Chi Ko

"The Heartland Nomads are an American-roots band based in Brooklyn made up of Chi Ko, Greg Meyer, and Andrew Quan. The three became friends in Los Angeles while working at Liberty in North Korea, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rescuing and resettling North Korean refugees. With powerhouse vocals and stripped down instrumentation, their music tells compelling stories about present-day issues. Their sound is influenced by artists like Etta James, The Lone Bellow, and The Lumineers. In 2015, the Heartland Nomads toured across America, and in October 2016, they released their debut EP, Small but Fortunate." (Source)

 


ON GROWING UP

You told me that you grew up in Virginia. Where were you born and what are your earliest memories related to singing?

I grew up in Virginia, but I was born in Seoul. My parents immigrated to the United States when I was two. I remember singing as early as the age of four. I think the first thing I ever recorded was a McDonalds jingle on my play recorder that had a little microphone. (Laughing) I was really young, but I knew I loved singing.

As I got older, my parents started to say, "That's not a real job."  I'm an only child and being the only daughter to two immigrants was pretty hardcore. I felt like I had a lot of pressure to be the typical things that immigrants want their kids to be like a doctor or a lawyer.

When I got to high school, they made it clear that they wanted me to be either a doctor or a lawyer. I wanted to make my parents happy, so I was like, "Okay? Maybe I'll become a pediatrician? That seems cool." You know, you grow up your whole life thinking your parents know what's best for you. So I spent a lot of time going to hagwon (cram schools) a lot. 

It wasn't until I got to college that I realized how much I disliked working with blood and science. I started asking myself why I would then want to be a doctor.

(Laughing) So you had the infamous Korean childhood experience.

Definitely. It didn't matter when — every summer, during the school year... I was at hagwon. All the time.

What were you learning and doing at 'hagwon'?

I was there to learn for the next year and be prepared for what's to come! Always trying to stay ahead of the game in terms of knowing the material. But this pattern, it made me feel so overwhelmed by academics that I started to hate it. I was very unmotivated and slacked off in high school. (Laughing) When you're overwhelmed with something you're unmotivated to do, you start hating it pretty quickly.

Korean parents, man. I think they mean the best, but it can get exhausting.

Right! And, I totally get that but... it started to become a bigger pattern for me. For example, my mom forced me to play the cello instead of singing. And so, I started to hate the cello. (Laughing) I mean now, I don't hate it as much and want to incorporate it into our music, but I definitely needed that time away from it to actually focus on the thing that I loved.

How did you keep up your passion for singing with all the high demands of academics and practicing things you disliked?

So while my parents were trying to do what they thought was best for me, I was always trying to find different ways and opportunities to do music. I played cello in high school, but then I'd make sure I could sing at church. At one point, my family got a karaoke machine and I would sing by myself or with my friends whenever possible because... I always wanted to sing and I felt like I could never really get away from it even if I thought I was headed towards becoming a doctor.

Photo by Hannah Cohen

Photo by Hannah Cohen

EARLY INFLUENCES & INSPIRATIONS

What other inspirations, sources, or environments did you have that helped you preserve your drive for eventually pursuing your path for music?

When I was in elementary school, I had choir. My mom let me participate in that because I was still really young. I remember that time in my life so vividly because just being young and being able to sing all the time was amazing. I loved being around music. Another thing was just being able to have friends who were into the same music as me — Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Lauryn Hill, and other soulful ladies.

My first big inspiration came from watching Lauryn Hill in the movie Sister Act II. I remember thinking, "Who is this person?!" She had a low voice and even as a child I connected to her raspier and soulful style. It helped me a lot to have people like her as role models. Seeing and hearing these women that sounded like me made me think, "I want to do that!"

Even if they weren't Asian, that didn't matter to me. All I knew was that they sounded like me which made me feel like that there was a path in that direction that I could take.

Oh my god, yes. Lauryn Hill! Love her. What other musical influences did you have that were super formative to how you aspired to sound when you were younger?

When I was younger, I definitely wanted to sound like those soulful women I mentioned. Any girl that could belt. That's who I could connect with the most. Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Christina Aguilar. They were huge influences in my formative years.

