Turning Adversity Into Greatness: A Conversation with Cory Wong

Cory Wong © Cory Wong
2020 alone has seen numerous albums, collaborations, and even a podcast from Cory Wong, but during our interview, he states that it’s his upcoming album that will be marked as his greatest musical accomplishment yet.

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“Ive been forced to take a step back.” Despite this sentiment, fans would be none the wiser of the pandemic’s toll on Cory Wong’s musical output as 2020 has seen seven albums with a new one soon. Elevator Music for an Elevated Mood kicked off the year with his signature high-energy funk sound, but Wong then deviated as the year progressed with his Trail Songs albums, providing an acoustic approach that fans and newcomers alike found superb artistry within. When Wong sets begins a project, he is sure to accomplish it with unbridled gusto, and the result never fails to hit all the right notes.

Elevator Music for an Elevated Mood – Cory Wong

Whether it be Vulfpeck, Fearless Flyers, or his other numerous collaborations, the funk sphere is incomplete without Cory Wong, an artist whose approach to music making is nonpareil, but thankfully he is open about the process. Beyond putting out albums, he’s been putting out behind-the-scenes looks at how fan-favorite songs came to be. His vlog series On The One dives into the intricate details behind the music, exploring his mindset, the technical aspects of production, and how voice memos are the gatekeepers to some of his biggest hits. Creating music is only half the fun for Wong – sharing its story completes the experience.

When it comes to talking shop, however, it’s best to have the conversation go both ways. His solution? The Wong Notes podcast. Stories, insight, Q&A’s – when it comes to music, no outlet is too far for his reach, and the music industry is all the greater for his enthusiasm and grace. At the heart of it all is the singular notion of collaboration, something fans experienced with Mediations, an album whose sound intoxicated listeners with the coalescing of piano from famed pianist Jon Batiste and guitar from Wong himself. Through all of 2020’s adversities, Wong has never once let himself be brought down.

There has been a lot to reflect and reconcile with over the last six months, but, for me, it’s been kind of a retreat in some way,” Wong shared with Atwood Magazine as we caught up with how’s currently handling the multiple crises. “There’s been so much on the road and all over the place the last few years. Now, I’ve been forced to take a step back and just come back home and spend a little more time on the home front, which, for me, is a good thing because I have a few kids.” Family has been an important part of his life, creating a world that not only provides joy but sparks innovation.

I have a little studio in my house and I’ve gotten in a nice creative flow where I show up to work every day and I show up at my studio and I write, record, mix, and produce. It’s been honestly a pretty fun, incredibly creative, and prolific time for me.” With the studio being at home base, it’s easy to transfer over the moments of familial living into music, something that his voice memos have been a source of, aiding in the creation of songs, albums, and the melodies that incorporate them.

All of these moments, practices, and tenacity have all culminated into what Wong declares is his great album to date, something fans can expect to hear in the coming week. In order to get a better idea of it, Atwood Magazine spoke with Wong on the album’s creation, how he juggles his many musical endeavors, the importance of adversity in his underdog mentality, and what he hopes the future will bring.

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Cory Wong © Cory Wong


Atwood Magazine: Your motivation to your craft is so clearly evident with just your work this year alone. Multiple albums, collabs, and still going. What do you feel is your main driving force? What have been some big sources of inspiration for you to keep being motivated?

Cory Wong: I’ve always kind of said, my guiding light as an artist is the concept of joy. And for me, what I do is not… well, okay, this has a couple of sides of this. So as a musician, a lot of times, especially for instrumentalists, and guitar players, it’s “look at how great I am at the guitar. Look at what I can do on the guitar. Wow!” And that’s fine. That’s fine. For me, that is way less of a motivator. That seems much more of an ego-driven… and I don’t always mean that in a bad way whenever I say that, but it seems like a much more self-serving motivation.

To me, if I use my guiding light as joy, that can manifest itself in a bunch of different ways. It can manifest itself in the fun up-tempo funk thing. And it can manifest itself in the reflective acoustic thing where there’s a covert sense of joy rather than the over sense of joy, like, “we’re having a great time,” you know what I mean? And the human experience and the depth of human emotion is wide. And I think that’s a fun thing to explore, even in the concept of joy itself and to use that is a motivating factor. It’s less about me and more about serving this thing and serving this purpose and something. So that’s really fun. And I think that is one of the main motivating factors.

