ZK king 劉‘s debut album, Heart throbs, is out now through exemplars of the Naarm underground, CONTENT.NET.AU. Heart throbs is a work of textural, melodic pop music that sits amid a haze of electronic noise and field recordings. ZK king’s songwriting corresponds to the chronically online era, while also brimming with nostalgia. As a result, Heart throbs generates a feeling that’s intimate, familiar and a bit uncanny.
The project’s creator, Jamie Marina Lau, is also a celebrated author, responsible for the novels Pink Mountain on Locust Island and Gunk Baby. To coincide with the release of Heart throbs, we spoke to ZK king 劉 about her background in music, tapping into nostalgia, and working with co-producer Kuya Neil.
ZK king 劉: ‘princesspeachlovesong’
Music Feeds: You made this album a couple of years ago, right? Do these songs transport you to that time?
ZK king 劉: Yes. I had the first demo early 2022. I actually produced and recorded most of it in the backseat of my car, between traveling and going out a lot and and right before I went to the US. I was messing around with new sounds, new processes, just being silly with it. But the songs prefaced a really transitional time for me so it’ll always feel really special listening back to it. There’s this big feeling of, like, a deep breath about the songs.
MF: You’ve featured on releases by Teether, Kuya Neil, Bayang, and various others. What made you decide to launch your solo project only recently?
ZK: I had a lot of support from my community since the very beginning – from my friends, everyone you listed – and I was playing shows in a band with PERALTA and dreamrat who I’d met on SoundCloud, and my brother Chef Chung a few years ago too.
The musician friends around me, both online and IRL, have played a huge part in me finding my sound and being comfortable enough to share it in a bigger way. I’ve been posting songs on SoundCloud for a minute now but those projects just happened when they did, and they were like therapy, more for myself.
This is the first project where I’ve challenged that process. Kuya Neil was a big part of that. He came in after the first couple of demos to help me co-produce, manage the release as a full project, and he overall just made it shinier. Our conversations and our time spent on the music helped me grow confidence with it, and ultimately made me feel like this project was something to be proud of and something people would be able to resonate with.
MF: Heart throbs is an evocative title – it makes me think of a throbbing heart, a heart in pain, but also heartthrobs, like perceived hotties, pop stars, film stars etc. Does the title encapsulate the record for you?
ZK: Wow yes — I love that you mentioned the pop star thing. Titles are important to me. I think a title is something you can look at in so many different ways and because of that, the artist gets to explore all the dimensions of that.
The name Heart throbs came before any of the songs. I wanted to find all the feelings that that phrase gives, like you said — heart throbs… like crushes to deep romances, lust, puppy love, that candied feeling. The whole record feels like uncanny pop star music. The songs have this plasticky element to them but also that sincerely emotional sentiment behind them.
MF: ‘Princesspeachlovesong’ was the first single you released from the album. It’s a bit too hazy and downtempo to be a smash hit but it does set a mood. Were you thinking about world building when you were putting the album together?
ZK: ‘princesspeachlovesong’ was a fun and fitting way to set the atmosphere for the record. The song is made up of voice memos and audio from videos I took at the beach, particularly this one where I’m holding a stone with pink coralline algae and moss on it and my nails have these baby pink tips on it that match.
So, when the rest of the project came, it already had these very subtle colour associations, an environment, a mood and an attitude about it, I guess. I think the fun part about world building with music, which is different to writing, is that it can happen more unconsciously.
MF: I like your album synopsis – describing Heart throbs as dedications to digital love, IMVU, partners in matching outfits, meeting a soulmate on tumblr. Weirdly, all that stuff sounds kind of outmoded and nostalgic now. Does the feeling of nostalgia inspire you?
ZK: Nostalgia is most definitely a driving force in anything I create. It was one of the first sensations I remember feeling, listening to music or reading as a kid. I sometimes think maybe it’s because I’m late getting to music or books so by the time I do, it already has that nostalgia factor?
