Hot off his debut performance at this year’s SXSW, Big Phony has been a surprise and a breath of fresh air in the music scene. He’s been bopping around the indie scene for a few years now; he released his first album in 2005 — Fiction and Other Realities. Going by his real name for nearly ten years, Bobby Choy aka Big Phony has been releasing music via aggregator service Bandcamp. In that time, the Korean-American singer-songwriter has garnered himself quite a following in his native New York, LA, and his new/old home in Seoul.
Bobby was raised in New York, and at the age of 14, his family made a cross-country move to Los Angeles, leaving him to live out his musical pursuits. He was accepted to and had attended the renowned High School of Performing Arts. Growing up with somewhat of an artistic pedigree, he finally decided, in 2011, that he would uproot himself and move to South Korea, his ancestral homeland. He travelled there with $1000, his used guitar, and a dream to connect with his parents’ heritage and origins.
The most common artist Bobby has been compared to (even by his own admission) is Elliott Smith, though it’s a comparison he’s not totally sure about: “Sometimes it makes it easier to explain to people what Big Phony sounds like I suppose.” I’d be inclined to say the comparison is pretty accurate. I’ve been a fan of Elliot Smith for years, and the similarity in sound is touchingly uncanny. I’ve always lamented the loss of the emotional crooner, but Bobby Choy has brought that same heartache and earnestness in his own sound.
Choy’s honesty isn’t limited to recording on his little Shure Beta 58A mic in his bedroom. He’s been very candid in the interviews he’s done: “This is my ninth year writing and performing as Big Phony. Most people in their right mind would give up after a few years, and they do God bless them.”
It wouldn’t be out of place to think many would see him as sort of a second coming of Smith. His voice has a similar simplicity, but there’s a sweetness to it that’s reminiscent of Art Garfunkel. His musical compositions are organic and very much of the earth, but they also come with a gritty gorgeousness that reminds me very much of Michael Kiwanuka. Big Phony’s sound is very much a mixture of raw emotion and brilliant dexterity.
Even as Choy has been seen as a parallel to the distinguished Elliott Smith, exciting developments in his repertoire have also been observed — Choy’s desire to experiment with different sounds rings through the clearest. Being a student of music, he’s experienced the core theories as well as theatrics when it comes to performing in it. With a background like that, he looks for more ways to express himself, whether in silly or serious manners, or simply with curiosity. In February he released two albums at the same time: one was an electric album that was all starbursts and energy á la Toro Y Moi’s Anything in Return, and the other was an emotionally raw and bare-bones piece of music that was more in the vein of Smith’s Figure 8. The former, album Long Live the Lie, is exciting and daring — you can feel the fun emanating from his music.
The acoustic offering, the self-titled Bobby, was “recorded at home in my bedroom on a laptop with a cheap mic and my $40 guitar.” Although there isn’t anything grandiose about the production, the unfiltered feeling in it has almost brought tears to my ears. There’s so much joy, heartache, insecurity, and truth in it, any listener would be hard-pressed to imagine this was the same artist who released a full-on electronic album in the very same breath.
There was a time between New York and Seoul when Choy had moved to Boston to attend a Christian college, and to study to become a man of the cloth. However, he realized that music was where his soul truly lay, that it was down that path that his spiritual devotion would be best served. Perhaps it was his religious inclinations that informed the construction of this piece of music. Although the means to produce Bobby were humble, the purity in the music, voice, and lyrics have been truly inspiring. He is simply an artist of the highest accord. Songs like “Waiting on a Breeze” are so beautiful, they’ve eked a tightness in my throat and an emotional tempest in my heart.
Big Phony is just like any other human being: he strives to make what he loves work for him, and he also hopes for the validation that it’s all worth it. After almost a decade in the music industry, his dedication to the craft can’t be any more obvious. His lack of self-confidence may seem to be the only thing stopping him from becoming the artist he wants to be, but hopefully with more exposure and more experience, he’ll never lose touch with who he is, and he’ll eventually carry the audacity to create music that’s always honest.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s K-pop Indie Gem segment. Let us know what you think about Big Phony in the comments below!