There’s also just the there’s like there’s really creative Cory and there’s logistical Cory, and logistical Cory is looking at the long term career thing and the, you know, the sustainability of “am I going to be able to keep doing this for years and years and years?” And the other side is, like, I’m still creatively energized right now. I’m just going to keep creating works that I feel really good about, that I’m proud of, and if this is the most prolific time of my life, so be it, if it continues to grow, and I get even more prolific than awesome, and I think, you know, as artists, we go in seasons of inspiration and have it like… I think of different types of writing and recording and creativity as there are times when there’s a huge inspiration.

And then there are times where you got to show up to work, and you’re gonna have to fight for that thing, and you might rely more on the craft rather than the inspiration side. But for right now, I feel like I’ve got a really healthy amount of both. And that’s been a cool thing. And part of it, I think, is because I’m a part of a lot of different projects like Vulfpeck and Fearless Flyers. And being in those bands, everybody in those bands, each one of us is doing it our individual solo thing, right? And we’re all talking and inspiring each other through things. Also, just the collaborators that I worked with on my solo albums. It’s just fun to you have people like Chris Seeley or Sierra Hall or Jon Batiste, you know, musicians that I really enjoy and that we get along with on a personal level as well. And our friends. That drives me also just, like, having fun doing something with my friends.

Speaking of some of those other musicians, in addition to your own solo music, you’re with Vulfpeck and working on their upcoming album and you also play with The Fearless Flyers who also had a recent record. What does your calendar look like? How do you juggle all of these projects?

Cory Wong: That’s a great question. Honestly, a lot of the recording gets done in a very condensed amount of time. So I produced the Fearless Flyers album, and leading up to the Flyers album… So we recorded that album in January, okay? And leading up to it, I had a couple of weeks that I dedicated to writing, a couple of weeks that I dedicated to arranging, but it was, you know, a few hours every day I jump in and out of something, and then come back to it a little bit. And I had some time to live with it before the actual session.

But that album we recorded in three days. So it’s not like Metallica and some kind of monster where it takes two years to record an album [laughs]. We don’t have a psychologist on retainer keeping us together, you know? [Laughs] We enjoy each other’s company. And it’s just the way that I normally like to run my sessions. And when Jack asked me to produce the Fearless Flyers record and to be the band leader, Jack is like… I sent an email, here are the expectations: don’t come learn it and expect to learn the songs on the session. Here are the demos. Here’s kind of where we’re headed on this stuff. Let’s leave it open to some interpretation. Let’s make sure everybody can put their unique fingerprints on their part. But let’s show up kind of gig-ready if we needed to perform this music for other people that day. Let’s be prepared enough to do that. And then that way, we’re able to record the whole album in three days.

And for me to do my, like, I did an album with Jon Batiste, it’s six songs in 30 minutes, we literally recorded the album in 30 minutes. And that was just kind of a more experimental thing. We did it three different days in a row; we went to the studio, hung out and talked for 20 minutes, recorded the album in 33 minutes or whatever it is, and then hung out and talked for another 20 minutes, and then we left. So, sometimes, it’s relying on instinct and preparedness of the people you’re working with.

And for me, you know, when I’m doing the projects in my house here, I’m doing a lot of writing and recording… and I can do it all myself to a certain degree. Like, I have a studio where I can engineer, I can produce, I can mix. So I’m not always waiting on a ton of other people, which allows me to get a lot more done at once, and then it’s like “okay, here’s my demo, I’m going to send this demo to the drummer to the bass player and to the string section. They’re all going to work on it on their time and send it back to me and then I wait till I get all the parts imported into my session and boom I can mix it add it whatever other layers that I want,” and then it’s basically done because I can do a lot of it myself and from home. It helps me to be able to do things a lot faster.

Cory Wong © Olly Curtis

On the season one finale for Wong Notes, your discussion on adversity and the ways to overcome it was such an interesting dive because of how you turned a less than stellar situation our world is in right and turned into an opportunity to create a project you’ve always wanted which turned into the Trail Songs albums. I think that’s incredible. What role do you feel adversity has in music?

