What does it mean to feel pride – to feel love? Not just romantic desire, but an all-encompassing love built around acceptance and unconditional respect? For 24-year-old indie/alternative artist NoSo, they seek out the answers in their work. The title of their debut album Stay Proud of Me is an entreaty to their past self, as they dauntlessly forge ahead to become the person and artist they’ve always wanted to be.
If you’re a guitar enthusiast or familiar with the L.A. music scene, you may already know the name Baek Hwong. Born and raised in the Chicago suburbs before moving to California as a teenager, Hwong cut their teeth at the competitive Thornton School of Music at USC, where they studied guitar and songwriting and began to develop their own unique playstyle.
After originally pursuing the path of more instrumental players like Tommy Emmanuel, Hwong realized in college that their writing was quickly manifesting itself in new, more personal ways: in lyrics, arrangements, songs that begged to be sung and fully realized. They began to cultivate an ever-growing collection of demos, a small portion of which would make up Stay Proud of Me, their debut album under the name NoSo.
NoSo is shorthand for “North or South?” – a question Hwong often had to face growing up in a predominately white town whenever they mentioned they’re Korean. Hwong’s writing often indirectly grapples with the insecurities and frustrations that can arise from the Asian American experience. Their writing feels like a balm for the alienated, like this couplet from the song “I Feel You”: “You feel my lies while my body moves without me/Laughing about it, laughing about it.”
Hwong wrote and recorded much of the record alone during quarantine in their bedroom, studying any non-guitar instruments they weren’t as proficient with in order to make it happen. On the fluttery lead single “Suburbia,” one of the first songs written for the LP, they move between a heart-rending chorus and diaristic lyrics about golden Oreos and power-walking moms with the grace of a seasoned screenwriter, sprinkling in the small but vivid details that place you in the heart of the story.
Just as there is no singular Asian American experience, there is no singular LGBTQ experience. Hwong, a queer non-binary person, remembers that the first time they realized they were attracted to women was when they wrote a romantic song with femme pronouns. They don’t remember ever explicitly coming out in public; from the start, their declaration of themselves to the world at large has always been through music.
One highlight, “David,” was inspired by a dream where they were trapped in the body of a white man: finally the object of desire in the eyes of the girls whose attention they once longed for. “When I woke up, I was emotional, and I couldn’t figure out why,” Hwong explains. “Was it because this was still something I wanted? Or was it because I was genuinely disappointed in myself for even having those feelings? I think it was both.”
Album opener “Parasites” was written in the wake of Hwong’s recovery from top surgery. Atop a bed of lush electric guitar and organ, they celebrate a newfound physical and emotional freedom: “The parasites, removed from your skin/And so lovely, lovely to meet you again/So lovely to be born again.” On another standout track, “Feeling Like a Woman Lately,” they explore the other side, the “emotional fluctuations” of gender. As they write: “The line between empowerment and dysphoria is very thin at times.”
In an effort to escape themselves during the writing process, Hwong also occasionally turned to the solace of fantasy. Screenplays they wrote during quarantine informed the lyrics, allowing them to inhabit the characters and plotlines from worlds other than their own as they poured themselves into fleshing out the details. You can hear this clearly in the cinematic verses of “Honey Understand;” a brooding stomp with a cathartic chorus.
The yearning of NoSo’s music is led by their wistful guitar playing, from the circular riffs on “I Feel You” to the glassy plucks scattered throughout “Feeling Like a Woman Lately.” The palm-muted arpeggios that open “Man Who Loves You” give way to a jangly pop ballad, perfect for closing out a teen romance movie. The power of these songs stems from NoSo’s universal tenderness; a singular perspective to affect and assuage the hearts of many.
Stay Proud of Me is a deeply earnest coming-of-age album, a nuanced introduction to NoSo’s universe and Hwong’s rapidly expanding musical abilities. The marriage of their lyrics and captivating guitar performance feels magical, as if Noso can open up portals to fantastic new realms, guided by an emotional honesty that breaks you down in one moment and fills you with joy in the next.
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