OHYUNG Interview: How the Experimental Musician Found Catharsis in Ambient Music

The early afternoon sunlight is streaming into OHYUNG’s New York apartment when we meet over video call to discuss their latest album, imagine naked!, released this spring as a double cassette tape on NNA Tapes. There’s a peaceful energy and contemplative slowness to our conversation that feels in step with the ethos of the album, an expansive two-hour journey through eleven ambient pieces. As we unpack the album, OHYUNG — or Robert Ouyang Rusli — speaks with an assured humility rooted in the understanding that their artistic practice is grounded in self-fulfillment.
“I wouldn’t consider it cutting edge music,” they admit. “I feel like it serves an important purpose for me as an exercise of stillness and also just something that calms me down.”

OHYUNG Musician Interview
Photography by Acudus Aranyian

 

Maximalism & Ambience as Two Sides of the Same Coin

When the upcoming release of imagine naked! was announced earlier this year, to call it a surprise wouldn’t exactly be fair. While OHYUNG has never made an ambient album before, their previous records have had brief moments of ambient bliss amidst a dizzying melting pot of experimental hip-hop, avant garde noise, chopped and screwed beats, freeform jazz, heartfelt shoegaze, and frenetic jungle and club music. Still, OHYUNG has gained a reputation for maximalism and a short attention span in their music making, and this move to focus solely on ambient music feels like a curveball.

“I think a big part of my practice is playing with the unexpected,” they reflect. “I enjoy — for better or worse — making something that I feel people don’t expect me to make based on what I’ve made before.”

This kind of playfulness in how OHYUNG approaches engaging with their listeners goes hand in hand with their love for performance and surprise. Compared to their last album — 2021’s GODLESS, a collection of aggressively abrasive noise beats made in collaboration with roommate Matt Evans — imagine naked! veers off in the opposite direction towards stillness and peace.

“There’s this performance element to it where I have this relationship to my audience, whether they like it or not,” they share.

We break out into laughter as OHYUNG muses that their audience probably likes it less because they get used to one thing and then receive something completely different with each new release. Yet amidst the unpredictable twists and turns of OHYUNG’s sprawling discography is a consistent yearning for catharsis. They explain that GODLESS — characterized by its heavy distortion, chaotic percussion, screeching synthesizers, and frequent screams — was a creative outlet for processing their feelings around the increasingly blatant structural inequalities in America that had come to the surface during the pandemic.

“That was sort of a reaction to the pandemic: the police brutality against Black people and the obviousness of how our government has failed us,” they reflect. “I feel like it was a cathartic anger release.”

OHYUNG sees imagine naked! as the other side of that coin. After the release of an album grounded in aggression and anger, they felt the need to explore something different. Composed and recorded largely over the course of just 72 hours in January 2021, the album was guided by an attempt to find peace in stillness. “If I went in the opposite direction, like for a softness, what would that feel like?” they ask.

OHYUNG Musician Interview
OHYUNG Musician Interview

 

“I’m not so interested in proving myself by making something technically difficult anymore. It’s more just like, ‘Does this resonate? Does this hit me in the heart?'” – OHYUNG

Finding Emotional Resonance Through the Expansion of Time

imagined naked! was largely driven by musical exercises. To generate ideas, OHYUNG focused on texture as their starting place, searching through synthesizers or saved samples that did not quite fit on previous albums and carefully layering each texture together. As a result, the album is incredibly tactile, full of ambient loops that you can touch and explore like a living, breathing ecosystem.

OHYUNG cites ambient artists Lucy Liyou, Claire Rousay, and Ryuichi Sakamoto as influences on this record, particularly for their incorporation of field recordings and samples to bring color, depth, and texture to their music. On “my hands hold flora!,” this diversity in texture creates a richness that makes the track feel expansive, even three-dimensional. The hiss and crackle of a vinyl record, a slowly droning synth, a beautiful melody played on a flute, and a peculiar crinkling sound that resembles crushed aluminum cans being dragged across the floor merge together to create a soothing, ASMR-like equilibrium.

