Music was calling.
As a kid, music was at the heart of his life, listening alongside family and playing guitar with friends in a band.
But as he grew up, he wasn’t sure if it was a practical career option, turning instead toward a different degree path as he began college at the University of Minnesota.
Then, the decision that changed Cory Wong’s life: head to music school and let the chips fall where they may.
“I decided I wanted to get a science degree because I wasn’t sure music was viable,” Wong said. “Eventually I said, ‘You know what? This is not what I’m made to do. I’m called and made to be a musician.’ Since the day I decided to do that I’ve never looked back.”
The Fridley graduate has gone on to become an international star, selling out venues like Madison Square Garden with the funk band Vulfpeck, collaborating with and producing music for several top musicians and releasing a flurry of his own works this year. Originally scheduled to be on a 2020 world tour before the coronavirus pandemic, Wong has been able to perform in his hometown at Crooners Supper Club this summer, selling out four shows in July, with two more sold-out performances scheduled Sept. 6.
Like many musicians, Wong’s love of music started from an early age, his family helping pave his eventual path.
“My parents were big fans of music,” Wong said. “So I had a huge appreciation for music at a young age. I wanted to start playing bass. I liked Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus, bass-heavy bands. Eventually one of my friends wanted to start a band and they needed a guitar player, not a bass player, so I switched over to guitar out of necessity, really. Then it was saving up enough shoveling money to get a guitar, and the rest is history.”
He continued to play music through high school. Then, his fateful decision to pursue a music degree led his path to McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul. From there, it was performing wherever and whenever he could to make ends meet while working on his own music on the side.
“I was teaching music in college and playing more gigs,” Wong said. “I started playing a lot of weddings and that sort of thing in a ‘jobbing’ band, a functional band. I stopped doing the jobbing band thing in my early 20s and started playing and producing more for other artists. My own music was just a side project to keep me artistically inspired.
“It eventually became playing more punk rock/rock and then more a jam band thing and then AC jam band – Dave Matthews Band influenced me a lot at the time. It morphed into playing more jazz music, which morphed into more R&B and funk. My music is really an amalgamation of all that stuff together into its own thing, which is really fun.”
Then, the biggest opportunity was about to arrive.
Wong joined the funk band Vulfpeck, one with a unique strategy. Foregoing the grind of touring several small locations, the band began building up a massive following over the internet. Presenting a pure, raw type of sound, all of a sudden the group was selling out some of the biggest venues in the world.
“I joined Vulfpeck right as the band was about to explode,” Wong said. “We had no idea what was about to happen. We were selling out Madison Square Garden. That career path and trajectory was something none of us predicted. We knew we had something special in the musicality and the way we worked together. We decided we’re going to build up on the internet and then play live. We ended up playing in front of really big audiences instead of small clubs. Most of these songs we only played them once when we recorded them.
“We made the conscious decision not to rehearse. That was where the magic was – we trusted each other 100 percent and relied on our instincts and living in the moment. It made for a very special live performance – we’re on the edge of our chair like the audience.”
One of the best parts of being involved with Vulfpeck is that it has served as a vehicle for Wong and other members to work and focus on their own music, especially now.
“It’s really a treat to be able to do,” Wong said. “It was never intended to be a main time commitment for any of us. We do about 10 gigs a year, which allows us each a lot of time to do our own solo projects.”
The current pandemic has forced many changes in the world, while encouraging the rethinking of how things have normally been done. Music production is no exception.
“The majority of people find their sound and then go into album, write, record and then tour supporting that album, and then do it again,” Wong said. “2020 has offered us, for better or worse, an opportunity to completely change the way we look at how we do things. It’s given permission for people to just try and do different things you wouldn’t normally do. For me as an artist, this is an opportunity to break from the album cycle – I’m not touring anytime soon, it’s probably going to be at least a year before people start touring, there’s no expectation for me to tour, I don’t have to make it clear marketing-wise what the music is. There are different things I wanted to try to do.”
For Wong, that has meant exploring different types of sounds, evidenced in his recently released two-part acoustic album “Trail Songs.”
The first part includes more of the upbeat sounds typical of Wong’s music in an acoustic setup, from the guitar to the piano to a big horn section.
The second part contains music inspired by walks around nature at the beginning of quarantine, a contemplative feel perfectly paired with time outdoors.
“It makes for a very organic feeling album, still in the same style loosely as my other music,” Wong said.
Wong has traveled Europe, Asia and across the United States and spent long stretches in the three big U.S. music hubs – New York City, Los Angeles and Nashville – but still calls the Twin Cities home. Also in keeping with making the most of current circumstances while being unable to do his scheduled tour, that has meant being able to perform in front of family and friends this summer in Fridley, where his musical journey began.
“It was a total trip,” Wong said. “It was crazy. Crooners used to be Shorewood, and Shorewood is where the drummer in my first band’s mom was a server. We would rehearse at his house over the weekends and she would bring home food or something from there. It was funny. The gigs we did were in the parking lot; my first job I ever had was at the warehouse next door; now it’s the Salvation Army. For a while I worked at an architectural firm in the Moore Lake Plaza. So much of my life and stomping grounds is right there. I’d hold my birthday party at Sports Spree, Dave’s Sport Shop is where I got all my hockey gear. It’s fun and kind of weird. It’s right across the lake from where I went to middle school and high school. It’s a different connection when you play somewhere you grew up – both surreal and natural.”
Wong’s leap of faith in college set him on his way to a successful musical career. Looking to help provide similar chances for others, he recently partnered with Falmouth University and WaterBear – The College of Music in the United Kingdom to set up a full Bachelor of Arts Degree scholarship.
“I’m really passionate about music education,” Wong said. “In today’s time it can be difficult to decide to do and be able to afford it. Because I’ve had such a fortunate last several years, I thought it’d be a really nice thing to provide. The UK music scene has always been huge supporters, some of the largest crowds and connections I have are there. I got to see they were doing some cool things there. It was a really good fit.”
In a time of relative uncertainty, it’s hard to know exactly what’s next. Other than, of course, more music.
“Honestly, I’ve gotten myself in a real creative flow space, writing and recording a ton of music since quarantine started,” Wong said. “There are no rules right now, so I’m just going to keep writing and releasing music. It’s fun for me to do and I’ve been able to be more prolific than ever. Whether it’s the right strategy, quote unquote, to release this much this fast – maybe, but I don’t really care. It’s fun for me to do and release music in real time and represent what this time is like.”