On Gabriel, Singer-Songwriter Keshi Melds Two Sides of Himself

The up-and-coming musician has gained millions of fans by tapping his own heartbreak, rebirth, and roots.

by Kelly Nguyen

Portrait of Keshi in a leather jacket
Keshi photographed by Kenji Chong

The end goal of sudoku is cut and dry: use the numbers 1 to 9 to fill in a grid of missing digits. According to the singer-songwriter Keshi, the logic and numbers puzzle is a lot like music-making. “You get clues and bits and pieces of where things are supposed to go. And then once you finish the whole puzzle, there’s the sigh of relief—like euphoria,” Keshi tells W during a Zoom call from New York, right before his first rehearsal for his Hell/Heaven tour. “It’s like your child has just been born. So the first time [music-making] happened? I was on top of the world.”

The game of sudoku is emblematic of Keshi himself. He has always been one to make measured moves, weighing the pros and cons of each and every decision—even if the hurdles he has to overcome don’t always lead to straightforward solutions. On his latest album, Gabriel, which was released on March 25, the up-and-coming artist looks to his own journey in love and life for inspiration. As he mines his own emotions, he poses a challenge to not only himself, but also the listener: how does one sit with the inner workings of humanity, even if its complexities threaten to consume you?

Validating others’ heartache has gained Keshi over 5.3 million listeners on Spotify and 1.3 million Instagram followers. With his loyal, rapidly growing fanbase, it’s difficult to believe he was an oncology nurse not too long ago, torn between the stability of the 9-to-5 grind or the fragile artistic dreams he wasn’t sure would become reality.

Born Casey Luong, Keshi grew up in the suburbs of Houston, Texas. After picking up his grandfather’s guitar at 13 (despite his mother’s many protests), he taught himself how to play, and fell in love with the intricacies of songwriting, mixing, and producing. Before the 27-year-old was working with YSL for his tour looks and selling out Los Angeles’s Fonda Theater and Webster Hall in New York, he wrestled with dual identities. How could he balance the worlds of Casey, the person, and Keshi, the artist?

Following his graduation from the University of Texas at Austin, he fulfilled many of the roles Casey was expected to achieve. His Vietnamese immigrant parents disapproved of music, so Casey got a job as an oncology nurse. Yet, there was still the unshakeable voice in his head, refusing to let his passion wane. After Casey’s shifts at the hospital would end, he’d immediately morph into Keshi. He posted music on SoundCloud under the moniker—born from a nickname coined by his fiancé’s parents. Compartmentalizing his identities made it easier to bare his soul on wax. Joining SoundCloud was the spark that would later explode into a conflagration of music-industry moves.

Soon, he gained fans after submitting his first song, “If You’re Not the One for Me Who Is,” to a small subreddit’s monthly music competition—and winning the contest outright. With his consistent SoundCloud presence, he grew his fanbase from just 500 Instagram followers to millions of dedicated members, catching the eye of his current label, Island Records in the process. He flew out to New York in 2019 to perform for executives in the hope of getting signed. After winning them over and securing a record deal, he quit his job.

Leaving nursing caused Keshi to question whether he was on the right path. He explains that while not knowing how to speak Vietnamese gave him a unique relationship with his identity, many aspects of Vietnamese culture, like collectivism, are still deeply embedded within him—and these same insecurities about leaving home still consume him to this day. “I am nervous about my future, for sure. Because the idea of it used to be so simple. It was like, work 9 to 5, have kids, come home, play the guitar when I’m bored,” Keshi says. “But now, I see the tip top of a mountain that I have the opportunity to climb up. And there’s this pressure on me to do it, because I can see the top.”

When Keshi’s world becomes wrought with chaos and uncertainty, he locks himself in his studio and turns to music. The artist wrote most of Gabriel in his home studio in Houston, where he scrutinized every single aspect of the creation process until he began feeling stuck. But his producer, Elie Rizk, with whom Keshi traded producing and writing hats on the project, told him to simply treat the work like a diary and, perhaps most importantly, have fun.

Throughout Gabriel, Keshi delves deep into his evolution as an artist and examines his new world as a musician on the cusp of worldwide domination. He looks at his journey and contemplates the moments where he had to give up his “privacy, personal time, mental health.” “Angel”—a favorite track of his—sees the musician completely vulnerable, with his soft, floating whispers begging for solace. “It captures the ethos of the record and a lot of the romanticism I like to write about,” Keshi says.

Keshi made it a point to include the people who ground him most on Gabriel. His father happily participated on the track “Père,” in which he openly recalls his journey immigrating to the U.S. It was jarring for Keshi to not only experience his parents’ change of heart regarding his career, but also create a newfound understanding between them. “I don’t really have that kind of relationship with my dad—where we are open with our feelings or our emotions,” Keshi explains. “So to hear him be [so honest about] his mental and emotional state, when he was younger, moving from Vietnam to the States…it was really sobering for me.”

Presently, Keshi’s goals have “rescaled.” He’s thinking of bigger tours and continuing to make music that “outlive[s] and outlast[s]” him. What does Keshi want people to remember when they hear his name? “I want them to think about an artist who is unyielding in the art that they want to make,” he says. “Someone whose music always has a certain standard of quality—that they can put on any song whenever they want to, that they can continue to listen to time and time again.”