Cory Wong: I think to a certain extent, yes. I tend to work better when I’m an underdog. And maybe that’s because I’m, maybe it’s the Freudian youngest child thing, where it’s like, “oh, you’re gonna tell me that I can’t do this? Well, I’m going to do it anyway.” Or like, “Oh, I can’t go on tour, the world is stopped, and everybody’s losing momentum? I’m not gonna let that happen.” And it’s not, again, an egotistical or about me thing, I think, if anything, is, say, “alright, something just got stacked against us. We’re down 20 points in the game, but I haven’t missed a three-point shot in the last two quarters.”

So, you know, I don’t know what – maybe that’s a bad analogy. But when something comes at me, when the pressure is on, or when it feels like something within me tells me something can’t be done, I go harder. I work better… I guess. I don’t know. So with the Trail Songs thing, this project that I’ve always wanted to do but I haven’t been able to do because there are expectations of album cycles or whatever, like, I’m building this momentum as this fun high energy funk guitar player – you can’t go or do acoustic albums or else you’re gonna confuse the audience. And maybe I did a little bit and maybe I am confusing my audience a little. But if there’s anything that the year 2020 has taught us is that there are no rules for this year and you can kind of do what you want. And there was a certain freedom in that.

As an artist, it was like, “ah, remember all those voice memos and little videos of acoustic ideas that you’ve been saving in your phone for the last three years. Now’s the time to pull those out, see which ones you’re really happy with. Sit down, go for walks in the woods, and see what melodies and what is drawn out of you.” I’m thinking to myself, and then I just went for it. So I think adversity, to answer your question, and there’s some sense of it that that calls me up to be better because of the underdog, Freudian youngest child thing [laughs].

Something you touched upon earlier is… Well, I just love your talk on collaboration and how you try to ensure whoever you’re collaborating with has their unique fingerprint on the song is honestly showcased with everything you’re part of and with the guest features on your own solo work – Meditation being a tremendous example. When it comes to your solo work, do you have artists already in mind you wish to collaborate with? Do you just make cold calls to some of your favorite musicians?

Cory Wong: Well, I think there are a few different ways. There’s one of the bucket lists and the “oh my gosh these are some of my favorite artists I love what they do.” And the second is I… through the world of the music industry and playing at festivals and playing at different events where there’s a lot of other musicians around, what ends up happening is there might be somebody that I’ve known about or somebody whose music I’ve listened to, but as soon as we start playing together or it’s like, “oh this person sat in” or we were all at, you know, playing Live from Here, like in the case of Jon Batiste.

He was a guest host for Live from Here, the NPR show, and I was a guitar player for the house band that day or that week. And the second we started playing together, it was just like this incredibly deep musical connection. And then, in between all the songs at rehearsals, we just found that we had a really strong personal connection. So I didn’t see that collaboration coming as much. Although I’ve been a big fan of Jon’s music, and he’s insanely talented, I didn’t realize how powerful that collaboration could be until we’re in a room together.

And wow, there’s just a lot of magic here. And that sort of thing sometimes happens at festivals when you’re hanging out with other people in the catering area, or when you’re side stage about to play after somebody else or somebody else plays right after you and you see each other play and you connect in that way. Or sometimes it’s also just, honestly, a few of the collaborations are that like Sierra Hall, one of my friends just told me, “dude, you got to check out this mandolin player Sierra Hall, she’s a shredder,” even saying she’s got such good groove. She’s got such great ideas. I went on Instagram, checked out her Instagram page, and was blown away. I literally just sent her a message on Instagram saying, “Hey, I love your music. We have a bunch of mutual friends. I have this acoustic album I’m working on. I am not great at mandolin. You are would you be down to play on this track?

And she said, “Oh my gosh, yeah! I’m a fan of you, I’m a fan of Vulfpeck. I’m totally in.” And then it’s like that sort of thing that happens. And that’s a really fun thing. Her and I have never met in person but we’re friends. And we’ve played and we’ve collaborated on songs together, you know, so it’s kind of one of those funny, weird internet things. Funny, weird 2020 things. But it also feels really natural because the music and our musicality that feels like it fits together, right? Because of our openness to it, you know.

Absolutely! Now, moving onto the series On The One, I love how detailed you go with breaking down the process - also loved the Apple Loop defense - for your songs. How do you decide which songs you want to give fuller insight to?

