I met with Jane Lui in Irvine, California, which was ironically where the music video for her latest single, "Jailcard," was shot. Seeming to be always on the move, Lui had an interview in San Diego later that day.
It was in San Diego where Lui's music career began in earnest after she left the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) to pursue studies in music at San Diego State University. This was where she was first recognized as an upcoming artist, garnering various awards from the modest San Diego music community.
Now based in the Bay Area, Lui is now being recognized by the larger YouTube music community and in talent showcases like Kollaboration. She won Kollaboration's acoustic event at the Ford Amphitheatre in 2008, and she nearly won again in 2009 -- finishing as the 1st runner-up at Kollaboration 9 at the Shrine Auditorium. Also in 2009, YouTube spotlighted her as their "Unsigned Pick of the Day" for her song "Long Ago."
This success hasn't exactly come easy for Lui. She joked that the prize money that she won from Kollbaration in 2009 accounted for most of her income that year. She also described how her experiences moving to the United States from Hong Kong shaped who she is today -- a do-it-yourself musician who has learned to make the best of whatever resources have been at her disposal. Her campaign to raise money to fund her latest album, Goodnight Company, may be the best example of who Lui is an artist and a person. A gifted pianist, songwriter and vocalist with a husky voice that exudes subtle sexuality, she is also a resourceful nomad who enjoys traveling, songwriting and recording music out of her suitcase.
APA talks to Jane Lui about language, subtlety and movement in her music.
Asia Pacific Arts: You grew up in Hong Kong listening to quite a bit of HK-Pop, or Cantopop, before moving to the United States at the age of 12. Can you talk about how, or if, those musical influences are reflected in the music you produce today?
Jane Lui: More than the music, it was the language. The Chinese language is pictorial -- full of imagery. In English, when I write my lyrics, it's not just storytelling. I write lyrics to imply a picture. I build pictures together to imply a feeling.
APA: Would you say that you think in Chinese characters before switching to an English-language understanding of the message you're attempting to get across?
JL: Not anymore. I used to have to switch to think in English. It's just so inherent, because I grew up in Hong Kong. I enjoy using the syntax of Chinese. I feel like when I speak in English, I'm not particularly good at speaking concisely and logically about an idea. I'm good with description. The only thing I can attribute this to is the language I grew up with -- and my messy brain.
APA: When you started listening to the music produced by American artists, what was your first reaction? Whose music has left an indelible impact on you as an artist?
JL: I remember first listening to alternative rock in high school, but I stayed true to Hong Kong pop through sophomore and junior year. When I started to make American friends, I listened to everything from Björk to Stevie Wonder to Michael Jackson. Then I got into the Beatles, Oasis, Sarah McLachlan, and Tori Amos. Because I had no historical context for Western pop music, it was all on the same playing field for me.
APA: You've opened for artists like Jason Mraz, before he went big, and Kate Earl, whose latest album I very much enjoyed. How have the artists who you've worked with influenced the music you create?
JL: When I first started opening for Jason Mraz, it was his entertainment and his performance [that inspired me]. He was -- and still is -- an amazing performer. That's what I learned from Jason. With Kate, it was the sensibility in her playing and singing. It was humbling to learn from such great talents. And they're very good looking. [laughs]
APA: You seem to have a do-it-yourself (DIY) style. I heard that you raised over $11,000 through PledgeMusic.com to fund a significant portion of your latest album, Goodnight Company. You've also developed a large following on YouTube and said that you enjoy recording on the road -- outside the studio environment. How much of this do you feel is a reflection of who you are as person and how much of this is a reflection of the music industry today?
JL: As a person, I wonder whether it has anything to do with the immigrant state of mind. You have to adapt and be flexible because you don't always have money -- in college anyway. It doesn't feel difficult to me. It's finding alternative ways to produce the same results.
There's no end to the DIY music industry. That's both an amazing blessing and a huge curse to artists. Artists can do so much with so little. But everyone can do so much with so little -- so it can be hard to stand out from the crowd.
