Asian American pop duo redefines artistic freedom

Pop duo ”Your Crush,” comprised of USC alumna Kalliyan Davis and Christopher Ahn, met on a film set in Hawaii before forming their band in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Bee Danetaras).

For Christopher Ahn and Kalliyan Davis, a chance encounter on a 2017 film set in Hawaii sparked the beginning of a friendship that would eventually lead to the formation of their alternative pop duo in 2018, aptly named “Your Crush.”

“London Eyes,” a single from their debut EP, will be available on all platforms starting Wednesday, June 16. 

Both Hawaii locals, Ahn and Davis found themselves to be musical outliers in their home state where habitants tended to prefer Jawaiian (Jamaican and Hawaiian) and general reggae over pop. 

“I think the kind of music we like was not too common in Hawaii,” Ahn said. “We talked a bit about music, and we were like ‘Wait, we kind of like the same things.’ Especially coming from Hawaii, … it’s kind of harder to find that group of people that share your interests in [such a] small state.” 

Ahn moved to Los Angeles to pursue music in 2017. Growing up, he picked up his love for music from his older brother, who played the drums and guitar. 

“There was one song, ‘Title and Registration’ by Death Cab for Cutie … I heard it and I felt something,” Ahn recalled. “As cliche as it is … I want to be able to have this feeling both as a listener and someone who creates music.” 

When Davis moved to L.A. a year later to pursue a bachelor’s degree in acting at the USC School of Dramatic Arts, the artists found themselves together again, only this time making music. 

Although she trained in classical music growing up and was even briefly part of two bands —  the Chaotic Five in middle school and 85 Decibels in high school — Davis turned to acting after feeling trapped within a music genre she didn’t have a real passion for. 

“My parents were super into [rock]. They bought me guitars and wanted me to live out their rockstar dreams … and while I did enjoy performing a lot, that wasn’t necessarily the kind of music I love to play over and over again,” Davis said. “I definitely felt like music to me was whatever other people wanted me to do, so I wanted to try something different with film.”

Although Davis still pursued acting at the time, she couldn’t deny her love for music and she and Ahn both recognized how unique their connection was.  Previously, she had been made fun of for the type of music she liked to make, but with Ahn, she discovered that she was free to be herself. 

“It felt so different from any music experience I had before because it’s like, ‘Wait, [Chris is] encouraging me to keep going, even though I feel like I’m not good at this,’” Davis said. “And I felt like ‘Yes, I’m with you. Let’s do this together and … have fun with music and make whatever the hell we want.”

Dave Manke, a guitarist and frequent collaborator of Your Crush, characterized the duo’s music as “smack dab in the middle” of the radio pop-alternative pop spectrum. 

“It’s interesting because they do a really good job of [capturing] the real listening ability and effortlessness of any song you hear on the radio, … but they also don’t necessarily fit into the mold of what’s exactly going on the radio,” Manke said. “They’ve really captured, for lack of a better [description], visually sparkly, pretty, shiny music. That sort of aesthetic that they sonically capture would put them in the alternative pop area.” 

An aspect that hasn’t been lost on their collaborators is the pop duo’s active emphasis on inclusivity and nonjudgmental collaboration in the studio. Manke describes their sessions as “very much an open, fun, collaborative environment” where “everyone’s contributing every part of the song.” 

Despite receiving positive feedback from numerous industry collaborators, Ahn and Davis found that opportunities were not as abundant as they had hoped for. When the coronavirus pandemic limited studio availability, the two found themselves spending more time making music in Ahn’s home studio. But, within their personal judgement-free creative space, away from the opinions of producers and fellow musicians that they previously valued highly, the pop duo found they were able to better fine-tune their sound and manage their branding. 

“One of the biggest things for us during the pandemic is that we started recording at home,” Davis said. “[It’s] a lot less pressure, very free and we can make whatever we want in this space and it’s our safe space.” 

It was during this time that the duo finished “London Eyes,” a song they started before quarantine started. The new single is about missing someone who is far away — a concept familiar to many throughout lockdown. Backed by a chill, catchy pop beat, complete with ambient jingles and melodies, “London Eyes” remains intimately emotional, giving audiences a glimpse into the pain of distanced love. The melodious tune is accompanied by a winsome animated lyric video featuring artwork from Indonesia-based illustrator Apricot Mayor. 

“I was surprised at how developed and how clear they were in their vision,” said Erich Nemcek, a Hawaii-based motion designer and 3D animator responsible for the animations in the “London Eyes” lyric video. “They ended up drawing some stuff for that lyric video so it wasn’t just [Apricot Mayor]. 

Your Crush and Nemcek plan on continuing their collaboration on the remaining lyric videos they plan to release before the end of 2021.  

“I’m excited for them. I really love the music that I’ve heard so far, and I love their vision for what they’re doing,” Nemcek said. “I hope they’re successful with it because I’m planning on working with them for as long as they’ll have me.”   

Despite straying far from the popular music in their home state, the two young artists have remained steadfast and honest with their sound, as well as true to their goal in music making. While pop artists remain some of the highest paid in the music industry, the genre, as a whole, is oftentimes looked down upon for being increasingly formulaic.

”Some pop might be formulaic,” Davis said. “Pop is just about being universal and relating to people … I think catchiness and simplicity gets misinterpreted as formulaic.” 

Ahn also disagrees with this generalization, adding that he believes there’s a way to make pop music with artistic integrity. 

“We are aware that it’s pop, but to us, it’s not a matter of where we want to land,” Ahn said. “It’s being ourselves and wherever that lands, that’s okay … It doesn’t matter how many people might want to listen — we’re making it for ourselves to really get a voice out that we really believe in.”

While celebrating the growth in the Asian American creative community and overall representation in the arts, Ahn and Davis expressed more mixed feelings on the space that they occupy within the Asian American music community in L.A. 

“My experience with the Asian creative community has been supportive and also sometimes limiting,” Davis said. “I feel like sometimes you are expected to honor your roots and … [make art] related to being Asian … It feels like a lot of material is expected to be just [about] the Asian experience.” 

The musicians felt the pressure to make material about the Asian American experience sometimes clashed with their own desires to create music about emotions and general experiences. Ahn and Davis said that, similarly, they wanted to be seen as good artists, not just “good for Asian artists.”

Although they finished production on their first EP, Ahn and Davis plan to release the singles from it intermittently over the next few months following the completion of their accompanying lyric videos. While they know that they naturally gravitate towards alternative pop, both are open to the idea of exploring other genres.

“One thing that came out of the pandemic [is that] I think our style has also evolved. We started writing some songs after the EP and exploring other genres,” Davis said. “Not purposefully, we weren’t like ‘Let’s make a rock song today,’ but ended up getting into some alternative rock stuff. [In general], we’re exploring ourselves and expanding our horizons.”