Cory Wong: Honestly, for those two songs, the two songs that I did On The One so far, are ones that I just didn’t have any videos for. They were really fun, cool songs. And there were such interesting things to talk about in it. And as much as I enjoy making music and recording music, I also like talking about the process of it. Because, for me, the process is really fun. And for me the process of kind of like solving riddles of songs, or, you know, how to put something together made my work feel cohesive and a part of the storyline of my discography or whatever.

Like, it’s fun to dissect that and I think it’s also important as somebody who’s really benefited from music education to be able to pass that on. If I was able to see some production and mixing and songwriting break downs into some of my favorite artists, that would have been a game-changer for me. And for anybody who’s a fan of me, I think it’s, you know, I think it’s fun for fans that are not musicians to just be able to see the process. Just kind of fun.

In the same way for me watching baseball behind the scenes. I have no intention of being a baseball player, but it’s fun to see some of the ins and outs, how to gauge the functionality, and the nuances of it. And then also for musicians and producers and writers to be able to see my exact process which plugins I’m using, how I’m organizing my Pro Tools session, I think that it’s cool in that sense. And it’s really fun for me to be able to share that sort of thing.

Watch: On The One – “Bluebird”

I thought it was pretty incredible to see that ‘’Bluebird’’ came from just a random voice memo of you playing with the family, along with ‘’Western Winds.’’ How typical is that for you when crafting new melodies and songs?

Cory Wong: I would say that 60% of the songs that I put on my albums start out like that. It’s a lot of me sitting around, where I do have a moment of inspiration, and they’re just a little idea that I really like, in the moment, and I’ll get hundreds of them. And I record them do voice memos, or little videos, whatever I… just depending on, I don’t know what I’m feeling at the moment. And then what I do is usually when I’m on the road if I’m on a plane or a train or in a long drive or something, I’ll put on my headphones and rifle through all my old voice memos, rifle through old videos, put them in folders, and organize them vibe or potential projects.

I’ve had a folder of acoustic music for a couple of years that I finally, you know, “alright, let’s empty this box and see what we’ve got,” and that’s how Trail Songs was. And then some stuff where I’ll record ideas, “oh, this might be cool for both pet food, it might be cool for Fearless Flyers, oh, this would be a great song that could do with my solar projects with a big horn section,” and all that sort of thing. So I record hundreds of them throughout the year. And as I’m traveling and as I’m listening back, if something, if I’m still into it when I listen back, I keep it. If I listen back to something and it doesn’t sound right or that doesn’t feel very magnetic or that doesn’t feel like it really stands out, I’ll just delete it. And in the end, I just have the stuff that I’ve probably listened to five or six times back and think “okay, I’m still down with that one,” and then I’ll explore those ideas.

So you know, when I’m making an album, it’s hundred voicemail ideas or voice memo ideas and it gets dwindled into 30 voice memos, or 20, and then I’ll mock them up how I would maybe hear them with a full band in logic, and then I’ll listen to those for a while and see which of those I think pass the test or feel like really full ideas, and then go into the studio and record maybe 15 of those ones. And then after I recorded the full songs, normally it’s like 10 of them will end up on the album. So every step of the way, there’s a filtering process. And it’s hard to be honest with myself. And it’s hard when you put so much time and effort, especially when it gets to the end where I’ll sometimes have 15 songs and I’ve been “okay, I only want 10 songs in the album.”

That means I really have to pick the 10 best or the 10 that just fit together the best. Maybe I’ll use a couple of these for a future project. It forces me to have a different type kind of filter, and sometimes just playing all the songs for my inner circle of friends or collaborators they’ll say…I don’t ask them “hey, which song would you get rid of?” I don’t want to do the negative feedback [laughs]. I say, “hey, which songs do you think are the best out of this bunch?” And then if those ones are all… you know, I kind of make a little spreadsheet for myself so I can see the winners and know that these ones for sure are going on the album, these ones I just really like the idea of. So I want to put it on sometimes just for myself or if I think that it will really connect. So I do it for that reason.

I feel like the process is working because, with the 2020 records alone, they each have a distinct flair, a unique story that is being told. So props to you on the process!

