Interview with Kristina Lao

On Monday 2nd July Sessions58 presents a special performance by multi-hyphenate artist Kristina Lao.

Kristina Lao is folk-pop singer-songwriter and actor. Her music features rich Brit-lilt vocals and long, lyrical walks in a poetry park. Adoring Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and a well-brewed cup of tea, Kristina recently finished her latest artistic challenge "First Take Songs". Her EP is in production with Fiend Recordings, and she is currently on tour with 20th Century Boy, the Marc Bolan and T-Rex musical. 

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We caught up for a chat to get to know her a bit more.

LookingGlass: Hi Kristina, thank you for catching up with us. Can you briefly introduce yourself and your music?

Kristina Lao: Hi Looking Glass team! I'm a nerdy, wordy singer-songwriter whose mission is to inspire the world through the love of words. My heroes are Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Regina Spektor and various local artists (a lot of whom play at the Looking Glass with Sessions - Gareth Esson, Ciara Vizzard, Declan Carrier and more). 

LG: Hong Kong born, raised between New Zealand, UK and Canada. You’re a globetrotter citizen of the world, how was it to grow up exposed to so many different cultures?And how did it affect your creativity?

KL: It has been, and continues to be a gloriously tumultuous journey into my own identity. Sometimes, I think it's hard to articulate how it felt to be a trans-national and mixed heritage kid, because, as human nature goes, I tend to surround myself with fellow world-wanderers and global citizens. 

Both of my parents moved a lot when they were growing up, so they did an amazing job of taking the geography out of 'home'. Being immersed in different cultures had a profound impact on my emotional development. Some phases of life I felt so ostracised  - as if I could never 'fit in'. I wasn't Chinese enough to be Chinese (or Nepalese, for that matter). I wasn't British enough to be British (nor was my father - he's half Polish). Despite that, I fully embrace my cultures, my heritage, and my family history. They're mine to have, and to love.

 The languages around my family table range from Hindi (my mother was born in Calcutta) to Cantonese, to English, and French. I learned how to be good at observing and adopting behaviours, accents, and idiosyncrasies, but I always felt like I was either trying to convince everyone else, or myself. 

When I was a teenager, at a time when so many of us can be our most cruel, I finally asked my father how he defined himself.  He told me that he picked values to live by, and let them, rather than geography, culture, or society, dictate his choices. It allowed me to take control of who I was, past belonging to a 'tribe' or a 'way of being'. 

So, I carefully chose, challenged, and decided upon my values, which have lead me well through my continued shapeshifting: Freedom, and Honesty. 

Creatively speaking, I think my joy in observation has been a great outcome of a culturally dissonant childhood. A passionate curiosity and flexibility defines me, as well as an appreciation of language, of our differences, and our similarities. Music can transcend those differences and remind us of those similarities, and is a wonderful medium for freedom of expression. That's an exceptionally long-winded way of me saying I've grown to like me more over the years, despite being rather weird and ambiguous-looking and more than a bit odd. 

LG: What is ‘home’ to you?

KL: I believe home really is where the heart is.

I think that the concept of 'home' is truly fascinating, and it means different things to me at different times. At this point in my life I'm learning how to be at home in so many new places, and am teaching my heart to stay open, loyal, and to get along with my guts (they tend to argue over who's right, and it becomes absolute mayhem when my incessantly chattering mind gets involved).

When I'm feeling successful in my emotional endeavours, home is wherever I am. When I'm failing, I miss the roaring hum of the Hong Kong hustle, the growing local art works from various adventures sprawled across every spare inch of wallspace of my Vancouver apartment, and the smell of macaroni and soup wafting from my mother's magical kitchen. 

LG: From Theatre stages, compositions for indie films, TV acting and session vocalist.. performing  must have a deeply layered meaning to you. What can you tell us about the similarities and differences across those artistic expressions?

KL: In theatre school, one of my teachers once reminded me when I was delivering a particularly wooden experience: honour the words. I got so caught up in showing that I was telling the story that I had forgotten to just tell the story. Songs are stories. Films, TV shows, theatre performances, they are stories.

