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Exclusive: Malaysia-born violinist Josh Kua on making new music from home, cats, and what he misses about KL

Exclusive: Malaysia-born violinist Josh Kua on making new music from home, cats, and what he misses about KL

Man, music and emotions

Text: Genie Leong

Editor: Adelina Tan

Violinist and composer Josh Kua tells us all about his new single 'Sail Away', readjusting to life in in Melbourne during the pandemic, and what he misses most about Malaysia

Asian talent is finally getting the spotlight it deserves in the international (and local) performing arts scene, with Josh Kua a name Malaysians can be proud to hear of. Born in Kuala Lumpur and raised in Melbourne, the talented musician is also an international model who received a scholarship to study for a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) and a Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) at Monash University.

We recently caught up with Kua to talk about his new single 'Sail Away', life during the pandemic in Melbourne, and what he misses most about Malaysia—check out what he had to say!

Your new single, 'Sail Away', has a very moving and almost melancholic sound. What is the story and process that went into composing the track?

Josh Kua (J): "'Sail Away' is about finding the time—or struggling to find the time—to remove yourself from a situation or a relationship that you might have some big issues with, that's been bothering you a lot throughout your life. The song was inspired by that moment or a series of moments. It's about flying away and sailing is more of a metaphor here, although you do sail in the clouds. It's something I thought about on flights out of Melbourne.

"Before the pandemic, I was working mainly in Malaysia and around Asia. I'd come back for trips to visit home and when it was time to leave again, I'd felt this sense of regret at not having dealt with my issues or the pain from the past, which seemed like running away. It would be the moment of just boarding the plane: walking from the gate onto the plane, getting buckled up, and then sailing away into the clouds.

"But, at the same time, there's also a dual meaning to it. I'd come back and was sort of innocent at first; stuck here for a while, I was forced to face my fears in a way. So, it’s actually about how the release is not just the temporary one of leaving, but also coming back and looking inside and dealing with what you have done to free yourself and move forward in a new way, which is where I am now in my life."

How did you personally discover your life's purpose and calling in music?

J: "I always knew from young that I had a bit of an artistic flair, on top of being a very good Chinese or Asian kid and studying really hard. My mum says that when I was around three years old, I saw someone playing the violin on TV with an orchestra and wanted to play it too. That's just the story I'm told, and no, it wasn’t some sort of “tiger mum” thing. Luckily, I actually enjoyed it and later took up the piano too. I realised later on that music was my emotional outlet. Being a very reserved and timid sort of child, music has always been my place to shine in a sense, and also to just be myself. I think I actually discovered more than just my talent, but also a passion for music.

"I grew up being raised in church and was able to explore improvisation and playing on stage; to bring an audience with me on a journey. It was all those years of practice in church that got me to realise that I have a thing for lyrical, moving music that’s more melancholic, so that's always in my vibe though I do other stuff as well. That really helped me to explore and from there, I started to do covers and years later, create my own compositions."

What are some of your passions outside of music?

J: "One of the first things that come to mind are my cats. I think a lot of us who are in our twenties, maybe early thirties, are not having kids as early as our parents as it's just not very feasible. During my uni years, I had a friend who got a cat and I just somehow became a crazy cat lady. In the last few years, I've adopted three cats. There's one here with me and two still in Malaysia. Yeah, I'm pretty obsessed with them."

Is there an artist that you would love to collaborate with and why?

J: "I’ve thought about this and right now, I've been quite inspired by Tina Guo. She's Asian American and you’ve probably heard her play, but don't realize it's her because she's played in so many soundtracks for all these big movies. She's worked a lot with Hans Zimmer and is amazingly talented. She’s also a cellist and if there is any instrument that I wish I'd learnt instead of the violin, it would be the cello. I'm super in love with its tone and how deep it sounds. I identified with Tina quickly because she is also an Asian that's grown up in the West, so I know there's some relatability there for me.

"I look up to Asians who have been successful in their careers in entertainment in the West. Also, it’s another string instrument and she plays it amazingly. Her vibe skews more towards rock but she's also so versatile and I just love the way she plays. I think it would be a dream to play with her.

"As for singers, I've always said John Mayer, who was one of my first inspirations in music. And then of course there’s Beyonce, because she's an amazing performer. Lady Gaga has also always been an inspiration to me because she's a singer, but she's also a musician and she's a true artist and I appreciate her musicality and that she's so versatile. She does musical theatre, she does jazz, and I sort of identify with not being put in one box in terms of what I do."

How have you been coping with life during the pandemic in Melbourne, and how has your work as a musician been affected?

J: "I think no matter what industry you're in, it's been quite challenging, especially at the beginning. For me, it was kind of unexpected to be based out of Melbourne instead of KL. I came back for a wedding for one week and then that's when all the lockdowns happened. Being separated from my cats because I’d sort of just begun my life with them was a bit tough. And of course, there were no more performances for a while. I was very fortunate to get a couple of gigs that I could perform live online, but it's just not the same.

"My life’s changed quite a lot. Not being able to travel for work was a bit of a challenge, but at the same time, I was able to think. It’s in the detours in life when we experience the most growth because we're sort of thrown on a path, a catalyst, to grow and change. I've evolved as a person and in work, it's been refreshing to just go back to the essence of my passion and why I do this. Things were great before but it was also easy to get caught up in all the PR and going on trips with fancy brands, constantly performing and staying in fancy hotels. Having that all stripped away from my life and being stuck at home, I was able to come back to my love for music and that's where 'Sail Away' finally came out from, as well as the start of more original content. I'm grateful for that and the emotional healing that I was able to do while being here. So yeah, always positives and negatives at the same time. I think that's just life. You've got to roll with the punches."

What do you miss the most about Malaysia, besides the food?

J: "I have friends and family there, so obviously I miss spending time with them. Apart from food, probably the lifestyle. It's a bit different because I'm out here living with my parents in the suburbs. It’s not bad, but it's just a different lifestyle, like living in the local equivalent of Damansara Utama versus being in the centre of town in Malaysia. It’s fine because I'm more of a homebody and introverted, so I tend to spend more time at home anyway.

"I miss all of the cats, though. It's sad that there are many stray cats in Malaysia, but at the same time, I miss just seeing them everywhere. It's a different crowd too. I feel like in Malaysia, I know more people in my industry, so I've missed that comradery. I didn't really have as much work here because of the pandemic, plus Australia’s never been very kind to Asians. We've had to really fight to get seen here and we're only beginning to now get cast in things and be seen on TV in non-stereotypical roles. It's been interesting to come back and see how the rise of China is slowly impacting Asian representation in my industry."

Listen to 'Sail Away' on Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube Music, Deezer, and Amazon Music. Download it at the iTunes Store.