Keshi is lounging on a couch backstage before his second of two New York City performances, as hundreds of fans line up outside Webster Hall and another hundred-or-so stand by his greenroom following a meet-and-greet with the star.
He’s surrounded by admirers on his Hell/Heaven Tour–people who explain to him that his journey means something to them. But in between it all, he tells me about his (occasional) dreams of throwing his phone into the ocean and fleeing fame.
“Nobody could find me. I would never respond to anyone. If you guys put trackers on me, I would take them out of my skin,” he tells SPIN, decked out in an all-black ensemble with two large strands of his hair covering his face. “But then I think, ‘Oh, if I go to a restaurant, or go shopping somewhere, would people still recognize me, even if I dropped off the grid?’ The answer is yes. And thus, the trades that I’ve made are permanent.”
Permanent is an understatement when it comes to the trades that the 27-year-old Houston native, born Casey Luong, made to benefit his still-sprouting career. Before his music took off in 2018 thanks to a few lo-fi R&B SoundCloud drops, he was working as an oncology nurse at Texas Medical Center. At the time, he was a newcomer with a breezy voice and the ability to hone in on multiple instruments, occasionally allowing his fans to see part of his creative process. The Keshi alias that he made for himself to release music independently and anonymously left the labels calling, specifically Island Records which he signed with in 2019. That’s when he decided to pack it up and make those permanent moves to put aside his medical dreams in favor of touring the world–much where we find him at Webster Hall.
“I’ve been in such a state of trying to prove myself to a lot of people and trying to win people over,” he says. “But when I get out there, and I see the fans, and they’re screaming lyrics back, and I can see their mouths… you realize they’re just trying to enjoy their time off. And this is their reason for surviving that week. They were waiting for this kind of moment. And it’s so fulfilling to be that for them.”
Being on the road, Keshi shares, is still something he and his band are getting acquainted with. His profile has only risen since the top of the pandemic. Prior to the New York date, he explains he was feeling burnt out alongside bandmates, and admittedly it took some convincing to remind himself that he’s lucky to have “that kind of a problem.” “And when I think about how long I’ve been dreaming of these moments and these nights, I was just like, ‘I just have to make a public statement about being grateful so that I can like kind of internalize it again.’”
On stage, Keshi pulled out all the stops, from the happy birthday wishes (and full-blown performances of it), to humbly denying requests to decide on tattoos for fans, and to the occasional guitar solo, of course. The way he puts it, he’s juggling being in an “idol” role, basically a glammed-out celebrated frontman, and a “studio rat” who loves to mess around on the keys and guitar. “I’m trying to find a marriage of the two things. It’s about finding moments in the music.”
With his years-in-the-making debut album GABRIEL, which arrived in March, Keshi hopes both sides of him shine equally. The album touches on his longing for love, familial relationships, and feeling overwhelmed from time to time, and was named after Keshi’s future first-born son–because who wouldn’t want to name an album like they’d name a child?
And to get GABRIEL to the 12-song chilled-out trip that it soon became, led by single “SOMEBODY,” Keshi did his homework by listening to lists of the greatest albums of all time. “I was just like, ‘What the fuck?’ There was no pattern here,” he describes the experience. “But that was the answer. There is no real answer to having a great record. You can’t really control it, you can try your best to manifest one. But like, at the end of the day, it’s about doing whatever is the most [like] you. No concern for anything else, or anyone else. And if you can, conjure that up.”
Keshi’s career is a result of taking leaps–sometimes on stage–when the right opportunities arise. And while audiences are still learning about who he is and what he represents as both an idol and an overall musician, he’s taking it all in himself, too. “At the shows, you realize they’re just trying to enjoy their time off. And this is their reason for surviving that week. They were waiting for this kind of moment. It’s so fulfilling to be that for them.”