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The debut album from NoSo is a postcard to a former, younger self

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Abby Hwong was a really shy kid.

NOSO: I think when I was 4 years old, I was so shy I would close my eyes when strangers came near me.

CHANG: Their parents were worried, so, of course, they put them in theater classes. And, you know, it actually worked.

NOSO: So then I was just unhinged from that point on in classes. I was just a lot more rambunctious.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOSO SONG, "DAVID")

CHANG: Rambunctious. Abby became a performer and a musician. Onstage, they go by the name NoSo, and their debut album, called "Stay Proud Of Me," is a postcard to that younger self, a younger self who was already wrestling with complicated questions about gender and identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAVID")

NOSO: (Singing) I want to be serene and blank like David. I want to be a dream with girls all over me.

I think some of the earliest memories I have all revolve around gender. I think I was around 4 years old when I started becoming kind of cognizant of it. And I would be in preschool, and I would see these boys around me, and I would feel this strange envy. And I couldn't articulate why I felt that way, but I had a feeling it was unacceptable to say out loud. And I would always think, like, oh, this can't be it, right?

CHANG: Yeah.

NOSO: You know, this is a joke. One day, I'm going to wake up, and it's going to be presto. I'm going to turn into the form that I always imagined that I would be. And then the whole town would watch. There'd be, like, a whole ceremony. I'll be like, that's going to happen, you know? And so when it didn't, I think it, like, ultimately broke my heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOSO SONG, "SUBURBIA")

CHANG: And I understand that you grew up, like, in the suburbs right outside Chicago, right? Like, what was suburbia like for a kid like you thinking the things that you were thinking, wondering the things that you were wondering and sort of struggling with what you were struggling with?

NOSO: I think it led to quite a bit of repression for me, and I just felt this need to conform. And so I think I made a conscious decision when I was in middle school, where I feel like a lot of social hierarchies begin, where I kind of with myself was like, no more wearing baggy basketball clothes; you have to start wearing skirts and sundresses, even though it made me feel like I was wearing a costume.

CHANG: Yeah.

NOSO: I kind of almost brainwashed myself into being like, nope, this is fine. You just - you got to do it.

CHANG: That sounds painful.

NOSO: Yeah, it was quite painful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUBURBIA")

NOSO: (Singing) Moms power walk and gossip about teenagers and bat mitzvahs.

CHANG: And at what point in your adolescence did you start giving yourself permission to be the person you wanted to be?

NOSO: I think my first year of college, all of my closest friends were queer and also were kind of grappling with gender identity. And so they were wearing whatever they wanted, and I was still wearing sundresses. So I was finally like, oh, I don't have to do this anymore. You know? They kind of inspired me to just embrace myself step by step.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUBURBIA")

NOSO: (Singing) Holding onto all my faults, I've been calling out your name apart from this - said you want to be good about it.

CHANG: I had read that you think of your music as something like a public journal. Can you explain that concept, at least the way you see it?

NOSO: Yeah. I think most of my songs allow me to articulate a lot of feelings that I would otherwise be too uncomfortable to share in everyday conversation. I've never really declared many things about myself publicly. I mean, I was very much closeted about my own identity for a very long period of time. And so, yeah, I just think of it as kind of a vessel, a tool for me to be more courageous.

CHANG: It's still hard, though, to reveal yourself in music. I mean, do you find this album very revelatory for what you're used to?

NOSO: I think so. And what's interesting about it is because it's my debut, it's from different chapters of my life. And I feel like the later songs on the album are more courageous in subject matter. And I feel like from the oldest track to the newest one, you can kind of see me tiptoeing towards embracing myself more and be more confident and comfortable.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOSO SONG, "PARASITES")

CHANG: I mean, right out of the gate, the first track - it's about something pretty personal that I would love to talk to you about. You recently had top surgery, right? Can I ask you, like, after you fully recovered and you looked at yourself in the mirror, what did it feel like to be in your own skin?

NOSO: It was quite a difficult recovery process physically and emotionally. But I think the first time I looked down, I felt free, which is a lyric in the song "Parasites," the opening track. Ultimately, any kind of aesthetic blips that I had or things that I would normally scrutinize about my body, in this case, I was just kind of like, I mean, at least I'm free now. You know, those things are kind of arbitrary.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARASITES")

NOSO: (Singing) It's your life. Take off the drag and the parasites removed from your skin. It's so lovely, lovely to meet you again and so lovely, lovely to be born again.

CHANG: I can't help but wonder. Your parents, who had pressured you to try out theater so you would be less shy - what do they think about you now performing in front of people for a living? You are a public artist. You share public journals, if you will, through your music. What do they think of that?

NOSO: They're pretty tickled.

(LAUGHTER)

NOSO: You know, they had upbringings of being immigrants in America from South Korea, where - my dad was in Detroit, and he would always have to stand up for himself from bullies and those kinds of things. So I think that kind of mentality of just remaining strong and knowing who you are and also respecting your culture despite the environment that might be pushing against you is important.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOSO SONG, "HONEY UNDERSTAND")

CHANG: So with the release of this debut album, what do you want the world to know about who Abby Hwang is now?

NOSO: I hope other people are able to, I guess, fill in the blanks to their own narrative while listening to the album. Even though it's quite specific experiences that I have, I hope that people can listen to any of the songs and feel like they're seen or represented by it because when I was growing up, I felt like there wasn't a lot of music that spoke directly to me. And so regardless of background, I just hope, yeah, that people feel seen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONEY UNDERSTAND")

NOSO: (Singing) No, oh, no, oh, write about who you are.

CHANG: Abby Hwong makes music as NoSo. Their debut album, "Stay Proud Of Me," is out now. Thank you so much, Abby.

NOSO: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONEY UNDERSTAND")

NOSO: (Singing) Honey, understand. It's me against the crowds. Honey, understand. It's me. I'm falling. Honey, understand. I'm thinking out loud. Honey, understand. You won't know me, but I'm proud. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.