Music Mondays: Nina Sung

Nina Sung is an artist. Coming from a very organic place, Sung's approach to music, despite her reputation as a sought after #EDM vocalist, gives her work an independent and personal touch lost on many major mainstream releases.

With experience at L.A.'s Icon Collective, one of the music industry's leading production schools, Nina Sung's ear for hooks, finesse, and polish are highlights in her music, but more importantly her experiences there gave her a feeling of communion. An outspoken advocate for groups like Nap Girls, Sung uses her visibility and her talent to push the boundaries of the music industry and create new, exciting opportunities for her peers.

An incredible voice with an amazing entrepreneurial spirit, and forward thinking aesthetic, Nina Sung is the focus of this week's Music Monday.

For readers unfamiliar with your work, tell us a little bit about yourself. What makes Nina Sung tick? What makes you unique?

I’m a singer-songwriter and musician, turned producer. I’ve been low-key writing and singing for other people for quite some time now, but I woke up one day and realized that I just couldn’t keep doing that. I needed to make my own music and it was definitely time. So I dove straight into Ableton and Logic, ditched my social life and before I knew it, I had more songs than I can keep track of.

I love dark themes—themes about heartbreak, being alone and then throwing yourself into toxic relationships just to cope, drugs, separation, angst. I  love that inner conflict that happens between what you know and what you feel, and it stems from my real life experiences. But out of all of that, I still came out ok, and there’s something really hopeful about that. Despite the dark times, light was still at the end of the tunnel for me every time, and that’s why I’m still here.  

The gender divide is a very sensitive subject when it comes to the music industry - especially in dance music. In your opinion, what can we do as music appreciators, producers, and industry professionals to help make further progress?

Ask this question to men as well as women? Seriously though, it’s made into a much bigger deal than it actually is—and to women, no less—and I feel like we keep talking about the difference like it still matters.

The truth is, yes, there is still a lot of stigma about being a woman in this industry and you better believe I’ve definitely faced them. Everything from the way I’m talked to in email threads sometimes, to how often I’m repeatedly asked as being the artist that also engineers, mixes and produces her own music, to even just how little I’m included in backstage social conversations. It’s not easy, and I’m not trying to discredit how hard women have it. However, I do feel a way we can help make further progress is by being careful about asking that question, simply because it could even help perpetuate the stigma by making it THE topic, instead of really letting the issue at rest. Everyone takes it for granted that a male will produce or DJ his own music. But when it’s a female, it’s like a huge deal. But why? It’s nothing crazy anymore. At least I don’t believe it should be. And one thing that I’m very open about is that if someone or their team is sexist or exhibits behaviors that allude to this archaic notion that women are inferior, I simply won’t work with them. Period. I would never associate with them. I don’t care who they are or how much money they’re willing to pay me. I just won’t do it.  

I love seeing people act all surprised when there’s a female producing and making moves on her own. Because it honestly exposes an ignorance that is deep within our culture still. And you better believe that I’ve had to deal with a slew of questions like “Did you do this ALL by yourself? Like, REALLY. Who produced this? You couldn’t have produced this”

It’s an insult to be honest. But I know it’s not about me. I think the first thing we have to do is recognize that there are tons of women who WANT to produce and create music—but for some reason, aren’t expected to educate themselves in the field and to be serious about it. Which, in my opinion, is bullshit. I went to Icon Collective, a music production school in LA, where there were some of the most talented, hardworking people I’ve ever met, and there were a good group of females in the game. We knew we were outnumbered but that didn’t change how we were treated.

The issue has a lot to do with visibility I feel. There’s simply not enough coverage of females killing it in the industry, and perhaps females aren’t getting the show and air time to really shine. And for the ones that are, I’ve seen a really nasty backlash of people saying that they’re only given the chance because they’re attractive—as if men don’t also have the pressure to look a certain way to get ahead.

Dig deep, and you’ll soon find that there are tons of female producers, writers, singers and even engineers who are really changing the game as we speak. So if anything, I’d say educate yourself on more than what you just see, on more than what you read on your Facebook news feed. I guarantee you that you’ll find that there are equally as many dope artists that identify as female as there are those that identify as male.

