Vincent Van Gogh once said, “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”
If my memory serves me right, the first time I saw Alfa perform was at an open mic in our native New Jersey. The Garden State lived up to its moniker, cultivating a diverse lineage of musicians: home to R&B legends The Fugees and Whitney Houston, to rock royalty the likes of Bruce Springsteen and (my all-time karaoke favorite) Bon Jovi.
It was 2004, my sophomore year of high school. I recall walking down the steps to a local church basement. While the room was cold and damp, the energy was warm and exciting. Christmas lights adorned the ceilings. The aroma of burnt coffee and Philippine baked goods permeated the room. Albeit my first open mic, oddly enough, it felt like a homecoming.
True affirmation would take hold as I eagerly awaited the show. A pleasant surprise to say the least, these were people that looked just like me, creating the music I wanted to listen to (and ultimately create myself). Among those performers was John-Flor Sisante, with shades of Ben Gibbard’s lyricism. He was indie before indie was in fact… indie. Jay Legaspi, with the musicality of Mraz and Mayer. Matt Sia, whose folk and classic rock stylings invoked a timeless sound. And among these standouts, stood the only girl on the lineup. With short, almost pixie-like hair. Acoustic guitar in tow. She surely held her own, and then some. Truly memorable to say the least.
Alfa began her musical journey at a young age, with an unbridled passion for classical. She would soon find solace through the piano and violin, influences that can be heard throughout her discography. Upon reaching high school, her grandfather would give her the guitar which would shape her very first songs. (Some of these songs are still my favorites tracks; Meaningless Conversation and Footnote bring me back to my college days in an instant!)
This new venture would continue to grow throughout school and beyond. After earning a degree from NYU, multiple musical releases, and countless performances, Alfa would soon take her trajectory westward: Los Angeles, to be exact. While some may see this as a drastic change or cultural stretch, she embraced the similarities wholeheartedly. The big move for her was a means to step back, reflect, and reassess: something she claims all artists must do. “[Artists] understand the importance of processing experiences,” she said. “Not just living life, but having that takeaway. And building something from there.”
Like many of today’s top Asian American performers, Kollaboration has held a near and dear part of her history. One of her first performances in Los Angeles was at Kollaboration 10, which featured the acclaimed win by fellow singer/songwriter Clara C. Years later, Alfa sees Kollaboration as a central hub for Asian American entertainment. “It’s become more of a support system, but with national reach. The alumni have become more like a fraternity of artists, with new friends and talent every year!”
“You don’t find success if you’re trying to fit into a very specific mold. Success is beyond what’s monetary. It comes from your own personal reward and fulfillment.”
As our conversation came to a close, Alfa offered these wise words of advice for aspiring artists. Coming from a small scope and even smaller town, she described the importance of paving your own path and developing your art forward. “You don’t find success if you’re trying to fit into a very specific mold,” she said. “Success is beyond what’s monetary. It comes from your own personal reward and fulfillment.”
Alfa and I have had the pleasure of sharing a musical friendship, spanning almost 10 years in the making. Her musical journey has been a patient one. A big undertaking. A gradual chipping away. Taking her from coast to coast. From The Highline Ballroom in New York City to The Troubadour in West Hollywood. And it’s sure been a beautiful thing.
FOR FANS OF: Ingrid Michaelson, Sara Bareilles… and all things Indie, Pop, Folk
PERFECT FOR: Early morning flights to LA, people-watching as you pass terminals
Tune in to Alfa on Matt Pana’s LIKEWISE Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher Radio and MattPana.com!
Photos courtesy of Wonho Frank Lee and Rosana Liang.