APA: How is this latest album, Goodnight Company (released online October 2010; CD/DVD released January 11, 2001), different than your previous work?
JL: First, this is a happier album. Second, I didn't want too much control over the production. I let my co-producer, Aaron Bowen, run with a lot of the songs. The songs that I did produce sound more like my previous albums.
It's also edgier. It has more electronic sounds. It also has more deeply melancholy songs. I'm not this wailing girl in pain [like in my other albums]. I sing in a much more subtle way.
APA: Can you talk a bit about the idea behind the music video for "Jailcard?" A lot of people are used to seeing you with your guitar or sitting behind the piano. Was it your idea to get up and dance in the video?
JL: Hell yeah! It's one of those songs that was produced so differently than any song that I've done before. It made sense for the music video to have me do something that I've never done before. It's a danceable tune too, even though I'm not an awesome dancer. [laughs]
APA: Was that your intention? To write a song that was more upbeat and less... melancholy?
JL: Definitely less melancholy. I originally wrote that song as an old Americana tune. At the time, I was listening to Alison Krauss and her album with Robert Plant, Raising the Sand, which is sort of a mix of old country and rock. It was a muse for me. It inspired me. I brought it to my co-producer, and we're very honest with each other. He said he didn't like it and produced it very differently.
APA: What albums and artists are you listening to right now?
JL: Lately, I've been going back to the roots of my Western pop music sensibilities. I've been listening to Toad all over again. I got so emotionally wrapped up in it, because it reminded me of my high school days. I've been listening to the new Björk. I've been listening to Architecture in Helsinki and Of Montreal. I've also been listening to my friends' new albums like Goh Nakamura's [Ulysses]. The Raising the Sand album is always in my playlist.
I don't listen to the radio or Top 40 music, but I do YouTube videos from those songs. When I did that video for the Chris Brown song for Kollaboration, I didn't even know who Chris Brown was.
APA: People seem to like you a lot in San Diego. You're doing an interview there later today.
JL: They have to because I lived there [laughs].
APA: How do your experiences living in different places and meeting different people influence your music?
JL: It makes me want to keep moving. That's the problem.
I honestly can't remember exactly how it felt to move into a new country. I just remember thinking that I wouldn't see my friends anymore and would have to take care of my mom; it was just my mom and I, at first. Ever since then, I've had to move often. The world is a big place, and I can keep adapting. Someday I'd like to live in Europe. For now, I'm in the Bay Area. I can't imagine staying there forever.
APA: Where is home for you?
JL: In my head. I feel safe wherever I settle for awhile. Most of my time is spent working with my music team. It's mostly a solitary existence. I travel a lot.
APA: There's this song called "New Jersey" on the album. Is it a reflection of a trip there?
JL: No. Not all. That's what's interesting...
APA: I was listening to that song and reading about your reflections about your time in New York.
JL: I don't have a very strong knowledge of the East Coast. It's a very curious part of the country for me. It's very old. The people there are kind and soft spoken. When I was in New York, it reinforced those themes in the song.
The song comes from a quote: "I'm ready for New Jersey." It was said by a dear of mine who passed away. Before he passed, he said: "I'm ready for New Jersey." He said he wanted to return to the time in his life in New Jersey when it was peaceful.
It spawned the song that I wrote. It has nothing to do with me being in New Jersey but everything to do with him being in New Jersey. That's song writing, isn't it? Using an experience like that and making it your own.
APA: What's your songwriting process?
JL: Something will happen in my life that creates pain in me or others [laughs] -- some sort of fuel. Technically, I used to write on the piano first. For the first two albums, I did that. For this album, I started to write without the piano so that I could write songs differently.
I have no music written down. I don't carry a recorder. It never crossed my mind to own one. Anything that I'm not able to remember is scratched. I play a segment on the piano and sing it. If I like it, I'll try to remember it. If I don't remember it in four to six weeks, it wasn't meant to me; it didn't stay with me. If it did stay, I would continue to write.
For more information, go to Jane Lui's official website and YouTube site.