Cory Wong: Oh, thank you! Yeah, it’s fun. I mean, it’s… I try to have my albums with a cohesive concept for each one of them because I feel like that way when you put it on from the first song it kind of helps set up the vibe of the thing. I don’t always love it when you turn on something and then all of a sudden it’s just all over the place. I’ve done some albums with a couple of songs that feel like a little bit of a left turn. But, lately, I’ve been trying to do albums that are much more of a singular concept.

Cory Wong © Cory Wong

With the new October record, is there any early insight you can give as to what fans expect to hear?

Cory Wong: So this one has a completely different process than my other ones. This one is similar to my past typical, well, not typical, but my past Cory Wong albums, the ones that people would expect to hear from me. The high energy funk album. Honestly, I can say this: I am confident that this is my best album yet.

In some ways, it’s almost like this underdog spite thing where there were some people that are “he’s putting out too much music, he’s doing quantity over quality.” Some of my friends are good at showing me these hater comments to keep me… you know, to keep my ego at bay [laughs].

We all need an ego check every now and then.

Cory Wong: [Laughs] Exactly! My friends are “hey, did you see this fun comment?” so I’m all “alright, alright, I get it.” But if anybody remotely thinks that I’m going to be sacrificing quality this year, there’s no chance they will be saying that with this album. I went really hard on the arrangements and on the production. I went super hard as far as collaboration on this one as well. One secret I can say is that one of the collaborators on this album is one of those people that’s been on my bucket list.

I play a lot of bass on this, and I’ve always wanted to do it because I was a bass player first and then I started playing guitar. So it’s a lot of hard funk but I finally get to do my thing on the bass, which is really fun. And there’s also just some really incredible horn playing on here. I’m dead serious when I said this is my best album I’ve ever made.

Cory Wong © Cory Wong

I’m absolutely ready for that! Can’t wait to add that one to my record catalog. So you briefly mentioned the Live in Amsterdam album; how does playing with a full orchestra compare to just the bandmates?

Cory Wong: When I was going into the project, I could approach this one of two ways: I could either put my head down and barrel through this thing and say, “Look, I want you guys to be like my band, I want this to be for me, you need to form the way that you are to fit when I do.” Or, I could take a look at the orchestra and say, “here’s your guys’ biggest strength. Here’s what you guys bring to the table that nobody else does.

I lean into that with my music so it never compromises their artistic and technical integrity. And it never sacrifices my artistic vision or integrity. And that to me felt like a really great approach, which is what I did, because it helps them to shine and helps me and my music to shine. And it was really fun because it captured the energy and the vibe of my songs and my music, but it just did it in a way where it had a lot more musical information and a lot more of like, to me… I love TV orchestras. I love TV music.

I love the… I like the TV orchestra thing. And a lot of music that kind of has that vibe for whatever reason. But it really was brought to life with this because we did this tour, we have all these songs that this music of mine that has 55 piece orchestra, but still the full funk rhythm section thing. It’s kind of a blending of these two worlds that comes together in a really unique and fun way.

On the topic of live performance, I have to gush a bit and say the Vulfpeck concert at Madison Square Garden was legitimately breathtaking. Though I did not see it in person, the video and listening to the record are such incredible experiences every time. What was going through your mind when living in that moment?

Cory Wong: [Laughs] First off, it’s an extreme sense of gratitude going into it. When I look back at the last few years, to see the growth of Vulfpeck’s growth, Fearless Flyers, each one of our individual solo careers, it’s been an insane journey. And there are so many other people that have been at it the same amount of time or more, that hadn’t seen the same amount of commercial success and I have an extreme gratitude for the fact that people like what we do and that it has caught on and people have an enjoyable experience when they come to our shows and listen to our albums.

So it starts there, it starts with gratitude. And it starts with kind of a sense of awe and unbelief. And then it trickles to a sense of camaraderie between all the band members. We’re… we all kind of look at each other and think about the different areas of the band and the different albums and how the live show is developed over the last few years. And just living those experiences together, having those kinds of life experiences with some of your best friends is kind of unbelievable. And it feels… there are such potent life experiences going on. Your first world tours together, your first headlining Madison Square Garden gig together, you just look at each other and there’s like this, “oh, my gosh, we’re doing this.” And it’s such a potent life experience that beyond just the gratitude sense, there’s a camaraderie and there’s an almost going into battle together sort of thing together.