What is most striking about this album — particularly in contrast to OHYUNG’s previous records — is its length. Where their 2020 debut album Untitled (Chinese Man With Flame), 2020’s PROTECTOR, and GODLESS have tracks that range from 2 minutes to 5 minutes, imagine naked! is drastically more expansive with tracks ranging from 7 minutes to 37 minutes. While OHYUNG tells me they didn’t set out with the goal of making a two-hour ambient album, they did challenge themselves to explore stillness and manipulating time in their composition process.

“It’s like stretching things until I’m uncomfortable with the length in this way where I’m just like, ‘Am I allowed to make a song this long?'” they elaborate. “Giving myself permission to do things I normally wouldn’t do is part of it.”

Sitting at an impressive 37 minutes, the last and longest track on the album, “releases like gloves!,” expands these boundaries on a grand scale. It is a simple loop that repeats again and again: a warm synthesizer melody that moves in an upward slow motion. No other textures exist in the spaces in between. Gradually, another melody slowly approaches, moving in a downward motion. OHYUNG tells me that they thought of these two melodies as planets in space floating towards each other across a vast nothingness, the first melody fading over time and the second melody growing, their growth and decay stretched across such a long duration that their movement is nearly imperceptible. Its slowness is blissfully soothing. A final lullaby to get lost in. An extended farewell.

“I think the length also has a lot to do with the way I enjoy ambient music,” they add. “Sometimes I don’t want it to end. I just want to hear this loop over and over again.”

For an album whose foundation is grounded in musical exercises and compositional experimentation, the music on imagine naked! never comes off as impersonal or without feeling. OHYUNG says that with all their music, especially with ambient music, their focus is on trying to reach an emotional core.

“I’m not so interested in proving myself by making something technically difficult anymore. It’s more just like, ‘Does this resonate? Does this hit me in the heart?'” they explain.

OHYUNG Musician Interview
OHYUNG Album Cover Art by Aldrin Valdez
OHYUNG – imagine naked! album cover art by Aldrin Valdez

 

Further Honoring the Work Through the Interdisciplinary

This guiding force of emotional resonance is what makes imagine naked! so rich with color and feeling. OHYUNG found more inspiration for exploring these emotions in the album from two other artists: poet t. tran le and poet and visual artist Aldrin Valdez. The album title and song names come from le’s poem “Vegetalscape,” a meditative and vulnerable piece on presence, slowness, and quiet moments of beauty. OHYUNG heard le perform the poem at a virtual poetry reading while they were in the middle of working on the album and immediately felt like it was a natural fit, asking le if they could use lines from the poem for the track titles on the album. With le’s blessings, OHYUNG listened with care, arranging and rearranging lines from the poem with the track list like a jigsaw puzzle.

OHYUNG explains that in this process they continually returned to the intention of honoring le’s original work, asking themselves, “How can I maintain the essence of the poem in the track list while properly connecting the feelings of these songs with those lines?”

The resulting track titles and arrangement of the lines breathe more life into the album. Track titles like “symphonies sweeping!” and “oxalis unfold!” bring a magical realism to the music, evoking dynamic imagery that capture the cinematic quality of the music. Other tracks like “my torn cuticles!” and “tucked in my stomach!” speak to the physicality of emotion—the slow healing of fingertips, the way anxiety can manifest in the stomach. The track list order ties these titles together as well, like the way “i’m remembering!” leads into “to fill the quiet!” in a beautiful and intimate reveal.

This quiet vulnerability felt through the absence of vocals, the stillness of the music, and the poetry of the track list is further encapsulated by the cover art made by Aldrin Valdez. OHYUNG explains that they had been a big fan of Valdez’s art and discovered the paintings that would become the album art much in the same serendipitous way that they had found t. tran le’s poem. On the double cassette, there are two paintings, each a half circle. On the first, there is a warm pink figure with a pink bob haircut, their hand resting on their chin, their eyes closed in a serene manner. On the second, a dark blue figure sits, nude, bare, their head obscured, fading into the night. Together, these paintings seem to invite us into a private space to listen and understand the inner emotions of the figures depicted.

“There is a certain feeling of tenderness, and the album art also pushes it to be this femme exploration,” OHYUNG says. “I feel like the album art brings a lot of life to the record.”

Historically, ambient music has often been understood as background music. Erik Satie set the stage for the genre decades earlier when he invented the musical concept called musique d’ameublement (or in English, “furniture music”), where music was intended to be appreciated in the background as opposed to observed on a stage. Ambient pioneers like Brian Eno and Hiroshi Yoshimura carried this ethos into their own music, creating gentle sonic landscapes that could fade in and out of a listener’s focus.

