Sound Decision
Jane Lui

by Jonathan Mays, Mar 29th 2006
Jane Lui is one of many artists on the periphery of the anime world, the ones who don't get much attention even at a place like Pacific Media Expo that is dedicated to the edges of Asian pop culture. I don't really know where she fits in, but her piano jazz pop is kind of interesting, and she has some keen insights for struggling singer-songwriters, so I think that is good enough. Let's see, you grew up in California, right? I grew up in Hong Kong, actually. Sorry. That's an awesome way to kick this off. No, it's okay, I was born in Hong Kong, lived there until I was about eleven, and then my parents immigrated. My brother was sent to school here, up in the Bay Area in a little town called Cupertino, when he was fourteen. And then, after a few years, we came. That was in 1990. The whole time I was in Hong Kong, I had been playing piano, since I was four all the up until late high school, so music's been a pretty big part of my life. I had a fantastic music teacher. In school I was always very active. Then, in college, I went down to San Diego. I attended UCSD for a couple of years under the major of communications and hated it completely. It's that major that everyone bubbles into when you don't know what you're doing. So then I transferred to San Diego State, which back then was considered a big party school, for music. Ever since then, I've had a pretty full-blown music life. So when you transferred, that's when you decided that music was what you wanted to do? Yeah, for sure. At that time I hadn't written anything, and I hadn't sung out in public at all. It was just that, at that moment—I was 20—I was just going to do music, and something would come. That's a heck of a commitment when you haven't done anything like that before. Yeah... you just, I think you just know that when something means enough to you and you've been in another pair of shoes like communications and you just hate it and you know that this is something that means so much to you and that you can lose it if you stay on this dead road. You realize that, whatever happens, it'll come. I guess it seems like you've always had music with you. But was there a time that your love for music... separated from everything else? About three years ago, after school was done. I was in a duo during college, so I was still just studying music and beginning to sing out in public in, I think, 2000. This duo was doing fantastically in San Diego. We had two albums, and they both did amazingly well. We were kind of talking to different producers and they were interested in showing us off to some record labels. But then, overnight, that duo just split. He and I had our differences, and he wanted to take his career solo. So about a year after that, there was no music. Not even in school, not in my life. I couldn't walk out the door to go to the coffee house in San Diego because people would ask, "How's it going? Where's the other guy? How's he?" So you tried to pull yourself away. Right, and so I was just like, "I'm going to hide for a while." I actually went overseas for about two months just to get away. I slept a lot. I think that was a sign of some depression. In that year—2003—I had to start writing because I hadn't written before. By then I had taken a break from piano for about seven years— Wow— Because I didn't need to. In college my instrument was voice; I didn't have to worry about piano. When did you start voice lessons? Formal voice lessons in college, in '99. At UCSD? Yeah, I had a few at UCSD because I thought I was going to minor in music, but minoring in music at UCSD, may I just say, is really... dumb. There's no reason at all—don't do it! So, at San Diego State, I had about three years of voice lessons formally. And before that, back in Hong Kong, I used to watch a lot of TV, and every girl has her idol. Who were yours? Mine was Anita Mui. She was like the Madonna of Hong Kong. She had so many albums out, and her voice was absolutely amazing to me because it was so low; she had the lowest voice that I knew in the music industry. I would imitate every move, every vibrato, every shake of her voice, the way it spins in her mouth and shoots out— You did this when you were younger? Yeah, I would just come home from school, shut my door, and sing out the window like there were thousands of people. I kind of owe my voice beginnings to her. So this had been growing a while— Yeah— Before you finally admitted it to yourself. Yeah, I was just a closet singing freak. Back in '03 when you were trying to find yourself in songwriting, were you reading many books, watching TV—how did you find that inspiration? At first, it was out of desperate need. I needed an outlet of some sort, and if no one was going to let me have this music career with me, then I'd have to create my own. I also put a lot of pressure on myself. And when that happens, when you're under that kind of pressure, things start to happen. You find new things about yourself. Right. A lot of time during that year was spent alone. There were books. Not that many, though. I think more just... processing in my head, trying to figure out a future that was completely—I thought I was going to lose it all, I had no idea, so I was just desperately clinging on. So that kind of began this new rebirth. When did you see yourself starting to come out of it? I would say last year. When you moved back here? Um... moved back... well, I've been in the States for about fifteen years, moved here when I was eleven. Right, but I thought you said you'd moved overseas. Oh! Yeah, for a couple of months. And then I came back in late 2003. So, in 2004, I