Under the moniker Wilchai, 20 year-old New-York-based producer and Columbia University undergrad Stephanie Chow creates music that altogether traverses the boundaries of candor, category, and commonality. Following in an eclectic musical pathway that has furnished her ascension since childhood – from falling in love with the guitar via Guitar Hero at six years of age, to becoming enthralled by hip-hop music through her teens, to being slated to open for Gucci Mane just last year – Chow’s self-created audiary landscape presents itself as the epitome of what hybrid ethos she forges herself from: a zeitgeist-defying concoction of past and present, old and new, bygone and future. Any teenager can jam Odd Future-affiliate playlists and learn guitar, just like any millennial (in the youth they swear is far from over) very well could have been awestruck by an Illmatic cassette tape while having a Red Hot Chili Peppers poster hanging up behind them on the bedroom wall. But what happens, Chow poses musically, when such intermingled cultural upbringings leave the realm of consumer, and take the steering wheel into their own hands? The future. And with Wilchai, it’s a bright one.
Written entirely in her bedroom, Chow’s debut single “Deluge” is a living testament to the boundlessness of her artistry. With every listen, something new rises to the surface: Rainy 20th Century evening at a New York City Jazz haunt? Why not. Sentimental home-alone Friday night sigh of relief? Sure. In just shy of three minutes, passion, bliss, longing, intimacy, nostalgia, and practically all else any listener may seek to conjure in music, is found, in a harmony presented so seamlessly that it appears hyperrealistic in its packaging. In one common adage recited by parents across the globe, it is asserted that one must know where they have been in order to know where it is going. Unlike many future-focused acts her age, Wilchai is evidently set on not leaving her influences behind, but bringing them along with her into the tomorrow she will soon champion.
When Sammy’s World asked Chow via email what kept her motivated as of right now, she did not mention success, money or recognition. Rather, the producer’s response was yet one more representation of her all-inclusive approach: “Hearing other people’s music.” Someday, foreseeably, Wilchai will be the “other people’s music” a soon-coming generation of creatives will cite as inspiration. Until then, her selfless philosophy is more than enough fuel to ratify the uphill climb ahead.
Wilchai was gracious enough to answer a few of our questions despite school, music, and the likely hefty set of extraneous responsibilities that come with being a 20 year-old producer at Columbia University. You can check out her answers below.
Being a genre-bending artist, which facet of your music (if you can remember) would you say came first? Tell me a little bit about that journey.
I think the facet of my music that came to me first was the lyrical, story-telling element. That emerged from my love for hip hop. I have an incredibly distinct memory of listening to Channel Orange from start to finish by Frank Ocean for the first time and being utterly sucked into the narratives of the album and the fact that I saw a little bit of myself in them (as a closeted gay kid from the Midwest, hearing Bad Religion was an important moment for me).
How has the balance between music and school/education played out over the course of your career?
That balance has always been difficult for me to maintain. I love music, and I love what I study in school, and as I started getting more into music I felt like I was neglecting one or the other. I’m a sophomore at Columbia University, and I know a lot of really talented artists here who feel like the heaviness of the schoolwork gets in the way of their music. Eventually, I realized that they feed into each other. I would talk to these famous jazz musicians and ask them about their advice on composing or becoming inspired, and they would tell me to just go and live my life. There is no meaningful music without a life to write about. And a big part of my life is learning about the world, and that includes learning not only from school but from the incredibly rich community I’m surrounded with by virtue of being at college in one of the most interesting cities in the world.
Tell me about being slated to open for Clark Beckham and Gucci Mane! That’s so dope. How did that all go down?
When I was about 4, my mom enrolled me in a musical program called Kindermusic. We would go every week and I would hang with other kids, bang around on drums, and be exposed to music as a form of play. It was awesome. Fourteen years later, I got an email from my old kinder music instructor asking me if I’d be interested in opening for a big fundraising concert they were having. Little did I know, Clark Beckham was the main act! He’s an incredibly sweet and super talented guy (when you’re cosigned by Quincy Jones it’s undeniable), and the event was a blast.
Gucci Mane was the headliner for Columbia’s yearly student-run music festival, Bacchanal. Around a month before the concert, Bacchanal holds a battle of the bands where the winner gets to open for the concert. I played guitar in the band for Jackie Marchal, my friend and a powerhouse vocalist/songwriter who also goes to Columbia. We ended up winning! It was a big shock to me as a freshman, green behind the ears and new to the Columbia music community. Unfortunately, I never got to actually open for Gucci Mane because the festival (which was supposed to happen at Terminal 5 in April 2020) was canceled because of COVID-19. But it was still very exciting and… who knows what the future holds!
In many ways, it can be said that you represent the future of pop music. This is a very abstract question, but what do you want that (the future of pop) to look like? Is it any different from what you think it’s going to look like as of now?
I want the future of pop to be owned by the people who make the music. There’s a lot of hierarchy and exploitation in the music industry and despite legislative efforts like the Music Modernization Act, we have a long way to go in terms of equitably compensating creator. I’m an optimist, and I’d like to say it will look like that in the future. But it will take a lot of work.
What does music do for you? Is it any different from the effect you want your music to have on your listeners?
Music for me is a way to explore experiences, whether they’re familiar or foreign ones.
What is keeping you motivated right now?
Hearing other people’s music. I’m always inspired by those around me, and there’s so much amazing music coming out right now that keeps me incredibly inspired.
What’s your favorite album, and why?
Channel Orange. Frank Ocean is a master storyteller and the album taught me to hear music not as its own entity but rather as an extension of his relationship with the world. The album spans so much ground, from LA decadence to Black history to struggles with sexuality to bittersweet love songs. It’s so expansive but also so personal, and of course, the production on it is immaculate too.
Say something happens and you have to make a definitive decision: either continue your education and have a guaranteed job lined up for you, or drop everything to pursue music full-time. Which would you choose?
I used to definitely lean toward the former because I felt like I would be burned out by doing music full time, but I’m starting to discover that pursuing music full-time can encompass a lot of things. The music business, producing, songwriting, A&R, and intellectual property … there are so many different hats to wear. My eventual goal is actually to work in music, but not necessarily strictly as a producer or artist. So I would choose music full-time!
Where do you see yourself in the near future?
Hopefully producing and collaborating with artists and people I love. Also, contributing to the music industry to support creative expression in some facet whether through a nonprofit or a business.
Is there a specific artist you’d like to work with someday?
I’d love to work with Cam O’Bi. You might not recognize his name off the bat, but he’s worked with Noname, SZA, Big Sean, Rejjie Snow, and Snoh Allegra. He captures the Chicago soul sound (I’m from central IL so I heard some of it growing up) in such a fresh way while still being true to his roots. I look up to him a lot and would love to chop it up with him one day.