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Music That Grows Its Own Tree: A Conversation with Phum Viphurit

The following conversation belongs to a series of interviews with Asian artists with international upbringings who have traveled across continents to share their art with audiences in both the East and the West, and sought to bridge the divide between identities and artforms. Their works have served as a powerful testament to Asian representation across the world.

Myself a Korean-Canadian, I sit down with these artists to ask about their lives as eager students and inspiring mentors, travelers finding their way around roadblocks, creators of art.

Born in Thailand and raised in New Zealand, guitarist and singer-songwriter Phum Viphurit became a viral sensation for his mellow neo-soul, indie-pop, self-termed “hazy sunshine music and moonlight pop.” There is no single genre, though he thinks, that captures his music.

Equipped with a fresh diploma from film school, Phum views his music as an art of film: it’s a “cinematic” process from start to finish. He co-directed his most recent MV, “Softly Spoken,” which features smooth acoustic backdrops, colorful disco-like lights, and two strangers lost in the moment, waltzing. Phum says he’s most attached to this song right now at time of his life.

Calling from the comfort of his home, Phum sent warmth from Bangkok despite the difficult times. “Long Gone” in conversation, we chatted over the phone about the subconscious connection between music and film, cultural norms and crowd surfing, and living as one with music.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WL: So, how did this all begin? How did you begin your life as a musician?

PV: I grew up in a household that was always playing music. My mom had a pretty big CD collection, and my brother was a singer since he was young. But I grew up like any kid. I tried a lot of things out. I played a lot of sports. I loved video games. I still do. But somehow I found my way to music around the age of 12 or 13 and started playing drums, playing the guitar, uploading covers on YouTube. I kept doing that without really thinking much of it, and now it’s my full time career which I’m super grateful for.

When I was in freshman year of college in Bangkok, one of my friends in college was in a label at the time, and they showed my Frank Ocean cover that I did to the label [Rats Records]. I’m still with them now today.

WL: Why music? What brought you to it, and what makes it meaningful for you?

PV: Music is one of those rare art forms that sticks with you everywhere you go, even if you’re not consuming it directly. I love how a melody or song could get in the head and stay with you in whatever activity you’re doing. Say, you’re in high school, you’re studying, you think of a tune, and you can’t get it out of your head. It makes you wonder and imagine things. That’s what drew me to music the most.

WL: How would you describe yourself and the sound you create?

PV: This is hard because I feel like I’ve personally listened to a wide range of music. Although my songwriting is mostly associated with indie, indie pop, or bedroom pop, I definitely explore a lot more outside of that genre. I wouldn’t define it as anything. I’d rather let people interpret it however they want, because my sound will keep changing in the future.

WL: Okay. Tell me more about your creative process. How do you start and where do you draw inspiration from?

PV: I don’t really have a set method of how I do things. Sometimes I’ll come up with the chords. Sometimes it’s the melody first, or—let’s say for “Softly Spoken”—the riff first. Or sometimes I’ll have a phrase on my phone that I heard one of my friends say, and I will expand on that, put some context behind it, and create that to a body of lyrics. It really just depends on my mood. A few years ago, I wrote a song [“Run”] based on a Wes Anderson film I watched. I wish I had a more systematic way of working and writing music, but I don’t. If I did, I’d probably release music a lot faster, but it just comes and goes.

WL: Could you tell me a bit more about your most recent music video, “Softly Spoken”? What was the production process like?

PV: I’ve always wanted to make a very situational music video. “Softly Spoken” is a song I feel most attached to right now in this time of my life. The song speaks to me a lot of the time, and that’s how I feel about things in general. So I directed it with a friend of mine and got some friends to help out. It’s about two strangers meeting and having a moment together. That’s how I would define it. It’s kind of like the things you overlook but are really special. I just wanted to shine the light on that.

WL: How has your experience in film shaped your approach to music?

PV: I feel like that connection is very subconscious. I didn’t study music, like, theoretically. When I write a song, I feel that my thought process is quite different from someone who studies music and knows all the notes and what they’re called. I look at my songs in a graph. I break it into the intro and the climax. I kind of think of it in a cinematic way.

WL: Have there been any particular song lyrics that you’ve struggled to write?

PV: I like to write minimal words. I’ve never written a song with a really long verse. I also tend to fall back on this Dr. Seuss theory, where I rhyme a lot of my words. This is just a style that I like. The challenge for me is always: how do I say what I want to say with the fewest words possible? I feel like when you can do that, you leave a lot of space for the audience to interpret. Every song I’ve ever written, I found it challenging to find the right words that I could sing comfortably, and that make the most sense to what I’m trying to say in that particular song.

WL: You’ve started by writing a lot of singles, but when you’re now designing a larger album, how do you decide which songs to put together?