officially started my solo career. I just launched it, did a huge show, had all my friends, all my old fans that really liked our stuff to come out and watch. By old fans, you mean the duo? Yeah, the duo I was in. How many years before was that? The duo started in '99 or so, and then we ended in late 2002. Oh, so there wasn't too much time in between. No, that was it, that year that I took off, 2003. (Cameraman) At the time, having been there, you hadn't started your solo career before you went to Europe. You were still in the whole sleeping in, depressed thing. She went overseas, and all of the sudden she got all of this creative energy, and she came back and she had this month where she just went nuts, and that's when she decided to start. Before that, she was kind of like this big sleepy gus. [laughter] What was that?! That's exactly what she said she was! She was just this big sleepy gus who was all depressed, like "I never want to go out," because every place she wanted to go, that's where she normally went, where everybody was who would ask her what was going on. So she went to Europe. There was nobody there, and she got all this creative inspiration, all this energy, like somebody had shot her out of a cannon. And that's when she decided to start. That's our witness. I just thought, y'know, since she just was like, "I only went for two months," and it was actually this big deal. Yeah, actually it really was a big deal. So I guess it's sort of a running theme here. Corrinne May said the same thing yesterday, that it took being alone in Boston to figure out herself and to find that confidence to be a singer. And more important, I think, a songwriter, to be able to relate what you know is up there. But sometimes you can't quite put it together. I think, for any kind of composer, even if you're a painter or a writer of any sort, you kind of live somewhere else. You know what I mean? We're in our heads, and we're in our own little worlds that we've imagined and created that we always end up going there. That's where it feeds us. It's our own little niche that we've created. And you have to find a way to pull it out— Yeah— And express it in a way that others can relate to it. I think that's where, in that small place in the head, in the heart, that's where you can always find the courage back. But you have to stay away from everyone else for a while and just dive into that place. You've been through hell. Having more fun now? Yeah, a lot more fun! This year I've gigged probably three times as often as I did last year. I still consider myself a rookie at gigging and at writing songs. Right now, I'd say my style is changing right before my eyes. The songs that I wrote, I needed to write them. To begin that career, I had to close a bunch of chapters in the past so I could start with a clean slate. Now that I've down that, that the songs are in place and I've made my first album that was released in May, I'm kind of moving ahead, moving on to something that is a little less flamboyant, a little less like, "Hey, listen to me!" It's more, "This is who I am, and so I'm just talking. You can have it, or you can just leave it." So my style is changing a little bit, to something rawer. Well, you still seem to be able to connect with people. I guess yesterday was the exception—"Hey, who out there is from Long Beach? One? Oh." Yeah! Oh, you were there! Awesome. But really, most of the time—you've opened for some pretty big groups. They're mostly big in San Diego, as well, except for Eddie from Ohio. I have a mentor I work with in San Diego, and he's really been a blessed guy to have me open for a bunch of artists who are national acts. I had sent a package to Ani DiFranco's booking agent, and they really liked my stuff, so they're looking to have me open, so they're looking to have me open for a bunch of their artists, as well. So what's your favorite place to perform in San Diego? Wow...wherever there's a piano instead of a keyboard, y'know? So far, I really like Dizzy's. I've only been there once. It's actually a jazz venue, and I sneaked my butt in there through a blues band. I opened for this blues band, and it was a really odd combo, but we have this mutual admiration for each other. The response was... like a B+, I want to say. They really didn't know what to do with me, since I wasn't talking about my dog, the train, and leaving my girl behind. [Laughs] It was fun, and they had a beautiful piano there. But really, it's wherever; I don't really care. I've had a lot of gigs that were just, y'know, there's no glory at all. You go up and play, no one listens, it has nothing to do with me. I don't take that personally; everyone has their own likings, and even if I have a thousand people in the audience who aren't listening to me, and two people walk up to me and say, "Dude, I really liked your stuff," it's great, I've got two more sets of ears. That's cool. What about hanging out? [Laughing] At home? I'm kind of a homebody. I'm like this really friendly, very genuine, um, I don't know, laughable person, but I'm such an introvert in my own head that I like to just relax and hang out at home. Music on, and, I don't know, roll around the bed. [Laughs] San Diego, I've been there for about eight years. It's changed a lot. It really has, and the new ballpark that's down there right now, I don't think it was a good idea personally. Really? Nuh uh. Because the convention center is right across the street, so one night, when there's a convention going on... Yeah, I went to a Padres game during Comic-Con. Yeah, and it was insane down there! And there are train stations down there, everything's down there, and the ballpark