Woven Conversations | Treya Lam
Treya Lam is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and multidisciplinary artist living transiently in New York City. She was born in Taiwan and raised just outside of Queens. For as long as she can remember, music has been a part of her life and in 2018, she released her debut album, Good News alongside a sold out show at Joe’s Pub. For this issue of Woven Conversations, corresponding with the end of Women’s Month, Treya discusses her artistic influences, the importance and power that comes from collaborating with womxn, and what it was like recording in the studio David Bowie recorded his vocals for Blackstar.
“it’s my truest form of expressing myself and connecting with the world around me”
How did your music career begin?
Music has been a part of my life for as long as I remember. I started playing piano when I was 3, picked up the violin in the 3rd grade and got into the guitar and songwriting when I was in high school.
It's been a complicated love - there are times when it's been an undeniably blissful part of my life - my way of turning chaos into order. Being in the business of music in an expensive and oversaturated city can very easily shatter that at times. At best though, it’s my truest form of expressing myself and connecting with the world around me.
How would you describe your process?
Constant leaps of faiths. Every new song feels like the last one I'll ever write. The process is always evolving, the systems that have worked during certain creative periods don't always keep. I think in the past my work was mostly influenced by external sources, I would absorb and process into song. Now it feels like there is too much happening in the world to take in without losing my sense of self, so I am trying to find ways to be more grounded in myself and draw from within.
When writing songs, the words and music are usually created separately. When a phrase jumps out at me, I have to get it down somewhere. I'll write in notebooks, napkins, envelopes or scraps of papers for the most part, if the words are coming quickly I'll type the lines in my phone or laptop.
With music, I'll fidget around on the guitar, piano or viola until I find a pattern that catches. If I have the time and space, this can mean playing slightly different variations of the same chord or progression for hours. When something feels right, I'll record a snippet in my phone or computer to check out later.
I'm constantly contributing to the reserves of words and music. Then I'll try to mix and match phrases with progressions to see if anything fits. Some songs take years, some can all come out in one sitting. You never really know.
Who or what inspires your work?
I’m inspired by the stories of the people I come across and solitude in nature. Trying to be a full time musician while holding on to my artistic integrity is a long and occasionally exhausting endeavour, so I need to fully believe in the purpose behind pursuing this career. As an introvert it seems nearly impossible to speak out against the relentless slew of injustices that take place, but I find that my most effective way of communicating and sharing hope is through writing and turning my thoughts into song.
“I believe that embracing my sensitivity and recognizing it as a strength is a part of my evolution as an artist and person. My music tends to draw an emotional response from people, I see it in their faces when we speak afterwards. It was unusual at first when I wasn't quite in touch with my own emotions, but I’m grateful that my work can produce that effect.”
How have you evolved as a musician?
Most people don’t sound too good when they first pick up an instrument, it’s the same with writing songs. When you’re starting out in any artistic path you’re bound to make some cheesy stuff in the beginning (I’ve got some old high school friends who are waiting for me to make it big so they can make some bank on my embarrassing corny early material), but you just keep at it.
I think the most important tool to develop as a musician is having a critical ear. I’ve only evolved because I started listening to music intentionally: what do I like about this song, about this voice, about the way everything comes together? What are the qualities that I enjoy that can be incorporated into my own style? To keep the ear sharp I almost never put music on in the background, I’ll only listen to music if I can give it my attention.
I feel really fortunate to have some time to fail and make mistakes before the internet was such a big part of our lives. When something is less developed I prefer to share it with fewer people. Imagine starting out and uploading something mediocre online, all it would take is one stupid little comment from an complete stranger to discourage you from making or sharing something else!
Adding to that, I believe that embracing my sensitivity and recognizing it as a strength is a part of my evolution as an artist and person. My music tends to draw an emotional response from people, I see it in their faces when we speak afterwards. It was unusual at first when I wasn't quite in touch with my own emotions, but I’m grateful that my work can produce that effect. The world would benefit if we could all have more empathy for each other.
What advice you would you give to aspiring musicians?
Know yourself. Know the business. Figure out the best path for you. Enjoy the process and learn how to appreciate silence. It’s not just about the notes you play but the space that’s in between.
What other artists/musicians, women do you admire?
I feel like my biggest artistic inspirations would be Nina Simone, Alice Coltrane, Laura Mvula, Kaki King, Feist, Cat Power, Sharon Jones, Valerie June, Andrew Bird and Emily Wells. It’s not just about the music but how they use their gifts to shape a better world. I also have some powerhouse womxn in my circle of friends, including members of the Resistance Revival Chorus who are helping me find my voice as an activist during these challenging times.
Why is it important to support womxn in the music industry and beyond?
Working with an all womxn team [for Good News] wasn’t intentional at first, but it turned out to be so much easier than the experiences I’ve had in the past. There was a seamless and collective effort put forward to make a great record, it wasn’t about anyone’s ego. Moving forward I’ll probably continue down that path. In the industry, womxn are dangerously underrepresented, especially behind the scenes. As artists we are supposed to create the example of a world we want to live in, so change begins with the choices we make in hiring.
It began when my good friend Trish Nelson introduced me to Kaki King and I had the incredible fortune to have this artistic genius produce and play on this record. Then we just hired the best musicians we knew. She brought in her good friend Cat Popper to lay down the bass on one of the first days of recording and I was stunned stupid with her musicality. I didn’t research her beforehand which is a good thing because I would’ve been even more awkward in the studio, but she’s played on some of my favorite records.
I had been working with Meena Spevack professionally for a few years prior and she arranged the beautiful strings parts for the record, I brought in my old college classmates Megan Faye and Olive Alice to play them. Got a long time collaborator Kate Hannington to arrange and play the wind parts on ‘Still Here’ and ‘The Other Side’.
I met Daisy Press performing at the House of Yes and have been haunted by the spirits in her voice. My partner Bretony who may have inspired a song or two sang background vocals on a few tunes. We also had Annie Kallpa, and Jenna Nelson sing some background vocals as well.
Then Kaki brought in her friend and rising audio engineering star Erin Tonkon to mix the record. Tonkon had worked on David Bowie’s last record and we got the final mixes in the same studio he recorded his vocals for Blackstar in. It was surreal to be in the rooms that I have entered for this record, most of the record was made at Kaki’s personal studio and guitar library - Other Cathedrals - and a few things were done in my last apartment.
At that point, it made sense to just finish the record off with pure feminine energy. Sarah Register killed it with the mastering and I got Anna Azarov to shoot the album cover. Finally, Kaki signed me to her label Short Stuff Records and brought in the powerhouse Vickie Starr and her team at Girlie Action to manage the release of Good News.
I wasn’t bringing anyone one board because they were womxn, I brought on the best people available. As an adopted, queer, Taiwanese-American who struggles with mental health issues, there are many closed doors that I’ll have to open as I navigate this industry. You better believe that I’m bringing everyone along.