Did you mostly hear them on TV? How did you consume most of your media & music?

Not so much TV. I listened to Britney Spears, the Spice Girls, and things like Mariah Carey's double disc album through CDs. I would just listen to them on my CD player on repeat.

As a side note, I also do remember going to the grocery stores like H-Mart where they sold CDs of Korean pop artists. I listened to Kim Bum Soo, G.O.D., Shinhwa, and S.E.S. They inspired me as well.

With Lauryn Hill, I didn't even have Miseducation when I was in elementary school! I didn't even know who Lauryn Hill was in middle school other than through the song 'Killing Me Softly' because that was on the radio.

That is... until you saw her in Sister Act II. (Laughing)

Yes, that movie was just SO pivotal. 

[Warning: Plot Spoiler] 

In that movie, her character’s mom says to her daughter - you need to focus on school. You can't sing. You can't be in the choir. But then, Lauryn sneaks onto the bus and goes to the choir competition anyway. Her mom finds out and shows up at the competition. Lauryn Hill doesn't know her mom's going to be there because she was lying to her mom and sneaking around to sing. After seeing and hearing Lauryn live, her mom finally comes around and tells Lauryn how amazing she is and how proud she is of her. And I was like, "THIS IS MY LIFE."  

I mean, I’m still waiting for the Im-So-Proud-Of-You part. But yea. Those are some of the people who've definitely paved the way for me and showed me what could possibly be.

Even if they weren’t Asian, that didn’t matter to me. All I knew was that they sounded like me which made me feel like that there was a path in that direction that I could take.
 

CHASING DREAMS

You were such a kid with a vision though! Watching those artists and that movie, you were like — "I'm going to be that. I'm going to do that."

I feel like I've always been a kid with big dreams.

Even though I was discouraged later in my life from singing, my mom was always like, "You can do anything." She would always tell me how much potential I had and she was genuine about it. (Laughing) Maybe it was because I was her only child and that's what you think about your own kids, but her early encouragement really made me believe that I could do anything I put my mind to.

And as a girl... I think that was so important to me — to know that. Whenever I was around boys, I didn't let it matter that I was a girl because I knew that I could do anything that boys could do. It was a progressive spirit that my immigrant mom instilled in me. Later on, my parents were like, "Let's find stability." But I already was shaping up to be the independent person that I am now.

You can't always chase your dreams and maintain stability at the same time. In a pursuit of a wild dream, you kind of have to give away some of your stability. You have to sacrifice some of that so that you can focus on making your dreams come true.

Growing into a woman, I still feel that now, "Yea I can do anything."

How did your parents react when you actually decided to go for the life you wanted and not what they wanted for you?

When I decided to actually move to L.A., that was the first time that I really decided that I wanted to do something for me and not for my parents. It was so hard for them especially because it was in California. Not only was I making this huge life change, but I was also leaving the nest. I was leaving to work for a non-profit organization. They didn’t want me to struggle.

Honestly, I think there were certain points where I could’ve just quit on the things that I loved because I also really wanted to make my parents happy. Being an only child, it was and still is really important to me — making sure that my parents are proud of me.

Looking back though, making that decision helped me make more of those decisions. Decisions where I put my foot down and said, “I have to do what's right for me.”

 
And as a girl... I think that was so important to me — to know that. Whenever I was around boys, I didn’t let it matter that I was a girl because I knew that I could do anything that boys could do.
 
 
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BECOMING THE HEARTLAND NOMADS

How did you meet your bandmates Greg (guitar) and Andrew (drums)?

I met Greg and Andrew through Liberty in North Korea (LiNK). I came in as an intern first. Greg came six months later and then we interned together for the second semester. Andrew was already on staff at that point. When Greg’s internship ended, I got a job at LiNK. Andrew and I were housemates and working together. Andrew worked for LiNK for four years and I worked for LiNK for three years. Greg was always around because he's my boyfriend. He’d hang out with us for really late nights and sometimes early mornings.

How did you all end up going from just three friends to becoming a band?

