In The Mix is a recurring series from Stem that spotlights special artists with a story to tell. This is cehryl.
Art facilitates the conversion of pain to peace. For cehryl, a writer’s writer, words go a long way. On songs like “Judgement Day,” embedded below, she distills the highs and lows of relationships—familial, romantic, temporal—to their emotional core. Stories adorn her mind. Every release offers a brief glimpse through the lens of an international poet, one capable of producing the sounds that score her thoughts.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, the forward-thinking R&B artist hails from a non-musical family. After trading in childhood piano lessons for MTV, she quickly realized music made her feel what nothing else could. Two years of isolation at an English high school confirmed those early beliefs. Few things can overpower the allure of creation outlasting creator. While friends fretted over academics, she buckled down on what brought her joy, eventually boarding a continent-crossing flight to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston. Amidst parental doubts and frustrations (mom and dad weren’t thrilled with their daughter’s choice), cehryl’s commitment grew that much stronger.
A freshly minted member of the post-grad real world, cehryl aims to build her future one day at a time. Her latest release, “Half The Time,” solidified the wordsmith’s potential, offering a cutting tour of toxic love that’s still fun to sing to. Powered by Stem, cehryl is spending less time worrying about accounting and more time making songs that play like short films. Keep scrolling to read Stem’s interview with cehryl.
Photo by Brian Mantra
Your work often feels somber, cehryl. Is writing a coping mechanism for you?
For the most part, all of my songs tie loose ends in my head. Writing helps me frame a sadness and hang it in a museum in my head and let it rest. When someone who matters to you makes you feel something significant, it’s all about that. Most of my music boils down to relationships—family, friends, love.
Young cehryl would be happy to hear some of the songs I’ve written this year because they’ve come from such a vulnerable place. I’m proud I forced myself to even finish them, no matter how painful the experience. I’ve grown as a person, not necessarily as a writer, though that might be the same thing.
You could play any song you’ve made from the past two years and it’d be clear you treasure words. Did you know from the jump you’d be a singer, too?
I always wrote. Growing up I listened to lots of singer-songwriters. In the back of my head, I knew there was a responsibility that comes with writing very personal songs. I knew it made sense for me to sing, deep down, but I was always shy about vocal performance. I’m not a natural singer. I went to Berklee as a pianist actually, a keyboardist. I wrote a bunch of music. Then I heard Nick Hakim’s EPs, Where Will You Go. His vocals moved me so much that I knew I had to try.
Do you have a comfort zone for making songs?
To some extent, I’m very comfortable with writing. I know how to make my process as efficient as possible. I think about why I’m feeling what I’m feeling and then think about the imagery I want to use to relay that. Sometimes it’s easy, but I’m trying to stray from formulas. I will say I’m most comfortable writing when I’m alone in my room and it’s really late at night.
You have a handful of influences that inspired you. What about Avril Lavigne did you want to embody? What drew you to artists like Bon Iver or Frank Ocean?
Avril Lavigne made the first CD I ever had. All of her melodies were so catchy. The writing was so personal. And no one else had her edge at the time, when Hilary Duff and Hannah Montana were popular. She was a punk princess. She came up during Simple Plan and all these other bands that I loved, too, but they weren’t women.
[Justin Vernon, from Bon Iver] is one of the first artists who showed me you could use music to take someone anywhere. That impacted my production. [Frank Ocean] makes collages. He’s made an incredible impact in pop culture. He makes me feel like I’m in a theater, watching movies. I want to evoke the same feeling in my writing.
Listen to cehryl’s In The Mix playlist below, featuring a special blend of gifted newcomers (Zack Villere), contemporaries (Frank Ocean) and icons (Lauryn Hill). Expect to see a video for her new single “Half The Time” sooner than later.