By Sarina Bhutani
With over a billion streams on Spotify, over a million followers on Instagram, and an already sold-out international tour on the horizon, Keshi has all the characteristics of a star. But as the 27-year-old settles into a late-night Zoom call, dressed casually in a red hoodie and complementary blue Yankees cap, he seems more like the boy next door than music’s next big thing. Even on the brink of a breakthrough, his demeanor is confident yet somehow gentle, much like his viral music.
Before he was Keshi, he was Casey Luong, a son born to two Vietnamese immigrants in a suburb of Houston, Texas. That’s why, with his debut album Gabriel (out today, March 25), Keshi is living his own American dream. Recorded between Los Angeles and Houston over seven months, the 12-track record is what he describes as his “life’s greatest achievement.”
Though he grew up listening to All Time Low and Never Shout Never, the musical suggestions of the girls on whom he had crushes, it was a combination of puberty, his grandfather’s old guitar, and a Pandora station that stirred his musical awakening. This manifested as a “borderline obsession” with John Mayer, he tells MTV News. “It was a song of his called ‘Stop This Train’ that really lit a fire in me as a songwriter. That’s when I knew I wanted to make songs of my own.”
After years of teaching himself guitar via YouTube tutorials and “writing songs for no one to hear,” the University of Texas at Austin grad turned to SoundCloud in 2017 as a first attempt at a music career. “At that time, I actually wanted to quit music for a little bit because I couldn’t figure out exactly what I was doing with it,” he reveals. By that time, he was also working as an oncology nurse in his hometown of Houston. “But then, I opened that SoundCloud account as an experiment to see if I could attract a stranger’s attention and have them stick around. Then maybe it would be something worth doing.” Thanks to a combination of divine timing and beginner’s intuition, Casey transformed into Keshi. He released his ghostly debut single “If You’re Not the One for Me Who Is,” and a new alt-R&B star was born.
His musical moniker originally derived from a childhood nickname given to him by his fiance’s parents, and he put it forward in order to retain a certain degree of anonymity, something he believes is “a weirdly liberating thing that is really essential to creating your best work.” Even then, Keshi understood that with online popularity comes inevitable pressure and invasion of privacy — both things he knew he needed to avoid in order to protect his mental health. “I’ve always valued this distance between me and the virtual world because I know not all of it is real,” he says. “Keshi is a line that I deliberately drew in the sand. If you let everyone through the door, then what do you have left that’s actually yours?”
That’s why Keshi spent his early years letting his music speak for itself, racking up millions of streams in the process. Pared-back, lo-fi hits like “Magnolia” and “Over U” snowballed into even bigger successes with heartbreak anthems such as “2 Soon” and “Like I Need U.” It was a period of time he describes as “really daunting.” Though the changes were gradual, they were still clearly felt. Not only was Keshi unable to maintain a degree of anonymity, but he also knew his days as a nurse were numbered.
After months of flying back and forth from New York, for eventually fruitful label talks with Island Records, and what he calls “the worst day of [his] nursing career,” Keshi felt it was time to loop in his parents about his increasing digital footprint. “[The original conversation] wasn’t even about leaving nursing, it was only about going part-time. But my dad got set off and he took it as me not appreciating the opportunities that I had been given being born in the U.S.” As a first-generation American, the idea of disregarding his parents’ sacrifice plagued him.
But after months of radio silence turned into “rough conversations,” Keshi articulated that he wasn’t actually wasting his privilege. He was harnessing it. “The point of my grandparents immigrating to America is so that I could shoot for the fucking stars, right? I really think that’s what I’m doing,” he says.
Creating Gabriel was a challenge for Keshi, who started the process feeling “dry and uninspired,” as if he’d “never be able to write again.” It took bringing in an outside collaborator, producing partner Elie Rizk, to kickstart his creativity and bring him back to life. As he and Rizk worked together on sonics and production in L.A., most of the album’s writing took place in Houston, where Keshi could write alone in his home studio. “I didn’t want to stress over writing because it’s the part that takes me the most time. So, if we were ever stumped, I would say, Hey, don’t worry about it. Don’t stress over it. I’ll take this home,” he recalls. The album experiments greatly with sound and genre, but its lyrics remain consistently Keshi.
Sonically, Gabriel launches with an act of rebellion in “Get It,” which he can only describe as a “really disgusting, just heinously loud beat that goes crazy.” Though he never envisioned himself creating such a high-energy, hip-hop-inspired track — in contrast with his typically delicate output — Keshi wanted Gabriel to remind listeners of his vast capabilities as an artist. “There’s a connotation with my music that revolves around being heartbroken or in a somber state of mind,” he admits. “But I don’t want to be typecast into that. I don’t want people to think that I am only able to make one kind of music.”
Before any album details were even released, Keshi teased his excitement about mid-tempos “Angostura” and “Hell/Heaven.” The former, titled after the popular Trinidadian rum brand, is “a very, very sweet and easy listen” that serves as a delectable entry point for new fans. “Hell/Heaven,” meanwhile, finds value in its complexity. Keshi passionately narrates the track, detailing each production technique with utmost precision. He describes everything from the use of “soft guitalele and plucked tremolo” to “the glitch part of the deep vocals that comes in and out,” making it abundantly clear why he views this song with such pride. “There are so many different moments in this song that my head latches onto because it’s something that my ear hasn’t heard before,” he says. “It might not be everyone’s favorite, but it’s one of mine.”
Fatherhood, or the idea of it, is a common theme on Gabriel, which is quite literally represented on “Père,” a spoken-word interlude performed entirely in French (a language commonly spoken in Vietnam due to France’s former colonial rule over the country.) At Gabriel’s midpoint, “Père” features Keshi’s father speaking to his 18-year-old self, a young man who just left his home country in search of a better life. “I would like to tell myself don’t worry,” he says on the track. “One day I will have a beautiful family and an intelligent son.” Upon transcribing the recording, Keshi was moved to tears. “It’s pretty special to me,” he shares with a smile.
Another song inspired by paternal instincts is Gabriel’s title track. Though Keshi possesses no particular religious affiliation, he’s always been drawn to the name, referring to the album as “Gabriel” before the song existed. Biblically, Gabriel is one of seven archangels, and according to the New Testament, it was he who announced to Mary that she would carry the son of God. As one of the last tracks written for the album, “Gabriel” describes what Keshi “imagines parenthood might be like” and “what it’s like to watch [his] parents grow old.” Upon turning 27 last November, he realized he’s entered into “this weird part of [his] life where having kids is no longer such a far-gone concept.” With a laugh, he clarifies: “I mean, not like tomorrow.”
When asked about thematics, Keshi shares that Gabriel has no real red thread, except for the fact that “each and every song is immensely personal to [him].” As someone who spent much of his career attempting to stay in relative anonymity, Gabriel is a raw and revealing portrait of the man behind the artist.
Despite the immense hype surrounding his debut, Keshi still doesn’t know why people are drawn to his music. “All the artists that I love have some sort of ‘it factor,’ but I can’t really tell you what that is for me,” he admits. “All I know is that I try to do the best that I can.” But putting the nerves and expectations aside, he manages to stay positive, feeling confident in the art he’s created and believing he’s done justice to the artists who have come before him. “I want Gabriel to be to my fans what John Mayer’s Continuum is for me,” he says. “A record that loops forever.”