And yet, while OHYUNG’s album can thrive beautifully and quietly in the background, the sense of emotional vulnerability that sits at its core creates a level of intimacy that invites listeners to give their undivided attention. To further complicate this notion of ambient music as background music, OHYUNG created a music video for the track “symphonies sweeping!,” framing and focusing our attention on a visual narrative with instrumental ambient music playing a central role in establishing the tone of the video. This foray into creating visual art out of ambient music was initially a challenge.

“I [didn’t] know how to make a music video for ambient music because I feel like when people put on ambient music, no one’s really watching the video,” they reflect. “But then I was thinking of it just more as an art piece. [April Lin] did the music video for my song ‘now i close my eyes the world i see is so beautiful.’ Their work is so clever and empathetic and draws from their life in a really beautiful way and is edited in this interesting way. I took a lot of inspiration from their work.”

Comprised of short, intimate videos taken from their phone’s camera reel, OHYUNG’s self-produced music video for “symphonies sweeping!” is a vulnerable snapshot of the past two years of the pandemic through their eyes. As the sound of muffled church bells ring and a languid tenor synth line sways like a symphony swelling in the ruins of a cathedral lost underwater, images from OHYUNG’s point of view flick across the screen, sometimes merging, sometimes transitioning serendipitously into each other. The video feels at once achingly slow and surprisingly fast, a reflection of the way our perception of time has been slowed, refracted, and distorted with the onset of 2020 lockdown.

As we witness countless quiet moments—a loading screen for a video game avatar on NBA 2k20, selfie videos of OHYUNG singing karaoke, trying on wigs, and shooting a basketball, and even innocuous shots like a balloon floating away into the sky and waves crashing against rocky cliffs—incomplete snippets of diary entries appear as found poetry in subtitles below. To witness this vulnerability alongside the subdued yet triumphant melody of “symphonies sweeping!” solidifies the beauty that emerges in the stillness of imagine naked! The video ends with a lovely refrain that fades all too quickly into a stray logistical thought, a reflection of the fleeting nature of these touching moments: “a good heart / a brighter summer day / after all what else could have formed my feelings / need to buy more bird food soon.”

Perhaps the biggest reason OHYUNG’s focused study of stillness and softness on imagine naked! comes as a surprise is that it feels so at odds with the loud chaos that has made their live performances a defining part of their artistic image. With everything from animalistic thrashing body movements amidst heavy breathing and screaming to playful, childlike voice effect filters to drag performances and modern dance choreography, the question of how the peaceful ambient music of imagine naked! might fit into a live performance setlist seems a potentially challenging one to answer. But OHYUNG isn’t deterred, instead finding ways to incorporate ambient music from the new album into their live sets to highlight contrast and provide diverse modes of catharsis.

“I think it works well where there are these hyper intense noise sections but also pure ambient release and just trying to find the right way of pairing the two so that the audience can really feel that release and appreciate the combination of the two back-to-back, which is how I think about music a lot: playing with different genres and combinations and how that can feel effective,” they share. “What I enjoy most about performances is the cathartic release, and I don’t know if I would enjoy a purely ambient set as a performer.”

Much like their philosophy on having variety in live performances, OHYUNG’s insistence on creating music across a multitude of genres remains steady. When asked if imagine naked! marks a new direction for their work, they respond, “I enjoy working in different genres and I think I’ll continue to.” It’s probably wise for us to refrain from guessing which direction they choose to go next. OHYUNG is an artist that relies on being grounded in their present emotions as a guiding force for their musical direction, and with a compositional tool belt that spans such an expansive range, the only realistic expectation we can relish in is the joy of surprise.

OHYUNG Musician Interview

Stream imagine naked!

OHYUNG Musician Interview

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Written by
Miles Ginoza

Miles Ginoza (he/him) is a freelance writer and DJ based in California. He has written for Eastern Margins, Look At My Records, and REDEFINE Magazine. His writing explores the emotional and sensory experience of music with a focus on themes of nostalgia, healing, and home. Miles is a member of Eternal Dragonz, a digital collective of musicians, artists, designers, curators, and writers that draw inspiration from the Asian diaspora.

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