We were always talking about music and how much we liked playing music. We’d joke around that we should be a band. There was a part of me though that was secretly afraid. I’d always say, “You’re my boyfriend and he is my best friend. That could be a really terrible disaster.” (Laughing)

It came up a few times, but we didn’t actually decide to become a band until after The Heartland Nomads passed away in a car accident. That event was the turning point for us. Them suddenly passing away made me realize that I needed to be doing what I loved doing because there really was no guarantee of tomorrow.

Who were 'The Heartland Nomads' and what made you guys take on the name?

The Heartland Nomads were our friends Calvin, Shane, and Carolina. They were a team at LiNK who worked the ‘nomad’ positions for the organization. The nomads were five teams of LiNK storytellers. People who were nomads would go to colleges, high schools, and churches around the country to share the stories of North Koreans. There were several teams with titles like the Northeast Nomads and The Heartland Nomads. These nomads would live out of a van for three months and sleep on random people's couches and floors, dedicating a part of their lives to the movement. To inspire other people to support North Korean people (not the government).

We’d also been nomads at the time. Nomads pile up into a van in teams of three, hit the road, and share the stories for LiNK. I was tasked with managing the Nomads. The Heartland Nomads were in Texas.

They were five days away from being back in the office when they got into a fatal car accident. Greg, Andrew, and I had never encountered death on this scale before. They were so young.

I’m so sorry. When did that happen?

It's the three year anniversary of their passing. It happened on May 5th.

While I understand that death of friends can be incredibly impactful and shocking. What made you guys decide to take on their team name for your real band name?

Our friends were living their truest life and they were doing exactly what they wanted to do when they passed away. And so, I wanted to be able to say the same thing about my own life — that I went in and did the thing that scared me the most. I wanted to be able to know that even if I died tomorrow, I'm doing what I love doing. Taking on their name was an honor for us. We wanted to honor them and honor their lives. They were the reason that we were even fearless enough to take the crazy leap and do the music thing.

One day we were listing a ton of possible band names when...

Greg said,"Well what about the Heartland Nomads?"
And I said, "Dude I thought about that... but is that weird to name our band after them?
"No. Literally that is our name."
I responded, "Yea... that is our name!"

It was a no brainer once he said it out loud. We started doing this because of them and to honor them so it only made sense... to take on their name and to tell their story. It was their story that changed us and we wanted to share that story with other people... even though it can be awkward to bring up the topic of death at a show.

What were the important little events that happened in the process of becoming a band?

I took the leap first once my contract ended at LiNK. Greg quit his job and joined me. Then, we were both working part time jobs. Andrew hopped on board afterwards. It helped that we all lived together. I'd been six months into doing music and Andrew watched us practicing for our first gig which was for one of our friend's weddings. I think from just observing and seeing us create something in real life made him realize that he wanted to do this too even though it had seemed so far fetched and unrealistic. But then, Greg and I were proof that it'd be possible. It was happening.

The thing is that when I quit my job, it was Andrew who kept encouraging me to pursue music. Greg was actually more careful. Andrew had a well-its-not-my-life angle. (Laughing) He motivated me to do it a lot. I think he at first he just wanted to live vicariously through me. 

It's funny that the most fearful person I know, Andrew, encouraged me to do this thing and then he joined the band later.

Yea, sometimes we need another person take the plunge first.

For sure, and I was willing to be the guinea pig.

 
Our friends were living their truest life and they were doing exactly what they wanted to do when they passed away. And so, I wanted to be able to say the same thing about my own life — that I went in and did the thing that scared me the most. I wanted to be able to know that even if I died tomorrow, I’m doing what I love doing.
 

SONGWRITING & CREATIVE FLOW

When I think about the artists you listed as your influences, I associate them with pop, soul and R&B, but it seems that you guys focused on a different genre?

Actually when we started, I thought we were going to be like Lauryn Hill (Laughing). I genuinely thought that it would be the kind of music we would make. I definitely thought we were going to be more soulful. We did have this one song we used to perform that fit that genre called Monsters. It was a pop soulful jazzy song. Greg just had instrumentation and we put my lyrics to the music, but he came up with the melody. We didn't record it because I didn't like it enough to record it. The people liked it though. We toured with it when we drove from California to NYC back in the end of 2015.

When we moved out here (NYC), I tried to write in the same vein. But then, the songs started to come out differently. I think... it wasn't really my choice to pick this sound and genre.

