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Audrey Nuna's Big Sister Energy

In this week's FRONTPAGE, we get extremely personal with 23 year old rapper-singer-songwriter, Audrey Nuna. 

“I literally have on my to-do list today, ‘Organize Dropbox,’ and it’s been there for probably a month,” Audrey Nuna tells me. We’re finally on the subject of music after almost half an hour of talking about everything else, from surface-level weather banter to pretty deep, real talk about our shared Korean immigrant identity. “It’s probably just, like, the ‘Fuck You’ folder, or something. I have so many folders, though.”

The “Fuck You” folder is a cloud dump of work-in-progress music that the rapper-singer-songwriter can’t seem to get quite right. “It’s the fucking stubborn-ass ideas that I haven’t figured out. It’s like me versus you, the idea, and right now you’re winning, but at some point you become what you’re supposed to become. It’s the best feeling when you beat the idea. It’s always the smallest thing.”

Her sultry 2019 single “Paper” was a result of her finally “beating” this idea, after months of wrestling with it. “That song took eight months to write. It can be stressful sometimes, but it just takes time. They’re like seeds — you water them and they become…” She struggles to find the right word. “Something?”

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Audrey Hae-Won Chu (meaning beautiful ocean in Korean) is the middle of three siblings. She has an Ivy League–grad older sister (“Works in a very nice corporate job, intellectual and academic”) and a “wild card” younger brother (“Loves to play the drums and also does well in school”). It was her brother who gave her the idea for her stage name, Audrey Nuna.

“I had been wanting to add a name for a bit, because originally I was going with just Audrey, but it became difficult for people to find my music. It would be hard to find myself, even, on the Internet,” she says. After juggling around different options for a year, her love of gospel and jazz singer Etta James almost brought her to “Audrey Etta,” until her brother stepped in.

“He was like, ‘Why don’t you just go with Audrey Nuna?’ Because he calls me that, he’s called me that since he was a baby,” she says of the masculine Korean term for “older sister.” “I made a huge list of all these names and none of them felt like something I would want to respond to. But [nuna] is something I deeply resonate with and actually do respond to. It just stuck. I’ve always taken pride in being an older sister and the respect of that.”

In less than an hour, we also exchange book recommendations, talk about grad school plans, Instagram food art, our grandparents, and so much more than I ever remember sharing with even a close friend recently. In between recording sessions, family meals, and House of the Dragon, the 23 year-old musician shares everything about her work, and more importantly, herself.

What was the thought behind giving yourself the name, “Audrey Nuna”?

Originally I was going with Audrey and just that was it. But it became kind of difficult for people to find my music, so I wanted to add the name to make it easier for people. Honestly, I meditated on it for a year. I was like, how do you add a new name? A name is so central to your identity. I wanted to pick something that I was really comfortable with and felt like myself. I made a huge list of all these names and none of them felt like something I would want to respond to. Then my younger brother was just like, why don't you just go with Audrey Nuna? Because he calls me that, he's called me that since he was a baby. So it's something that I really deeply resonate with and actually do respond to. So I was like, yeah, I like that. And it kind of just stuck. It was really natural. I feel like it's such a loving term for a younger brother to an older sister in Korean. Nuna is just a cool one that I've always taken pride in being an older sister and the respect of that. Another [option] was Audrey Etta, because I love Etta James.

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Does it ever get tiring to talk about being Asian American?

I think it's a fine balance between, of course, finding comfort in who you are. For me at least, that's something that took time, [to be] comfortable in my skin and my culture. We're all human beings and when it becomes a gimmick, or if it becomes a talking point because people just want to talk about it, I can understand why it can be exhausting. I've gotten a question, do you think it's something that feels very obligatory? Someone's asked me that before. More than anything, I think I am, I just exist. I don't know. The experiences I choose to talk about are just experiences of being a human, and they relate to culture. But at the end of the day, everything that I do is a part of who I am, and I am Korean American.

I grew up Korean American. I Grew up packing kimbap to school, I grew up watching Korean dramas, and that's all a part of my work. I understand when there's certain panel discussions and cultural conversations where they want to specifically talk about that is one thing. And that's really important because I try to be active in that as well. But when it comes to the art, the question of how has being Korean affected your work, or how do you incorporate your influences into your work? I think that question does feel a little bit redundant to me, because of the fact that it's the same way any other person, any other experience in their life would be a part of their music.

Growing up, did you ever imagine you’d become a musician? It's rare to see an Asian female artist.

I always knew I wanted to do music. I have this painting that I drew when I was five. My mom loved doing arts and crafts with us when we were kids. One of the paintings that I kept was this painting of me; I've painted my face orange and it's really bad, but the painting is of me on a stage. I always wanted to do music and share music, I always loved singing since I was in second grade. I never ever felt this fear of not being able to do it, because I always knew it was going to be a part of my life. There was really not much else for me, maybe in junior year of high school I thought I wanted to be an astronaut for six months, because I liked physics. But then I got a one on my AP physics exam and I was like, okay, never mind.

I don't think I over-thought it so much to the point where I was like, oh, I want to do this, but, no one who looks like me has done this before. I think I always liked the excitement of, it's never been done before but I think it could be done. And I think that it's almost a privilege [for] me to be able to say that, as basic as it sounds. It is a privilege, because the era that I'm born in is the age of the internet where there [are] no gatekeepers. I could throw some shit on SoundCloud and kids from, I don't know, random cities in Arkansas could fuck with it. And all of a sudden I have a career.

I think it was different for a lot of Asian American rappers and singers, and especially females, during the time where there were so many gatekeepers and it wasn't so democratized with the internet. You needed someone to be like, oh yeah, you're it. I choose you to do this. And now it's like, well I choose to do this, period, and I don't really need anyone's approval.