PV: I’m working on that process right now. It’s a lot different because before this, I used to just write single by single, then compile them together into an album. Right now I’m kind of thinking more. I guess when you write an album, it’s a lot more cinematic. If you compare it to a movie or TV show, an episode of a TV show is like a single, while an album is more like an entire season or an entire film. There is a more cohesive, conceptual message you’re trying to get through. I’m working my way through that right now.

WL: Last year, you went on your first North American tour. How did that go? Any memorable experiences?

PV: The farthest I went last year was the States. That’s the first time I did an extensive US tour. We played about fifteen shows, and two in Canada, which was amazing because I never thought I’d get to go to Canada. It sounds so foreign when you lived in New Zealand—it feels like the other side of the world. The best memory apart from all the shows, which were a blast to play, was probably seeing Niagara Falls. First time seeing something that big. It was pretty cool.

WL: What’s been your favorite song to perform?

PV: For me, “Long Gone” is my favorite song. Before the whole “Lover Boy” song blew up, “Long Gone” was my first one to gain feedback from audiences overseas. It has a lot of value to me personally. I wrote it when I was 17 when I was leaving New Zealand and moving on to the next phase of my life. Whenever we perform it, we perform it during the encore, if there is an encore at our show (which has happened every time—I’m super grateful.) It means a lot when everyone jams out and lets loose.

WL: How was the audience reception compared to back home?

PV: People are a lot more involved overseas when you play a live show. I guess the culture is different. Generally in Asian countries, people are more conservative. So they won’t scream in between the songs too much. They’ll clap once the song is finished. Not that they’re not interested in the show. It’s just a different sort of physical behavior when compared to a European or American audience. I remember I played a show at a UCSD [University of California San Diego], and by the second song, there were a lot of people crowd surfing already when we played a really slow song. Everyone was like “yeah these kids came to party.”

WL: How was it coming back home to Thailand after your trip? Do you feel at home where you are?

PV: I do. I’ve always based home where my family and where my closest friends are. Right now, everybody is in Thailand, as in Bangkok. So I feel comfortable here even if I don’t fit in with all the cultural norms, or I live a different lifestyle. I still feel like this is my home.

I don’t find anything too strange because I’ve been here for five years now since I’ve moved back. But here, people’s taste in music and entertainment is very different. Me being someone who consumes a lot of that and being surrounded by people who are into the same sort of entertainment but had very different tastes than me was quite strange at first, but I got used to it and I’ve found my crowd.

WL: If there’s one thing you would hope your audiences to take away from your music, what would that be?

PV: It would be to “take it easy.” The world’s really stressed out right now, especially in 2020. There are lots of difficulties for everybody working in any field. If you’re like a kid going through high school, or university, I’m sure your parents are very stressed out as well. I really hope my music is an escape—that people don’t take it too seriously. If they do, I hope they are inspired to pursue their own path in the arts and whatever professional they choose. I really hope that it has a positive aftertaste.

WL: Are there any musicians that you admire, or any musicians you’d like to collaborate with?

PV: When I was younger, I looked up to this band called “Bombay Bicycle Club.” They’re from the UK that I was a big fan of “Young the Giant”, this band from California. Later on, I picked up “Mac DeMarco.” He’s still a huge inspiration to me to this day. I also listen to a lot of “Daft Punk” as well. [Regarding collaborations,] I have too many I think I would love to work with. I’d love to one day work with “The Whitest Boy Alive”—they’re a band formed in Berlin. That’s who I can think off the top of my head right now.

WL: What for you makes a good musician?

PV: Someone who you instantly see and you know they’re not pretending to be someone else? When you see [good musicians] play music, they exemplify what their music is about. They live in the music, the music is them, and they are one. It’s not just an artist singing a good song or an amazing guitarist playing a beautiful guitar solo. I think you have to coexist with each other. That’s my idea for a legit musician. They do it for the love and when you see them you just know.

WL: How would you define success in this industry?

PV: Let me think. For me, it’s been getting to travel. That’s always been a dream of mine. But I don’t know. People have different definitions of success. For me, I thought it was successful when I finished my first single in 2015, shot a low budget video for it, had it out as my own song. I found that incredibly satisfying. The rest of whatever came after that, I guess it was a bonus to me. I never expected much from music. So I guess that’s why I have this quite laid-back attitude to music. But it varies for everybody. Success is when you’re doing what you love, it becomes your profession, and even in that shift, you’re still loving what you’re doing. I think that’s true success in becoming a musician.

WL: If you have any advice for any current students or artists, filmmakers or musicians, what would that be?

PV: Take your time with it. There’s no need to rush to get your content out there just because everybody is active. I feel like nowadays everybody is comparing themselves to each other on social media all the time, to the point that they feel pressured to be a certain someone and be relevant in a certain way, when in reality, it doesn’t really matter.

You don’t have to run everywhere, you know. Enjoy the journey of walking. Take a few stops. If it’s meant to happen, it’s gonna happen. Not that you shouldn’t work for it, but don’t force it. Beautiful things don’t crave attention. People will come to it, and it will grow its own tree.