For millions on the internet, the phrase “lo-fi hip-hop” conjures up a singular image: not a gleaming guitar, but a studious girl with her headphones on, focused on a school assignment. The sample-heavy yet compulsorily chill genre might be best known as a study soundtrack, but for young musicians like Keshi, it can be an eye-opening introduction to the art of beat-making and DIY music production.
Keshi is Casey Luong, a 24-year-old artist from Houston. He may not have an album out yet, but he’s already buried an old musical career. Inspired by his hero John Mayer, a teenage Keshi recorded and released music under his birth name as a guitar-wielding singer-songwriter in the vein of Ed Sheeran and Jason Mraz. But after a sobering experience playing a show in Los Angeles with other equally or more competent musicians, Luong decided he needed a change.
So he started a SoundCloud account under the childhood nickname and anonymous moniker Keshi, uploading intimate lo-fi hip-hop productions like If You’re Not The One For Me, Who Is?. That track won a music contest on Reddit, which helped boost Luong’s profile in the lo-fi hip-hop community.
Two years on, Luong has gained enough traction to leave his day job as a registered nurse for a deal with Island Records. He’s also seemed to have outgrown the genre that opened new horizons for him. When Guitar.com asks Luong on the lo-fi hip-hop scene he sprang from, he demurs.
“I’ve definitely taken aspects of lo-fi hip hop and I’ve definitely learned from it,” he says, expressing his admiration for producers like Jinsang and Tomppabeats. Calling himself a lo-fi producer “would be a disservice to them,” he says. Instead, he’s more interested in digging into the guitar-forward side of his sound – which we’re all for.
Guitar.com talked to Luong about how the Nickelodeon show Drake & Josh inspired him to pick up guitar, which John Mayer song changed his life and the musical education he received through lo-fi hip-hop.
How did you pick up the guitar?
So guitar started [for me] when I watched a show called Drake & Josh. It’s one of my childhood favourites. It’s about these two step-brothers, and one of them’s really goofy and does magic tricks and shit. Drake is the cooler brother of the two; Josh is the sillier one. Drake got all the ladies in school and everything, and he also happened to play the guitar. And it made a really strong impression on me when I was 11, maybe.
That was [when] I wanted to learn how to play guitar, and my mom actually did not support it… She was like, “No, you’re going to drop it. You’re just going to pick it up and you’re just not going to touch it ever again.” So I was like – I’ll show you, you know? I really showed her, didn’t I… (laughs) That’s what sparked my love for guitar. It wasn’t until I came across John Mayer a few years later that I really wanted to learn how to song-write, and write my own music and everything.
Was there a particular John Mayer song that inspired you?
The one that I heard was Daughters. Another girl had put his music inside a PowerPoint for an English school project. I remember going home – you know how you just remember some of the words, and you type them incorrectly in Google, and then you’ll get the right ones? So I found out this song was called Daughters, and so I put that into Pandora – as you did, right? And the first song that came up was Stop This Train. It has this very light, sweet fingerpicking and songwriting that just blows everything out of the water. It’s still probably the most beautiful song I’ve heard in my whole life. I love it dearly, and it moved me so much I was like, “I want to be able to do this”.
So what was your first guitar, the one that your mum didn’t want you to get?
Ooooh. My first guitar was… Oh god, I can’t remember the brand name. It was a very crappy, red Stratocaster knock-off that we got on Craigslist for $100. I think that was the first one we actually bought. Because the actual first guitar that I ever had was my grandpa’s. I told you my mom would not get me a guitar. So I went to my grandpa and he actually owns a classical guitar, like a really big one. And me being really little, I couldn’t wrap my fingers over it ’cause the fretboard is so thick, right? But I was still able to figure out the basics, like all the chords and everything. You just soak it up when you’re really little.
I remember thinking, “The reason I can’t progress is because I can’t put my fingers on this guitar, so I need something that is really small.” And I remember now, talking about it has just brought everything to the surface: The electric guitar strings were so sharp compared to the nylon back then. I didn’t know the feeling of having calluses on my fingers. It’s very familiar to me now – like, my fingertips are dead. But man, they really hurt. But even after the first hour I was like “Mom, my fingers hurt”, and she’s like, “So stop.” I was like, “Nah, I don’t want to.” I just clung on to that really crappy old red Strat. Because Drake Bell, in the show, played a red Strat. So I wanted one just like it.
How long were you making singer-songwriter-inspired music?
I was a sort of acoustic singer-songwriter akin to Ed Sheeran and Jason Mraz until I was about 19. So I got six solid years of learning how to hone basic songwriting. Like what works, what doesn’t work, you know? After that I got tired of it, because in the end what I truly wanted was a very full soundscape, and that’s something that you can’t really achieve when you’re limited to just yourself and an acoustic guitar.
And when lo-fi hip-hop had its boom, it really broke down production into these central parts that were otherwise very subtle in contemporary pop music, because it’s mixed so well. The point of this fantastic mixing is that it is actually very intricate. And when the normal listener hears it they’re like, “Oh it sounds really good, I just don’t know why.”
But there are so many unrefined and raw parts in lo-fi ’cause you have a lot of bedroom producers making it. It really highlights that there are these different prime elements that are always pretty much present in this kind of music. And it also highlights that it is okay for things to sound unbalanced. It’s a matter of taste, especially when the powers of production that were limited to just the professional industry are now so widely available to everyone. Like it doesn’t matter if something sounds super polished or not. What matters is – does it sound interesting and is it good?
