Charlene Kaye is a New York City-based singer-songwriter most widely known for her solo career under the name KAYE, through which she uses rock music to break away from the cultural structures and conservative ideals that constricted her as a first-generation Chinese American. Kaye has always had a natural tendency towards artistic expression; before she became a touring musician, she recalls singing songs alone in her room all the time while growing up. “I still do that!” she adds with a chuckle.
Now, Kaye has her eyes set on a new form of artistry—comedic storytelling. Kaye’s Tiger Daughter is a one-person comedy show that gives audience members a new perspective into the “tiger mother” trope, as told through the story of Kaye and her “outrageous, unfiltered” mother. After multiple sold-out shows in New York, Kaye most recently brought Tiger Daughter to Los Angeles. Following this performance, Kaye spoke with us on her new pivot into comedy, her “Asian trauma off” with mentor and fellow comedian Dylan Adler, and the intense sound of her upcoming album.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Jalen Jones: Tiger Daughter was so lovely! Given your long-standing music career, what motivated you to put on a one-person comedy show at this time in your life?
Charlene Kaye: Oh man, I've been a musician for my entire life. I was part of this group called San Fermin for five years, and when I left that band, I was interested in expanding my creativity in different ways. I ended up taking a Zoom acting class over the pandemic…I thought of it as a safe way to explore acting, which I was kind of terrified of doing, but also very interested in. I have [long been] interested in acting, but always was deferred by my family or the culture that said that people who look like me don't do that.
We're both so similar, and yet so different, because we come from such different upbringings. Being able to do this kind of love letter to her, and the push and pull of our relationship over the years, it's been very gratifying.
In that acting class I ended up really connecting with my teacher. When things started to open back up again, the class translated into a live, in-person setting at the William Esper Studio in Manhattan. I just graduated from that program a month ago, but while I was in my last semester I had an actor friend who reached out to me. She asked if there was anything I was working on that I was interested in showcasing for Ars Nova, and I realized I've always wanted to tell a story about my mom and the tension that's been in our relationship, and my struggle to assert my independence as a performer and artist. My mom is an outrageous, unfiltered person. I've been telling stories about her to my friends my entire life, and I knew there must’ve been a way to consolidate all of these funny stories that are also kind of tragic [into art]. We're both so similar, and yet so different, because we come from such different upbringings. Being able to do this kind of love letter to her, and the push and pull of our relationship over the years, it's been very gratifying.
JJ: Has your mom watched the show?
CK: No, I think it would be too much of a distraction for her to be there in these developing stages. But I am going to visit her soon. And when I do, I'm going to watch the show with her. I want her to experience it without being self conscious [while performing], because it is such a tender thing. But I'm excited.
JJ: You mentioned developing stages. Do you see this show turning into something bigger?
CK: Yeah, in my pipe dreams for this show it would become an Off Broadway or Broadway show, or a Netflix or HBO special—something like that. Because [Tiger Daughter] is such a contained story, I can do sections of it as standalone standup, but I think that it has an emotional arc to it that's best served in the hour-long format. I've worked on it a lot with my director, Jennifer Monaco, who has been so helpful in giving it structure and a story. I'm really proud of it as a piece.
The whole core of [being] an artist is to be vulnerable, and to expose your experiences, both joyful and painful, so that people can feel less alone. I've always felt a very strong calling to do that.
JJ: It was definitely a very tender and vulnerable show; I commend you for being able to put that on, and twist it into something funny and enjoyable for everybody. Because of its extreme tenderness and vulnerability, did you ever have any hesitancy in including certain segments?
CK: Yeah, I mean, I've developed it quite a bit at this point, and have found out what works and what doesn't, what's too personal, and what feels fun and appropriate to share. I really like sharing things and that's part of what the show is—that [my mom] doesn't understand why I want to express myself sexually in my music. She doesn't understand why I need to curse. She doesn't understand why I write autobiographically about my relationships and my songs, because that puts you out there in a vulnerable position. But the whole core of [being] an artist is to be vulnerable, and to expose your experiences, both joyful and painful, so that people can feel less alone. I've always felt a very strong calling to do that. It's part of who I am. It's part of why we clash, and I can completely understand [my mom’s] perspective on why it's dangerous and scary to reveal that much of yourself. You could be hurt by it. But that's a risk that you have to take when expressing yourself and creating.
JJ: We need to talk about the “Asian trauma off” you had with Dylan Adler—that was hilarious!
CK: Oh my god, Dylan will be so happy to hear that.
JJ: How long have you been working with Dylan?
CK: So Dylan and I met in 2020, over the Internet because it was pandemic times. I just responded to one of his reels, because he's constantly creating sketches and impressions on Instagram and on TikTok. I just DM-ed him and I was like, “I am such a big fan of yours. I think you're so funny.” He was like, “Oh my God, I'm such a big fan of yours. I've been listening to your music for a long time.” We got lunch when everything was shut down, which was really sweet. I've seen him perform a bunch, and I can't say enough good things about him. I'm so in awe of him as a performer, as someone who's able to channel joy and silliness and absurdity into his work. He's actually been a big mentor for me while entering this comedy space. He's been more than generous with his time and his talent, and the conversations that we've had as I've entered this world, because I never saw myself as a comedian. I’m still not a comedian in the traditional sense, of like, someone who does stand-up. I entered the [stand-up comedy] space because I had a very specific story to tell. And I created it as a storytelling hour that happens to be comedic. But, you know, I just adore [Dylan]. He's one of my favorite people to collaborate with.
And he had a “tiger brother,” too. [laughs]
JJ: We're gonna have an entire tiger family at this point.
CK: A tiger chosen family!
JJ: How about your music career, are you putting that on pause as you venture into comedy? Or are you moving forward with that as well?
CK: Well I'm doing it all. I don't know how I'm doing it, but I'm actually in the studio this week recording new music! Super excited about it. I've been doing music for so long, and I’m not doing it anymore with any expectation that I'm going to be like a huge pop star. I have a devoted following, and I'm committed to making stuff with them. I'm committed to chronicling my entire life, and telling the story of these chapters in a way that feels true and honest to me. I want to look back on those records and feel what I was going through. Music is so special, in that you can hear a song and you're instantly transported back to that experience. I am so grateful to have that as a tool of self reflection and posterity.
JJ: Is this work towards an upcoming album?
CK: I think it's gonna be an album. It's pretty intense. It's a lot of screaming—hardcore, industrial rock. Very Nine Inch Nails-inspired. I can't wait to make more [music].
JJ: And is there anything else on the horizon for Charlene Kaye, beyond music?
CK: I have a very exciting acting project that I'm not allowed to talk about, but look out for that. I've got a lot of things percolating. So just keep your eyes peeled.
Kaye continues with her tour of Tiger Daughter, with her next performance being on Aug. 25 at the iO Theater.
Stay updated with Charlene Kaye through her Instagram @charlenekaye.
Published on August 1, 2023
Words by Jalen Jones
Jalen Jones is a Black and Filipino writer, poet, director, and all around creative who came of age in Eagle Rock and the greater Los Angeles county. Over the years, he has hosted a children’s workout DVD series, directed an Emmy Award-winning public service announcement, and produced the NAACP Image Award nominated short film, The Power of Hope. Passionate about portraying the real, the unpinpointable, and the almost-unsayable, Jalen has published a wide array of poetry and creative work that lands on these very discoveries. More than anything, he hopes to build a house out of words that can make anyone and everyone feel like they belong. Find him on Instagram @jalen_g_jones and online at jalen-jones.com.