HomeAsian AmericansAmerica's pianist Chloe Flower Hearts Christmas

America’s pianist Chloe Flower Hearts Christmas

By Jia H. Jung, California Local News Fellow

Once upon a time, Chloe Flower was a lone Korean American kid growing up in a darn near all-White town in Pennsylvania.

Her family was not religious but went to Korean church at Christmas because it was the only place where any semblance of an Asian community could be found. 

The parties there were beyond compare – Flower started looking forward to the holiday all year, every year.

“We went all out with the mandu and we went all out with the jjigaes – people went all out for the Christmas week. And they also brought American Christmas foods. People would bring stuffing and ham and turkey as well. So I was like, stuffing kimchee and mashed potatoes and gochujang. It was so amazing,” she reminisced to AsAmNews, from a piano bench in her glassy downtown Manhattan high-rise apartment.

One year, when she was about 8, the congregation put her up on stage without warning and asked her to play some carols on a little keyboard.

By this time, Flower had already been training classically since she was two. She already knew she wanted to be a performer when she grew up and had a high bar for self-presentation. The perfectionist in her was displeased with the results of sight-reading on the spot. A tad traumatized, she eventually threw the music book down, stormed off the stage, and cried.

That was Flower’s first Christmas performance and her first experience with the spontaneity and chord progressions of popular music. As her tears fell, she thought to herself that she really needed to learn a Christmas repertoire and always have it in her back pocket.

Chloe Flower, Chloe Hearts Christmas, Korean Church
Chloe Flower’s first live performance when she was about 8, which happened impromptu at the Christmas service of a Korean church in Pennsylvania. Courtesy of Chloe Flower

Her own holiday album

About 30 years later, the musician, producer, and composer released Chloe Hearts Christmas on streaming platforms and CD. The artist’s debut full-length holiday album, out since Nov. 17, expands on her four-track Christmas With Chloe Flower EP from last year.

The 16-track collection sparkles and sparks with classical masterpieces like “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, traditional carols such as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and covers that include a new orchestral arrangement of “A Liberace Christmas and a rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” plus “Santa Tell Me” by Ariana Grande, “Snowman” by Sia, and “Where Are You Christmas,” which boasts Mariah Carey among its songwriters.

She also sprinkled in a medley from The Sound Of Music because she associates the whole movie and the merry singalongs it inspires with holiday cheer.

Drummer, record producer, DJ, music journalist, filmmaker, and actor Questlove played on several of the tracks. A friend of Flower’s who has collaborated with her multiple times, he is also a co-frontman of the revered hip-hop group The Roots, which has been the in-house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon for a decade and running.

Flower appeared on Fallon just last week in a chocolate-colored taffeta gown. She brought down the proverbial gingerbread house with a version of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” that was packed to the gills with live 808 bass beats and percussions provided by none other than The Roots.

Fingers loaded down with rocks but still flying over the ivories, she tossed her coveted hair at dramatic passages, crossed her legs, and looked coyly at the audience while vamping on the keys with one hand as the audience screamed.

After a triumphant finish, Fallon ran onto the stage to join her, shrieking, “Come on, now! Come on! That is how you do it!”

Creating the solo Christmas album she dreamt about for years has been the icing on the cake for an artist who has taken musicianship and visual curation to the limits as part of her unique “popsical” composition and performance style – a perfect storm of classical, pop, and hip-hop elements.

Since her breakout appearance as “Cardi B’s pianist” at the televised 2019 Flowers has continued writing her own ticket in the music and entertainment industry. She is a Steinway pianist, Sony Music Masterworks recording artist, music producer, fashion influencer, an award-winning music education advocate and global anti-sex trafficking warrior.

She has carved out a space where she can be more of a “both” instead of “either/or,” and be seen as herself instead of being sized up as a “fusion” of pre-existing categories and norms. Curiously analogous to being an Asian American child of immigrants.

Recently, she told People, “It’s scary when you’re doing something that you don’t have anybody to really look at and say, ‘Oh, that’s who I want to be just like.'”

Late piano legend Władziu Valentino Liberace, a son of Polish immigrants who became known around the world as “Mr. Showmanship” by being his inimitable self, was the closest thing Chloe had to representation when she was younger.

Liberace’s vibe resonated with Flower’s big energy and experimental tendencies – she chose him as her earliest role model.

