By Jocelle Koh
One of Chinese-American singer-songwriter Emei‘s most popular videos on Tiktok boasting over a million views shows her barefaced and clad in an oversized jacket, singing her song “Ferris Bueller” in a jam session captioned: “pov one of ur teachers won’t allow you to skip an exam for a job interview so you write a diss track ab her class“. Emei, otherwise known as Emily Li is one of many exciting Gen-z acts who have launched onto the scene and been recommended to our for your pages for her heart-on-her-sleeve’ brand of angsty, eclectic grungy pop.
The 22-year old artist sings about themes that speak intimately to the experiences of her peers, such as her deepest insecurities (Trust Issues), her academic challenges (Ferris Bueller), and growing older (Late to the Party) with a fearlessness and abandon that we can’t peel our eyes (and ears) away from. Perhaps it may be her effortlessly fluid vocals; or the way she often starts her songs stripped down and breathy before rousing us all to a high with her amped-up sets.
Or perhaps it may be the juxtaposition between her youthful, relatable experiences documented in her music and a musical maturity that goes beyond her years which is clearly heard in her vocal delivery and songwriting capability. For Chinese music fans, you may even recognise her from the second season of Mainland reality singing competition ‘Chinese Idol‘ where her bubbly persona and dynamic vocals blew away the judges and opened a whirlwind of opportunities for the singer-songwriter at only 15.
Settling her roots back in the States, Li is now pursuing something that she never even dreamed to be a possibility previously – performing in her native language and carving a niche for herself in the Western music sphere. A fascinating case study of how the tides are changing for Asian diaspora artists, we spoke to Li about her unique sound and experiences, and how her heritage has informed her music.
Q: Congrats on your debut EP “end of an era”. Can you share a little about what the phrase “end of an era” and of course this EP means for you?
A: Thank you so much! This EP was written about my past year of growing up. I graduated college, moved to a new city and moved into my first apartment. There’s a lot of exciting things that come with this type of transition and also a lot of trial and error. End of an Era encapsulates all those feelings plus a whole lot of nostalgia. At first I was debating if I should’ve gone with a different name since technically it’s my first EP named “the end” hahaha but I think that an end signifies a beginning for me so it feels fitting.
Q: You seem to have had a whole different lifetime of experience before you became the singer-songwriter you are today. Tell us a little about what drew you towards becoming an artist in the greater China music scene initially?
A: Honestly, I kinda stumbled into it since this all happened during a summer after my freshman year of high-school. All I knew was I loved to perform more than anything and Chinese Idol was a great opportunity to get better at what I already loved to do. I grew up speaking Chinese in my house since my parents are both Chinese-immigrants. My first vocal teacher was Chinese as well so the first few songs I learned were all in Mandarin. So with all of that history, when the opportunity came up to audition, I was like, let’s do it!!
Q: You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you never really saw becoming a singer songwriter in the US as a viable opportunity. Why was that the case?
A: Growing up, I never really saw anybody in the pop music sphere that looked like me. I also come from a family of engineers so pursuing music already felt like a daunting career so pursuing music in America felt even more impossible when I was a kid.
Q: Are there any Asian artists you look up to or really appreciate?
A: Oh of course! I think Rina Sawayama is amazing and Audrey Nuna is making great songs and Rich Brian, mxmtoon, keshi, Joji and many more. It’s been really cool to see the increase in Asian-American artists around me.
Q: You mentioned you were obsessed with listening to music and finding out about your favourite artists growing up. What were your musical influences like?
A: I actually grew up going to jazz bars and listening to a lot of live music while also watching a lot of theater and appreciating that side of music as well. When I started writing, my influences were mostly acoustic singer-songwriters like Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson. I’ve always had a big focus on lyrics and storytelling and even though I make more pop/alt-pop music, I’ve definitely carried those influences with me.
Q: How has your style as a songwriter in particular evolved over time? Has the style we know as Emei’s style always been there?
A: It’s definitely changed a lot!! And is still evolving constantly. I started making acoustic singer-songwriter music, then started making more alt-pop music, then started taking influences from 2000s music and pop rock. I’ve definitely leaned into a lyrical and melody style that feels the most me recently but I think the sounds I use will always be evolving and moving!!
Q: You lived by yourself for a year in China when you were 15. How has that shaped your perception of the music industry and what you see for yourself?
A: I grew up really fast in that one year. I realized that I loved performing and I also needed to have control over my own artistic expression.
Q: A lot of your songs are about very personal issues like “trust issues” and “late to the party”. Would you consider yourself an introverted person?
A: Oh I am definitely extroverted hahaha. I’m the type of person to randomly start talking about some issues I’ve run into in the past week when I run into a friend and I like to think it comes through in my writing too. I often see certain issues through a more comedic lens and I feel like it’s my form of coping but also my form of working through whatever’s bothering me at the time.
Q: You recently just graduated from a degree that’s not music related, why the decision to pursue a completely different field?
A: I just graduated with a cognitive science degree from Yale. When people hear that, they normally are very confused. When I was applying to colleges, I already knew I wanted to pursue music after school, so I was debating between going to college for music in a music city or doing the traditional four year college thing, and I chose the latter. Cognitive science was just a major I was naturally drawn to since I loved all the psych, neuroscience, and linguistics classes I took during my time in college. I never really thought about pursuing it as a field but I definitely learned a lot of things I would have never learned about as a musician.
Q: Your music taking off on TikTok has only been a quite recent thing, but where do you see this going for yourself?
A: Definitely recent! I just started releasing music this past year and a bit so everything is new and everything is a learning process. I’ve always been a performer and now I’ve been writing for over 7 years, so all of that isn’t new, and I always wanted to do this as a career so that’s where I see it going. But, I’d say incorporating social media into that dream is definitely the newest aspect, and I’m grateful I’ve gotten the support I’ve gotten so far. I guess, overall, I can promise I’ll keep releasing silly songs about my problems and performing them for you guys for the foreseeable future!!