Label: Hardly Art
As Tofusmell, Rae Chen (he/they) tackles matters of miscommunication, romance, and identity with a grin. Hence the title of Humor, his Hardly Art debut. “Even if something is a serious subject, I tend to put a humorous spin on things,” the 23-year-old explains. Across six songs, Rae articulates wry yet earnest musings on relationships with himself and others through acoustic melodies that recall warm ’90s indie folk. Arriving after a prodigious run of self-released singles and EPs, including 2021’s Funnier in Theory, Humor marks a heartfelt and evocative breakthrough.
A former creative writing major, Rae’s songs are rooted in autobiographical honesty. “Many of the songs are basically journal entries that I later revisit and put to music,” he says. “Sometimes I manipulate the wording, but other times the songs emerge exactly how I first wrote it as if I’m reading my diary to everyone.” In this sense, Humor is a living document of intimacy, as on “Keith,” which chronicles a phone call with a faraway confidant, zeroing in on unrealized longing. At the same time, Rae refuses to sugarcoat life’s blemishes, and on the gentle “Basil Noodles,” he ruminates on an “unpracticed and convoluted” conversation, promising to improve with practice.
The 23-year-old writes, records, and produces his songs in his Orlando, Florida, bedroom using a laptop, Logic, and a single $30 microphone. Musically, Humor is a rich tapestry of understated arrangements that, occasionally, threaten to bubble over as on the ominous “Slip of the Tongue,” which channels Jeff Buckley at his most angsty. Elsewhere, the backtracked harmonies of “Basil Noodles” could be a lost early-2000s Sufjan Stevens cut, while “Keith” and “Younger” recall the lo-fi fuzz of sonic inspirations like Elliott Smith.
Rae’s humble setup hasn’t changed much since he started fiddling around on GarageBand in middle school, eventually gaining the courage to share his music online. Later, he began posting snippets of songs on TikTok, eventually amassing over 22k followers who are drawn to his deft strumming and ability to weave tiny moments into a larger tapestry of emotion.In 2022, Rae displayed newfound confidence with “Shower Song,” his contribution to Hardly Art’s 15th Anniversary singles series. Touching on Rae’s relationship with his trans, queer identity, the track concludes on a note of anticipation, longing for corporeal contentment. Humor’s closing track, the sparse but carefully-layered “I Can Keep Myself,” serves as a companion of sorts as Rae repeats the titular phrase like a mantra in between fixating on physical discomfort: “I am some body/I am somebody…I can keep myself/I can keep myself healthy.” For a moment, you’re right there with Rae, daring to care for yourself.