A Chat with UofT's Zion Kim
When I was younger, one of my favourite TV shows was Victorious. For those who aren’t familiar, it’s an early 10’s Nickelodeon sitcom that centers on a group of teens and their lives at “Hollywood Arts High School”, a fictional LA school for music and drama. The show’s episodic plots center on topics like school plays and relationship troubles — which is pretty standard as far as sitcoms go. However, something that has always stuck with me about the show is its characters. Specifically, the way the protagonists seemed to know with an unyielding sense of certainty who they were, and what they wanted their lives to look like. Victorious’s main characters are all singers and songwriters, and while some are portrayed as more musical than others, there is a strong sense one gets when watching the show that for each of the main characters music is both a passion and a central part of their identity. The characters write and perform songs not only for their classes but also for their friends, their families, and themselves. They do it because they want to, not just because they’re expected to.
It might seem like a strange distinction to make, but growing up in a community where people played instruments solely because it was what they “should” do, Victorious left me equal parts awestruck and incredulous. In some ways it's silly for a sitcom to have had such a great impact on me, but there’s a truly profound beauty to somebody who knows exactly what they want to do and pursues it completely — even if that somebody isn’t real. Seeing these characters live and breathe music made me reflect on my own relationship with music and the ways in which it just wasn’t the same. I’d been taking piano lessons for almost seven years by then and had just joined my school’s strings ensemble class, but that was precisely the extent of my interaction with music. Music for me was something taught and practiced in classes — something one was expected to do at certain times and places. In my classes, I would channel the “part” of me that was musical, but the moment class ended it was as if that “part” of me would cease to exist. For these characters, however, music was something more fundamental—more consistent with their being. There was no “part” of them that was musical; they were wholly musical, musical in their entireties.
For a long time, I wondered if such people really did exist. I certainly didn’t consider myself somebody like that, nor anyone else I knew. There were those around me who were more musically inclined, but even then it still felt like musicality for them was something confined for the most-part, and only let free in recitals and one-hour classes. Who knows? Perhaps it was a mischaracterization on my part for some of these people, or perhaps I was wrong. After all, I’ve never been so naive as to believe blindly in my judgments of others, which is why the certainty with which I now write the following is all the more notable.
This past year at UofT I have met some truly extraordinary people, one of whom I can only describe (in the most flattering way) as a living, breathing, Victorious characters. By that, I mean this person in particular is somebody who loves music, loves to create and engage with it, and shares that love with his friends. He is somebody who is kind and warm, even to those he doesn’t yet know. He is somebody who you quickly feel that you can trust, but never shake the feeling that at any moment he might just break into song. You may have heard his music from the ENG140 Soundtrack with Nick Mount or perhaps the Innis Theme Song. Or maybe you know him personally — or maybe not at all. Whatever the case, you’ll get to know him now because we’re fortunate enough to have him here with us today for an interview. Please welcome, Zion Kim!
Hi Zion, could you tell us a bit about yourself:
My name is Zion, my artist name is Zion Kim — full lyrical name. Nineteen, turning twenty, call myself a small-time artist. I’m a UofT student: English Major, History minor, Education and Society minor.
When did you first start making music?
I first started making music at fifteen when one of my friends gave me his Digital Audio Workspace, DAW for short. I was kind of thrown into the deep end since he gave me Ableton, which is known for being really complex.
I was actually in a vocal program at the time. I was co-leader of the Show Choir and one of the members was like
“Oh, I know you really like music, and I know you’ve been cooking up on your own, do you want this?”
Everything’s been a blessing since.
Did he teach you how to work the software?
Fuck no, that man basically said “here’s your fishing pole and here’s your bait. Do with it what you will.” I didn’t know how to throw or nothing!
Was it mostly learning online then?
Not even learning online. I’d say overall I only spent about eight to twelve hours on Youtube throughout the whole of five years, everything else I learned naturally. It was mostly through poking around that I learned how to use the software.
How has your relationship with music changed since then?
That’s a deep question, I’ll give you a deep answer then.
When I first started fully fully producing music — because beforehand I would do acoustic covers with my guitar and that’s how I made my first songs — but when I first started producing, in my heart and in my mind I wanted to dedicate something to myself and to my mom. My mom was kind of the one who pushed me into doing music.
