Interview: Big Phony

Big Phony
Big Phony

Huge thanks to Big Phony for taking a few minutes to answer my questions before the Korean Underground: Part 1 show in San Antonio when he obviously wasn’t feeling well. Big Phony – or Bobby – was absolutely lovely to speak with, super nice. But even better, his music is dreamy. So check out his interview and then give him a listen!

The Interview

Hi there, can you please introduce yourself.

My name is Big Phony. Actually, Robert Choy is my given name but everyone calls me Bobby. I’m a singer-songwriter. Born and raised in New York but now I live in Seoul, Korea.

Can you tell our readers a little about why you chose the name Big Phony?

Sure, yeah. Back in 2005, when I released my first album, I was actually visualizing my first album cover and I just didn’t see my name on it. I thought Bobby Choy sounded a little too Asian. And so I thought maybe I should use a stage name, that it would work better for me.

I was pretty heavily influenced by J. D. Salinger and his writings, like Catcher in the Rye. So I don’t know why the name, but the word phony, and Big Phony always stood out to me so I thought that Big Phony might be the way to go. So it’s a good reminder, a daily reminder not to be one. 

You mentioned during your performances that you write sad songs, why is that?

Yeah, mostly. The first time I ever wrote one I was 14. At the time I was living alone in New York City. I was a sad kid, I was kind of a loner, and I wasn’t very happy. That was basically the subject of most of my writing, just was like sad things. I just found myself writing sad song after sad song. After a while that just became my skill. I’ve tried to write happy songs but they just don’t come up right. It’s because I’m not skilled at it, I haven’t written enough. After you write like 500 sad songs, you get pretty good at it.

You started your music career in the United States, but you moved to Korea?

About three years ago, yeah.

What made you move to Korea?

It wasn’t deliberate, actually. I was just visiting, because I’d never been. I went with my family when I was maybe six or seven years old , but I didn’t have much of a memory of Korea. I’d always been curious about it growing up. I always wondered why my parents wanted to live in the U.S. so much, they don’t speak English very well. I saw them struggling so much, I always wondered why they just didn’t stay in Korea. I had a lot of questions.

As soon as I got to Korea, I felt that there was somewhat of a void that started to fill in. It was just so interesting to me. I was just there on vacation. Some doors had actually opened up for me to perform out there. I met some musicians out there so I thought, why not make the jump? I had nothing really holding me back at the time. I didn’t a job holding me down, I wasn’t married, I wasn’t in a relationship or anything like that. So I thought, if I don’t do this now, I’ll never do it. Three years later, I’m still in Korea.

How has your music career changed since you went to Korea? What’s the difference between performing in America versus Korea?

Well, I was afraid of that. That going to Korea would really change my perspective on music and my own music as well. But really, it hasn’t changed much at all to be honest. It really comes down to my issues with dealing with an audience. There are differences in audiences in Korea and the U.S. But even within the U.S. there are differences between states and cities. It’s just another place for me. I’ve learned just to look at it that way, not so much of a cultural difference.

There are certain things that are different. I need to speak in Korean. And my Korean’s not very good. So communication is another thing. But my personality is still the same. I still tell the same stupid jokes between songs, but just in another language and with less vocabulary. And they still get it. People have a sense of humour wherever you go.

There’s little adjustments you have to make. They won’t get everything you say or sing about. But it’s music. They understand melody and harmony as well as anywhere else. When I first got there I felt like an island, kind of. But it’s a big lesson I learned there, you can play music anywhere and people can appreciate it.

Big Phony at SXSW
Big Phony at SXSW

What’s the most unusual thing to happen to you while performing?

Probably people being attentive and quiet. Almost every show in Korea has been incredibly quiet. At first, it really freaked me out because I didn’t know if they didn’t enjoy it or if they were like, what is this. But for the most part, at least at the venues I play and the people who come to watch my kind of music, they’re there to really take it all in. I really appreciate that.

But on the flip side, I got my start in New York and in L.A. where you’re fighting bar noise and people who don’t really care to be there for your music. They’re there because it’s Friday night and they’re there with their friends. You are almost like competing with the noise of the crowd. Which I can appreciate too, actually that drives me and I sing better because I push my vocals.

You recently released both an acoustic and an electronic album. What was your inspiration for creating the two albums?

