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Cory Wong: The most famous Minnesota musician you’ve probably never heard of

by KT Lindemann

January 27, 2014

While Cory Wong’s name may not be as synonymous with Twin Cities rock stardom as are the names gracing the stars of First Avenue, there is a chance he has worked behind the scenes on some of your favorite albums and TV shows, and maybe even helped out with that generic holiday CD you bought on a whim for your Christmas party.

Also: he’s famous in Peru.

Throughout his career Wong has had a hand in an impressive number of projects. He is the co-founder of Secret Stash Records and one fourth of jazz-fusion quartet Foreign Motion, as well as a music director, producer, arranger, and sideman for TV shows, ads, and a growing crew of artists. “Ever since the day I said, ‘I’m going to pursue music,’ I haven’t done anything else,” he recalled.

Wong attended McNally Smith College of Music with hopes of making a career in performance, and in his last semester found another niche: production. “I took one production class my last semester of college, and I ended up finishing the entire semester’s work in the first two weeks,” he said.

Almost immediately, he received his first production job. “I really got my feet wet doing like, generic music albums. That’s kind of a bad term to use, but you know if you go to like Kmart or Borders or Target and you see like, these end caps of Holiday music or…Irish pub music? I did a lot of producing and writing for those types of records, which is really where I learned how to do it.” These projects led Wong to connect with Bootsy Collins, Jimmie Vaughan, and the Prairie Home Companion band, among others.

Recently, Wong’s work in writing and music direction has taken him to the small screen, working for popular shows like NBC’s The Voice and The Winner Is... “I do a lot of work for TV and for ads,” he explained.

When I spoke with Wong, he had just returned from a short tour in Kuwait with American Idol alum Reed Grimm, entertaining about 600 American troops. “To be honest, I had no idea where Kuwait even was,” he confessed, “but it was really fun.” Wong is extremely well-travelled, though, as the trajectory of his career has taken him to musical destinations that span the globe. “I’ve done a lot of stuff in South America and little pockets of Europe,” he explained.

Wong has had particularly notable success on the coast of Peru. Led there by a Peruvian mentor and a fascination with Afro-Peruvian music, he has gained a following as a performer and has worked on the remastering of several Peruvian albums.  “Eric (Foss of Secret Stash Records) and I produced a couple of records in Peru in 2010, and have done more stuff with people that are out there,” he said, “I just did a tour down there with my jazz quartet. Once I’d been there a couple of times, a lot of people around there knew who we were. We heard ourselves all over the radio.”

Even though Wong’s work has taken him to all corners of the country and the globe, he credits his support system of family and friends for keeping him in the Twin Cities. “Minnesota’s got a little bit of a different vibe,” he added. “Minneapolis has an amazing music scene. There are a bunch of scenes here that are really thriving, and it’s fun to have friends who are in all those pockets. I’ll tell you what’s not keeping me here is the weather.”

His advice to aspiring young musicians and producers? Hard work, openness, and “the hang.” “Be open to anything,” he said. “In your first year of school, say yes to everything. I know it sounds cheesy, but work hard. Those things, and being able to hang. Conduct yourself in a respectable way.”

KT Lindemann is a senior at the University of Minnesota, Morris, pursuing studio art and Spanish. She is a native of the Twin Cities and is a wannabe musician, artist, and music writer.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.