“Do you like American music? I like American music. Don’t you like American music, baby?”
When the Violent Femmes asked this question 25 years ago, it was either rhetorical or laced with irony. When John Chao calls Misha’s second LP All We Will Become a celebration of his American roots, it speaks to his homeland’s inherent optimism and promise: it’s a breaking of boundaries rather than an erection of walls; a fearless, passionate exchange rather than appropriation, transmuting tragedy into transcendence. Most importantly, it shows that these domestic qualities are truly universal - Chao’s wide embrace of musical styles and pan-religious joy expresses that All We Will Become is, above all, a love story.
Though he’s surrounded by new collaborators and friends—in particular, Ronit Granot contributes vocals to eight tracks—All We Will Become remains Chao’s story. “The band is basically me,” is not hyperbole: Chao plays guitar, bass, strings, accordion, percussion, keyboards, synth programming and a host of other instruments. And the fact that his story is so American makes All We Will Become acknowledge our current national psyche while remaining hopeful and heart-on-sleeve. It’s a state of being overwhelmed by a clash of ideas, constant conversations and intellectualizing of simple pleasures. Throughout all of it, maybe things won’t be the same, but we’ll come out the other side anew. “Nothing truly ends, it just takes different forms,” Chao shares. “Every song takes a different stage of life - exuberant awesomeness, sadness, enlightenment and being at peace.”
For all of its celebratory sonics, All We Will Become is borne of profound loss - the dissolution of the romantic and artistic partnership responsible for his 2007 debut Teardrop Sweetheart, and the death of his grandmothers. “This album is about life beginning to end, and relationships beginning to end,” according to Chao. However, the narrative arc draws on his Buddhist upbringing to consider how loss can inspire reincarnation even amongst the living. These are the principles that drove the second line music he would hear in New Orleans, a sound that’s meant to be celebratory and mournful at the same time.
But this is just a part of the story. Chao does represent a particularly modern American experience: born to a staunch feminist in the liberal hotbed of Wellesley College during the ‘70s, Chao spent his childhood globe-trotting through Hong Kong, Taiwan and Germany. He also spent formative years in bleeding red states, attending school in Houston, spending time in New Orleans, and working in other deeply Louisiana towns like Lake Charles and Metairie. While his parents encouraged him to become a classically trained musician, his surroundings exposed him to Los Lobos, zydeco and country music. He consumed Steve Ray Vaughn, ZZ Top and Lyle Lovett as a kid and rediscovered gamelan music in college. He questions the idea of what “roots rock” even entails:
“My America is the cross influence of ZZ Top and R D Burman from my college roommates, a ton of Indians who lived in Houston, and my grandfather’s Chinese records. But then you’d step out and hear tejano music everywhere, all of it intersecting.”
Chao points to the commonality: “all of these styles are connected, through the feeling of pop and through melody.” This is the throughline of All We Will Become, which Chao describes simply as “pop with unexpected influences.” This was also true of Teardrop Sweetheart, though Chao admits his aim there was more scattered.
“This album feels much more like a statement about the music I truly love - and how it makes us feel. I’m stretching more musically, but in an attempt to communicate something that’s universal.”
Chao let his friends and collaborators in on the process of making All We Will Become. It’s a bigger, brighter and bolder record compared to its predecessor and his American friends vindicated his vision by gravitating towards the big pop anthems - the mantra-like “Limelight,” “Lionbark (Luminous),” “Optical Illusion of the Heart.” They’re big pop anthems filtered through Chao’s sensibilities, while “You” infuses Bollywood rhythms into exuberant indie rock. Chinese percussion and harsh metallic clangor commingle on “We’re Gonna Have it Out (Modern Love)”, as “Optical Illusion of the Heart” nods towards post-punk introduced by a Texas high school drum corp. It’s all balanced with artier, conceptual influences: the subversive pop of Art of Noise, poets like Derek Walcott and Anne Carson, films like Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, the genre-spanning minimalism of John Adams and Philip Glass. But then there’s the melodic adventurousness of ascendant Beatles (specifically, “A Day in the Life”) and the coed tete-a-tete of Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac. These come to the fore on the woozy, New Orleans’ tinged “Elater,” “the one that struck a chord with my UK friends,” Chao laughs.
All of it is held together by Chao’s sweet, keening vocals and an unabashed transparency and honesty. There’s never any doubt you’re listening to Misha and whether he’s conveying his obscure or mainstream influences, Chao is never doing it with a wink.
“I always wonder if that was a shortcoming early on…. We were never ironic,”
he notes. There’s truth to it: Teardrop was released at the height of blog-house and American Apparel, a neon-lit time with a leering edge. Rather than a highbrow appreciator of low art, Chao is more aligned with the inverse, distinctly American juxtaposition of high art and populism: Kanye West’s forays into fashion, Lady Gaga’s costumery, and the post-everything aesthetics of tUnE-yArDs or Grimes. Chao calls Teardrop his European electronic record - it was workshopped in Germany with compatriots from the Tomlab and Kompakt labels, whereas thie one was recorded in his friends’ homes and family homes in Texas and New York, and mixed in Los Angeles by engineers who have worked on Beyonce and Autre Ne Veut albums. In the end, All We Will Become is an album about union and reunion, and Chao’s love story for the world.