What do you mean by that?

Our music wanted to be this genre.

I want to dig deeper into that idea. That the music wanted it. How do you guys go about coming up with songs? What's your process like?

Well our process has really changed over time. In the beginning, the problem was that when we would start writing songs, we'd lose direction quickly because I didn't know how to write songs. I knew how to make a melody, but as far as lyrics, melody, and instrumentation goes... I didn't know how to put all those three things together.

I would just go to coffee shops and try to write lyrics about whatever I was think about, but everything was crappy. From 2015 to the end of 2016, I wrote ONE song that I liked and that honestly was a miracle. And it's only because Greg was forcing me to share lyrics and he would put music to it. The perfectionist in me, didn't allow or like crappy stuff.

(Laughing) I can relate. We all forget that when you're starting out, you're guaranteed to suck.

Exactly. I'd never written songs enough for it to be a real practice. Everything looked like garbage to me and I had a hard time getting through it to get to the good stuff. It was so excruciating to feel like you suck so bad at something you love and want to be good at. 

Where were Greg and Andrew in the process of all this?

So now I write the lyrics and I come up with a melody and then Greg comes up with the music. Andrew figures out how he wants to sound with the drums once Greg and I have it together.

We discovered this process we moved to New York. I wrote the song Ukiah while sitting in a coffee shop in Brooklyn. I remember thinking to myself, "Oh I think I might have a melody for this!" I sang the melody for Greg and he said, "Yea! It's good." Then, Greg came up with the instrumentation and rest of the music. We realized right then that this process worked.

So you guys found your flow then as a group. It makes sense that because you're making music with two other people, you found a process that worked for all of you and not just for yourself.

Finding our flow has been so good. We needed songs. Even though our sound isn't what I first envisioned, I went with it. It's kind of like what you told me that one time about Seoul Tribe. How you thought Seoul Tribe was going to be this one thing pigeon-holed thing, but then we connected and you started exploring — "Well, maybe it could be something else." I'm learning that it's really important to not pigeon hole yourself because it can help open doors to more creative freedom.

(Laughing) Creative projects are always like little hungry monsters. You feed it and don't know what's really going to happen. I'm still learning how to get a better sense of the boundaries I set for projects. Usually, there's only way to find out — doing it, trying it.

I remember when we first started, I was totally cool with playing covers because writing songs was difficult. I wanted to put it off as long as possible. I didn't want to test the boundaries of what I was capable of doing. Greg helped me see that we needed to write enough songs for an EP. He said, "This requires for YOU to write." 

I feel like this whole song writing process for me has taught me to just let go of control. And I'm not good at it at all. I suck at it. But I feel like, that's the only way I come out with songs that I like is when it's just like ME on paper. My feelings turned into words and then we build on that.

I hated it in the beginning. I hated talking about stuff that's so close to my heart. But... I realized that I didn't get that much out of not doing it. I don't think other people did either.

It was something else that The Heartland Nomads taught me was to put yourself out there, to be vulnerable. I want other people to feel things because I know it's scary to feel things. I feel afraid to feel. It sucks. So if I do all that work for them and write this song that came from a really messy place, and it can come out beautifully and that can hit somebody and make them go to that same messy place that I went to, I feel like that's such an incredible gift that I could give to somebody. Now, I want to do that all the time.

 
I’m learning that it’s really important to not pigeon hole yourself because it can help open doors to more creative freedom.
 

HITTING THE ROAD

Do you guys have plans on what you want to do for the next six months?

Yea, we definitely have plans. We definitely want to write more songs, that's my plan. As excruciating of the writing of the songs is, I want to do that and release another EP by the end of the year. We're going on two tours this summer. This will be our second and more legit tour because we actually have our own songs that we're going to sing for people.

How long has it been since you could say, I've been doing this full time?

About six months. It has been CRAZY.

(Laughing) Is it as scary as writing your feelings? Or is it even worse?

I would say both are pretty excruciating. I don't think one is worse than the other. They're both really awful sometimes. But... the thing about it is that it's so excruciating, but the pay off is... the pay off has been extraordinary and beyond what we ever imagined.

 

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