Interview | FFS 5 with Kimberly Hou

For all of its intense focus on technical precision, the heartbeat of classical composition is stirringly close to the often simplistic, often imperfect realm of folk interpretation. There’s a reason, after all, why the works of Chopin or Farrenc are as evergreen today as they were nearly 200 years ago—or why scores from the likes of John Williams or Joe Hisaishi perfectly punctuate the height of emotions in some of film’s most enduring scenes. Kimberly Hou’s Opus One is a stunning, reflective movement; never overstaying its welcome, the four-track EP captures a captivating swath of emotions in its relatively short run-time. It’s a piece that tells a concise, moving story.

Ergo, it’s a markedly impressive debut from the San Francisco pianist. Hou has previously composed for all matter of medium, as she details in her answers to our ongoing ‘FFS 5’ interview series. Herein, we’re given a look back on her life through the lens of the artist herself, leading up to and beyond the release of Opus One alongside her views of the music biz and more.

Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get started in music? Any defining moments along the path to present day?

I was born in Michigan and grew up in northern Virginia, right outside D.C. When I was 4, my mom encouraged me to try various activities in sports, dance, and music to see if any caught my interest. Piano, ballet, and Spanish flamenco dance were my first (puppy) loves since then, out of which piano grew as a passion I invested heavily in through college. My piano teacher Marjorie Lee raised me classically since I was 7 until I graduated from high school. During this time, I competed or performed almost every week.

College (an exchange program at Columbia University and the Juilliard School) gave me the opportunity to branch out and evolve my musical experience beyond classical music. A friend asked me if I could compose, knowing I played piano – that was my first experience writing music for an indie video game, especially since I’ve only ever had experience with playing cash app games to win real money on my phone. I then co-founded Columbia Pops, Columbia University’s first pops orchestra. That showed me and other students what it was like to arrange and conduct movie/game soundtracks for an ensemble that grew from 10 to 60+ instrumentalists over the years.

Today I love writing music for podcasts, films, games, and more. On the piano side, I still enjoy performing every so often.

As an artist, how do you define success?

If I’ve brightened someone’s day, lifted their spirits, or touched them in a way that leaves them better off than before, I will have fulfilled my purpose as an artist.

In general, I’d posit each listener attends a concert hoping to hear a musician who has something to say, whether it uplifts, inspires, moves to tears, or otherwise elicits an emotion not felt before the performance. Every individual has had life experiences, both heart-warming and heart-wrenching. Somewhere in music lies the aural equivalent to those memories. How can we use music to access or process those memories for the better? The ability to do so for the listener I define as success.

What do you find to be your greatest struggle when it comes to the music business?

Meeting people in the industry. While I’m happy where I’m based at the moment, I’m not in cities like Los Angeles or New York City where music producers, film scorers, and media composers abound. That simply means it’s up to me to be more intentional on how I go about developing collaborative relationships.

What do you think is the most realistic goal you can achieve as an artist/band? What do you hope to achieve?

I don’t know, but each day I’m renewed with excitement knowing how endless the possibilities are to reach new listeners and make more friends, especially with today’s technology. Thanks to the major streaming platforms, my music has made its way to countries like Denmark and Switzerland even before I have – music I wrote and recorded right here at home. What a concept!

That being said, having the means, the time, and the circumstances to create music is a gift. While I have it, I hope to continue writing and performing for others’ enjoyment as long as I can.

Outside of music, what do you like to do that you feel contributes to the creativity that you tap into for your music?

College opened countless doors for me to explore fields I had no idea I could be interested in. Although music will always be an integral part of me, I’ve found many other areas much too fascinating to skip out either studying them or gaining experience in them. This has led to quite the winding path since college.

For example, neuroscience and computer science are two specializations I would not have expected to see on my degrees when I first entered college. I find my current job title of ‘software engineer’ as bonkers in the most wonderful way; growing up I couldn’t have imagined starting out my industry experience in such a role, and yet I’m having such fun. Who knows what life will be like in the next year, let alone the next decade?

As I live life and build experiences in different areas over time, perhaps it’s just that – diversity of life experience – that gives increasing depth and variation to my music. One kind of writing, designing, and producing influences another in an ever-evolving feedback loop.

Words by: Jonathan Frahm