Songwriter Profile: BAO

The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers,” wrote author James Baldwin. In the creative consciousness of songwriter, producer, recording, and visual artist Bao Voknown professionally as BAOquestions posed with fearless candor are revealed in a transfixing cycle of 14 songs titled Perpetual Heartbreak.

On this solo debut, propulsive rhythms and sonic sparkles belie darker themes. “The hooks and the catchy melodic things are gateways to let people into the music,” the Los Angeles-based artist explains. “Once they are in there, I want to give them more to explore. So that’s the opportunity for more complex lyrics, subject matter and textures.”

BAO, who began creating visual art in junior high, has exhibited in galleries and museums nationwide. An accomplished design professional, he says his approach to music is cinematic. “That’s my goal with these records––more like a film, where textures and images tell the stories.”

Working in pop music, a medium where Asian Americans have been historically under represented, BAO neatly obliterates model minority stereotypes. On “Thanks” he intones, “Every night we get drunk and smoke and fuck.” Says BAO, “It’s an open love letter. Sometimes you don’t get to express how grateful you are. These are magical themes in the movie of my life.”

Born in Vietnam, BAO emigrated with his family to the United States at age three. His outsider perspective is articulated in “We Never Say a Word,” with lines, “Good is never good enough/When good was made for someone else.” He notes, “There are little snap shots of stories of internalized racism that I’ve seen over and over in the Asian American community. A lot of my friends and contemporaries struggle with that.”

For close to a decade, BAO created pop-dance music as the mastermind of Ming & Ping, an extravagant concept that married eye-popping videos and costumes to Cantonese Opera-inspired electronica.

He curates corresponding content for Perpetual Heartbreak with video dialogues, “Behind BAO’s Music.” With “BAO Feels His Music,” the artist silently contemplates his tracks. “I figured this is my chance to treat music as conceptual art again,” he clarifies. “It’s not as divisive as Ming & Ping, which was more like Andy Kaufman and Pee Wee Herman––a reaction to the Britney Spears era of manufactured celebrity. That was conceptual art. Now, just releasing an album is conceptual art. So why not give audiences another way to absorb the music?”

With the Ming & Ping project, BAO played all of the instruments. For Perpetual Heartbreak, he enlisted a cast of musicians to contribute. “It’s like controlled chaos, to include other sources that take me out of my comfort zone,” BAO observes. “That’s reality. And I’m tired of having control of everything.”

While BAO is a self-described introvert, he is an affable on-screen host as seen in his new video series “Coffee With BAO,” as he interviews fellow creators. “I went to a magnet high school for performing and visual artists. I realized I was shit in expressing what was in my brain, and it was detrimental to my career as a creator. I could make the coolest stuff, but if no one understood what I was trying to do, what was the point? I’ve worked so hard to improve my speaking skills.”

Perpetual Heartbreak opens with “Beautiful Things,” a recast version of a Ming & Ping song. “The thought of including it was realizing that none of the work I’m generating is new,” BAO notes. “I’ve been exploring these themes since I started making artwork in ninth grade.”

A striking image in “Beautiful Things” repeats, “You just watch the show like a black crow.” BAO explains the reference. “It could be interpreted as a bad thing, but heroes can be bad people too. Villains also have greatness. Everybody has a broad spectrum of good and bad, positive and negative. Crows freak people out because they are black, and they sit off in the distance and watch you. But they are considered one of our most intelligent birds. They recognize faces. If you mess with them, they will remember you forever.”

Contact Alex Steininger, In Music We Trust PR, [email protected]