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Conrad Hsiang always figured he would be the last one in his family to become a musical artist.
“My siblings were way more talented with the instruments,” Hsiang said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson. Among an ensemble that included piano, guitar, and saxophone between his mother, brother, and sister, Hsiang didn’t exactly see himself as the most musically-inclined. “[Music] was always around, but I was definitely the least likely to be in music.”
For Hsiang, known professionally as Public Library Commute, there are layers of unconventionality to the path that led him to become a singer and songwriter. Apart from this family background, Hsiang’s early music-making efforts mostly consisted of his hobby of making lo-fi hip hop beats, so the possibility of becoming an artist didn’t cross his mind for quite a while. Reflecting on this path, Hsiang recalled how he initially found his inspiration and style.
“I was put onto Kanye by a friend of mine on the baseball team in high school,” Hsiang said.
“Being into Kanye, I was on YouTube looking up Kanye making beats and it sort of revealed that [making music] doesn’t have to be sitting at the piano and writing a song like I thought it was.”
It was in this space that Hsiang first found success. When vocalists on SoundCloud began using his beats, he felt encouraged to start being part of songs, and suddenly, his hobby was more than that. Upon figuring out how he could best combine his electric guitar and computer for production purposes, Hsiang’s material began to shift from lo-fi hip hop to the kind of indie pop that has defined his identity as Public Library Commute thus far. However, this transition hasn’t come without its challenges — one being the addition of vocals.
“That’s like, the newest piece. I still don’t know if I’m there yet. I’m learning,” he laughed.
Following Hsiang’s college graduation in 2019, even as his work as Public Library Commute was getting underway, he wasn’t so sure he’d be able to turn music into a career. At that point, a prior connection he had made via SoundCloud with the members of the band Surfaces — best known for songs like “Sunday Best” and “Wave of You” — came up big. Hsiang explained how Surfaces, a Texas-based band, was set to play shows in New York and Philadelphia as 2020 approached. Since Hsiang was one of the few people they knew in the northeast, they asked him to be their opener for those shows, and from there, the group invited him on their whole tour.
“It’s really just been a friendship the whole way,” Hsiang said of his experiences with Surfaces, whose members are the duo Forrest Frank and Colin Padalecki.
“They’re still, to this day, two of my better friends. I go down to Texas every three months it feels like either making music or just to go hang out.”
Hsiang spoke fondly of the creative interplay between himself, Forrest, and Colin: “Through touring, we just started becoming better friends and kind of stumbling upon songs together.”
As for Hsiang’s independent work, the first few years of Public Library Commute were mostly characterized by single releases. Hsiang particularly cited “Summertime,” an early 2020 release, as one that he believes really started to put people onto the sound he was creating. By early 2023, he decided the time was right for his first album, “Close to the Sun,” which he just released in August.
“Life has been really fun the past few years and given me a lot of experience to work with.” Hsiang said. “I finally just felt ready to do it.”
Hsiang also described how the album felt like the right opportunity to dive into songwriting material that he perhaps wasn’t previously ready to utilize.
“The first song on the album and the last song on the album were both moments where I was channeling emotion and experience that I hadn’t yet felt mature enough to tackle,” Hsiang said. “ ‘Coyotes,’ is about growing older and how friendships change as you get older, and that felt like something mature enough and that I needed to be a few years out of college to actually tackle something like that.”
Adding to the ways in which developing “Close to the Sun” was different from his prior projects, Hsiang said that the creative process for many of the album’s songs began with him on a guitar, rather than the tech-first approach that characterized his first forays into music production.
“Sometimes, when you start in the software, you can lay down a few lines and have a beat going, but maybe it doesn’t work the full way, or you just forget about it and don’t finish it. So I found that I was able to finish songs better if I started on guitar, wrote all the words and melodies, took it into the computer, and figured out how I wanted to produce it.”
Perhaps most importantly, through making “Close to the Sun,” Hsiang began to more fully sculpt a vision for his future pursuits in music.
“What helped with the album was realizing more about what Public Library Commute is, and I see it as a full band — touring with a band and playing the songs live and giving them that life.”
In keeping with this vision, Hsiang mentioned that he looks forward to getting shows on the books where Public Library Commute is the headliner. In the meantime, he has also been doing plenty of writing this Fall, indicating that he has no plans of slowing down in the post-album atmosphere. He noted that some of the music he’s been working on could be headed for a Jan. 2024 release.
Ultimately, for someone who never expected to find himself where he is today, Conrad Hsiang has certainly come close to the sun, and it’s clear that the prospects for Public Library Commute will take him far beyond.
—Staff writer Kieran J. Farrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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