At the age of 30, Lester Chong is no newbie to the music industry. After leaving Sony Music, whom he signed with in 2013, the Hong Kong-born and raised artist has continued to make waves as a truly independent indie musician. It’s been a long time coming, but this year, Chong finally released his first full-length album. He sits down with us to talk about his neverending love for My Chemical Romance, and how the ACG community shaped him as a musician.
With chin-length platinum blonde hair and an anime-inspired fit, Lester Chong appears slightly out-of-place in generic Hong Kong. Throw in some CGI graphics, and now, he looks like he just stepped out of a video game. That’s exactly the vibe he’s getting at with the release of his first solo album, ZiNG!.
Two years in the making, Chong describes ZiNG! as a “lifelong effort”. The nine tracks in the album collectively tell the story of a character called “Lester Chong”, who enters the virtual world and experiences a period of life on Earth. During his time on the planet, the protagonist tackles everyday issues such as friendship, loss and awakening, which he sings about.
Working on the new album, Chong zoned in on his own sound and style and discovered the true meaning of making music. “Creating music is more than just being able to carry a beat or having a nice voice,” he shares. “It’s about the intentions behind each song, and that becoming successful in this industry is measured not by money and fame, but by self-affirmation.”
Tuning In: Lester Chong
When and how did your interest in music begin?
As a kid, I enjoyed watching anime on TV every day after school. Back then — the good old days, I call them — every Japanese anime had its own Cantonese theme song. I loved singing along to these songs, and I suspect they’re the reason my interest in music began. My favourite is the opening theme from Digimon Frontier.
Did you grow up around music? Does it run in your family?
My love for music definitely doesn’t come from my parents, since they divorced when I was 13 and were never around much. My sister was the only one who was always on my side, and she eventually became my first listener. But perhaps as a result of my family background, I spent my time focusing on video games and anime, which inspired me with their art and music styles. I also loved listening to different kinds of music, especially rock/punk/emo at the time.
When did you realise you were musical? Can you pinpoint a formative moment when you realised you were good?
I was never confident, and I wouldn’t say I was a particularly good singer growing up. I just knew I liked to sing, so I did. Fast forward to secondary school, when my friends and I would go for karaoke every weekend. For once in my life, I had an audience that wasn’t my sister (yay!). My friends told me I could sing well, so I started to participate in various singing concerts and was awarded first place in the Hennessy Artistry contest. Soon after, I met my coach Jeffrey and everything just went from there.
To this day, I never really think, “Oh wow, I’m such a good musician / artist!” I’m not even trying to be humble here, I just do what I love to do — which is to sing and share stories via music. I’m lucky because I have so much love and support from my fans, and I’m so grateful for that.
How have different cultural influences in your life shaped you as a musician?
When I look back on my life, there are two music sub-cultures that have influenced me the most: Rock music and ACG (Animes, Comics, Games).
The first album I bought and my first concert were both Avril Lavigne. My other favourites were My Chemical Romance and Sum 41. You can see the ways that their energetic music represented my teenage self: not afraid of anything, always hanging out with friends, getting drunk and adventuring the gaming world.
I didn’t recognise myself as a fan of rock music as a kid, because growing up in Hong Kong, music lessons at school were, well, a joke. No one taught us about the different genres of music. But I soon realised the songs I loved usually had sprinkles of band elements.
And as I mentioned, as a teen, I also spent a lot of time watching anime, reading comics and playing video games — basically dabbling in the virtual world. To me, they are just different forms of art. The creator makes worlds for us to experience, to feel, to enjoy.
ACG showed me the possibilities in different worlds; they gave me the key to storytelling. When I was writing my album, I referenced my favourite legendary bands to see how they told a story. I also referenced many ACG works that have impressed me throughout the years. You can see them in my song “Portal Gun”.
What’s the first song you each ever learned by heart?
“The Beginning” by ONE OK ROCK. I felt lost and hopeless before debuting my first single… until I heard The Beginning, which inspired me and sort of brought me back to life. I didn’t understand Japanese, so I browsed and translated the lyrics, trying to understand the song’s meaning word by word.
What’s the first track we should listen to that best defines your sound?
It would be “裂” in my latest album. It’s the first song where I tried a different vocal tone — modifying my voice to catch the middle ground between a normal tone and screaming. Adding compression and distortion through different vocal techniques to create an emotional expression, was very satisfying for me.
What song, album or performance had a really important, lasting impact on you, both personally and as an artist?
That would be The Black Parade Is Dead! by My Chemical Romance.
Working on my music, I discovered that it’s more than just singing well — it’s about sending a message. You have to combine everything to make it whole. People in Hong Kong are too focused on the vocals or lyrics. But I prefer to just clear my mind to feel the music, to feel the energy, to just dive into the zone where musicians create. That’s what I learned from MCR’s second live album.
Who’s your favourite musician/artist and why?
If you haven’t guessed yet, it’s My Chemical Romance. They inspire me when it comes to my singing, my performances and of course my life. I really feel their soul through their music.
What does music, or being a musician, mean to you?
Being a musician is more than just acquiring knowledge and understanding of different music genres and songs. My job gives me opportunities to learn about different cultures and their history. When I listen to different songs, I get an inside look into the artists’ minds. It feels like I’m reading a book into their innermost thoughts about what they have been through.
I guess what I’m saying is this — music opens my mind and leads me to have a better understanding of the world. I’m so grateful that I chose this path.
What’s your creative process?
I always think about the message I want to express first. Usually, I already have a topic I want to address and a picture I want to present. With this in mind, I will play around with different kinds of instruments or melodies to match the emotions I’m trying to portray. After that, I’ll sit down and do some writing, which is the final step that helps me to dive deeper into the song.
What’s your favourite lyric, ever?
“I am not afraid to keep on living / I am not afraid to walk this world alone” — “Famous Last Words” by My Chemical Romance
These lyrics hint at the proverb “every man for himself”. No one can truly fully understand you, not even your closest ones. Simply said, it takes courage to face reality. And this song gives me the strength to power through and continue living.
What are your personal most-played tracks on Spotify?
Recently, it’s my own album. I used to be afraid of listening to my own songs but after the release of ZiNG!, I learned how to appreciate my work.
What’s the toughest challenge you’ve had to overcome in your career?
The challenge has always been to not give up. In 2013, I signed with a music company but went years without releasing any new songs. It was a rough time, stuck in limbo, and I found myself debating whether I should give up and just get a normal job. But now, looking back, I realise these hardships made me stronger and allowed me to grow into who I am today.
How has your music changed and evolved over the years since you started?
At first, I only wanted to sing and didn’t think about writing or creating music. But as I grew up a little bit, I gained a deeper understanding of myself and life. I realised I had stories to share, so I started to write songs.
What’s next? What are you working on?
Right now, I want to be able to organise my own show and meet my fans in person. Here’s to hoping Covid goes away!
(Lead and featured photos courtesy of Lester Chong)