When she passed away, that’s when I started making music of my own accord, started doing it at my own pace. From then and up until now I still do everything for her. It’s just that with me now, I look at music not only as something I’m ambitious about but also as an important way to connect with people where the more I write, the more I can collaborate with others, the more people I can talk to, the more I can grow my social circle.
Do you think you’d still make music if nobody else was able to listen to it?
Yes. There’s no doubt in my mind that if no-one was able to listen to my music other than me, I’d still make bangers. I’d still cook, I’d still whip it in the studio, I don’t care.
How naturally does songwriting come to you? Do you ever have moments where you just don’t want to work on music?
There are periods of time where I don’t want to work on music, but there are also periods of time where I don’t want to release music. Two different things. On one hand there’s times where I don’t want to touch Ableton, don’t even want to listen to music at all, because I’m too sensitive, too stimulated because of it. On the other hand, there’s times where I’ll love music, I’ll cook, but I’ll never release anything - and that's kind of the state I’m at now.
Let me be honest with you: one of my good friends, Reny, that man and I will literally make songs while walking around campus. If you see two idiots walking around the street, one guy freestyling the other guy on his phone making a beat, then that's the two of us. I’m not joking. Reny and I will literally sit, find empty classrooms in our college, and then cook for hours. So to answer your first question,
...when does music come to me? It comes naturally—it just comes with good vibes. Sometimes I’ll sit down by myself or with other people and I’ll have a melody playing or something playing in my head. Other times I’ll be listening to a song and looking at the scenery and from there I’ll cook something else.
I would say a lot of the time, I actually get inspiration not just from experiences in music, but also paintings, art, even history. So inspiration comes from a lot of places, it's just how you take that inspiration and mold it in your own way.
Could you elaborate a little more on why you might have periods where you don’t want to release music?
Personally, my workflow is very fast. I work very fast — I wouldn’t say efficiently — but I work very fast. So when it comes to things I’d like to release and things I wouldn’t like to release, it all depends on whether I believe I’m proud of it or not. If I'm proud of a project, if I put a lot of time and effort into a project, then yes I’ll release it. I just finished a song yesterday that I’m probably not gonna release because I don’t like it that much. It’s that simple: whether or not I like it, whether or not I don’t like it, whether or not it fits my style.
I actually find myself getting very worried about public PR and stuff like that a lot of the time because I worry about whether or not my listeners will appreciate what I’m putting out. Being versatile is one thing but being adaptive is another. I can do many things: I can sing, I can rap — like throw me a beat and I’ll do whatever I can with it. But the thing is I’m not good at adapting to a specific trend. If I stick to rapping, I'll stick to rapping, if I stick to singing I’ll stick to singing. And I like to experiment a lot. That’s why I don’t know if the public will like my music, since I’m more versatile than adaptive.
What’s your creative process like? Do you usually write tracks with a concept or theme in mind and then build the sound around it, or write around a sound?
I’d say it's very dependent on the situation. If I’m working with another person for example, my top priority isn’t the end product, it’s the experience and what comes out of it. Let's say I’m working with my friend Reny again: Our go to method is one of us pulls up a track or makes a beat on the spot, and then we both ask each other “What vibes do we get from this?” From there we’ll start writing lyrics.
If I'm by myself though, a lot of things just come naturally. Mainly, it would probably either start off with a melody or some nice synths, nice keys, nice guitar, whatever fits. From there, a lot of the time I’ll actually freestyle part of the process. With drum patterns, I’m fortunate enough to know how to beatbox, so If I know how the drum sequence goes I’ll just beatbox it in my head. From there that’s where I’ll come up with bass notes, whatever fits. I’d refer to it as sequencing and arranging, and it’s probably what I do best. On the other hand if somebody does give me a beat and they already have lyrics on it, then I’ll work with the general theme of those lyrics.
What aspects of your life do you draw inspiration for your music from?
I read a lot of manga, watch a lot of anime, but most of the time I’ll usually just think up a concept in my head and go from there. Or a few swipes on Pinterest and then we’re good.
What kind of music do you listen to?