Her most popular music video

The holiday season’s beloved tunes have provided some of the best opportunities for Flower to unleash her genre-defying, maximalist flair.

Three years ago, she released a standalone recording and music video of “Carol of the Bells” in late 2020 in collaboration with Babyface, a powerhouse producer who has been a career-altering mentor and friend of Flower’s for years.

Babyface wrote new lyrics to go with the Ukrainian classic and found a choir in Los Angeles to sing them. Behind the scenes, Flower mixed the L.A. vocals with additional contributions from choral artists in York City who had never been in the same room with the California singers. She also independently arranged, played, and edited each synthesized instrumental part of the music, from strings to horns to bells.

When it was time to make the music video, Flower became the last to film anything at the grand and ornate Grand Prospect Hall in South Brooklyn before the historic nightlife venue, once on the National Register of Historic Places, shut down.

The building already felt halfway haunted when she and the filming crew went in, atremble under strict pandemic lockdown protocols and changing countless lightbulbs with their bare hands.

The efforts were worth it. Flower said she was lucky to capture a bit of the hall’s legacy before it vanished into oblivion. And the video remains the most-viewed item on her official YouTube channel.

“Carol of the Bells” made it onto Chloe Hearts Christmas as the 10th track.

The creative process behind ‘Chloe Hearts Christmas’

She said that it took her longer to narrow down the selections for the album than to write the arrangements for them. First of all, there were so many works she wished she could have included that she is already fantasizing about a sequel Christmas album. Second, not all songs translate into a satisfying piano version.

Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas” was one example of a song that Flower really wanted to add but could not quite figure out.

A song that unexpectedly did work well as an instrumental version was “Christmas Tree,” sung by Kim Taehyung (V in K-pop boy band BTS) for the original soundtrack of the 2021 K-drama Our Beloved Summer.

Flower released her arrangement in September as a single to tease her upcoming album. She also posted a video as part of the At Home With Chloe Flower series that she produces on her own. Her social media accounts blew up afterward – V had put a clip from the video on his Instagram stories.

The spike in visibility was all part of Flower’s steady rise in American popular culture. The Cardi B moment will probably always be cited as the thing that put Chloe on the map even if she had already become well-known as a respected producer in the music scene.

That performance did more than bring Flower to the front and center – it helped validate to herself that instrumental pop-classical crossover music could stand on its own, that she should keep going.

Since then, she has noticed more instrumental performances in studios, on television, and on stage – something that is good for countless instrumentalists who might not have had the same performance opportunities before.

Since then, Flower has been on an endless streak of performances and media appearances. The 2022 Golden Globe Awards ceremony. The Magical Celebration of Disney with Ne-Yo and Becky G for the 2022 holidays. The Kennedy Center Honors in 2022 and this year. ABC’s Dancing With the Stars.

Chloe Flower promoting Chloe Hearts Christmas at The Dorchester in London in late November. Photo by Anhelina Holtarenko, aka "Angel Holt" Pianist, Korean American, Chloe Hearts Christmas
Chloe Flower promoting Chloe Hearts Christmas at The Dorchester in London in late November. Photo by Anhelina Holtarenko, aka “Angel Holt”

While promoting Chloe Hearts Christmas, she has had TV spots on ABC News Live Prime with Linsey Davis, CBS Morning with Nancy Chen, NBC’s TODAY Show, and the Hollywood Christmas Parade on the CW. She also flew to her old stomping grounds in London, where she once attended music school, to headline shows at The Dorchester, a five-star hotel.

Chloe’s outsized charisma and visual appeal attract the limelight. She is an objectively talented, dynamic virtuoso with stunning looks and fashion sense, whose drive, positivity, and conscientious personality has led to being able to count celebrities, models, human rights leaders, and New York City-based designers Phillip Lim and Prabal Gurung among her close circles.

Championing diverse artists and new ideas

Flower has said before that her outgoing presentation and emphasis on visuals are extensions of the thoughts and emotions behind her playing that she cannot use lyrics to express.

Her official “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” video features Russian bourgeoisie fashion excess and even snow. These polished effects are the convergence of behind-the-scenes work ethic and perfectionism with vision and intentionality about who she wants to work with.

Flower said she goes out of her way to team up with people who are different, and even new to the industry, filled with new ideas and ready to work as hard as she does.

