You are loved for who you are, and not merely what you can do. – Koo Chung
Koo Chung has a long list of titles: recording artist, touring artist, musician, worship leader, songwriter, producer, photographer, husband, friend, and creative partner. He’s gone on to produce five solo albums and tour around the country, collaborating with artists like Derek Webb, Andrew Peterson, and Jars of Clay. Koo’s resume and list of achievements are too numerous to outline here. But, it is his humanity that provides an inside look of how to grieve well, hope in the midst of struggle and remain a dreamer surrounded by despair. In the first REFlections interview, it is my great honor to present Koo Chung!
RF: As a music artist, you have explored various creative directions. What would you consider your most creative moment? Why?
Koo: It’s hard to pinpoint one creative moment, but I would have to say that the most creative moments have always happened in the context of collaborating with other musicians/artists. I love teaming up with people who enjoy thinking outside the box and aren’t afraid to spend some time to achieve excellence by exploring different ideas. Most recently, the most rewarding collaborative process was song-writing with my friend Mike Schmid who helped in co-producing my latest album “Brick by Brick”. It definitely sounds different from my previous work, and I can easily say that it’s my favorite out of all the albums I’ve worked on.
RF: Koo, you’ve been very transparent about your seven-year hiatus from music, detailing it as a period of “life happened”. What were some lessons that you’ve learned during that season?
Koo: The biggest lesson I learned was that you need to know yourself well. Simple as that. The better you know yourself, your boundaries, limits, weaknesses, strengths, and what makes you feel alive – the better you can take care of yourself and be better equipped to maintain meaningful relationships in your life. When all of these are in tact, you’re so much better set up to go out and do what you’re created to do. Not sure why it took 7 years for this to happen for me, but it did.
The other half of this is that yes, “life happens”, and things won’t go our way often, and we’ll experience loss & tragedy. To say you need to roll with the punches is more for small inconveniences. When you face life changing scenarios like losing everything you have, or the death of loved ones – the only thing you can do is to try to grieve well. Look the pain right in the eyes, then when the dust settles a bit – process. Thankfully, one of the ways I was able to process was by writing songs.
RF: How did you incorporate those lessons in your new music featured on “Brick By Brick”?
Koo: I’ve been very candid about my personal life, namely my marriage, in this album. The one thing that might have suffered the most due to not knowing myself well enough, not setting good boundaries, having a stifled music career, & the experiences of loss (loved ones as well as material possessions) was my marriage. The one good thing I can say about loss is that it makes you realize how finite life is, and simply put, I experienced an urgent wake up call to appreciate who and what I have, and to love well with the remaining time I have left on this earth.
Many of us experience similar things, but feel incredibly alone because we think we’re the only ones. When this happens, we isolate ourselves and oftentimes, things get even worse because of it. Part of writing “Brick by Brick” was simply because it was one of the best ways I knew how to be introspective about everything I experienced, and because I loved the idea of creating these thoughts in music form – keepsakes, if you will. But the reason I went ahead with recording and releasing this album to the public is because I wanted to encourage people to remove their masks, and risk being vulnerable so we can love and accept each other better when it comes to the dark and gray areas of our lives. The only way I felt I can initiate this was to remove my own mask first.
RF: How has your faith in God developed you to the man you are today?
Koo: Faith has been the greatest gift, especially in the darkest seasons of my life. When I say gift, I mean it almost literally. It’s not that I have always had a great amount of faith, but it’s that I was able to notice frequently how faithful God has been, and how He has never let go. Therefore, if my life choices, and everyday actions could speak they would probably say, “This is for you God, because I can clearly see Your love and faithfulness in my life. At times it’s as tangible as Your protection and provision, and at others it’s an abstract idea. I want others to experience this, and if I can help reach others with this amazing love, then I’m happy to be Your instrument”.
RF: If money or resources were not an issue, what would you endeavor to do right now?
Koo: I can honestly say that it wouldn’t look incredibly different from what I’ve done in the past, and what I’m doing now. The only difference would be that some of it would be done on a larger scale. I’ve had recording studios in the past and currently own some recording gear, but with unlimited resources, I’d build an amazing recording / rehearsal studio and offer it as a resource to other artists I believe in (of course I’d use it myself as well, to go in and record whenever I need to). This studio would come with an amazing engineer I have hired full time, because I am not a fan of learning programs like ProTools, and understanding outboard gear. If I’m at all knowledgable about technology and equipment now, it’s only because it was a means to an end in the past.
I’d put together a band and would continue touring with my wife, Jinny Kim. The specific purpose or message for the season might change from time to time, but I love the idea of being able to communicate and connect w/ friends and audiences throughout the world especially in the form of music.
When I’m not doing this, I’d be back home trying to get better at my craft, practicing, reading, writing, and of course I would always stay involved w/ my local church’s worship ministry.
So yeah, not entirely different from what I’ve been doing.
RF: What do you consider your greatest success? Why?
Koo: Every once in a while when I meet a younger Asian artist/musician for the first time, I am surprised and incredibly honored when they say to me that they have heard of me, and that I have “paved the way” for artists like themselves. When I was in my teens and twenties, there were still not too many of us putting ourselves out there in the music world (here in the US, that is). A large part of why Asians never pursued their dreams of becoming an artist was because they didn’t feel like they could succeed in the US, or that they didn’t have the blessings of their parents who immigrated here and worked hard so that we can have a good education and be “successful”. We are not all wired however, to have the same kind of academic or corporate success. There are many incredibly gifted Asian artists who can impact the world in great ways. I’m relieved to see how things have changed in the past two decades, and thankful to have played some small role in it.
RF: There are those who are reading this blog that are at a crossroads. They may be conflicted about how they should proceed on a dream or a goal for the new year. What words of encouragement would you offer them?
Koo: Recently I spoke with a friend who said that she intentionally chose not to do something she loved full time because if she did so, it would begin to feel like work and that she wanted to always enjoy what she did. Another friend told me about his experience with an artist he knew that had no backup plan whatsoever, because not doing music was a foreign concept, and not an option. This artist ended up having a hit single on national radio, and continues to do music now. In both examples, their motivations were purely based on how they experienced doing what they loved. Their actions were not determined by a desire for fame or for financial success – and I would say that these two things often hinder our approach to achieving our dreams and goals.
Bottom line is, if you love and believe in something – pursue it. Put in your time, practice, make mistakes, put yourself out there – especially if you believe in the message of what it is that you’re sharing. If you’re not at a place where you can do what you love full time, then work – earn money – but don’t be discouraged or think yourself a victim for having to do so. Learn what you can from your current job. If you’re paying attention, there’s always something valuable to learn. I didn’t want to work at Starbucks forever, but when I did, I learned many aspects of management and cultivated important people skills.
Continue to prioritize and carve out time to do what you love, and if one day it becomes your livelihood, be thankful and set appropriate boundaries in your life so you continue enjoying what you do. Never forget to prioritize important relationships in your life. Love well, and have fun along the way – life is too short. You are loved for who you are, and not merely what you can do.
— REFlections Interview —
For more information on Koo, check out www.koochung.com.