When you decided to quit school to pursue this career, what was your family's reception?

My family's always been super supportive, especially my mom. Mom wanted to be a model when she was growing up in the Bronx, and she tried to take the money her dad gave her for her SAT to apply for this modeling school, but he found out and didn't let her do it. She's always wanted to have a creative career. Same with my dad. My dad wanted to be an architectural designer, and he didn't get to do that because he had to join the family business in clothing manufacturing. I think both my parents, at heart, are creative, but survival just didn't allow for that. That being said, they just saw a little kid who wanted to sing and they were like, oh, it reminds me of myself, and I want them to be able to do what they want to do. My mom would take me to lessons, my dad would pick me up from choir. They always were like, if you can make it happen, you do it. And if you ever feel like it's too much, then don't do it. My parents have always prioritized my happiness above anything.

What do you want to talk about these days through your [work], and how do you think your style or subject has changed, if at all, since you started writing music?

I'm always thinking about what I want to say next. I want to mature in a way where I want to say something more intentionally because I've always been the type to observe and do what I think is cool in that moment. But the next step for me in this next project is to really have a clearer vision of the message I want to say. An artist who's really inspired me in that sense is Kendrick Lamar. I went to see his Big Steppers Tour. I know for a fact watching that man that he had a vision from day one, and had something he wanted to say. The method is central and everything else serves the message. I would say I'm fairly early in my career as someone who makes music, so that was a huge lesson for me, just seeing him. Because what are we here to do if not to spread some kind of message?

What are we here to do if not to spread some kind of message?

Audrey Nuna

Has your method or approach to making music changed over the years? How has it remained the same?

Oh my God, every time I try to change my process, I feel like I fucked everything up. I tried to do the session life in LA; it wasn't for me. At the core of making music for me is just having fun with my friends. Being in LA for last year, when you're around such a commoditized thing, I just don't fuck with that, personally. I realized that I just can't thrive in that type of mindset. So It's been amazing to be back in New York, back in New Jersey, and bringing it back to why I started, which is that it's so fun. It's so fucking fun.

I love driving to Taco Bell and getting a Baja Blast and going back and making some shit, and then doing it organically. It's not this robotic thing. No hate to LA because I know so many people love that city, and it really works for them. For me, LA, there's this tangible energy that I just can't shake off of just wanting to be famous. I don't know, there's this collective want for something that I guess I don't have interest in. I don't do this because I want to be famous.

Honestly, fame sounds really lame. Sounds awful. Probably fun for the first 13 days and then after that it probably fucking sucks. But it's easy to get swept away in that. Just for me, it's not necessarily the best environment I've found for myself. So it's really nice to be home.

Have you ever gone back to something you made that you didn't like, and you revisited and it surprised you?

There's always a fail folder for me. Not even a fail, I wouldn't call it. It’s probably just like, Fuck You folder or something. I have so many folders though. I literally have on my to-do list today, organize Dropbox and it's been there for probably a month. It's the fucking stubborn-ass ideas that I haven't figured out. It's like me versus you, [the] idea. And right now you're winning, but at some point you become what you're supposed to become. It's the best feeling when you can...

Fame sounds really lame. Sounds awful.

Audrey Nuna

Win the idea?

It's always the smallest thing that causes you to beat the song. That happened for me with Paper, which is one of my favorite songs that I put out in 2019. But that song took eight months to write. I was sitting and sitting with it for that long, and it was something really small that brought it into where it needed to be. That folder can be stressful sometimes, but it just takes time. They're like seeds, I think, you water them and they become something.

Irene took about a year and a half actually, thinking about it. That was in the folder for a long time, in the Fuck You folder. We were struggling with the production of it for a while. And then Anwar sent it to one of his producers he works with, named Babis, and he was able to crack the code on that. It's weird because it's kind of [like] Pokemon, where one idea is the next evolution of an idea you already did. It evolves and mutates in front of you.

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Do you ever have plans to go back to school? Do you see value in that?

I would love to. Honestly, I would love to go to fashion school or something when I'm like 30. I don't know, that sounds fun. What is it, the Royal Academy of Fine Art? There's something in Belgium that seems really cool. I have looked into that program. I think it would also be cool to study history or something random. Something unrelated to music would be sick.

I hated school growing up, only because I hated the rules. I thought the rules were so stupid. Why do I need a pass to go to the bathroom? The way public school is set up, a lot of times, they try to teach you to listen to rules without thinking if they make sense or not. I don't fuck with that. I do think learning is important and knowledge is power. One day it would be sick to even start a school. I think there has to be a really big reform in the way public schools are run because it's failing the youth. At least that's how I felt when I was going to school. I felt like I wasn't learning so much, more than I was just being told what to do. It's about learning, it's not about being obedient.

Is there anything about the rules of the music industry that you want to change?

People need [to be] nicer to each other and not in a to-your-face way. Same thing with the internet. There's some mean people on the internet. I think you guys should just tone it down. There [are] also some really nice people on the internet, so keep doing your thing. In general, I think more kindness is cool for the world.

Stay tuned for Audrey Nuna's debut album to arrive later this year, with a new single coming this spring. In the meantime, stream her 'a liquid breakfast' EP here.

  • WordsYJ Lee
  • PhotographyLuisa Opalesky
  • StylingDaniel Gaines
  • Creative DirectionMichael Quinn
  • HairKabuto Okuzawa
  • MakeupAyaka Nihei using MAC Cosmetics
  • ManicureSonya Meesh using OPI at Forward Artists
  • Styling AssistantAngelica Asimakopoulos
  • Photography AssistantJulian Jackson
  • CastingGreg Krelenstein at gk-ld
  • ProductionThe Morrison Group
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