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At one point during her four years at Juilliard, Olivia Mok realized that she didn’t want to pursue any of the careers in classical violin that the conservatory was preparing her for. It was what she did when she was supposed to be practicing her instrument that betrayed her real interest.
“The whole time I was at Juilliard I was a closet singer-songwriter and I’d spend my practice time just sitting in my room writing songs,” she said. But she didn’t know quite how to get these songs out of her head and onto a polished track. Though she had fantastic violin chops she had no sense of how to parlay them into helping her realize her dream of creating her own music.
The summer after her 2014 graduation, her grandmother and brother spotted an ad for Berklee's master’s degree program in performance in Valencia, Spain, and suggested she look into it. During a family vacation in Europe, they decided to pop in at the campus.
“I was, like, 'mind: blown,'” Mok said. “I just walked in the studios and I saw the facilities, and I saw that people were making pop.” One of the first people she met was Ben Cantil, an associate professor in the Music Production, Technology, and Innovation (MPTI) program. “He was bumping to EDM tracks and really cool music and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can do this?’”
Hear more about Olivia Mok, a.k.a. Olivia Dawn, in this trailer for her new EP, ALBA:
She decided on the spot that she would apply to the Contemporary Performance (Production Concentration) program. What she didn’t know at the time was that that she would choose Berklee again in a year, for a second master’s degree program.
Mok describes the first year as a musical buffet; she got to sample a bit of everything, including a wide range of musical genres and technologies. Toward the end of the year, the Swedish music software company Propellerhead offered her a job as a content creator, telling her they wanted a songwriter and instrumentalist who had knowledge of production.
A Move toward Mastery
As enticing as the offer was, Mok decided that she wasn’t finished with Berklee, and that she needed to master the skills it takes to be self-sufficient as an artist.
“Now you have to be able to do everything. You have to produce yourself, be able to record yourself well, engineer for yourself, mix, and be able to master a record by yourself with very limited resources and at a limited cost,” she said of her decision to enroll in the Music Production, Technology, and Innovation program for another master’s degree, which she'll receive next week during the Valencia campus' commencement ceremony. (She now works as a freelancer for Propellerhead.)
In the past two years, Mok has gone from someone who recorded her songs on iPhone voice memos to someone who can produce fully electronic tracks and process her own vocals and sound design, and from someone to had never opened GarageBand to someone proficient in Ableton, an industry-standard digital audio workstation.
Watch the music video for 'Lions' by Olivia Dawn, shot and recorded at Berklee Valencia campus' scoring stage:
Stephen Webber, the director of the MPTI program during Mok's time in it, said that when she got to Valencia she could barely use her laptop for music applications, but that now she's “a seriously credible music producer and sound designer in her own right.” In addition to audio production, she learned in Zebbler Peter Berdovsky's class how to shoot and create videos, such as the the trailer for her five-track EP, ALBA.
“Empowering talented artists like Olivia to take control of their own destinies by wielding the power of technology is what the MPTI program is all about,” Webber said.
Outside of class, Mok was a member of Webber’s band, the Scratch Ambassadors, who performed at the World Business Forum in Madrid in October 2016. One of the tunes, a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” that Webber arranged, she also performed on violin at the 2015 commencement concert in Valencia.
Over the past year she’s also been featured in several Berklee YouTube videos, under her stage name, Olivia Dawn; performed her own music at TEDxBerkeeValencia; and recorded her EP. Her dream is to tour Europe, playing her music, which she describes as “minimally produced electronic/dance/pop songs,” but also to play jazz gigs, violin pieces, and do deep house DJ jobs.
“I look back on when I left Juilliard, when I had no idea what I was going to do, to now and I feel like my mind has been opened at least a 100 times. I’ve absolutely surpassed what I thought I could ever do, and that kind of gives me hope for the fact that you don’t have to start something from the age of five in order to be good at it now,” Mok says.
Mok will be performing her song “Medi” at the commencement concert "La Nit de Berklee" on July 9 and getting what might be her last Berklee degree on July 11 at the commencement ceremony in Valencia. Afterward, she will head back home to Hong Kong for a while and then possibly relocate to L.A. or London. "I have a few job offers but I will try to just dive right in and work on my artist career," she said.
Watch Mok and the Scratch Ambassadors perform "Kashmir' at the July 2015 commencement concert in Valencia: