“sundial,” named after the earliest time-keeping device, is a duo formed by Dorothy Chan and Jisu Kim as freshmen in college. And music has been a timepiece in their relationship. In 2016, they released “your text,” which quickly gained popularity and remains a fan favorite with over 26 million streams on Spotify.
Since then, they have continued blended their classical piano (Chan) and cello (Kim) backgrounds with acoustic guitar, bass guitar and drums to achieve their sound. A sound, they say, isn’t limited by genre but instead mixes multiple to provide listeners with a sensory experience.
In June 2023, they released their newest track, “the american dream.” It is a song that combines music that has been such a fundamental part of their lives and relationship with lyrics that address their experiences growing up Asian in America.
Before their performance at the Chinatown International District Block Party, I sat down with Chan and Kim to discuss making music together as a couple. And how it felt to finally write “the american dream.”
Patheresa Wells: How did the two of you come together to form sundial?
Dorothy Chan: We met freshman year of college in Berklee College of Music and started dating then. Shortly after, I think the semester after, we were like let’s go to the practice rooms and try to make something. And then we started jamming like typical music students…And we said, let’s put up a song on SoundCloud for fun. At that time, we didn’t have a name for ourselves. So we were eating Chinese food takeout one night, and we’re like, let’s think of a name for us…We liked the idea of nature and time and representing that. And we were trying to think of a name about that. And he [Kim] suggested Sundial.
PW: How would you describe your sound to someone who hasn’t listened to your music before?
Jisu Kim: It’s hard to pinpoint because we don’t exactly have a genre as of right now. We don’t want to confine ourselves to a genre… I think someone said once it was bubblegum pop. And I think that’s the best way to put it. I think it’s a very tactile experience of listening to music… we definitely put a lot of emphasis on the sensory…
PW: Can you share how your individual musical backgrounds contribute to Sundial’s sound?
DC: Yeah. I grew up playing a lot of classical piano since I was like five. And then I picked up I discovered Taylor Swift in sixth grade. And I was songwriting— singing. So, I started writing songs and producing my own stuff on Logic when I was in high school. I had my own SoundCloud page, and I would just post my songs there. So, I think my style is more leaning toward singer-songwriter.
JK: I definitely have more of an emo route. Learning to play guitar, learning to sing, listening to a lot of indie stuff… and then listening to Skrillex and going, how did he do that? And then looked up YouTube tutorials, then learned and picked up producing from there. I feel our diverse backgrounds definitely contributes a lot to our lack of care for what genre we’re in. And more focus on the music and making sure that the production supports the lyrics rather than trying to craft the same thing over and over and over again.
PW: So you are bandmates and partners. You even write songs like “Sometimes I Hate You” about your relationship. How does this dynamic add to your creative process?
DC: I feel it allows us to be more vulnerable with each other because we’re so close, we’re with each other all the time and we know each other so well. I think it allows us to get deeper with each other. Because normally I don’t really like to talk about my feelings like that. And I feel doing this job together opens up a path for us to be closer as partners and works vice versa as well.
PW: Let’s talk about your new song, “the american dream.” You posted on Instagram saying, “we’ve tried to make a song about our experiences being Asian in America for so long, and this one finally felt right.” Why do you think it took so long to get this song right?
JK: It’s one of my favorite songs that we’ve ever made. It’s [about] when you’re talking about the experience of growing up as a minority… Because, at least for me, I grew up in America, not looking like most of the kids down here in Georgia. It was an awakening moment for me to realize, oh my God, I’m not white… And then from there, looking back on my race and trying to figure out where I fit in all this…
It’s different when you think something of yourself and then you say it out loud… so to actualize that to myself and to try to put it down into a simple song that has deep meaning into it, I feel like was a process that wanted to be careful about. Because we’ve never in our history talked about a race, talked about how that affects us, talked about our identity in such a way where we wanted to do it justice…to craft a world and a story that I feel is a common story. But to also not necessarily empower, but hopefully, in sharing my story, I’m not the only one alone in this.
DC: Yeah. And I think for me, it took a long time to write, mainly because it took a long time to process those feelings. So I feel the song is just a vessel for these feelings. Once it’s been marinated long enough, it kind of transforms itself into a song itself. I feel it was a lot of internal reflection and conversations that we would have with each other about this topic. And I think the song finally found itself when we figured out what we felt, were comfortable with [and] knew how to articulate it.
PW: How does it feel now that the song is reaching audiences?
DC: It was really nerve-wracking at first because it’s something that’s super vulnerable and I was worried that nobody would relate to it. I was ready to be like it’s fine if no one relates to it but it was actually the opposite. We received a lot of messages from fans. And fans that have never messaged us [saying] hey, I never messaged people, but this song resonated with me. And I never felt there was a song out there that spoke about the identity crisis you feel in your twenties as an immigrant and as a person of color. It feels nice to be able to offer that voice to people who need it. Because we definitely needed to write it because it was super therapeutic for us. So it’s nice that it’s not ours anymore and it can help others.
PW: You will be performing at Seattle’s Chinatown International Block Party. Have you ever been to the CID in Seattle before?
JK: No, never in Seattle. I didn’t even really know that they had a formal Chinatown.
PW: Is there anything specific you’re looking forward to during the event?
JK: Food. Food is the first thing.
DC: Yeah. I’m really excited about the food. And we’re so honored to be invited to play and represent.
PW: Is there anything you want attendees to know about the upcoming performance and what they can expect?
JK: We might play some new songs.
DC: Yeah. We play a lot of songs that we haven’t ever played.