There are very few producers who make distinctive music. There are even fewer who have the confidence to sing on their own material. What’s your approach to crafting your sound and to songwriting?

Well, like I said, I was a singer-songwriter and musician first, and then a producer. So my approach follows that similar order of procedure. I start with a concept for a song. It can start with anything really—a visual, a journal entry, a phone conversation I had with my brother. Most of the time I’ll just do some stream of consciousness writing where I jot down whatever comes to my mind for about 10-15 minutes. There aren’t any rules, it’s just about writing faster than your brain can judge what you are spitting out. I tell myself that no one but myself is going to read it so anything goes, and from there, I’m able to really figure out what’s going on inside of me in that moment.

My process never starts in the DAW, it always starts from a real place, hence why every single one of my songs has a very real thing that is attached to it.  It’s not enough for me personally to get inspired by a particular Serum patch or clap sample, which I know a lot of producers out there are like. And it certainly doesn’t start with someone else’s music. Don’t get me wrong, I admire tons of artists but I’m careful to create something after listening to someone else’s music because I just feel like it would taint my project. I try to keep my creative space, free of outside influence, so to speak.  

I’ll then move to the guitar or piano and find chords, either within, or around my key. I record the progression into Ableton and loop it a bunch of times until I find a strong top line—and through that process, I’ll usually figure out the arrangement as well. To me, the hook is the most important thing so I will usually try and find that pocket first, but it’s tricky because not every song has a hook. I’ve had people disagree with me on this, but I’m a strong believer in that some songs and progressions have a hook, and others simply do not. The trick is to not force it because then you’ll start feeling like you’re beating a dead horse. And that is when I’ll need to step away for a bit, or change something from before. But from that point, once I have a song—the heart and soul so to speak—I’ll move to the drum pattern, bass line and synths (if necessary). But the most important thing is that the sound design and groove need to fit along the same theme of what the song is going for. I’m not going to put in crazy super saws for a song that I feel needs to be received in an intimate light. So basically, my process is just that I need to play the song acoustically on the guitar or piano, and sing it from start to finish for it qualify to the next step—which is production. Otherwise, it just stays as a half idea.

We understand you have a bevy of unreleased material. What can you tell us about the music you want to share in the upcoming months?

Oh man, there is so much music—enough music for at least 2 full length albums so I’m very excited for everything to come together and for everyone to hear all of this.  What’s been heard from me so far has only really been from my “EDM vocalist” days but that’s no more. I mean, I now have 100% control of what you, the listener, gets to hear on these new songs. And that’s very exciting for me. So many times before it was very clear that I was doing something for someone else, much like a job, or work for hire. But if there is anything that I’d have to say about this new music is that it is exactly what I’ve been meaning to show the world this whole time.

Last, but not least, what nugget of guidance, wisdom, inspiration do you have for persons who are interested in pursuing the music industry as a life path?

Life is short, don’t do something JUST because you think it’s going to gain attention, even when you don’t believe in the project. It’s tempting, but cutting that out and not wasting your time by doing exactly what you want to do first is a surefire way you won’t end up bitter about who you’ve become. Also, try to create from an honest space without judging what you make. So many times we love to judge ourselves for what we do (like does that snare really work? Maybe that lyric is too cheesy, etc) even before we really let something grow and develop! And as artists, I believe that is a huge mistake. Something that others or even yourself at the time deem as being stupid or silly, could actually turn into something super unique and a game changer in a big way. But because of insecurity or fear of scrutiny, it gets axed and the world will never experience the product of your totally unique moment of inspiration.  Don’t judge it. Just flow.

Remember that haircut and outfit you had in middle school? Pretty cringe worthy right? Well musical development is no different. You need to keep writing and producing music to get better. It’s honestly as simple as that. You’re not going to see immediate results. And I believe that’s with a lot of things, but I had to write maybe close to 200 songs before finally writing my first real single, and I didn’t cringe. If you keep going, you’ll hit this threshold point—call it your 10,000 hours, or whatever—but you’ll be able to tap into something that is totally unique and special, and that’s when you know you hit gold.

For more on Nina Sung, visit her on SoundCloud and Facebook. Be sure to check out her curated list of tracks below as well!