She has worked with diverse creatives in the past and delights in working with fellow Asian Americans who are still underrepresented in the business. This latest project was no exception.

Two of her collaborators in the concept, design, and promotion of Chloe Hearts Christmas have been Korean Americans.

Peter Ash Lee, who was on a seven-person panel that also featured Flower, Phillip Lim, and award-winning Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh at the 2023 Heritage Month summit of The Asian American Foundation (TAAF) in May, became the photographer for her shoots and a director for her videos.

Paul C. Kang, co-founder of the Carmen & Co. floral design studio, has taken the look of her performances to another level with fresh flowers.

“I think it was really important for me to have him on my team, not just because he’s Korean, but because he’s exceptional. For me, it’s really about trying to build a team of exceptional people because I can only go so far – I have limitation for what I can see and what I can do,” Flowers said.

Already starting the New Year

After doing mostly everything herself because of her skills and the same high standards that made her stomp off the stage in exasperation as a little girl, she signed with the WME talent agency earlier this year and found a personal assistant for the very first time – whom she said she loves. Even with an all-star team she can trust, Flower said she has not slept since May.

Her last booking of 2023, if she doesn’t accept a New Year’s Eve request, is two sets tonight at 7:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. at Joe’s Pub in Lower Manhattan. The 7 o’clock show is already sold out.

Next year, she is planning to release a “big, epic dance album” which will likely feature iconic classical music, film score covers, and a couple of pop songs.

She is going to keep expanding her collaborations and fan base. What if she could be on stage with Mariah Carey? Go to Korea to put her mind together with V’s? She said that she would hover in the background holding a triangle for Faith Hill.

Chloe’s fastest-growing audiences right now outside the U.S. are in Europe and Indonesia. She is waiting for Korea to catch up. Her dream of dreams is to have a live, solo performance there as the finale to a tour that is becoming a reality.

One last Christmas wish: as someone who hypes herself up before shows by watching videos of figure skating competitions, she’d be thrilled if an athlete took her red-hot music to the ice.

Tracklist of Chloe Hearts Christmas (Nov. 17, 2023):

1. Sleigh Ride (Leroy Anderson, Chloe Flower, Robert Ziegler, Czech Studio Orchestra)

2. Once Upon A December (Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, Chloe Flower, Robert Ziegler, Czech Studio Orchestra)

3. Christmas Tree (Nam Hye Seung, Kim Kyunghee, Chloe Flower, Robert Ziegler, Czech Studio Orchestra)

4. Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Chloe Flower, Robert Ziegler, Czech Studio Orchestra)

5. Santa Tell Me (Ilya Salmanzadeh, Savan Harish Kotecha, Ariana Grande, Chloe Flower, Robert Ziegler, Czech Studio Orchestra)

6. Blue Christmas – feat. Questlove (Billy Hayes, Jay W. Johnson, Chloe Flower, Questlove, Robert Ziegler, Mary Carewe, Czech Studio Orchestra)

7. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – feat. Questlove (Traditional, Chloe Flower, Questlove, Robert Ziegler, Czech Studio Orchestra)

8. River (Joni Mitchell, Chloe Flower, Robert Ziegler, Czech Studio Orchestra)

9. Where Are You Christmas (Will Jennings, James Horner, Mariah Carey, Chloe Flower, Robert Ziegler, Czech Studio Orchestra)

10. Carol Of The Bells (Chloe Flower, Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych, Babyface)

11. Snowman – feat. Bruce Dukov (Sia Kate Furler, Gregory Allen Kurstin, Chloe Flower, Bruce Dukov, Robert Ziegler, Czech Studio Orchestra)

12. The Christmas Waltz – feat. Questlove (Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn, Chloe Flower, Questlove, Robert Ziegler, Mary Carewe, Czech Studio Orchestra)

13. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Ryuichi Sakamoto, Chloe Flower)

14. A Liberace Christmas – Orchestral Version (Franz Xaver Gruber, Irving Berlin, James Lord Pierpont, John Francis Wade, Chloe Flower, Budapest Scoring Orchestra)

15. The Sound Of Music Medley (Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Chloe Flower, Robert Ziegler, Czech Studio Orchestra)

16. Jingle Bell Rock – feat. Questlove (Joe Beal, Jim Boothe, Chloe Flower, Questlove, Robert Ziegler, Czech Studio Orchestra)

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