“All I did was play footy, that was all I did” — jock turned musician, Michel Ko was not particularly interested in the arts until an English teacher nudged him into that world. If it weren’t for him, we would have never heard of Gone, Bleu or Michel Ko all together. Suppose we all have his English teacher to thank for his music.
His songs loosely classify as R&B, Pop, Hiphop lined with English/Japanese/Mandarin lyrics. The number of slashes in the former sentence says it for him — Michel is one hell of a concoction. He started making music earlier on in high school, but it was just for himself. A confession and therapy of sorts. Frank Ocean continues to be an inspiration in his music. In particular, the way Frank tells stories ー it has depth and layers that conceal overt messages that were explicit to his sexuality prior to coming out . Similarly, themes such as mental health, working culture, Asian stigmas and complexities in relationships have snuck it’s way under Michel’s songs. He pointedly does so in a way that doesn’t out-shout his music. “These ideas aren’t really talked about in Japan or Asia and my hope is that people will be able to catch on to these lyrics later on, upon time and introspection.”
With hopes to continue pursuing ‘footy’, he moved to Japan at eighteen to attend a university with a strong athletic program. Reflecting on this point in life he says, he recalls an immense pressure from his own expectations and the expectations of those around him. For the longest time he did not outwardly share his music, feeling a little wall built up containing him in the ‘jock’s square’, but upon closing that chapter in his life, in early 2019, he released Shy, a reflective track on his own quirk. OmegaSapien, a Korea-based hiphop artist/rapper was a force in pushing Michel to pursue his dualities. Shortly after pushing over his walls, he met KRICK, a long time producer, collaborator and friend. He basically was Michel’s unofficial roommate pre-COVID madness. On their collaborative process, the usual routine is Michel coming up with a direction, KRICK retorting with a beat based on the idea, and then Michel top-lining it with lyrics. They keep playing catch like that, bouncing ideas off of each other. He admits, they do disagree here and there, but that. clearly speaks volumes about their creative and personal trust.
After his first two releases, Shy and Be Mine, which according to him are “a little bit too cute, compared to what I make now.”, he came out with a track inspired by the Six — Body Talk, a track to the groovy nooks of town. This was the first song he released with the distribution label, Friendship. The staff at Friendship curate musicians that are creating at the frontlines of the music culture to facilitate digital releases, and expand the artist’s reach. His next release was Princess, a lo-fi track, stripped back in every way. The song was mixed by Michel himself, and the lyric video was filmed by his cousin and edited on an app on his phone. Truth be told — “I didn’t expect much from that song. But for some reason it got to reach a lot of people. I mean, I personally liked the song but I didn’t expect it to get 5000 streams.” Currently at 130k streams, the song has safely exceeded his expectations. Being part of a label, and slowly gaining attention was all new to him. He admits there’s more pressure on him because it’s no longer just him. In fact, he had planned to release an EP earlier this year. Slowly coming to realize the attention he was stepping into, and the pressure to create ‘meaningful’ songs, he decided to pull the breaks on the EP. None but two songs ended up seeing the light of day.
According to Michel, his song writing speed is all or nothing: one sitting or a couple weeks. The record Time, was the former, a yo-lets-make-some-music moment when unofficial roommate KRICK and Wez Atlas, a member of Solgasa crashed at Michel’s. Solgasa is a music collective based in Tokyo with members Michel, Tommi, Wez and VivaOla. Their relationship is both technical and emotional — They all have different musical strengths such as the guitar, keyboard, and rapping so they can provide each other with technical assistance. It’s crucial for Michel’s process to be around people that give him pre-release honest feedback. They have grown to know each other’s working styles and habits, so the technical collaboration comes considerably effortlessly. In regards to the emotional aspect of their group, he pronounces, “I think we feed off of each other’s energy. We push each other and support each other, equally.” They used to be nice to each other and mellow in their feedback, but now have grown a fond bluntness with their suggestions. Michel’s sure Solgasa wouldn’t be there if we weren’t friends, period. Smooth, motivating and supportive — a dream team.
Michel’s latest release is Back to the Future (1999), a pop song with rock infused elements. It’s surface theme is innocence and the sweet honeymoon phase in a romantic relationship. However, the under tones are far more mature and complicated. Written from a perspective of a parent, “I’m sure this is most families, but when any child is born, thats when everyones the happiest. This utter joy, and sense of family.” In the song, the parent is singing about their yearning to go back to the day when their child was born, when their family was wrapped in this uncomplicated surge of love, a sense of ‘nothing else matters’. This track was a byproduct of his time quarantined in his home back in Taipei. It has been a reflective process for Michel as it has been for us all. “During quarantine I realized this is the most amount of time I’m going to spend with my family. So I was just reminiscing and thinking about how happy and in love my parents must have been when I was born in 1999.”
His very first EP venture is going to be realized this fall at last. Titled Bleu, spelled B-l-e-u is an introduction to who he is, the music says it for him. “When you listen to my music it’s usually blue. The color you feel is blue. the music video is blue. I make mostly R&B — rhythm and blues. So thats what I named it the color .”
Most of his records are love songs. On that observation, he smiles at how naturally love comes to all of us. Romantic, family, friends, hobbies and passions; all forms of love, and the list is endless. Because people always circle back to love, he has chosen it as an outlet. Michel takes his raw emotions and makes what he calls an artistic compromise. For example, Diamonds in the Sky was made at 6:00am when he just could not lull himself to sleep. As the first lyric goes, “Sleepless nights and I’ve been thinking bout you every single night”, alluding to a romantic somebody. In actuality, Michel was loosing sleep, spending sleepless nights lusting after his own goals and definitions of success. “It was a literal sleepless night for me”, he says. His music is honest, he keeps it real, but is also unafraid of making necessary compromise to realize his artistic direction of the song. He admits to being interested in knowing how people take it, whether some people see it for something closer to the original emotions that inspired the song.
The conversation made a turn as we started discussing Asian media —
Slowly, the mainstream media is gaining its candor, but surely, a lot of work is in stall. There are such unhealthy beauty standards, difficulties distinct to women, stigmas surrounding mental health and a blatant disregard for privacy. We have all experienced listening to old songs, and watching movies wondering how this was accepted by the society — surely, that stuff wouldn’t fly now a days. Along side with the evolution of the moral code, artistic expression has needed an update. The dissonance we feel in the discord he says, was most likely an accurate representation of the time period, and shows how much the society has progressed. Hopefully we as a society will continue to move in a direction with more compassion and tolerance. He says, “I just want people to begin talking about these things.” A world where we can be true to our own colors without coloring over others.
Expanding as a musician and speaking firmly for the things that they believe in should at no point be mutually exclusive.. but the truth is we all need to pay our bills. It’s just a question with no right answer. “Honestly is not a huge thing in Asian music. They say what you wanna hear. Part of me acknowledges that to an extent, it is necessary for success. But part of me wants to not do that. Right now I’m trying to find a balance. I think. ” Navigating this hasn’t been easy for anyone in the twenty-first century. Particularly in the entertainment industry, so much of their career relies on social media, and that adds a whole new layer of complications. He speaks about getting wrapped up in the idea of prime time and instinctively reaching for his phone when his back pocket buzzes. Being up against the nerves of not knowing how anything you say will be taken is stifling, surely.
On the use of social media, and censorship he retorts, “For now, I’ll play by your rules, but eventually the grand plan is to make a set of rules for myself.” Upon establishing his colors as an artist, one of his many aspirations is to bring more honesty and urging the acceptance of imperfection amongst one another.