And then, at the same time, with a show of that size, we have no choice but to just go “alright, we know what to do. We know what we’re doing. We play the songs live before. We love each other. We love this music. People are here to have a good time, let’s just put on the best show we can.” And I wasn’t any more nervous for that show than any other because I just prepared myself mentally. We were just going up, we’re doing a show. We know what we’re doing. We’re prepared. If I was unprepared for the show, I’d be scared and nervous. But I was prepared. So I knew what I was doing. This is… this is what I do for my profession. This is what I’ve been called to do in my life. And I’m here to crush it. So I think every one of us came with that mentality and it was just a really fun, insane event.

Watch: Live at Madison Square Garden – Vulfpeck

When you look back to the days of 2008’s Even Uneven to now, how do you feel you have developed not only as an artist but as a person?

Cory Wong: When I first started making album… so, yeah, what you’re talking about was this jazz quartet album that I basically made in college. And, to me, I was thinking that I needed to make an album before I… well, I don’t want to say die, but I was just thinking to myself I need to grow up and say that I made my own album, right? Which is crazy to think about because I was so young.

I had this mindset of “I just need to be able to put something out and say that I did it.” And I didn’t really think I’m gonna have this career like I have now. And it was more just, “I’m going to put out this project and see what happens.” And I’ll keep playing, you know, wedding gigs and doing some $50 jazz gigs and that sort of thing. I just had no idea who I was as an artist at that time – I was trying to be something or trying to figure out what… what would be something that showcases myself as a guitar player.

And it wasn’t necessarily as much about, I don’t know, I mean, I was passionate about at the time. But when I look back on those, that era of my life, I hear somebody who doesn’t know where they’re meant to be. And I hear somebody who’s trying to figure out what their sound is. And, I don’t know, like, I had a lot of technical facilities and I had a lot of musical things together – there was a concept there, but there just wasn’t any maturity in it.

And I think as far as my growth goes from there to now, I just finally found my voice, not just in music, not just in guitar, but even as a person. So I wouldn’t say I have much of a different vision of that as a person, but I have a stronger understanding of how to manifest that thing through my life and through my art and through my music and just through the things I do.

I think that’s pretty incredible. We all start somewhere.

Cory Wong: Some of those albums I’ve made when I was college, I’ve tried to delete them from everywhere in the world [laughs]. There’s a dumpster somewhere with a couple of hundred CDs and an old hard drive that probably doesn’t even open up on my computer anymore that has those old albums, but they’re not even on my computer. I don’t want to hear them, I don’t want to see them.

Out of sight, out of mind! Though the state of the world is a little bleak, what excites you about the future? Any new directions you’re looking forward to exploring?

Cory Wong: Hmm… I think in general… one thing that I look forward to is seeing the way that this time… well, hopefully, for the majority of people, what I can see is that this year has been a time where we’ve been forced to reflect on things that matter to us. We’ve been forced to reflect on certain changes that need to happen whether it be in society, in the way we function as individuals, or how we function in society.

When we think about how groups gather and how the group mindset works, I’m interested to see at whatever point we get back to whatever sense of normal we get to… I’m interested to see what the general vibe of group gatherings look like. And in our industry, that means festivals, that means live shows, that means even just recording sessions with a bunch of people in the same room. I am looking forward to when that comes back.

In a sense where maybe we won’t take group gatherings for granted like in previous years, I think moving forward, for those that have reflected, I think it is something we are going to view as more special. You know, you mentioned the Madison Square Garden gig, and I remember looking at the crowd and thinking “this is so incredible, this is such an experience.” And I think the other thing is that all of us bandmates recognize that. You know, you see Taylor Swift and, you do think about her journey, but she is this megastar, so you don’t think as much of the crowd because she is a megastar, this stadium is packed, it all makes sense.

In our case, because we’re an independent band, there was a sense, even from the audience, people who have seen at clubs with 500 people or sometimes smaller numbers, seeing us in that room, in that iconic arena, there was this sense of “oh my god, we climbed the mountain of the live music scene.” I’m hopeful that there will be a similar sort of feeling in general with group gatherings moving forward. Of course, that will wear off in time, but in the next few years when we get into large gatherings, it will be interesting to see and feel that. The energy from Madison Square Garden was unlike any other gig that we’ve played, so I look forward to seeing what that energy is going to be like.

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