Newcomer Musician RONIN Discusses His Breakout Single ‘Chemical Smiles,” His Upcoming Debut EP and Much More!
Posted On 27 Jun 2019
His first single, “Chemical Smiles,” was released just last week and will be on his forthcoming EP titled “Ronin” due this August. The song was produced by Joe Vulpis (Lady Gaga).
Accompanying this track is a striking concept video which, like the single, clearly helps to define Ronin’s originality and brilliance. “I don’t want to be nobody but myself,” Ronin has said.
Ronin was born in Philadelphia, PA to a Korean-immigrant family. Starting piano at age 5, he quickly move onto playing the trumpet and was among the youngest jazz and classical trumpet players to perform in top-notch youth ensembles across the city. Then he picked up an electric guitar and played in rock and old school blues bands throughout high school. Not long after, Ronin was producing beats on his laptop and blasting hip-hop and RnB from the blown-out speakers of an old VW Jetta that he crashed just three months after buying. Always in search for new sounds, he decided to craft his own unique style to push the boundaries of popular music.
Ronin was bullied as a child, and he often struggles with his race and identity. When he was younger, Ronin fell hard for someone who would haunt him long after they separated. He uses music as a guide for his soul, to further understand himself and to honor the relationships that he’s lost along the way.
Connect With Ronin Here:
Apple Music: http://itunes.apple.com/album/id/1464047477
Management: Joe Vulpis: firstname.lastname@example.org l www.apmusicgroup.com/contact
Learn more about Ronin in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time today! Where does this interview find you?
Thanks for having me. I’m hitting small, intimate gigs and open mics in the tri-state area and along the upper east coast with my manager, Joe Vulpis. I have a performance schedule on my website, and yet it still feels unpredictable and redonkulous. I’m loving every second of it. For real though, it does remind me how painfully expensive gas gets.
Now that we are half-way through the year, how has 2019 been treating you? What are some goals that you have for yourself this year? How close are you to reaching them?
2019, from January 1st, has been a hurricane, straight up. I lose track of the days and consistently forget what the date is. “Chemical Smiles” officially released on June 17, and I forgot about it until Joe reminded me.
Million dollar cars, Gucci everything, a Bond-villain lair with a fleet of ninjas on retainer… no I’m playing. I don’t care about any of that. I set out this year to have some of my songs mixed and mastered, and Joe helped accomplish that in the best way possible. Together we mixed the songs with beautiful subtlety, and then Joe had incredible connections to have the best engineers master them. I now hope to reach as many listeners as I can. Good music and good shows feel rewarding enough, and making eye contact with people in a room while I sing gives me genuine pleasure. Numbers, views, likes, money, whatever some people call “success”, is not why I do music.
Growing up, how important was music in your life? Can you recall the moment when you decided that you wanted to be a musician? Was it an easy or difficult choice to make?
Music has been in me since I can remember. Good music is like a balm for stress and a compass to help me understand all my emotional mind states. I think growing up I didn’t realize that for a while because I didn’t have very good emotional awareness. I couldn’t communicate my feelings very well. But music always made sense to me. As life would change and sometimes pull me apart, music would constantly pull me back together and center me, and it was always naturally easy to understand.
I didn’t have a specific moment when I thought, “Step 1: Turn music into a job, Step 2: Profit”. It was a gradual process where I would spend more and more time practicing with no apparent end goal. By the time I even considered music as a career possibility, I was already practicing for four hours a day and turning all-nighters making beats or composing. The transition from hobby into career felt smooth and seamless.
It was an easy choice for me, I guess. But it was impossibly difficult for everyone else to accept. I think nobody expected the quiet, skinny Asian kid in class to bulk up thirty pounds and want to get up on stage and sing his neck out. My parents definitely didn’t expect that. I come from a pragmatic family that believes in studying hard for stable jobs in law or medicine. To tell my parents that I wanted to be a musician must’ve sounded to them like I was going to tie myself to a skateboard and roll myself into the intersection of Market and 15th in Center City. Eventually though, I convinced my parents and even my grandparents through sheer dedication and hard work. When they respected the hustle, it was easier for them to accept it. It took a long time though.
Was there ever a time when you thought about doing something else? If you weren’t a musician today, what else could you see yourself doing? Would you be as fulfilled in life?
When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a doctor because my dad was a doctor. It was purely out of admiration. Look him up. Man’s a genius. Then, as I began to develop integrity and my own identity, no “practical job” made sense for my future. I hated math, and though I’m fascinated with blood, I don’t like the idea of suturing people up. Music, as I said before, made sense above all else. If I weren’t a musician, maybe I’d be a psychologist or a marine biologist because apparently there’s a jellyfish that can age backwards, and octopi are smarter than dogs. Or, hold up, maybe a stuntman. I loved jumping down stairs in middle school – I think my record is twelve steps – and I was really into parkour in high school. But none of those would fulfill me like music does.
