By Calli Ferguson | August 9, 2022
By the time we sat down with Charlene Kaye before her official Release Party at Elsewhere, the EP, Neon God, was 10 years in the making. “Songs take as long as they want to take,” says the musician. And it turns out this particular work of art took the artist through an entire spiritual awakening before she could present it to us wearing Neon Green thigh-high boots on that summer night in Brooklyn.
For those of you who’ve yet to listen, the Neon God EP resonates bright colors, hope, and that kind of dancing that’s inexplicably cathartic. It paints disco flavors on a pop rock canvas, while lyrics and themes offer a deep well of emotion. The record listens like a diary written in highlighter.
When we asked Kaye about her inspiration behind Neon God, she took us to a particular scene: Coachella, 2012. A crowd of fans (lovingly described as a “sweaty, drug-induced mess”) gawk at Jarvis Cocker, the electric frontman of the band, Pulp. Kaye had lost her friends when she found herself right in the middle of the world Pulp had created in that California desert. But as it turns out, that moment of lost-ness, sparked the inspiration for an EP that feels like a culmination of so much found-ness.
Raised in a conservative, Christian household, Charlene Kaye grew up quite familiar with church-like settings. But it was only when submerged in moments like that Pulp concert that Kaye felt as though she was coming to her church, in devotion to her god. Not to mention, it was a confrontation with the protagonist of the EP itself: the “Neon God.” A character who Charlene Kaye describes as “…wacky and irreverent. She’s someone who is never out of time to do whatever she wants to do.”
Though those feelings took on this manifestation within the past decade, Kaye described having such a pull towards rock music from a very young age when she started sneaking out to shows. “I’d never felt communion with the divine at Church the way that I felt when I was at punk shows and rock shows. Moshing and crowd surfing and stuff…” Kaye shares.
That sense of divinity found in live music is probably familiar to a lot of us. But for Kaye, who grew up in an environment where loving rock music and wanting to be an artist often felt like swimming upstream, that feeling was a bit more layered.
It wasn’t so much that music didn’t have a place in the artist’s childhood; In fact, it very much did. “I was raised in a different cultural environment,” Kaye explains. “I’m Chinese American. My parents were immigrants. They put me in piano lessons when my feet were dangling off the bench. [But] the reason they wanted me to be a musician was not for any sort of expression or creative fulfillment; it was so that I could get into college, which is a very familiar tale for a lot of other immigrant kids.”
When young Charlene Kaye inevitably fell in love with Rock and Punk music, it was accepted as a hobby. But she wanted much more from it. “It became this struggle to really assert my identity,” she shares, “realizing I was an artist and wanting to continue down this wayward path of being a rockstar.” The struggle she mentions is, again, layers deep. For starters, there was that swimming-upstream in the river of ideas of what she was “supposed” to do. But on top of that, Kaye struggled to find examples of Asian musicians in the Rock world and to know what that could look like. Lack of representation can make such a ‘current’ feel much, much stronger.
Still, from a place that seems to be at the intersection of courage, intuition, and faith, Charlene Kaye continued on that “wayward path.” In 2014, she joined Indie-Rock group San Fermin whom she sang lead-vocals for before leaving to pursue a solo career five years later. Under the artist name, KAYE, the solo artist put out her first album in 2020. And if you remember 2020, you might imagine the challenge it would have been to put out an album at that time.
The story Kaye shared before her concert that night–as with the story she paints through the EP itself–is one of total devotion not only to this Neon God, but to the fullest expression of the self. It’s a story of that particular magic of music that, when loved like a god, can literally save lives. “I’m trying to let things be a little messier and exist in the unknown without trying to control everything so much. I think that involves being present and playing music and allowing myself to be that actualized version of myself while I’m performing,” Kaye explains. “And it does feel like the highest, juiciest, most true version of who I am when I’m singing or writing or performing.”
KAYE’s stage at Elsewhere was covered in shades of neon green and tangerine. She lunged onto stage with this huge green fan in hand, fully expressed, and absolutely slaying the game. She wore a wig, neon boots, and cheetah print spandex. Though the musician’s wild guitar solos and technique would be jaw-dropping enough, she puts on an absolute show in every way. And it quickly makes all the sense in the world: Everything she was not saying about the “Neon God” was coming to life before our eyes. In that moment, she let us believe: KAYE is the Neon God. This is her church, we are participating in her holy ceremony now. Or at least, a version of her. Maybe not the one chatting with us in the green room, but real nonetheless.
And that’s just it: the beautiful idea that sometimes, what feels “true” can exist outside of what feels “real.” Or in KAYE’s beautiful words, “you should be bigger than you are when you’re performing…. [You should] create these imaginative worlds. It’s a part of being alive and creating the truer and more beautiful version of what we want to see.”
At this point there were very few things that could have happened to make this show more exciting. KAYE had rolled around the stage in her neon green thigh highs. She’d run into the audience and danced with the crowd during Lifeline. Her backup singers–coated in tangerine colored spandex jumpsuits–had danced all up on one another while KAYE’s epic guitar solo brought her to her knees. Darren Chris came out in his own blonde wig and leopard print speedo to play drums for a throwback to the Musicians’ days playing together in college.
Finally… During “Neon God,” the title track of the colorful EP, KAYE took a dramatic crowd surf. When her feet hit the stage again and lights come up, the band comes together in a joyful bow. KAYE and her band delivered the kind of spiritual experience she’d been gifted. All we had to say at that point was “A-fucking-men.”
📸: shot by Jill Boyatsis