The 20-year-old artist on her love of sci-fi, her TV breakthrough, and why she turned down the chance to become a K-pop idol
Although she’s only 20 years old, Lexie Liu has already had several incarnations. After all, the Chinese artists admits with a small laugh, speaking down a crackly phone line from LA, it wasn’t until the summer of 2017 that she even decided to dedicate herself to being a solo artist, let alone one with full control over her sound and image.
Before that, she nearly became a K-pop idol, even placing fourth on the TV talent show K-pop Star 5 in 2015; in the end, however, she turned her back on the restrictive idol system and returned to education, studying global business at New York City’s Fordham University – only to realise during her first semester that music was her true calling. Last year was pivotal for her global breakthrough: she was the only female contestant left standing on the survival show, The Rap of China, she worked on campaigns with brands like Levi’s and Puma, and she signed with 88rising, the Asian-American label who has helped transition former viral sensations Joji and Rich Brian into bonafide music stars.
With the recent release of her debut EP, 2030, Liu has carved a space for herself by gathering all these strands and experiences into an intricate braid of sound that wears a hypnotic etherealness even when exploring the darker side of her psyche, and singles her out as a fresh, vital presence in music. Performing in Mandarin and English, and as a singer and melodic rapper, Liu employs varying influences from trap (“Outta Time”, featuring Toronto rapper KILLY) to dancehall (“Strange Things”), but also brings pure pop into the mix on the chiming, bouncy “Love and Run”.
Liu, who has been lauded as “the voice of a Chinese generation”, has had a frenetic few weeks, fielding a surge of media interest. Here, she discusses the world of survival shows, her love of science fiction, creating stories in her work, and why she still feels socially anxious.
You trained in piano and Chinese folk dance as a child, but how did this love of music see you end up going on K-pop Star 5? Was idol-dom an avenue you were seriously considering?
Lexie Liu: So I graduated high school a year ahead (of her peers, aged 16), and had one gap year and I thought I would do whatever. K-pop Star called, so I was like, “Okay, I’m just going to do it,” because I didn’t think it would take that long – but it did, it took up six months. I didn’t know any Korean then, either!
Did you enjoy the process in any way?
Lexie Liu: I did. It really opened up my eyes to how the music industry works in another country. I didn’t even know about the Chinese music industry then, either. To experience that is a great lesson. The difference (between the Korean and Chinese music industries) is how they train artists really hard. They have a lot of trainees in Korea, and there wasn’t (that) in China – but that’s changing, there’s a wave of boy and girl groups going on.
You said, in hindsight, you were uncomfortable not having artistic autonomy, but how soon did you realise that while on the show? It’s not like you could just walk out.
Lexie Liu: I mean, I wanted to. But I had this team, I felt responsibility and that we’re in this together and I can’t really walk away. But it crossed my mind when the pressure got to that point.
I was surprised, then, that you did The Rap of China…
Lexie Liu: I did it because I hadn’t done any reality shows in China before, and heard it was going to be scary. Like, you had to write a song in 24 hours and perform it, it was very challenging. But I was curious, so I thought, “Why not? I sound different from a lot of these rappers, so maybe I can give people something new.” Rap is one of my things, but it’s not the main thing. I wanted see what would happen if I only focused on rap, how I can improve, and how much of a help it would be to my future writing. I wanted to be a more well-rounded artist.
“Bygone” is one of the most personal songs on 2030. “Thought I gotta graduate but college ain’t a place for me / Is the choice I had to make ’cause I got somewhere else to be…. When I landed JFK my family fell apart / But I come home and tell them how New York was.” What was that like to write?
Lexie Liu: It’s not hard to write, but when I have to play it in front of my family, talking about what’s really going on…. that’s hard. My mum, she cried, but I really wanted her to hear it too. I feel like I didn’t want to drag (my parents) into my songs, but I had to somehow, because they’re a really big part of my life.
The fictional stories in your work, like the crashing Maserati and “flesh burning smoke” on “Strange Things”, force strong visuals into the mind of the audience instead of the listener creating a visual connection to the track themselves...
Lexie Liu: Oh yeah, that’s right. I was trying to create a scene and what I mean about staying true to my music is not just writing what’s happening to me but what’s happening in my head. I treat a lot of my songs like movie clips.
When I read your lyrics, they feel more like poetry and there are themes, like stars and galaxies, constantly, subtly, appearing. There’s one couplet I really like in “Sleep Away”, “Feeling like a whale on the beach, crying under the sun because of insecurity.” That’s beautiful.
Lexie Liu: Oh damn. That’s what I’ve been trying to achieve, no one has told me that, thank you so much. I want to be better at writing in English too, and in a more poetic way, but I’m still learning. All these frequent things coming out in my songs are connected, I have particular pictures in my head and they’re my favourite, it’s more like the colour of my mood.
“Being Asian but also doing hip hop is very contradictory somehow, in a literal way, but I’m going to try and refresh the vision” – Lexie Liu
Your videos, “Nada”, “Like A Mercedes”, and“Hat Trick”, lean towards cyberpunk and sci-fi. Have you always been a fan of these genres?
Lexie Liu: Blade Runner is one of my biggest inspirations: the visuals, the music, the subject, the vibe. I wasn’t a big sci-fi fan until I watched episode one from Black Mirror, season four. Then I started to read and watch more sci-fi.
You did a video campaign for Levi’s and your quote caught my eye. “During music creation, I enjoy turning negative and pessimistic thoughts into more valuable ones.” It sounds like you carry a lot of darkness...
Lexie Liu: Oh, definitely, for sure. And I’m a socially awkward person too.
It must be difficult when you have so many eyes on you and people, like me, asking these personal questions?
Lexie Liu: In my head, what I’m going through is, like, “Is she really interested in me or is she just finishing her quota of articles for the month?” (Laughs)
How do you deal with those intrusive thoughts?
Lexie Liu: Ummm, I don’t know, I just have to. I have to communicate with people.
You’ve already done a few campaigns with major clothing brands, but what’s your relationship with fashion?
Lexie Liu: I love it. My first dream job was a dress designer. I’ve never told anyone about that! But I realised I can’t draw, and I tried to make patterns when I was 14 and, well, it didn’t work out. (Laughs)
You’ve also been called “the voice of a Chinese generation”. It’s such a weighty title and every time I see that quoted, I wonder if that might suffocate your creativity.
Lexie Liu: Yeah, it could, but it also inspires me. It’s a double-sided thing. Sometimes it can make me feel really frustrated, like I’m in a writer’s block and I can’t write any songs better than the songs I’ve put out, and I can’t take this crown. On the good side, I can see the possibility of becoming what they call me, it’s such a relief that people can recognise me and that I have a future.
Where do you see that future? In China or America? Half a year in each?
Lexie Liu: That would be nice, but the US is too expensive. I can’t afford it! Maybe two or three months in the States each year?
We all know that being a young woman in music isn’t easy, and neither is being a woman in hip hop. So far, what’s been your experience in that respect, but also being Asian?
Lexie Liu: I feel like it’s a really big challenge. Me being Asian but also doing hip hop is very contradictory somehow, in a literal way, but I’m going to try and refresh the vision. And I have more girl fans than guy fans, which I think is great. A lot of my songs, I write them for girls.