Many kids aspire to someday become a pop star. Unfortunately, those dreams are typically crushed upon parent’s disapproval or the struggle of needing a career that pays the bills. As someone once said, “following your dreams is the fastest way to become homeless.”
For Manhattan based duo, corner club, it is all about balance. During the day, Michael Zhang and Savannah Du typically spend their time sitting at a desk. Zhang as Data Scientist and Du as consultant at a large firm. At night, the two form the musical duo “corner club” with Du singing vocals and Zhang on the guitar.
The two met while in college at Princeton University. They were both part of an East Asian a cappella group and quickly bonded over common interest. After college they would each find jobs in Manhattan.
Their first single together as corner club is “Manhattanhenge” a cheerful song about a young couple meeting up at various places around Manhattan. One of them being Manhattanhenge, a time of the year where the sunset is framed by the skyscraper lined streets of Manhattan.
After a brief hiatus early in the pandemic, the two regrouped to do some covers and work on new music. As you can tell by the artists they covered during their 30-day cover challenge, the two have an eclectic taste in music. They covered artists from Hall & Oats to Pink Sweat$. Their cover of Khalid’s “Location” has generated almost a quarter million views on Instagram.
Their latest release, “Tell Me” is a juxtaposition from “Manhattanhenge”. Where “Manhattanhenge” is a cheerful song about young love, “Tell Me” is an uplifting song about someone that is in need of cheering up. Savannah sings the songs chorus in a hauntingly beautiful tone.
It is a song that listeners can relate to with a message we all need to hear at times. The song is also fitting of the present time, given the current state of things in across the country.
We recently spoke with them over Zoom and discussed balancing work and creative passions, growing up Asian American and being creative during the pandemic.
AA: What was music like in your household growing up.
MZ: My parents would sing Chinese songs once in a blue moon but it wasn’t a particularly musical household. I listened to classic rock and pop growing up and listened to it in the car with my parents but I think they preferred silence in the car if I wasn’t riding with them. Maybe the liked music and we just had different taste growing up.
SD: My parents are pretty musical. My dad was really into rap because he liked the rhythm. My grandpa was really into Italian opera. He would play recordings of classics and I remember my dad and grandpa watching Pavarotti and crying in the living room. They listen to Chinese classics too but I think there’s a special place in their hearts for opera.
AA: Was learning how to play an instrument something that your parents pushed for or something that you asked to be involved in?
MZ: I wanted to play the violin growing up. Most kids would think that I chose that because I’m Asian and that’s what my parents wanted me to play. I just wanted to play violin when we were picking instruments in 5th grade. I had already been playing the guitar at that point so maybe I just wanted to continue on the strings.
My parents weren’t that thrilled about me playing violin. They tried to entice me by saying they would get me a better violin if I practiced for so many hours. I remembered thinking “You can’t put music in a box. It’ll kill my creativity if you give me the reward of a nicer instrument”
My music career is mainly self-taught. I never really had violin lessons. I took guitar lessons for about a year or two at my local music shop on and off. My parents tried making me play the piano but that didn’t really work out. I think for me it comes down to a strong personal interest to learn these things or aspire to become like the artist that I think are doing cool stuff. I would focus really hard on the sound the artists/producers are making and focusing what creates that sound.
SD: My parents pushed me to play piano. I hated it when I was younger but started to like it when I was a senior in high school. At that point, I would spend so many hours a day banging out some weird avant garde stuff on the piano to the point my mom would tell me to stop playing. I do not regret being able to play the piano now. I love it.
I never considered pursuing music professionally. When I was younger I really wanted to sing, I really wanted to be a pop star. I told my mom and she said no…and that was that.
AA: Seeing your Instagram covers of everyone from Pink Sweat$ to Hall & Oats, you have eclectic taste in music. Where do you draw you inspiration from?
MZ: I consider myself to be eclectic when it comes to music taste. As I mentioned earlier I was really into classic rock growing up, I played the guitar because I was really into metal. These days, I’d say my biggest inspiration has been The 1975. I’ve also been into the producing side. Where Savannah will listen to lyrics, I almost don’t hear them because I am paying attention to the background. There’s a lot of things going on in music like Billie Eilish to a lot of the Asian American artists, music is so accessible now, there is a lot to be inspired from right now.