For real though, I do really like work that feels nostalgic but then again I think that any work has the ability to be nostalgic. Like, nostalgia in music is an artist/listener collaboration – it depends on when the listener finds it.
But in reference to the synopsis, I think this record felt nostalgic even before I had finished making it, and when I feel that feeling while creating, it always means something significant to me.
MF: Are there many parallels between your songwriting/producing and the process of writing novels? Like, similarities in terms of what you seek to communicate or how the process makes you feel etc?
ZK: I’ll forever be asking this question to myself. There is that universal feeling — that flow state feeling that definitely happens in a similar way between them. But I’m finding the more I work on each practice, the more distinct they become. As in, they fit differently into my life. I need both practices but at different points in my life, and that does depend on what I’m curious about, what I want to research, what my life looks like.
“Right now, music feels right. I’m still working on writing, but right now music feels like the creative iteration of how I’m living.”
MF: Your Gunk Baby companion playlist on Spotify is a good insight into your curiosity as a music fan. How do you tend to discover music? And are you constantly listening?
ZK: Yes constantly listening, especially just during shifts at my odd jobs like when I was working at the Asian grocer all night – I would devour albums or find mixes. I vary how I find music. Sometimes Spotify is the go because I don’t have as much time, but most consistently, the selects I’m proud of come via YouTube, internet radio and SoundCloud.
MF: Does the music you listen to directly inform the music you make? As in, are you referencing things when you’re working on songs? Or is it more subconscious?
ZK: I’m lucky to work in two mediums because the music I listen to can be split up into music I listen to that directly impacts the writing I do, or the music I listen to just when I’m living my life. Both, in ways, end up being reflected in the music I make.
At times where I’ve felt pressure to create a certain way, my music ends up being more referential, but less true to myself. So I think the best way for me to make music is when it happens more subconsciously, which can maybe only happen when I’m listening widely like that.
MF: Your brother is a musician, Chef Chung. Are you two competitive? Was music a shared interest growing up?
ZK: I don’t think it’s competitive just because we make different music and for different ears and moods, but I think watching him level up constantly is inspiring to me. Like he goes hard, and he’s so good at what he does, but always pushes himself to do better. His attitude is unmatched; it’s a good energy to be around. Music also just comes so naturally to him.
I remember back in 2014, I got my first sampler and keyboard and he would just come into my room and start adding to the beat. Before that, he’d play the drums and I’d play keys and we’d do that for hours. It’s always been huge to us. My brother showed me my first favourite song, really. Listening to the music we make side by side you can probably hear all the shifting influences we had growing up. I think music is something we’ll always share, even if we do it separately, you know?
MF: Kuya Neil co-produced Heart throbs. How much influence did he have on the finished product — were you mainly calling the shots, or did you let his ideas take over on occasion?
ZK: By the time we actually began to rework my original demos, we’d both been sitting with them for a while and so much in our lives had changed in that time too. I was scared to get into it because I’m pretty stubborn with my work. Neil was such a good mentor, friend and co-producer. He really cared about the project, and he brought his skills and talent in a way that complemented my intentions and the original blueprints.
He literally broke down every single sound and the feelings we wanted each of them to convey. It wasn’t about the finished product, which artists generally hate thinking about. Because Neil is an artist himself, he got this, and it was such a detailed and delicate process.
Neil ended up having a lot of creative input to the project, from the mix to the arrangement. He’d also pretty much done a full makeover of the two lead singles ‘4ever’ and ‘Heart throbs’, giving it that extra edge and taking my sound more forward. Then when Voidhood came in with the mix and master, it was the same. I feel like the project was so nurtured by my collaborators.
MF: Do you plan to keep making, releasing, and performing music?
ZK: Definitely. I think collaboration is really exciting to me right now and I was working on something while I was overseas that I’m excited to share. More coming soon for sure.
ZK king 劉’s debut album, Heart throbs, is out now. Listen to it here and purchase it here. You can see ZK king 劉 at 24 Moons in Melbourne on Saturday, 28th October as part of The Eighty-Six festival’s Super Saturday.