The first genre that got me really, really into music was actually dubstep. Remember the dubstep wave back in like… *starts laughing* I think the first time I ever heard "Bangarang," I had an actualization of some sort, I was like “oh my god.” But I don’t really listen to dubstep anymore—I dont think anybody does—but I’d say these days I’m really into a whole lot of genres. I’ll go from listening to R&B, Neo-Soul to rap, alternative rap, hip hop, and then I’ll go to death metal, deathcore, nu metal. I listen to a lot of different genres. Right now though, I’d say primarily alternative rap or R&B neo soul.
What artists or genres do you think have most influenced your music so far?
If we’re talking back when I first started, I’d have to give all props to Ed Sheeran, because at the time that’s the light I was looking at. But now it’s way different. I think right now, I’d say surprisingly a lot of hyperpop. I’ve been listening to a lot, a lot of hyperpop. Artists wise though I’d say mainly 99 Neighbors. One of if not my favorite artists. They’re a group, bangers. They’re the alternative rap I was talking about. They can do slow, they can do fast, dark, deep, hype—everything. Either 99 Neighbors, Ciki who’s a korean neo-soul bedroom pop artist, or honestly a lot of the people I work with, who are around me as a musician, I also gain a lot of inspiration from. Just to name off a few people, Ahjussii (aka Reny), Moony, Ben Portra, Danny Park, Won Hunnid., a bunch of other people too. A lot of people that I’ve worked in close relation with, they all give me inspiration. It’s actually amazing to see, because if you find inspiration with a close group, you start to make something even better than you would if you looked at mainstream artists.
Do you ever have a hard time balancing music, which is such a big part of your life, with school and everything else really?
I would say no, because personally for me — I say this all the time whenever someone asks me the same question — 50% of my identity is made up of music and the other 50% is me. Music and me are conjoined together in a way that I don’t think you can see these things separately, only really as a whole.
So in the end when it comes down to balancing things, it kind of comes naturally where: Work, school, yes, they do come first, but every opportunity that I get and everything that gives me inspiration will always go into my phone under the notes file and then I’ll start writing and producing when I get the time to. Balance is one thing but honestly, living with that balance is another thing.
What do you have in store for the future? Could you give us a hint about what direction you might take your future releases?
Oh y'all want insider peeks? Alright, okay, bet. Sneak peeks. I have a few projects in mind. I have at least three singles expected to come out this year, and am expecting to do an EP for early next year and an album for next year. We’ve got a few more things coming. If people stay patient, there’s one huge huge project that’s going to be released very, very soon. It's a very, very big project with a lot of other people, but it’s going to be a very fun project. All I can say is
“BAD KIDS for life."
If everyone reading this right now were to listen to one song from your discography, what song should it be?
Alright, I’ll give you two songs if that’s okay.
To those broken-hearted people who have been done-dirtied, listen to "Fool’s Gold." Because that song is, by far, one of the most heart-wrenching songs I’ve made, and I think it’s one of the better produced ones as well.
If you’re looking for a story and to get immersed into both melodics and rap, I’d say my personal favourite is "Polaroids of You."
If they’re willing to immerse themselves in a story, deep bass, a production that seems both wholesome, warm and yet solemn and lonely at the same time, "Polaroids of You." If you just want to cry your heart out at 3AM, "Fool’s Gold."
Where can we find you and your music?
You can find me on all platforms under Zion Kim, except for Soundcloud, do not have Soundcloud. If people need to reach out to me, my email link is also in my Spotify bio as well as my Instagram bio. If you wanna get in touch music-wise, just hit up my label!
Is there anything else you’d like to say or talk about?
Thank you for having me? Apart from that, I’d probably like to say… You know what? Screw it. I’ll say the announcement now.
A friend of mine is creating a music collective, and I’ll be joining as a member! Our collective name is BAD KIDS, Bad Kids Doing Bad Shit.
- BAD KIDS -
Thank you so much for joining us today Zion, what are you off to after this?
I’m producing after this. Lowkey I’m not gonna lie, I forgot we had the interview and I was calling one of my friends like “hop into this discord server real quick, I gotta show you a beat” and I was like “oh fuck! nevermind, I’ll catch you in an hour!”
Alright! Thanks again for coming on, I’ll catch you next time!