us. As the festival’s closer Joji plays in the background of our talk, keshi, whose real name is Casey Luong, expresses that he’s on a spiritual high from everything that’s going on in his career. As the lo-fi, contemporary R&B singer with falsettos worth swooning over just dropped his newest single “SOMEBODY” (Oct. 28), participated in the Shang-Chi soundtrack with “War with Heaven” and is currently opening for LANY’s tour, keshi stays grounded whenever he’s with the 88rising movement. “It’s just a reminder for why I do this,” he blurts out in an instant. “It’s invigorating, it’s life-changing to see all these fans out there and everything. It’s why I do it, you know? I’m elated. I’m still kinda high from the adrenaline. Also, I hear Joji in the background and it gets me very excited.”
As for the festival? “I think it’s a great opportunity for everyone to kinda get back together and remember there is such a solid foundation in the community of us here. That there shouldn’t be a reason for us to feel we’re alone or isolated. So events like these I think are really impactful for our community.” Booked and busy with shows left and right as things open back up again, keshi chooses the fan favorite classic “2 Soon” as his favorite song to perform. “I feel like it reminds everyone of why they fell for keshi in the first place. It’s often the first one that they’ve heard.” He reveals he’s “created a new outro portion for the live setting.”
However, one may be surprised as to why another fan favorite track, “skeletons”, is not part of his set. And it’s not the first time he’s heard of that. “I actually really feel like ‘skeletons’ is an amazing song. But for a live setting, I feel like it wouldn’t work the way I want to convey myself, you know? Maybe one of these days on tour, it’ll make its way to a setlist.”
With a discography composed of EPs and singles, each surpassing a million in streams, keshi doesn’t have a particular message he has with his brand. “I don’t want to feel like I’m getting into a soapbox preach or anything. At the end of the day, music is an extension of myself, my creativity, and it’s an art that I want to make depending on, you know, what sort of expression that I’m trying to create at that time.”
Revealing that a full-length studio album is currently finished, keshi reveals that more music videos will be coming up as well. “We have some really exciting content coming up that I actually can’t really talk about quite yet. As for the album. It’s done, it’s mixed. And getting mastered right now so I can’t wait for everyone to hear it.”
While he’s worked with various artists under 88rising in the past, at the moment riding solo to focus on his voice is the way to go. “At the moment, I’m very focused on trying to develop and carve out my own sound first. So, I think solo is still the wave for me.”
There’s a powerful ray of sunlight that’s coming through eaJ’s smile as he takes the stage on Saturday for a special appearance during DPR Live and DPR Ian’s “Jam & Butterfly” performance at the festival. Bouncing through the extended stage and engaging with the audience, eaJ, who many may know as Jae of DAY6, shows what’s to come for his own set the day after.
Listed as one of the acts on Sunday at the 88 Stage, eaJ is already in his zone, looking like he just consumed a couple of 5-hour energy drinks as he approaches me. How does he feel to be home from South Korea and performing at Head in the Clouds with his solo projects? “It feels fucking amazing, dude.” He says he’s finally ready to just pop off on stage and go crazy. He’s just hours out from his set and he’s still on a high from his appearance on DPR’s set the day prior. “I’m looking forward to hopefully not being nervous on stage. There and there was a lot of energy but I want a little more. I need it to be a little more somethin’, you know what I mean?”
The world was introduced to eaJ in 2019 and since then the 29-year-old Korean-American singer has worked on his solo projects under the pseudonym while collaborating with other acts. Though his songs aren’t on any streaming platforms and can only be found on YouTube, each solo track delivers a different color and unique vibe compared to him as the lead vocalist and center of his band. (Because of this, he jokes that “half the crowd is going to be like, ‘Who the f—k is this guy and why is he not singing?” during his set.)
“My stage is gonna be a lot of energy,” he shares with me as we sit outside the press house. “I’m also doing some heartfelt songs and I have a special song called ‘50 Proof’ that I really want to give to my fans because they’ve been waiting for me for a year and a half to get back on stage. It’s a song that could be called for self-reflection or could even be called to a loved one but I wanted to give them the hook for it. For some of it, I wanted to give them the opportunity to have that song and to be on, to share that stage with me. I’m pretty much emptying most of the chorus for them.”
His journey to be one of 88rising’s recruits all began during his band’s Europe tour in 2019. “I love Rich Brian. I love NIKI,” he professes. “I was just showing love online to ‘88’ but then they hit me. And they were like ‘Yo, you’re dope. We should work’ and I was like ‘the f—k?” And at that point, I had nothing up my sleeve. There was no ‘LA Trains’. Nothing. Like, my project didn’t even start! So they just kind of went, ‘We think DAY6 is dope. Do you guys want to do something?’ And I was like, ‘Dude, hell yeah!’ And then it was up in the air. Then I released my solo ‘LA Trains’ and Sean automatically was like ‘What is this? Want to tell me something about this?’ And he asked for some other stuff so I sent him three or four of the songs that I had ready to go. And he was like ‘Yo, let’s do something.’ And then from there it’s just been all love.”
Eventually, the love he’s given and received by the 88rising crew has finally come into fruition as he performs fourth to last on the festival’s main stage. Excited really isn’t the word to describe how he feels right now. But from an objective standpoint, you can tell he’s currently experiencing the happiest, if not one of, moments of his life. “Just being at this festival, in general, just means the world, man,” he tells me straight in the eyes. “You could’ve asked me like a year and a half ago or you could have told me in a year and a half you’re going to be on 88 performing 6:30, main stage, having your own set. I would’ve been like “Get the f—k outta here. What are you talking about?” And now that I’m here it’s just like wow. And a lot of people may talk but I worked hard for this shit. I really grinded. I worked for this, I literally lost my sanity for it. It’s not just for this. It’s for DAY6 too. I feel like in the long run, I feel like we both have been able to have fruitful experiences and fruitful production from the whole Asian experience.”
As we closed off our discussion, eaJ continues to manifest more work for himself including a collaboration with 88rising’s R&B songstress NIKI. (“At this point, I’m begging. I’ve asked like 50 times.”) But what’s next on his agenda? “World domination.”