Picture by Adella Guo, 2015.

Kai Ono; of Queens, New York is a multi-talented composer-pianist. Ono received recognition for his piece Everybody is with Everybody Else by Downbeat Magazine’s Undergraduate College Outstanding Composition for Big Band and the ASCAP Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composers Award. This piece was also performed at the famous Lincoln Center.

Additionally, Ono has joined TikTok imparting his wisdom and expertise on those wanting to learn piano. Kai recently released “QQ Baby” and “Galactic Incinerator Sublime” which can be found on all streaming platforms.

Mustard had the pleasure of interviewing Kai Ono and hopes you enjoy.

1. The color grey is very underappreciated. What about it makes it your favorite?

Isn’t it?! The color grey is about nuance to me. I love the complexity of the world and the color grey captures it perfectly – they don’t call it the “grey area” for nothing. That said, these days I hardly go out wearing much grey anymore – I realized that it makes me look old. I mean, look at this:

2. Who inspires you? (Both musically and personally)

It’s hard to come up with any great single person with this, and my immediate answer is going to be boring: it’s my friends. That said, I will say that what generally inspires me both musically and personally are less so people and more so social interactions. This is a whole can of worms of a topic for me, so I won’t ramble too much, but I care a lot less about identity than I do about interactions – a single person’s traits are only present when shown in the context of how they act with another person or being.

3. Describe playing a smaller house venue compared to a venue like The Lincoln Center.

Way prefer small venues. I like talking to the audience directly(not so possible with a huge venue like the Lincoln Center), taking requests, and I also do this thing often at concerts where I have the audience name off numbers and I make a song on the piano with the notes generated from those numbers. It’s fun.

4. You’ve stated in an interview you know how to play cello, clarinet, saxophone, and percussion. Do you incorporate these instruments into your repertoire?

Woah… you did your research. I so do wish I could incorporate these instruments in my repertoire, but I don’t own any of them right now! Back in high school, my school had these available for borrowing, so I would just spend breaks and lunch times picking up and learning them. I ended up learning more than that list but… yeah. Not gonna brag lol.

5. You love to laugh. Who or what makes you laugh?

Oh god, I’m into some really dumb shit in terms of humor. There’s this clip on VeggieTales that basically predicts modern humor, and I’d say it sums up a lot of the things I’m into. That said, laughter is also the expression of other strong emotions for me – when I see something really cute, I laugh(though in a different way than if something were funny). When I hear something mind-blowing in music, I laugh. There are probably more examples, but those are the two that immediately come to mind…

6. We met in your first live stream on TikTok. What song were you working on? 

Uh oh. That song was the song I meant to write start to finish during that live stream and eventually upload to TikTok but… I never finished it. At this point, I don’t know if I’ll be able to look back at my notes and understand what past Kai meant – those notes only retain their value for about a week… wups.

7. How has TikTok helped you?

A ton of ways, really. Having a platform for promotion is great for one, but it’s motivated me to create short songs and videos that I didn’t prioritize enough before. I’m making more than ever, and although I was initially worried about how much time I might waste scrolling through TikTok, I end up spending more time on creation than consumption, so that’s good I guess.

8. What advice would you give to musicians using TikTok?

Know what you want from the platform. People give advice in broad strokes about growth all the time, but the fact of the matter is that not everybody has the time or wants to make a ton of short videos every day – they may prioritize their own artistic brand/growing through streaming/time spent making music. Not everybody prioritizes growth absolutely over all else by a huge margin such that they’re willing to make sacrifices. If you’re a musician on tiktok, you need to first establish your boundaries in regard to how much you care about growth versus other things. Videos telling people they need to make 5 videos every day do nothing but stress people out.

9. What artists on TikTok do you have an interest in?

I really should be branching out and checking more artists out. Honestly, I just follow back most artists and that’s as far as my reach goes. There’s this one TikToker Chonky who makes a musical and aesthetic banger with literally every video she makes. It’s so sick. Other than that… let’s just say making stuff takes a lot of time and I try not to scroll too much.

10. You love things that fly. What flying things do you enjoy most?

Probably birds? Then flying mammals? Then kites? Then paper airplanes? Probably that’s the order?

11. You wrote a jingle for Mustard. What was that process like?

Whenever I make a song, I usually write lyrics and melody at roughly the same time, so it was different for your jingle. With that, I started by saying the words to myself several times to get a feel for which words I wanted to emphasize more. Surely, I should emphasize the word “mustard”, right? So yeah – I wrote it such that the song would emphasize that word. Besides that, I generally try to work fast, because when you work fast, you don’t have time to doubt yourself.

12. Could you describe your songwriting process?

Oh I sort of answered this question a bit already in that last one, didn’t I – well, I have some more to add. Songwriting usually starts with improvisation. I’ll sit at the piano and just play, improvising for 30 minutes to an hour. Nonstop. Even if I might not like what I’m playing, or even if what I’m playing is at one point not even an original, I timebox myself for this duration so that I don’t paralyze myself with judgement. After this timebox is up, I’ll go back and listen to my recording and pick out sections that I liked, and then improvise some more, this time improvising a bit more centered around that one idea I liked before. Eventually I’ll ask myself: “why is this the thing that came out of me musically?” and figure out my pathos at the time, which eventually guides me in a direction towards what I want to write the song about, then the melody+lyrics come.

13. Do you have any new music coming out? 

I do! I collaborated with a friend of mine JaMichael on a song called “Our Umbrella” that is dropping June 19th. We challenged ourselves to write this song in just 2 days, and like I was saying earlier about writing fast – good things come out for me generally when I write fast. This song in particular is about feeling exhausted with certain repetitive social interactions.

14. Where can readers find your music?

Most streaming platforms will have my stuff – Spotify/Apple Music/Amazon Music/Bandcamp/etc. It’s also on tiktok if you want to use it as a sound!


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