When you discovered beat-making and production, was it always your plan to blend that guitar-driven sound with the lo-fi music you were listening to?
Yeah, I thought it was interesting because the role of the producer is to find the most interesting sounds and put them all together, right? But nobody’s really conjuring sounds. You can be a producer and not exactly be like your traditional musician. You don’t have to learn how to play an instrument. You’re manipulating soundwaves, in the end. So I realised that I actually had quite a window of opportunity for myself, because I could actually play the guitar and I can actually sing and write. So I was combining these newfound production tools at my disposal after learning how to produce lo-fi. And my old songwriting thing that I did from 13 to 19, I found a really sweet spot [for] in my music that I could really express myself with.
Do you find your listeners react to the use of guitar in your music?
Absolutely, yeah. It’s definitely different because lo-fi producers are used to using samples based on jazz or piano. They will find classical guitar samples as well, but it’s still very listenable when you can just compose it yourself, which I was able to do. And yeah, I do get a lot of people commenting on how they think the guitar parts are really interesting, and that’s what I strive to do. ’Cause [I have] so many songs where the guitar is in the background of the song now, and I do want to bring it into the forefront a little bit. We were just talking about the unbalanced nature of a bedroom production, and I can do that now: I can bring the guitar at the very front and have it stand out if I want to. And people are going to listen just ’cause they like it, you know? It doesn’t have to abide by any sort of rule.
Does that mean you’re going to have some guitar solos in your upcoming music?
Ahhh… I don’t want to spoil anything. Yeah.
That question about solos was a joke, but we notice on your Instagram that you do have this clip of yourself shredding.
It’s weird because I am still learning mixing, right? John Mayer’s mixes are just so crisp and clean and I derive so much influence from him… So until I can perfect how I want the mix to sound, I’m very reluctant to put the guitar as a solo in there, because I need it to sound great. But now I have a team behind me and if I need somebody to help me mix the guitar solo inside, I can. It’s about finding like the perfect place for it. And I just need it to be perfect. I love the guitar so much I can’t not do it properly.
Now that you have a team that can help you, and you’re signed to a label, is your creative process still the same?
Absolutely. It’s great because they’re so supportive and genuinely excited. They really want to just let me be as creative as possible. And right now my method for creating really hasn’t changed. I still write and produce every single thing in my bedroom. The only time I need help is for mastering. So I will get everything done myself and then I’ll send it to get mastered, and then it’s released. There are definitely opportunities for collaborations coming forward, and I’m excited to have those. But I think that in the end, the most valuable stuff that I will write will definitely just come from me in the wee hours of the morning.
What guitars and gear you use the most?
In terms of electric guitar, I use a John Mayer signature Strat with the Big Dipper pickups. It was the last one they had in the store. I loved it. John Mayer recently had his departure from Fender, and he is now with PRS. I remember feeling really sad ’cause [Fender was] discontinuing his signature line. So I remember going to Guitar Center thinking that they were not going to have it. So I asked them instead for the next best thing, which was an SRV Strat, right, ’cause it has the Texas Special pickups. They were like, “Aw no, sorry man, but we have the John Mayer one”, and I was like, “Awww yes! Give it to me!” I was so excited. I got it that day, took it home and I’ve been in love with it ever since.
And in terms of acoustics, I use a Taylor 714ce that I’ve had since I was younger. That was the first real guitar I got when my mom finally gave in. I mowed lawns and shit for it. [For] classical guitar I use a Yamaha, a very cheap one that I bought recently. For the record that I have out now, I used that cheap classical Yamaha. I compared it to some of the guitars that were in the $2,000 range to see which one I liked most. I know now it’s not always about how much something costs, it’s about what sonic qualities I want from the instrument. And everything can be EQ’d anyway.
In terms of pedals, I have an array. There’s a Boss compression pedal, like a Boss tuner, Ibanez TS9… I’m giving away all my secrets right now. MXR chorus and reverb, and I think an MXR boost. So just all those things, in an order that I won’t disclose. (laughs)
Last month you released the new single Right Here. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Right Here is a song that I actually wrote a while ago. And I was sitting on it because I wasn’t quite happy with it, but the story was there. The story is real. And I’ve only recently started talking about this, but it is a sequel to one of my songs called Summer. So Right Here was actually written before Summer, funnily enough, and Summer took its place on the Skeletons EP. And I remember we were thinking about music to release and I revisited Right Here. We produced it and redid it a way that was more pleasing to my ear. It was really refreshing to hear it again in this new style.
Yeah, Right Here has been written for like, four years. I’ve had it for a long time. I remember I was still making lo-fi at the time, and I was scared to release it. Like my fans then only listened to my lo-fi stuff. Were they going to like lyrics? I didn’t know. So the first song that I released that was actually lyric-heavy was I think 2 Soon. They responded really well to it, so from then on I just went forth on that path.
Is Right Here representative of what your next release is going to sound like?
It’s hard to say because I always like to branch out of my own box. I don’t want to have conquered one certain sound. I really like to explore other avenues. So if the quality of the song is what they’re after to stay consistent, the quality will definitely stay consistent. But sonically, or lyric-wise, maybe I’ll be hitting some different avenues.
Follow Keshi’s adventures here.