Musician and comedian Jen Kwok’s Songs for One began as a live series where she performed intimate, interactive concerts, for one person at a time.
Jen created the series in 2016 (in the midst of the presidential elections and a string of violent attacks on queer people and people of colour). This series fostered real-life human connection as an antidote to the disconnection and divisiveness created by the social and political climate at the time, as well as the effects of social media and the 24-hour news cycle. The series spread through word of mouth and Jen ultimately performed for over 100 people, one at a time!
On October 1, Jen is releasing The Songs for One Visual EP, a collection of favourites from the live Songs for One project. And on October 10, Jen will create a virtual version of this with a 12-hour Songs for One-a-Thon (#songsforoneathon #songsforkindness). From 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on October 10, Instagram followers can request a song from Jen (@jenkwokjenkwok) based on a hope or wish they have for themselves, a loved one, their community or the world, and Jen will DM back a short, improvised song. In exchange, “payment” for the songs will take the form of an act of kindness paid forward by the recipient in the real world.
We caught up with her this week.
SDTC: Describe your dream vacation/getaway scenario:
JK: My dream scenario would be staying in an underwater hotel. I’ve always been fascinated with sea creatures and the ocean, and I love the idea of falling asleep with fish and manta rays swimming all around me.
Who is commanding a lot of attention in your life lately?
I just had a baby a few months ago, so my sweet little son is commanding pretty much all my attention! It’s been amazing to watch him grow so much in such a short period of time.
Who has surprised you lately, and how?
My husband has really been surprising me of late. Having a child together totally changes your partnership and household dynamic. You both take on more responsibility, but you also deepen the joy in your lives. There’s a whole new level of fun in our house, and there’s also a whole new level of communication and teamwork. It’s really exciting to see someone you’ve known for almost fifteen years step up and surprise you in new and different ways.
What is a fun little-known fact about you?
I was actually born with the first name “Jinx,” because it sounds very close to my Chinese name. My parents had it legally changed when I was six months old because they realized I’d probably get made fun of for it. They did a complete 180 and named me Jennifer, which was the most popular name at the time. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really come to love the name Jinx and have been reclaiming it for myself as a sort of alter ego.
What book/film/show have you connected with recently, and what about it appeals to you?
I’ve really been enjoying the TV show Songland. It’s a reality show about music production and songwriting, which is something I don’t think a lot of people get to see. As a singer-songwriter, I spend a lot of time alone or in sessions with my producer, so it’s interesting to watch other people go through the creative process in such a public setting. It’s also taught me to be less precious about my work—sometimes songs just need to be tweaked or pulled apart and put back together.
What’s the worst piece of career/life advice you’ve been given?
The worst piece of advice I’ve ever been given is to just stick to one thing. I get that it’s important to have a focus, but as someone who has many different interests and forms of expression, it just feels much more natural and productive for me to honour all of my different talents, rather than just giving preference to one. It took a long time, but I’ve learned to balance and shift between different parts of my creative life. For example, last year I performed comedy songs around NYC while recording Songs for One, but I said no to most writing gigs and was much more selective about what roles I took as an actor.
What is your motto at the moment?
I am constantly asking myself “Does this feel good? Does this feel right?” My gut usually knows if something is right because of how it feels, so I’m trying to listen to that more. As a recovering perfectionist, it also helps me realize when I’m trying to force or control things. It helps me be much more aware of when I need to take a break, ask for help, or find a different, more gentle approach.
What do you hope audiences take away from Songs for One?
I hope audiences will come away with a sense of connection to themselves, their dreams and how they fit into the world. I hope these songs will create some sort of internal space where people can feel possibility and love—somewhere you can come back to again and again whenever you need to find hope or inspiration.
What are the qualities you like least and most about yourself?
Least: jealousy, shyness, and perfectionism. Most: passion, emotional boldness, intuition, and my strong sense of vision. Can you tell I’m a Scorpio?
Rewind five years. What advice would you give yourself?
I would tell myself to trust. Trust in myself, trust in my talent, trust in my intuition. Trust that I have the right people in my life, and that the universe has got my back in a big, big way—bigger than I could ever even imagine.
What is the most courageous thing you’ve ever done?
Finding my own voice. I mean that both literally and figuratively. I grew up feeling like I couldn’t or shouldn’t be heard, and that my viewpoints were weird, invalid or even downright dangerous. I learned to hide who I was and trained myself not to say much. As an adult I realized I could no longer hold myself back without making myself mentally ill, so I began exploring and liberating my creative and singing voice. It was a long, circuitous process, but ultimately a huge lesson in self love, self acceptance and embracing all the things that make me unique as an artist and a person.
What childhood memory makes you laugh out loud?
I got into a fight with my dad as a teenager that ended with me yelling, “SCREW YOU!” He went into the garage and came back with a piece of wood labeled with the word “You” and a screw in it. It was the silliest thing in the world, but it made me laugh that he went to so much trouble to get past whatever disagreement we had at the time.
What unnecessary object would you love to own?
I would love to own a slide in my house! If I could design a completely wild, fantasy house from scratch, it would just have slides everywhere! I love the feeling of sliding. It’s just so fun. I mean, how cool would it be to just slide on down to the kitchen and grab a Hot Pocket!
What tip, technique or hack has made your life better in the past year?
Something I’ve incorporated into my life recently is working in drafts and smaller chunks. I’ve always been a binge worker, obsessing for hours over whatever the task may be. But being a new mom, I need to manage my time much more carefully. I put down ideas whenever I can. I make a plan of what the next steps are going to be. I break down every task into even smaller tasks so that I can find more stopping points. Because of that, I’ve gotten really into Instagram stories as a way of trying out new ideas and staying creative in small bursts.
What issue do you wish people took more seriously?
I wish people would take arts education more seriously. It sounds so tiny and frivolous compared to other social issues, but there is so much research showing the effect that art and music have on the human brain, not to mention what it does for us on a soul level. We are facing so many tough issues right now, and we need every ounce of beauty, brain power, and humanity we can get.
What outfit makes you feel the most you?
I have a grey leather jacket that’s decorated with enamel pins from female artists from around the world. The pins fall off and get lost, but I replace them over time and it feels like this constantly evolving collection of creative talismans. There’s currently a scorpion that represent my astrological sign, a pin that says “Wrong Asian,” a bunny that’s a nod to the Chinese zodiac, and a unicorn that says “Totally Magic.” I feel like a feminine badass whenever I put it on.
What have you learned about yourself in the past year?
Giving birth has taught me so many things about what my mind and body can do. I learned to listen to and work with my body, I learned that I have massive reserves of mental and emotional energy that I can tap into, and I learned that letting go of expectations can be a very good thing. And just going through such an intense experience has made me so much stronger and more confident in every single area of my life.