SD: Pink Sweat$ is one of both of our biggest inspirations. After hearing him on Spotify’s Discover Weekly, we were hooked. I tend to listen for voice and lyrics so when I listen to Pink Sweat$ it’s pretty much the voice that gets me. Mitski is another big one. Her lyrics and phrasing – she sings in a way where you can’t tell shes going with it. I like songs where you can’t tell where its going to go.
AA: Savannah, can you tell us about your time at the Curtis Institute of Music?
SD: I interned in their summer program as a Civic Service Intern, helping put together programs for various instruments and orchestra. I wouldn’t say it really affected my thoughts on music or my musical journey, but it was really inspiring to see these people pursue music so seriously. It was one of the best summers of my life.
Most of the Asian students in the program were international students but there were a handful of Asian American students at Curtis.
AA: Why do you think that there were mostly international students at Curtis? Do you think the volume of Asians interested were low or is it just not that popular among Asian Americans that there isn’t much interest?
SD: Coming from a community where having a solid job and being able to take care of your parents are the priority, the focus growing up isn’t so much on the arts. If I’m able to go into a career that I consider to be more stable, then I will. It could also be a difference of taste.
From what I saw within the program, it could also be a difference in musical instrument. Within the opera program there would be 1 Asian American among 20 or 30 students but within the orchestra program there would be so many more playing violin or flute. Within the harp lesson, there were probably zero Asian American students.
AA: Has being a minority been a challenge in music – booking a show or anything like that?
SD: Luckily so far since we haven’t been actively looking to book gigs, we’re probably felt this less potentially than other Asian American artists.
We don’t sound particularly Asian. When we write, we write songs that we hope will resonate with a lot of people and most of the time its based on our environment, like living in the city, surrounded by nature.
As we’ve been more active on Instagram, we’ve only gotten one comment so far that called us out for being Asian. Most of the other comments are about the music or voice.
AA: Where does inspiration for your sound come from?
SD: We listen to a weird grouping of music. I look up to the classics: Lauryn Hill, Sarah Vaughn “Lullaby of Birdland” and those are the type of deep sounds I like. As soon as I hear it I know who it is. As soon as I hear it I feel something. I go for more of a feel than a sound.
For the most part, its thinking of people I look up to and emulate the feeling that their music gives. At this point, I’m still working on the technique.
AA: How has the whole COVID situation affected your work/music?
MD: I stayed in NY while Savannah went back to MD so we had to figure out how to work while being in 2 places, which is why we’ve been able to have a lot more Instagram content lately.
We did a cover challenge on Instagram. We had the idea of inviting small groups over and playing songs and socializing as a chance of giving our friends a chance to see us perform and catch up.
SD: We’ve been working on songs. During this time, we’ve taken songs that we were working on and looking at them with a fresh perspective. We’re trying our best to have an EP out before the end of the year.
AA: Culturally it’s not very common for AAPI to pursue the arts. Would you say there’s a culture that exists that is supportive for AAPI?
MZ: There’s a lot of progress to be made but there are a ton of exciting new AAPI artists of all genres out there. More and more of the younger generations are being vocal about pursuring their creative passions. They are creating their own groups on social media. I have a lot of hope for support from a community perspective and hope that little kids see it and feed it forward.
AA: Any tips for any aspiring AAPI artists? What helped you the most to get where you are now?
MZ: I think us being a duo and having a close personal friendship that predates corner club, we’re often on the same page.
I think our foundations come a long way. If you don’t have a good foundation as a musician, everything gets harder. We’re very hard on ourselves but I think us being self critical helps us get further in our craft and helps us refine it.
SD: One of the biggest things that we did that got our name out was doing the social media out reach. Specifically, Asian Creative Network Music New York City. Many of our performance opportunities came out to that group.
Going to open mics and doing events helped network us with other AAPI creatives. Not being afraid to reach out but also seeing events that we have a personal stake in (being AAPI)
AA: What’s next for corner club?
MZ: Continue to work on our own stuff. We have a lot of ideas and we cant decide which to work on. Aiming for an EP before the end of the year. Our focus right now is to grind out our own songs, get it out and be able to share them with everyone.