is just really out of place, in a really weird spot. They're building tons of hotels. So where do you want to go from here? Wow. Well, to tell you the truth... [long pause]... I've been playing now for about a year and a half, and the progress of things have been a lot faster than what I thought would happen. But I've done everything that I've wanted so far, so if feels like, "Okay, I guess I'm on track." And so, in the next couple years, I'm hoping to tour around every six weeks or so. My first tour is going to be this coming fall, late September. I'm going to do three weeks up the West Coast. A friend of mine that I met in London—he's also a musician—he's like the Spanish Idol, I guess. He won the Spanish equivalent of Pop Idol, except it's like no big deal over there. But he won it anyway! He and I are going to do a tour together this fall. I hope to just be constantly touring, going back to the same cities, gaining a bigger audience, getting my name out there. I want to... try different genres, actually. I've been doing some remixes of my stuff, either in the dance field, or maybe the hip-hop genre, from my CD right now. Because I know my music's capable of it. I want to push them into different sections of the music industry. On there right now, one of the songs I played yesterday, the last song I played, it's Pigeon Woman, and there's a version on there that's just produced by me and my engineer, co-producer. But at the end there's a hidden track of the same song by a different producer. And he made it more... I don't want to say "industrial," but it's more drum and bass-sounding. I do a few different harmonies, so it has more of a down-tempo feel to it, more so than the raw version. How do you push yourself to keep writing songs now that you don't have that desperation? No, the desperation is not in that same... feel. So you had a sort of euphoria for a while— I did, I really did. And then you have to say, "Gotta keep going." Yeah, and so right now, like I was telling you earlier, my style is changing, and I think one of the things I really want in my career is a constant movement in one kind of—like my CD right now. It's in this emotional, very wailing, depressed mode. It's darker, but I'm in a movement right now where I'm doing things differently in a vocal sense, and in a piano sense. And then in the future, I want to just keep trying new things. I'm thinking about my third album right now and the possibility of using some electronics in there. So I'm just really interested in learning about how to change my style of music from one into the other, instead of always appealing to, y'know, the alternative audience. I want to try, later, to appeal to a more "folky" audience. Is there a change in the lyrics as you go? Yeah! I didn't even think about that. There is. My lyrics have always been kind of obscure. People look at me and go, "Why are you talking about that? I don't understand." Why do you think you've been doing that? ... I don't know! I think people understand more when they hear a story told in a simple way. Like, for example, when I tell these stories, I use a lot of metaphors that are in my head. Somehow, I want people to look at the lyrics and come up with their own understanding of what I mean, instead of saying, "He left this morning, and he broke my heart, and I'm going to lay down here and wait for him—" Because it's not lined up like that in your head. No, it's not. I don't really know how it's lined up; it's kind of chaotic up here all the time. My thoughts kind of chase their own tails, and when I have snippets of a picture in my head— You just have to go with it. Yeah, and I think in images, so when I see an image, all I'm doing is translating it as well as I can, which I—well, I'm kind of a poor translator at this moment, but I try to translate them into music and the words that I can find the best I can. Now you said you started out pretty obscure, but the lyrics have changed. Are you finding more... clarity now? I think... it's... there are more colors now. Before, it was a lot more painful, and more black and white, but now, I think it's... more textual, and a little more colorful. Think you're just seeing more in general? I wouldn't say that. [Laughs] I don't know. I think, like you were saying, I'm not in that desperate mode right now, so my focus is not about the pain of being in a place and needing to do something about it. It's about—I can see a little more—okay—about the smaller details of, for example, just to be obvious, a relationship. I see the smaller details of... any one situation specific to the human existence. Because I'm not in that mode where it's like, "Crap, I just need to write a song, get a topic, okay, let's just do it." I guess that's the hard thing, when you're saying specific to anybody Yeah— At some point it's not just about you anymore. Right. So that's where you are? You used to write stuff just for yourself, and now you have to think about how other people connect with it. Yeah, and, for example, one of my newer songs that I haven't played out yet is about going through life and knowing that you're going to die, okay? And you exist now in this point of the timeline. So here's the end, you're now [1/4] here. It's about from here until the end but along with someone. That doesn't have to be someone you love, doesn't have to be— Just as long as you're not... alone. Right, if it's just walking along with somebody with the same... speed. It doesn't even have to be the same path. It's just... knowing you're walking side-by-side, next to each other, and going to the end together. Could be different destinations, different points in life, but