Well, a friend of mine was making a movie and he was having trouble getting the rights to a song that he really wanted in the film but it was too expensive for him. So he asked me if I wanted to take a shot at making something similar and it happened to be kind of a New Wave track. I forget what the song was but it kind of reminded me of 80’s New Wave. I loved that, I grew up with that. So I tried it out and I came up with a track called “All Bets Are Off” which is on the album. It was so much fun to make so I took a break from writing my sad songs and tried something new. And I really enjoyed it so I stuck with it.

But I didn’t want people to think that I was switching all together because really, at the heart of things, I’m a singer-songwriter. That’s what I’ve been working on for over 20 years. So I can’t say that I’m an electronic musician. If anything, I probably shouldn’t have released an electronic album. But I thought, why not.

So I released an acoustic album just to let people know that I was going anywhere. That I wasn’t trying to be someone else. I made it as raw as possible. I didn’t bring in any session musicians, it’s just me. That’s why I titled it “Bobby” so people knew it was just me on that album. Not professionally recorded, just recorded at home with a cheap mic, a cheap guitar and a computer.

Your performance style is quite interactive and personable. In fact, you’re quite funny. Do you find that this helps you connect to your audience?

Thanks. The reason behind that is I like to speak and just like keep people entertained in kind of a humorous manner. Because my music can be kind of mellow and sad and depressing. I want them not to get lost in that. I want them to have a good time and know it’s not all about me just being sad. I’m not a sad person actually, I’m actually pretty fortunate and happy in my life. I want that to come across in my show. And also when I go to shows, I love when musicians and artists keep me entertained in between songs. That’s some of my favourite moments. I’ve worked on that over the years.

I also watch a lot of stand up, not to say that I’m anywhere close to that. I am sensitive to how words can be used to make people feel lighter. So I do it to help people listening to my depressing music.

What’s your songwriting process? What inspires you to write new songs?

Well, I’ve taken so many different approaches just because I wanted to cover it all. I guess when I first started, I just did what I could. I was writing songs and I couldn’t believe that I could even write a song.

Over the years, I’ve tried different things. I’ll write the lyrics first. I tried to write poems and then turn that into a song afterwards. I’ve approached it where I just worked on melodies as much as possible and then add the words to it.

Lately, I’ve been approaching writing music from the beginning to the end. So I try to write the lyrics and music at the same time. Kind of like, believing that the song is there and just like chiseling away at it. Kind of like the way Michelangelo made his sculptures, he worked from the front to the back, he didn’t go all over it. I read something like that before and I think it was interesting.

At the moment, I approach writing that way. I’ve done so many styles, I don’t know what works best for me. I figure I have a lot of years ahead. I might as well try everything out.

Finally, what are your plans for the rest of 2014? And would you consider coming to Toronto?

Oh yeah, my plans, I can’t believe it’s only March. And I’m already just exhausted. Which is a good thing, I think.

The two new albums are out. So I really need to try to work with them and push them as much as possible.

After this U.S. tour, I’m going to go back to Korea, back to Seoul. I’m scoring a film, my first film, that’s being shot in Hong Kong. I’m still working out the details on that. Yeah, I want to work in film. The past couple of years I’ve been writing songs to gear them towards more cinematic and songs that can be licensed. I’m a big fan of film. That’s in the works.

I’m going to be in a film called K-town Cowboys. Which will be out, hopefully, in a few months. I’m going to start touring with that as well. I have an interesting year ahead of me.

I would love to go to Toronto. Actually, yeah. They have a music week there that I’ve been eyeing for the past, I don’t know, at least five years. I definitely know I want to go there. I’ve just never had the confidence that I could play outside of New York and L.A., and now Seoul. Those are my base cities. After playing at South by Southwest, being accepted there, being invited there has given me some more confidence. Just trying to figure how I can get out more, and play more. That’s in the works.

Thanks so much!

Huge thanks to Bobby to for answering all our questions! He’s truly a lovely person who plays music that seeps into your soul and whose voice wraps around you like a warm blanket. Dude even makes me sound poetic when I describe him. But seriously, give him a listen. And as much as I love his regular singer-songwriter stuff, the more I listen to his electronic album, Long Live The Life, the more hooked I am. So check it out too!

Big Phony in a nutshell

And my favourite of his songs…

Editor’s note: I considered splitting the interview because he gave such detailed answers but it flows together well so I left it as one piece. Any transcription errors in grammar are mine.

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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