What has been the biggest surprise so far about making music your career? What has been an unexpected or welcome challenge to it all?
It’s been surprise after surprise. I think a couple big surprises have been, first off, working with Joe Vulpis, who got Lady Gaga started. Didn’t see that coming. The second biggest surprise was actually while we were filming the first music video for Chemical Smiles. I was driving back from a gig with Joe, and we get this call from the director. He tells us, basically, that he flew out to LA even though he was supposed to stay with us in Hoboken to shoot. He would be out there for the next few weeks and would be completely unavailable to shoot the music video with us, within the time-frame we needed. Joe hangs up, and you see the blood drain out of his face. He looks over at me apprehensively, and I just laugh and say, “we’re going to LA, baby!” We catch a flight, film 10 hours straight in the Flower District of LA on a shoestring budget, and then we fly back to Philly. All of this happened within a week. It was the most fun I had in a long time.
I would love to know more about learning all the different instruments that you did growing up. Do you find that you have a favorite now to play? Which one are you the best at now?
If you grow up in an Asian-American household, yeah, you take lessons for some kind of classical instrument. I did piano for ten years, and I suck. I can only play chords. I started trumpet in third grade, took lessons for that. I loved jazz, like Miles Davis, Arturo Sandoval, Maynard Ferguson, and I loved to play until my band teacher forced me to do marching band and blew my lips out. Now I exclusively play guitar and sing because I can control how much I want to rip up my fingers or thrash my voice. I can’t play wind instruments anymore, and I suck at piano, so yeah, I think I’m best at guitar.
Let’s talk about your newest single, “Chemical Smiles.” What was the inspiration for this track? How do you think it prepares listeners for more music from you?
When I was younger, I fell for this girl who had this falseness about her. It wasn’t like she was fronting to make herself appear chiller or more ratchet or something like that. She had a mask of confidence that was generally really convincing, except in how she smiled, like this false, “chemical” smile. It took me awhile to notice it, but when I did, I became obsessed with it afterwards, infatuated with it. I wanted to understand why. Fast-forward to an intense but short-lived relationship, and I realized that she was hiding a darkness and a pain that was often expressed in destructive behavior like self-harm. To write “Chemical Smiles” forced me to examine and accept every side of her; all of her pain, her false confidence, and the genuineness that I had tried to coax out of her over time. It forced me to love her again, pain and all.
I think it prepares listeners for somebody who has a voice and style like mine. It should also prepare my listeners to examine my songs for more nuance in my language and storytelling. I don’t want it to prepare them for much else. I plan on my future songs to be all over the place in genre. I want my listeners to be surprised with every song I release. At the end of the day, prepare to be unprepared.
How creatively involved with making the music video for “Chemical Smiles” were you?
Day 1 to the final edit, man, down to the last cut. I came up with the idea after coming up with a treatment for the cover art. I wanted to do a lot more than a dry, overdone lyric video, so Joe put together a good indie filmmaking team, and I directed everything from the hand placement and lighting effects to how much corn-syrup blood would be in each shot. After the filming was done, I directed all the cuts and edits, and then I approved the final version.
How excited are you to be releasing a debut EP later this summer? How will you celebrate the release of it? Did anything surprise you about the overall process of getting it made? What was it like when you first got into the
studio to begin working on it?
Very excited, without a doubt. I didn’t expect to have anticipation for an EP so soon, more so thought about just dropping a few singles, but regardless, yeah, it’s crazy.
I started this weird habit a little while back where, whenever I accomplish something, I start working out around 11:30 that night and then work out through midnight to kick the next day in the ass. I might do that.
Yeah, I had this – now I see it as unrealistic – fantasy about working in a beautiful, sleek spaceship studio with a legendary mixing engineer. And then I end up working in a garage studio with Joe Vulpis. I’m playing man, for real. Joe is A1, and it shows through his tireless work ethic. I was convinced early on that this record would get done right, no matter the environment. I had really needed an engineer because I produced all the tracks and recorded the vocals myself, but I wasn’t skilled enough to glue it all together. Joe was that glue, and some damn good artisanal Gorilla glue at that.
But there was a learning curve. I worked for so long by myself, producing music and beats and recording vocals, and I grew cynical with constantly being disappointed with mixing engineers that work on hourly rates. Sometimes they run out the clock by gas-lighting you into believing that what you want is impossible, when for real they mix in circles because they don’t have the chops to do what you want. Joe, on the other hand, wanted the project done right and had the ability, so I had to learn how to communicate my expectations patiently and diplomatically. He had to learn that I’m a bass addict and will never think there is too much bass.
