By Jocelle Koh
Photos by Sam Li
Counting Kendrick Lamar, Chance The Rapper and Migos amongst her past collaborators, music photographer Dolly Ave seems to be living the dream. But the cautiously ambitious creative has bigger plans for herself. Releasing her debut EP ‘Sleep‘ into the world might seem an unconventional turn of events for the talented young photographer, but music has always been this talented Asian-American creative’s first love.
The EP represents a number of milestones for the bedroom pop/R&B/electronic artist. Not only does it represent the blooming of her career as a budding young artist and the diversifying of her creative exploits, but it also represents unprecedented progression in Dolly’s relationship with the self, and with her environment.
We spoke with Dolly about her journey as an artist starting from the beginning before taking the conversation back to her heritage and her place in the western music industry at this momentous step in her career.
Q: Congrats on your very first EP! Can you tell us why did you name it ‘Sleep’?
A: Thank you! The name came to me pretty instantly. “Sleep” just felt right to me in terms of the way the soundscape felt to the way our sleep cycles mimic the ebb and flow of relationships. What was funny was my friend and cinematographer Joe Han said it should be named “Sleep” randomly one day before I said anything. That was my sign to call the project “Sleep.”
Q: Why did you choose the stage name ‘Dolly Ave’?
A: I was real young and read about J.K Rowling having a fake name so that there wouldn’t be any bias when people would read her book. I began thinking about branding and originally had “Dolly Avenue”… a name that rolled off the tongue but (as sad as it is) wouldn’t turn people away because of my Asian and hard to spell last name. Avenue came from the idea that there are many paths we can take creatively. It stuck with me. I ended up shortening it a year later but have been referred to that name ever since.
Q: We’re interested to know more about how you embarked onto your career in the music/arts scene. Prior to unveiling your persona as an artist, you’ve already made a name for yourself as a music photographer! How did you get into this line?
A: Before photography my friends and family knew me as a musician surprisingly. I sang in choir, performed in musicals, and wrote songs in my room for a long time. At the same time I was also heavily involved with capturing moments with a camera. I decided to go into film to learn how to make my own music videos and through art school and through the art scene in Chicago I started shooting photos and videos for other artists in the studio and then eventually concerts, festivals, and album art. I didn’t really make my way back into music until a few years ago when a buddy of mine encouraged me to sharing my songs.
Q: What was it that pushed you to make the jump from behind the scenes work to working on your own stuff as an artist?
A: Photo is a great passion of mine and I love it equally as I do music. Music, however, was the medium that I felt comforted me the most. When I am sad, happy, or angry – a song helped me navigate my feelings. It’s also the best way I can share my thoughts out loud without being insecure or self-conscious. I still have trouble telling people how I feel. Music just makes it easier.
Q: You mentioned previously that it was a dream come true working with Tim Atlas on ‘Occupied’, a track on this EP. Were there any other milestones you reached with this EP?
A: So many milestones I would have never thought I’d reach. I found an old music link of mine that literally had 3 people like it. Back then I was still stoked though. Now I have over 15K listeners and this journey of making the EP has opened many doors. Some I can’t share yet but will soon! It’s all relative though. I think growth is the main thing I am grateful for. I hope to never get too comfortable. I have to give myself permission to head where I’m supposed to head.
Q: You mentioned that this EP is inspired in some recent by a breakup, but isn’t necessarily a breakup album. Why is that?
A: The project was created out of sadness during that time period but the overall theme of the album goes through my journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance. It also isn’t about one person but a collection of moments I recall. Of course story-telling of past love and hurt can be heard but I break free from those thoughts as we go along from track to track.
Q: What kinds of music and artists have informed your work and inspired you creatively?
A: I have quite a random music palette but these artists help me think of music in very different ways. Some artists that I listened to a lot during that time period was George Harrison, Kimbra, Sza, Solange, Phantogram, Ariana Grande.
Q: Being an Asian diaspora artist and person in the American music industry, is there room for growth regarding the inclusivity of policies and opportunities?
A: In every industry we always hope for growth and inclusivity. We’re not quite there yet but where we are now compared to how I felt the industry was when I was younger has drastically changed. If you told me there were Asian creatives breaking records and radio stations and proper representation in movies – I just wouldn’t believe it. So I thank all the people who fight for us in those rooms.
Q: Has your heritage informed your perspective on your work at all? If so, how so?
A: I think my heritage made me work ten times harder knowing it’s hard for us to break it in music. I had to take this very seriously and put in a lot of time and money so that people consider my potential and marketability. Asians are “trending” now so it’s hard to wrap around what I mean, but it is very real and still very real.
Q: What is your favourite song on ‘Sleep’? Can you tell us the creative story behind it?
A: My favorite song is “Waiting for You.” It is the closer of the album and the last song I made. Outside of it being a sweet and hopeful ending to my story, the production and growth in my vocals is present. Half of the album was made in very difficult, rushed, or limited situations and this song represents the place I am in now. It requires patience for the pay off but I think that represents where I am musically now. Just a good place.
Q: What message do you hope to leave listeners of this album with ‘Sleep’?
A: My friends told me to share my gift. I was afraid to and I am glad I gave myself permission to try. I hope my album inspires someone to share their story or to look forward to a better time.
During our interview Dolly spoke a lot about about giving herself permission to put this EP together, and while this record thematically talks about regeneration and putting yourself back together, in fact it stems from a larger theme. Giving yourself permission to put yourself first, and to understand the value in what you have to say is an empowering feeling, and that’s the feeling I’m catching in this coming-of-age-esque LP from Dolly.
If you care to listen closely, you can almost hear the sensitive soul’s artistry blossoming in front of your eyes (and ears). All in the hope that listeners too will be inspired to give themselves permission to bloom into who they’re supposed to be, just like Dolly did.