somewhere on there, you come back together where you can share it, together, until the moment of death. It's stuff like that—a year ago, it would've gone over my head. I'd be like "I don't wanna worry about that. I'm in pain right now!" [Laughs] So, I think, now that my career has begun its inertia, now that it's rolling on its own in San Diego, it's been amazing. So conversations that I have with other people have a little more... sharing in them. More than before, when I'm just kind of like... Well, you find it easier to connect with people. Yeah, yeah, because I'm not in like a really desperate, crazy, introverted space. I'm willing to reciprocate a little more. It's sort of a contradiction. You look at the... isolation you need for writing, but you don't sing for only yourself. Trying to reconcile those two... I guess there's your secret to songwriting. That's true. A lot of answers to the questions that I had, where I had to close a bunch of chapters in my past before I could move on... the songs themselves are the cures for me. Sounds like a pretty bright future you have ahead—all these ideas, this new feeling of freedom... Yeah, I'm pretty excited. You don't seem like you're focused on a certain goal—just going to see what happens? I think it has a lot to do with some of my recent influences. Like, I like way too much music. Like what? One of my top people is Bjork. I'm just completely in love with her. [Laughs] So much. Did you see her concert in, I think it was, Tokyo, Live 8. I actually missed it. That was her first live in a long time. Wow... beforehand, somebody was telling me about her, maybe back in my college days, like "You've gotta listen to Bjork." I tried it, and I was like, "I don't get it. I don't understand." And I think there's a way of understanding her, and I found the way. And then I'm like "Dude, you have to listen to Bjork." And then everybody else looks at you like you're nuts. They're like "I don't understand!" One of my favorite Bjork albums is Vespertine. It's just amazing. It's so different from anything she had ever done. So, there's that, and then, on the other hand, to the other extreme, I really like... Blues. I like Iron & Wine, just guitar and voice, just a beautiful voice and a dude on guitar. They're a lot closer to what you do. Yeah— At least right now. Right, which may change. Also, I really like this Icelandic band, electronic stuff, named MUM. The first time I saw them was in San Diego at Casbah, and my jaw just dropped. They're doing all the beats that machines would do, but with a guy behind the drums. It was amazing. I also like Blonde Redhead, Goldfrapp, and then I listen to singer-songwriter stuff very much. Not so much the radio, can't take it very much. Can't blame you. Yeah, yeah... so down there in San Diego, I'm also involved in a drum & bass thing right now, this band down there called Starlight Fury. I'm their female singer, and I do a bunch of songs with them, and I think we're considering a European tour. So who knows, maybe I'll open for them. ... and it comes full circle, Europe to Europe. Yeah, it does. I guess you don't have a path laid out, but if there were one, would you say you're going from the Iron & Wine end to the Bjork one? [Laughing] No, I wouldn't say that. I refuse to try to be anyone. That's me kind of settling and saying, "I just want to be like that," instead of figuring something out. I'm interested in involving some of her ideas and then just regurgitating them somehow in a more independent sense. But just a piece of them. Yeah! For example, I could never sing the way she can. I don't know how she does it. She has a mouth that locks into the microphone when it's there, and when she's just relaxed, she's relaxed. The way she sings is beyond my understanding of voice. And her music, she thinks of beats and she works with artists that—she's in a place right now where she has enough resources, she knows enough people that if she only asks, people will say yes, you know what I mean? So she can dream of anything and make it come true. I'm definitely not in that place right now. I'm interested in working with different artists. I'm going to learn about the Balinese, the Javanese Gamelan. And I really like Indian rhythms and ragas. When did you find those the first time? It was in school; I was in college, and I was a music major. Oh, when they throw everything at you. Yeah. Those classes rock. Yeah, they do. I was exposed to a lot—it was amazing. I took tablas for a little while. It was awesome. So on my CD I tried to involve a tabla master in there for him to play some tablas. He sang a little bit, played harmonium, and so I'm really interested in an organic sound with real instruments but somehow... ordered in a different way from what you usually hear. So that makes it a little more interesting. Do you find yourself often looking back on stuff you listened to when you were a kid, incorporating it? Or is it discovery now? Well, I grew up with Asian Pop. And that stuff, seriously, is like stuck in the 80s forever. I think now... is a little more discovery. But then, I can't say that because I was on a radio show once, and they played one of my songs, and someone said, "That is so Asian... " It's subconscious. Yeah, just a piece of my brain that acts on it. That's natural. Yeah. Now I do have one song in particular that I know is very pentatonic, but the other one I had no idea, and someone said, "That has such an Asian influence in it, kind of sounds like it belongs on a traditional Asian instrument," so I was saying, "Wow, I don't know." Jane Lui's official site Teargirl CD

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