Photography by The Skullhound
Connie Hong used to be a middle school choir teacher in the suburbs of Aurora, Colorado when she started writing songs for Ivory Circle, an indie/alternative band based in Denver, CO.
Ivory Circle creates a sound as unique as it is precise, electrifying and passionate, complete with lush strings, harmonic layers, and pulsing drumbeats, interwoven between the piano and vocal lines that give them their trademark sound.
Get to know Connie and the rest of the band in our interview with her below.
Can you start off by describing your music and let us know who your band members are?
We get comparisons to bands like Florence + the Machine and Portishead (although I’m not very familiar with Portishead so I don’t know if this is a good or bad reference). If I had to describe our music in so many terms, I would say Ivory Circle strives to create a soundscape with lush instrumentation and cinematic vibes to compliment soulful and heartfelt vocal melodies.
Right now, Ivory Circle is comprised of Chris Beeble (bass, guitar, producer/engineer), Rob Spradling (percussion), and me—Connie Hong (vocals and piano). When we play live shows, we’ll sometimes hire an additional guitarist and/or percussionist but we play most of our acoustic shows as a 3-piece.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey as a musician. How did it all begin?
I don’t know if anyone can tell that my biggest musical influence growing up was probably Mariah Carey and her entire catalogue of albums up to 1998. I was obsessed with singing when I was little and would daydream about getting to learn an instrument, someday. When I was nine, my parents and I moved to a neighborhood where my elementary school had an after-school choir and an orchestra, so naturally, I was in heaven. I joined the choir, started playing the viola, and took piano lessons from my music teacher all in one year. Since then, I was obsessed with playing the piano and singing anything—I loved show tunes, Disney soundtracks, top 40, jazz, etc. I started writing songs when I was 12 and taught myself how to play basic chords so I could accompany myself. I was really active in choir and music in high school and studied music in college. I always knew I wanted to be a musician—I just had no clue what kind of musician I wanted to be, so I pursued teaching until I knew. I definitely don’t recommend that route for everyone.
From left to right: Rob Spradling, Connie Hong, and Chris Beeble
As a musician, how have you developed from those early years into who you are now?
I would say I'm more confident now. I used to have a really hard time collaborating with other songwriters because it was so hard for me to stand my ground or give any suggestion. I also had difficulty playing a new song for anyone because I was so afraid they wouldn’t like it or think I wasn’t talented. I struggled quite a bit with facing my fear of how people would respond to my songs, even to the point where I would write songs in a certain style because I was too afraid of going too “weird” or that no one would appreciate my voice because it didn’t really sound like voices that I’ve heard on the radio.
It’s such a vulnerable process and even though I still may be insecure about those things to a point, I am definitely no longer in a place where I seek validation through the opinions of others. I know how to write for my voice now and to speak up for myself when I feel really passionate about the direction of a song—I’ve learned to have more confidence in my vision because I’ve experienced what happens when you don’t. I’ve been fortunate to work with talented people who really care about the quality of the outcome so I’ve realized it’s actually a disservice to everyone involved when you start to let that go, whether you’re recording multiple takes in the studio or you’re going through the final mixes of a song. I’d say some of our best work as Ivory Circle came out of a disagreement Chris and I had over a song that turned into something even better because it forced us to prioritize what we wanted out of the project and be more creative in accomplishing our goals.
Does anything else that stick out to you as a formative/challenging moment as you’ve journeyed further into music?
It’s been a challenge to maintain a balance between being focused and simultaneously open to a new path or opportunities. I look back on how often the vision for our band has changed and it’s important to remember that’s ok. So many people have different opinions on how things should be-- what we should be doing now, where we should be, what our next step should be, etc. I think it’s good to listen because a lot of these opinions are coming from people we really respect, but I think it’s imperative that we keep an open hand because the music world/industry is changing constantly and what works for one artist may not work for another.
I think as a band, we’re really embracing that, which is exciting, because it keeps us eager and it keeps our creative muscles going. It’s empowering to recognize that, now more than ever, it’s possible for us to forge our own path.
What does music mean to you? Why do you write it?
I have a tendency to live inside of my head quite a bit. Writing for me is definitely a form of therapy as a way to process my thoughts. There’s a reason why there are more songs about breakups, love, trauma, or anything else significant rather than songs about an ordinary day. I journal sometimes but even doing that, it feels like my thoughts are hindered by how fast my hand can write out the words and it can be very frustrating.
When I sit at a piano, it’s like, I can express what I feel not just with words but through my entire body. You know how they say one picture is worth a thousand words? One song can convey so much with so little. It’s melody, harmony, chords, words, tone, mood,instrumentation, dynamics… all at once. I love that. Music has so much power to recall certain emotions or to transport us back in time. It can be simple or complex. And it exists only because we made it.
Can you explain a little bit about your songwriting process?
Usually, my songwriting starts when I sit down at the piano. I’ll usually take several minutes to improvise, where I’ll literally sing nonsense to a random chord progression or several chord progressions. If I have a general idea or theme in mind, I’ll sing about that and eventually I’ll sing a line or chorus that really sticks out to me. I’ll write an entire song around that line or chorus. Sometimes I’ll write an entire song on the spot. Sometimes I’ll end up combining two different songs into one. Sometimes it takes me several days and sometimes I never come back to the song at all. Occasionally, I’ll get random lyric ideas and I’ll write them down in my notebook or in a note on my phone. There’s no real rhyme or reason to the process but I try to make it a priority to be aware of when inspiration strikes, even when I’ve just woken up and am still in bed or driving home late at night in my car.
With Ivory Circle, I usually write the songs completely alone, so the songs are written with piano and vocals before I send them to Chris. Then, Chris and I work collaboratively on the pre-production of a song, working out the instrumentation together before we head to the studio. Sometimes he’ll work on ideas on his own and present them to me, so we have a mixture of this type of back-and-forth until we can come to a consensus before we actually lay anything down in the studio.
Do you connect to Denver’s music scene at all? How does living in Denver affect your songs, if at all?
I don’t feel as connected as I used to be. The older I get, the harder it seems to keep up with. But I’m definitely aware of some incredible music being made in Denver. It’s hard to say if living here has affected my songs… I mean, I grew up here, so it’s obviously left some sort of impact. I guess when I think about it, the fact that Denver is such a transient city—I’ve become used to getting to know people and watching them move away. I’ve written a lot of songs about longing to be somewhere else, so maybe being a constant witness to people moving here or away has affected me on a subconscious level, but I can’t say for sure.