The differences lie in the technicalities - angles, dimensions, culture - but the core is the same. We're in the business of telling stories. It's an age-old, honourable profession to serve... it's also immensely satisfying to play, dress-up and wrench, sing, or pour my bloodthirsty heart out for a living. 

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LG: What’s the connection between words and melody in your music?

KL: While I like to pretend to be musically savvy, my honesty prevents me from saying that out loud. I do much of my music-based writing subconsciously (although the recent Artist Development Course I did helped me immensely with improving my musical craft).

I am testing the boundaries of my melodies these days, because I used to live in a smaller, more comfortable range with my songs, spending more time warring with words. Now, I like to spend time playing once I have developed the theme. After all, the melody is the vessel that carries the words to new ears. I'd like to make sure that the ship is beautiful, easy to steer, and the words live in harmony with it. 

LG: You are currently on tour with 20th Century Boy, the Marc Bolan and T-Rex musical. Can you give us three survival tips for the road?

KL: Haha, I can now! The three essentials for myself were my notebook, my travel guitar (Snapdragon - they're AMAZING and fit in my suitcase), and my electronic devices (boring, but essential, especially to record new song ideas and take slow motion videos of things that nobody will EVER find interesting). 

The three things I would say as survival tips: 

1. Be healthy. Plan simple meals - otherwise, you'll have a mount of crisp packets, chocolate bars, and a stomach full of regret (and not enough protein) to keep you feeling human. This is especially true on travel days. Stay strong - work out (suitcases are HEAVY), and keep fit. Travel takes its toll, whether you're touring by train, car or plane. I underestimated this at the start. I'm only just getting back on track.

2. Be organised - book your travel and accommodation as far ahead as possible (it saves a LOT on travel fares, which fluctuate a lot!). I have a spreadsheet. It's nerdy, and I LOVE IT. Give yourself WAY more time than you think to get everywhere. I'm writing this on a train - we had a cancellation today. 

3. Be sympathetic. Perhaps most important of all is to remember your cast, your crew, your production team, are all working long hours, often under challenging and time-sensitive circumstances. It takes a whole team to put a show on the road. Coupled with spending an inordinate amount of time together, emotions can run raw. It has been my greatest joy on this tour to see how well everyone takes care of each other, and how supportive people are. Be one of those people - it will be remembered. 

LG: As an actress you are accustomed to fit different roles, and often singing requires intimate storytelling, there can be a dissonance in the way art is experienced and perceived. Where does artistic identity lie? 

KL: Wow, that's an epic question with so many facets. I think I'd need to do a lot more time and reflection before I could give you the answer I'd like to. However, I'd like to refer back to our earlier conversation about living all over the place, and defining yourself by your values. With artistic expression, I find that my artistic identity has relied, at its core, on my love of words. It was so important to me to have spent the time becoming more conscious of it, and to honour it in my work.

Artistic identity for me is an evolving concept - it should grow and change with me, woven in and around the shared experiences of not just myself, but those who I work with on each job. If it's not my own gig or production, I spend the time to understand and honour the identity of that show, and the vision of the creatives behind it. I learned early on that my experience of performing art needs to be based on that core love of words, regardless of the medium. How audiences perceive it is always a joy for me to discover, but is not something I can try to control or base my artistic decisions on. 

LG: If your sound was a flavour, what would that be?

KL: GREAT question! I know you asked for a flavour... but I can't think of one specific one right now (although I now have an instant hankering for cookies and cream ice cream...). 

I like to think it would be my favourite breakfast dish - congee. It's like porridge, but savoury.

It's essentially over-boiled rice. You eat it when you start the day, sometimes with leftovers, or whatever you have around you to throw in. Sometimes you can sit quietly, and eat it plain. Other times it's eaten out with friends or family in a bustling restaurant. Everyone prepares and eats it in a different way. But it has the same core values: it's a simple, warming dish that you can take, and make, however you like. 

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All photo credits to Mark Maryanovich