How do you think you have grown as a musician since you first started singing and writing songs?
Writing songs was an excellent coping mechanism. It began as a way for me to process my emotions, deal with them, move on. Then, as my emotions became more complex and harder to understand, I realized that my music had to grow to match them. And then, when my music would surpass my emotions, it showed me that I needed to grow up. It’s like this volley of continuous emotional maturity, and sometimes it’s grueling, but I think it’s worth it.
What has it been like keeping up with your social media accounts and all of the different platforms? Is it hard to stay up to date on it all? What would you say is your favorite way to connect with your fans now? What has social media done for your career?
I have severe social media anxiety. I got social anxiety too, but I deal with that on my own time. But I was bullied bad as a kid. I had this conversation a little while back with my dad. He told me, “when I was growing up, bullying would end when you physically leave school. But growing up in Generation Z, there’s no escape”. And that was really, painfully true. I would come home, defeated and bruised, and I would go online and immediately see how much hate could be unbridled behind a computer screen. Cowards, man, to call someone a racial slur on the Internet, but it happened, and it got to me. It is very difficult to keep up with social media, not for any other reason than because I have a very agonizing history of suffering and loneliness. I would try to connect with people online and would be met with more pain. I’m thankful that I have a team to help me this time.
My favorite way will always be in person, will always be singing to them in person. Real face-time means real connection.
I don’t know what social media has done for my career. I know what it has done for me personally in the past, but I hope that I can see a positive side of being online. I hope can build a community of people like me who have also been hurt online in the ways I have.
Who are some of your favorite artists or rather, what musicians have continued to inspire you and your music? Who would you absolutely love to work with in the future?
This is, easily, the hardest question to answer concisely. My musical tastes span over six centuries because at one point I vibed hard with renaissance brass music. But for real, renaissance, baroque, classical, romantic, jazz, classic rock, alternative, prog, metal, soul, funk, RnB, pop, folk, indie-acoustic, hip-hop, trap, latin pop. I started listening to Greek music the other day because I heard some on 9th and Federal in Philly. I could go on. I don’t ever want to limit my tastes. Some highlights though, I would have to say 1970’s to 1990’s classic and alternative rock, Russian classical composers like Tchaikovsky, Korsakov, and Shostakovich, 90’s and 2010’s RnB, East Coast 90’s hip hop, Atlanta and West Coast trap, anything by Prince, Kendrick Lamar, or Jeff Buckley, dark electropop, and, I don’t know man, name it.
You know, it’s weird, a lot of the people I would love to work with are dead: Prince, Freddie Mercury, Jeff Buckley, xxxTentacion, Mac Miller. But among the living are Halsey, Jorja Smith, Sampha, Rosalia, and Kendrick Lamar, and I pray to God they won’t cross over.
If you had an unlimited budget and your schedule was free, what would your dream music video look like?
I would take six months to train Judo, Aikido, and Muay Thai. I’d pull a straight Keanu Reeves in John Wick because that dude is dead-ass a bad-ass, and we share a love for motorcycles. Opening shot to a rundown part of North Philly, me riding a Harley Davidson Iron 883. Pull up to this over-saturated, “Hunger Games Capitol” club with everyone in line wearing luminescent vineyard vines or something pastel and hideously wealthy. Wearing a tattered leather jacket, oil-stained, ripped white T-shit, black jeans, and steel-toed boots with the steel exposed, I duck past dirty looks into the adjacent alleyway, knock out a bouncer on a smoke break, and slip through the backdoor. Over the course of the music video there’d like a 90-second, uncut shot or pure fight scene with no special effects, until the knives come out, and I slash some people to ribbons and stain peoples’ clothes with neon blood. For real, I’d make a whole backstory, and nothing would be compensated. Everything is completely raw and gritty.
Where would you absolutely love to hear one of your songs? On a TV show, in a movie or elsewhere? Do you recall the first time you heard a song of yours out and about?
I don’t pay attention to where my songs are being played. I never considered to have Chemical Smiles be in a TV show or movie because I never took the time to care. There is one song on my EP, this sprawling alternative-orchestral track that I would like to be in the soundtrack of a dramatic romantic-thriller, directed by a Stanley Kubrick or James Cameron type. I haven’t heard my song yet out and about, and I hope I never will. I’d probably go off the chain and unintentionally go viral because someone films me trashing an aisle of Walmart out of jubilation.
At the end of the day, what do you hope people take away from your music?
Leave your personas at the door and be vulnerable when you listen to my music. It is meant to be heard in your rawest state. I want you to feel connected. I also want you to feel the anxious excitement, the loneliness, the yearning, the rage, the lust and desire that I felt in these songs. If my music connects with you, I hope you can feel genuine and understand yourself better.